[The following is an essay on parable, coming out of some thoughts and study I've had on art and philosophy more generally.]
I am looking for aspects of parable in contemporary life. What this means today needs explaining, because this form, as with other allegorical forms, has changed. What do parables — traditionally told as lessons for children — have to offer us today? My interest here is in the specific way they cast a trail of bread crumbs into the speculative, possibly even opening a path into a non-hegemonic ethics.
A parable is an allegorical tale, but history has changed the mode of allegory, so our notion of parable has changed as well. We can sense this distance by comparing Kafka’s parables with the traditional parable. Ambiguity of interpretation1
and a “mysterious instruction”2
are features of modern allegory, as Benjamin describes. Modern allegory rises out of the waning of medieval theology, as people and things are freed from their places in a traditional order. The idea of one teaching, or one interpretation, begins to falter. The lamb is no longer baby Jesus. A baroque sensibility turns away from Christian and didactic meanings and reaches toward the visual domain in “highly charged metaphors”3
. Benjamin’s analysis of modern allegory comes about in his study of the 17th century German baroque ‘lamentation play’, or Trauerspiel
. Benjamin argues that this German theater — long denigrated as “an incompetent renaissance of tragedy”4
, or “plays written by brutes for brutes”5
— may only be truly appreciated with an understanding of its allegorical character.
The philosophical understanding of allegory, and especially the dialectical understanding of its extreme form, is the only background against which the image of the Trauerspiel
stands out in living and — if one may venture to say so — beautiful colours, the only background not darkened by the grey of retouching.6
The stage of theater is apt for demonstrating the new mode of allegory, due to the significance of visual emblems, figures, and scenes. As Benjamin insightfully remarks, this suggests “connections between spectacle proper and allegory”7
. Allegory is no longer “a playful illustrative technique”8
, but becomes “a way of seeing”9
, one characteristic of the developing modern consciousness. Generated out of our shared conventions, allegory’s mystical wisdoms are gathered immanently, rather than being passed down transcendentally. The ruin provides a dominant metaphor for this common store we share, famously encapsulated in the quote: “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.”10
The allegorizing mind picks up thoughts like fragments from a ruin.
A philosophical understanding of allegory, and hence of parable, begins with the concept of ‘figure’, the word used as shorthand for the persons and things used in expressions of allegory. The figure in allegory is a stand-in. “Figure is presence and deferral of presence, a substitute for lost presence.”11
The concept of figure is central to Rancière’s theorizing on aesthetics, and, although he does not name it so, his characterization of ‘figure’ aptly describes its expression in allegory:
This is what the word ‘figure’ sums up: the figure is two things in one. It is the literal, material presence of a body, and it is the poetic operation of metaphoric condensation and metonymic displacement ....12
Through the concept of figure, Rancière ties the sensory presence of art with what is not materially present. The figure is both the presence and stand-in for something more. An example is the Belvedere Torso
which inaugurates his book Aisthesis
, Rancière’s tracing of the emergence of modern aesthetic consciousness as it wends its way through ‘scenes’ in history. The headless and limbless Torso stands for a lost sense of classical beauty, one consisting in harmony and organic unity. Simultaneously, in its incompleteness, the Torso signals a new vision of beauty, one in touch with “the world before representation”13
and “the ideality of becoming”14
. In pulling from the ruin of history, in finding in this mutilated fragment a figure for something more, we meet with the “poetic operation” which Benjamin names as allegorical. In other scenes of Aisthesis
, we find further overlap in the concerns of Benjamin and Rancière, suggesting an agreement on the guideposts of the path to the emerging modern consciousness. Benjamin’s exploration of theater as the exemplary space of allegory is paralleled in the many scenes in Aisthesis
devoted to the theater arts, and Rancière’s discussion of montage (in Vertov) recapitulates Benjamin’s examination of dialectic in montage, a primary mode for the expression of allegory in cinema. Their coincident concerns affirm that modern life is an unprecedentedly visual one, and that the concept of figure gets at its phenomenal import.
There is another aspect to the concept of figure which deserves exploration. In the word ‘figure’, a vestige of Judeo-Christian theology lingers, drawing in a stillness outside of human history. This gives the figure as used in allegory and parable the possibility of an extra charge and responsibility. This remainder of theology is felt in Benjamin’s language in describing allegory, for example in his use of the words ‘fulfillment’ and ‘redemption’. Although Rancière’s use of the concept of figure does not explicitly make reference to its theological significance, this could not have been an unwelcome aspect, as his use of the word ‘figure’ continues its liberal usage in Auerbach’s Mimesis
, a book which he acknowledges as a guiding model for Aisthesis
. In Mimesis
, the concept of figure provides an explicative handle for Auerbach, a way to read a transhistorical dimension to artworks. According to Auerbach, the significance of texts descending from the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as the Old and New Testaments, on down to Dante’s Inferno
, demand an appreciation of the concept of figure. The weight of these texts is made substantial by a comprehension of certain persons and events in the works as figures. Figural interpretation “establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first.”15
One prefigures the other, the other fulfills the one, and “comprehension ... of their interdependence is a spiritual act.”16
Comprehending this connection lifts the figures out of the mundane stream of history. And in this act of comprehension, the reader is as well brought out of the ordinary stream of events.
Now we are in a position to better understand the theological background of Benjamin’s allegorizing gaze. The world becomes script, fragments become runes, linking to an Ur-history or omni-temporal dimension. The impact of the figural interpretation, which lifts its objects out of the stream of history, is felt in the allegorical way of seeing. The divine light has dimmed, however, replaced by a baroque, secular outlook. It is interesting to compare this notion of figural interpretation with Benjamin’s later concept of the dialectical image. Like Auerbach’s use of the concept of figure to reflect on literature through the ages, Benjamin uses the concept of the dialectical image to interpret the nascent cultural forms of modernity in his epic study The Arcades Project
. Here is his characterization of the dialectical image, also called dialectics at a standstill:
It is not what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words: image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature but figural [bildlich
The legacy of figural interpretation is unmistakeable here. The now, the immediate moment, is placed in relation to the what-has-been, the what-has-ever-been, or Ur-history. A figural interpretation treats an ordinary occurrence as simultaneously a part in a world-historical frame, and thus regarded as above all time.18
Allegory’s impulse to reach outside of time or across time can lead to a stronger comprehension of an artwork’s relation to history, more so than historicist readings, or considerations of a work’s ‘timelessness’. This is powerfully demonstrated by Benjamin’s reading of Klee’s Angelus Novus. What would Klee’s Angelus Novus be without Benjamin’s theses on the philosophy of history? Without the concomitant image of the ruins of progress piling up at his feet, would Klee’s angel have the same freighted stare? This is the light of the allegorizing gaze, its tendency to pull both images and comprehension out of the normal passage of time, casting fulfillment upon its objects.
Although the basis for allegorical thinking resides in art, its tendency extends to our understanding of images and events outside of art. Its light does not end with artworks. We cannot read Benjamin’s melancholic countenance without also thinking of his tragic passing. (Every untimely death has a parabolic reach.) Allegorical and parabolic connections tend toward “mysterious instruction” without losing an essential ambiguity. This dimension of modern consciousness demands a fuller appreciation, yielding a richer interrelation between art and life. Art proposes ways of being, what Adorno would term ‘art as comportment’.19
Aesthetic comportment is an attitude, a stance, and a way of being. As such it is not limited to activity in the studio, or contemplation in a museum. If we consider that ‘ethics’ in the proper sense is concerned with ways of being, it suggests a way to bring into relation aesthetics with ethics. Art as comportment informs action and colors thoughts. My sense is that the strength of Benjamin’s thinking springs from his particular cast of mind; his philosophical concepts are an attempt to elucidate his own intensively felt outlook. He exemplified the allegorizing mindset he described. His friend Adorno, in his tribute, would characterize Benjamin’s gaze as Medusan
: “Before his Medusan glance, man turns into the stage on which an objective process unfolds.”20
Man as the scene of theater returns us to the space of parable. Parable follows allegory in developing from simple illustration into a more elusive form of expression. Although classically used to convey a moral lesson, the didactic purpose has been lost, or rather, enfolded like a vestigial tail bone. A distilled theater of human action is the space of parable. On its stage, figures of allegory act and become, tracing potentials of human endeavor. Parable limns the becoming of ‘figures’, where usage of this word pulls in its aforementioned characterizations in allegory: It signals Rancière’s operation of “metaphoric condensation and metonymic displacement”, as well as retaining its transhistorical significance for Auerbach. We follow the figures in a parable, and it is this notion of becoming from one potential to another which is key to a parable. A becoming, even if merely indicated, is crucial, as the pleasure in a parable consists in reading this trajectory. Reading a parable is interpreting, and, as in the case more generally with allegory, the light of a parable does not descend from above, but is elaborated endogenously in the activity of reading. Benjamin’s observation that modern allegory invites us to decipher “a commentary on the images, spoken by the images themselves”21
holds as well for the parable.
Here are a couple examples. Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire invites a parabolic reading. The painting offers the viewer a perspective of the burning museum from above, and, along with the depiction of the building details in contrast with the flattened gradient of the background, one gets the feel of an architectural rendering. This miniaturization produces the effect of a bemused, Olympian view — a beholding eye outside of time. This effect is belied by the presence of smoke and fire, as well as the ‘news report’-like title. Immediacy and tragedy are rendered deadpan, like engine knock that’s been muffled. The painting presents two temporal perspectives simultaneously — one seeing a museum burn, and one speculating on this ‘tragedy’. This leads the artwork into a figural reading. Is it tragic? The ambiguity of presentation allows a dream-like quality to hover — for example, as possible wish fulfillment on the part of a young artist — over the institutional spaces of aesthetic experience.
All of Walid Raad’s work encourages parabolic readings, as may be gleaned by their titles, as well as his penchant for weaving fact with fiction. I’ll sample his Already Been in a Lake of Fire: Notebook Volume 38. The cars are weathered with use and history, and their placements on the page suggest having been thrown. Although the scrapbook format has an almost playful feel, like the work of an adolescent going through a stack of magazines, the ominous history contained within the document elicits a figural aspect to the car cutouts. They are suspended between times: They are simultaneously in flight and rubble. In being read along this trajectory, the cars accrue galvanic weight. Over and above the cognizance of the cars as anonymous instruments of terror, one sees simultaneously the cutting and pasting of the artist, and the fiction of the investigation.
In both examples, the artist’s attitude is mute, as if acknowledging that the pleasure of a parable is in the interpretation. However, its “mysterious instruction” is ambiguous, unlike in its traditional, didactic form. Benjamin incomparably describes the difference between the traditional parable and the modern parables of Kafka:
The word “unfolding” has a double meaning. A bud unfolds into a blossom, but the boat which one teaches children to make by folding paper unfolds into a flat sheet of paper. This second kind of “unfolding” is really appropriate to the parable; it is the reader’s pleasure to smooth it out so that he has the meaning on the palm of his hand. Kafka’s parables, however, unfold in the first sense, the way a bud turns into a blossom. That is why their effect resembles poetry.22
This quote leads to insights about the kinds of meaning we find in art. The parable, in leaving behind the purpose of teaching a univocal meaning, starts to resemble art. For in art, meaning is not transmitted like a set of formulas or in a how-to manual. Its model of teaching is exemplary, that is, we learn to make art from artworks themselves. What is learned comes a posteriori, after the artwork, in interpretation. In Benjamin’s quote, the parable becomes poetic by leaving behind its medieval purpose, a meaning given a priori.
Exegesis fulfills the parable. In a parable, a figure is simultaneously itself and a stand-in for something more, so the becoming traced in a parable happens on two levels. There is the material level, which we sense ordinarily, and there is the other level, which taps into a store which we hold collectively as a species. This collective store may be called our cultural history. (Of course, the usual caveats exist for universalizing claims regarding ‘our’ cultural history. But, with the disclaimer that the store is not exactly the same for everyone, we may still grant that our expressive acts imagine an audience that shares a big ‘something’ with us, as is implied in the term ‘cultural history’.) A parable addresses an audience that is both ‘we’ as individuals and ‘we’ that is collective, and this address happens ‘at once’, that is, one address calls to both levels. The figures in a parable thus act on a more immediate stage as well as on a collective stage. Now, this collective stage is not immediately present, so this sense of a collective happens imaginatively. And it is in the joining of the materially present with an imagined socius that consciousness is delivered onto the field of a wider plain. This brings the present moment into touch with human history, bridging across times. This effect of opening up the immediate space and immediate moment is a spur to reflection and interpretation.
But it is more than just a reflection and interpretation of the matter at hand, as if we were composing for a school report. It’s not just making connections, or piecing together relationships across points in history. A parable traces a becoming of its figures. This tracing of a becoming is a vestige of the simple narrative arc of the traditional parable, and its trajectory points to ‘consequence’. This is where a moral dimension comes into play, linking the parable to its historical roots. The reading of a becoming in a parable entails some kind of judgment of this trajectory, since the use of figures in a parable presses on us a kind of weighing. This weighing is not the trivial judgment of an event, like saying, “This piece of news is good, and this one bad.” We are being asked for more than our opinions on what’s happening before us. The figural dimension of parable enjoins us to consider how the ‘turn’ of a parable echoes in time. It’s a bit like the ethical outlook induced by Nietzsche’s eternal return: How do we welcome a becoming that is to recur throughout history? Although less grandiose than Nietzsche’s vision, I think the promise of parable is that its characteristics of the ‘outside’ view and of inheritance give parable a purchase onto ethical territory, just not the one-way moralism of medieval parable. The ambiguity of parable means that interpretation is not fixed, and that exegesis is dialogical. Illuminating in this regard is the Jewish tradition of midrash, in which many voices debate the exegetical meaning of Torah texts. Through its ongoing revision, midrash yields a living body of instruction. What this illuminates is that the truth from interpretation is through interpretation.
Closing out this essay is a bit about finding the parabolic in the figure of the artist, thoughts on which really began my desire to study this subject. I see the predominant figure of parable in a work of art as being the artist herself. Central to this view is a conception of the artwork as more than just the concrete object, that it also includes the act of its coming into existence. This act of becoming is given by the ‘gesture’ of the artist, and is the act of significance which is essential to considering the work as art. I use the word ‘gesture’ to describe the decisive acts in making work. The process of the unfolding of a work of art involves the artist’s gestures, and this process is the becoming of the work. The concept of gesture encompasses other notions which connect the artwork to the artist, but which themselves are too limited, like ‘hand’ or ‘signature’, which connote too much of the manual or stylistic tendencies of the artist, or ‘intention’, which is too reductive. The artist’s gesture is both mental and physical, and it binds the artwork to the artist. Upon encountering a work, in order to read it as a work of art, we hold in our mind its provenance as something made by an artist. It is not enough that the work has an artifactual quality to be considered art; we also have in mind the artist’s gesture in making the artwork. I think a great part of art interpretation, and a distinct pleasure upon viewing art, is the imaginative re-telling of the artistic gestures which went into the process of its becoming. We look for the artist’s methods and intentions, even when they are hidden. In the gesture, we read something of the artist’s comportment, the artist’s stance, the way she responds to the world. This is how thoughts of artistic gesture open onto the terrain of parable. The becoming effected by the artist’s gesture echoes with previous and future gestures. In this view, art interpretation is figural interpretation, a meeting up of the immediate sensoria with what is absent.
But if the artist is the figure, what is the parable? Bas Jan Ader presents a sort of canonical figure of the artist. The slightness of his gestures seems to bring out a parabolic aspect more sharply. How do we read it? The incompletion of his final gesture, In Search of the Miraculous
, calls out for interpretation. So let’s start with the book which was his only companion on the journey, Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit
. If the figure in parable joins an immediate presence with a ‘more’ not present, for Hegel, this ‘more’ is named Spirit: “The I
that is we
and the we
that is I
It is self-consciousness of the individual as also that of a people. In the Phenomenology
— Hegel’s account of Spirit’s passage in history — art holds a special significance. For Hegel, art is the concrete expression of the ethical life of a people, of its Spirit, so one gains insight into the successive stages of Spirit by studying art through the ages. The art object is an object of spiritual accomplishment, and thus an object of reflection — “art presents itself in the form of speculative illumination.”24
A primary achievement of Hegel, one having extraordinary influence on subsequent thinkers, is his understanding of the historicality of Spirit, and hence of art. Art is, and must be, of its time. Ader falls because he cannot paint like Mondrian. He wanders night-time Los Angeles with the song Searchin’
in his head. He sets sail across the Atlantic, reading Hegel while he rests. His gestures are never only falling, wandering, and sailing. They are calling out for echoes. They are reaching for Spirit.