Posted by Adam Roberts on 03/16/07 at 10:52 AM
The Faerie Queene is an allegory. So far so good. The first adventure in this enormous allegorical textual edifice concerns the Redcrosse Knight, who stands for ‘holiness’, and who is travelling through Fairyland in the company of his woman, the beautiful and virtuous Una. They enter a dark and tangled wood, and there encounter a hideous monster called ‘Errour’. A nasty piece of work, this creature: ‘a monster vile, whom God and man does hate’:
Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.
Redcrosse fights the monster and kills it. It’s not easy. She wraps him in her coils; but he grabs her ‘gorge’ so tightly that she is compelled to loosen her grip on him.
Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.
This vomiting combines the strictly allegorical (the poison, gibbets and toads all represent the evil that ‘error’ performs in the world) and a more direct mode of representation—erroneous books and papers are the sorts of things that might literally (rather than allegorically) lead us astray. But to put that on one side for a moment; the main thing is that the Redcross Knight is successful in his fight. He lifts his sword
... That is the moment when the monster attacks. The negative-attitude monster will make this person believe that ... with attacking one of us at practice, the monster attacks others through a skillfully thought out ... of his positive attitude, Keogh kills the negative monster that attacks his swimmers at the pool in ... and limits our chances to put forth a full effort. The beast will engage in people if ...
And strooke at her with more then manly force,
That from her body full of filthie sin
He raft her hatefull head without remorse;
A streame of cole black bloud forth gushed fro[m]; her corse.
There we are. The end of error.
Now it’s easy to see why Spenser puts this episode right at the start of his allegorical epic. He intends to dramatise the battle, and ultimately the victory, of truth; and this is clearly the right way to begin such a striving, by tackling that emblematic enemy of truth, Error. But there’s more. In a sense, this defeat of error sets up the allegorical mode itself.
I’ll explain what I mean. Allegory is a way of seeing the world such that the inner truth of entities is displayed externally. In this respect it is different to the world in which we actually live. In the real world, as Shakespeare once pungently observed, there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. Indeed, that single insight, and the endlessly dramatically fertile disparity between appearance and reality, is the main motor of Shakespeare’s writing. It is very easy to fall prey to error, in our world, because the face our world presents to us is so often misleading, hypocritical and false. So our task is first to identify error, and only then to fight it. Or to put it another way, our first danger is to fall into error about error—not to recognise it for what it is.
By encountering and slaying error right at the start of the Faerie Queene Spenser is addressing this matter head-on. He is ushering us into a world in which error, in its manifold embodiments, will be plainly visible to anybody who has eyes to see. Lawlessness (say) will not insinuate itself into our acquaintance as freedom, or as revolution, or as anti-tyranny or anything like that; it will ride up fully armed, with Sansloy written on its shield, and try to hack us down. Evil will not walk the land as a plausibly-spoken and handsome man called George W.; it will take the form of an enormous, foul dragon that must self-evidently be destroyed. These things will still be lawless and evil; it’s just that they will be obviously lawless and evil. In other words, Redcross’s first victory is important because ‘the death of Error is the birth of Truth’ [James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of The Faerie Queene (Princeton University Press, 1976), p.147].
The novel "Brave New World", by Aldous Huxley, is a history book written for the future. The author envisions our society in the future and the dangerous direction it is headed in. "Brave New World" verse reality creates similarities between these two worlds. Our society is based on balance and when that balance is broken, unhappiness accrues. If the truth was hidden, happiness could never be ...
But there’s a problem here, and it’s one that has the potential to unpick the entire project. It’s this: how can it be that Redcross, having slain error, subsequently goes on to fall into error. Because that’s exactly what he does, and not just once, but many times. How can he be fooled into erroneously trusting the wicked Archimago? The falsely beautiful witch Duessa? How can the false knights (such as Sansloy, Sanfoy and Sansjoy) be riding around in a world in which error is dead, defeated, no more? Those three are manifestations of specific varieties of error; but the category itself has already been abolished! How can they persist?
Critics have of course noticed this, although they seem (in my reading of the secondary criticism at least) remarkably blithe about it. Here’s Russell J. Meyer:
In fact, although he has defeated error, the remainder of Redcrosse’s adventures center on his falling prey to various manifestations of error. Over and again he fails to take the lessons previously taught and apply them to his present situation. [The Faerie Queene: Educating the Reader (Boston: Twayne 1991), p.36]
Surely it’s not as simple as this. Meyer says ‘his defeat of Error is not the glorious victory he believes it has been … Error may have appeared to him in the form of a dragon, but indeed she is not a ferocious dragon.’ What? This can’t be right. In the world of The Faerie Queene Error is precisely a ferocious dragon. That’s how allegory works. In our world, of course, it’s not so simple. But in allegory that simplicity, that unity of truth embodied in the fact that the figure of Truth is represented by a beautiful woman called Una, determines it exactly that way.
Now I’m not trying to deny that error, speaking generally, is a complex and multifaceted thing that cannot actually be slain by a simple feat of arms. But we’re not speaking actually. That’s not where we are, right now. We’re in Spenser’s allegorical Fairyland. Either Redcrosse has slain Errour or he hasn’t. This either-or is integral to the way allegory works. It’s a constitutive function of allegory itself that all the errors that have or ever might be can be embodied in a single form, and that form then killed.
EDMUND SPENSER. Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) the Great English Poet. A. Edmund Spenser began, intentionally and calculatingly, to become the master English poet of his age. B. Unlike such poets as Wyatt, Surrey, and Sidney, born to advantage and upper-social class, Spenser was born of moderate means and class, in London, possibly in 1552. C. He received a notable education, first at the Merchant ...
This is, in other words, a worldbuilding question. In order for Spenser’s built world to preserve the coherence, consistency and consequentiality that are essential to the creation of a believable world, it must trace through the implications of its making. If a character is killed, it’s no good having that character walking on in the next canto as if nothing had happened. If Redcrosse is tricked into believing Una false, then there needs to be some reverse conversion before he can marry her at the end: it would be no good having him simply forget about the earlier episode. And on this level, Spenser is very careful to worldbuild carefully. But this business of destroying error and then encountering lots of examples of error: it is radically destabilising.
There’s another level to this question of course. As James Nohrnberg notes, allegory, as a general rule, requires the perpetration of a kind of interpretive “error” in order to sustain itself.
The error is very much like the one that [Irwin] Panofsky [Idea: A Concept in Art Theory, trans. Joseph Peake (Columbia SC 1968)] thinks of medieval artists as making in the depiction of classical subjects: on the one hand, the gods of the pagans lost their traditional configurations; but, on the other, many of these configurations survived, having migrated from classical to Christian subjects. Without some such error Christ could not be conceived of as Phoebus-Apollo-Veritas, and there would be no allegory of the divinely illuminating Word as specifically solar in character. Conversely there would be no representation of the sun-god as a medieval knight, at large in the wood of knight errantry … The “adventure” of Spenser’s opening traces the path of his legend as a whole, which ends with the unveiling of Truth. [Nohrnberg, Analogy of the Faerie Queene, 150-51]
This is a variety of the error entailed by all reading, we might say: the necessary and creative error (Bloom calls it ‘swerve’) of interpretation. But this only makes it more peculiar to symbolically eliminate error at the very start of the allegory. No?
A series of experiments were conducted and found that several negative moods are responsible for decreasing the Fundamental Attribution Error, and positive moods are known to increase the FAE as it is influenced by the information processing consequences of the affective states. The initial experiment showed how happy mood was able to enhance and the sad mood reduce the dispositional attributions, ...
Let me put this another way. Imagine that Redcrosse’s first encounter in The Faerie Queene is not Errour, but Allegoria herself, riding in her ornate chariot drawn by two leopards. Let’s say that Redcrosse pulls out his sword and slices this witch’s head clean off. Allegoria is destroyed. What happens next?