What kinds of power can a text have? Is it possible for language and literature to do far more than instruct and entertain? Indeed, might it be possible for a text to give us access to types of knowledge that a human being would otherwise be unable to obtain? In what ways can the study of allegory help us to better understand how (and why) other cultures interpret the world in ways that differ from our own? And how do we, as readers, respond when we reach the apparent limits of our texts?
To ask such questions as these—particularly in the case of allegory—involves much more than asking what a text means. Indeed, although the question of meaning is fundamental to allegory, to view a text as allegorical is to view a text as possessing some kind of power or insight that can transform the way in which we view the world (or, even, the divine) and our relation to it. In fact, for generations of thinkers—from the earliest interpreters of Homer to the Early Modern Period and beyond—allegory represents literature at its most dynamic and powerful. The study of allegory and the history of its interpretation provides us, therefore, with the unique opportunity to examine how generations of authors and interpreters have pushed their respective arts to their limit, as if attempting to communicate with words an idea that, by its very nature, defies verbalization.
Readings for this course will include the following: Plato’s Republic (in particular, the Allegory of the Cave), Virgil’s Aeneid, Chaucer’s dream-vision poetry, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, William Blake, and Italo Calvino.