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Trope and Truth in The Pilgrim's Progress

-Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Considered in allegorical terms, then, the profane world is both elevated and devalued.

-Walter Benjamin1

In "The Author's Apology for His Book" prefacing The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan confesses that he "[f]ell suddenly into an Allegory" while writing something else.2 While this "fall" might be presumed a mere metaphor for an accident, I propose a reading of the work that takes this phrase quite literally, nor am I alone in doing so. Thomas H. Luxon bases his book Literal Figures: Puritan Allegory and the Reformation Crisis in Representation on a similar premise.3 The fall into allegory is analogous to the fall from the realm of heaven and true light into the dark and profane world in which we live, implying that the fallen world is always already allegorical. After stumbling upon the allegorical mode, Bunyan discovers that this book is practically writing itself, "Like sparks that from the coals of Fire do flie."4 From his literal prison (the Bedford jail) and his metaphoric prison (his fleshly body), Bunyan has realized that "the Way /And Race of Saints" is not our way, that their world is not our world.5 Their world is the true world, and ours is but an allegory of it. Thus, writing in an allegorical mode is the most truthful and honest way to represent the world we know. We take this world to be real and true, but it is, in fact, shadowy and deceptive according to a Protestant theology that insists on an absolute disjunction between the human and the divine. On the one hand, allegory is a hermeneutic system that specifically addresses this disjunction by a system of superimposed but noncoincident levels of meaning. Allegory is a way of linking the human and divine worlds without violating their absolutely distinct ontologies. On the other hand, allegorical exegesis tends to emphasize the spiritual senses over the historical or literal sense, which led to John Calvin's not unreasonable accusations against the fourfold method of medieval interpretation of scripture as a "'licentious system' contrived by Satan 'to undermine the authority of Scripture.'"6 Bunyan's willingness to publish openly an allegorical text and to defend its form is worthy of serious critical attention.

In The Pilgrim's Progress, Bunyan demonstrates and thereby provokes the experience of conversion in his readers. This conversion is not a radical change of belief but, as in Saint Augustine's Confessions, a simple turning toward God. Bunyan is navigating the paradoxical waters of a Calvinist theology whereby a soul is predestined for grace and yet fully accountable for its own salvation. Thomas N. Corns summarizes Bunyan's comprehension of this dilemma: "to presume salvation is to court damnation through presumption; to doubt salvation is to court damnation through faithlessness and despair."7 Demonstrated explicitly and repetitively in The Pilgrim's Progress is the need for a person to learn to read the figures of this world accurately in order to aspire to salvation.8 The pilgrim learns to read people and things as signs of abstract or spiritual meanings. Subsequently, he demonstrates this acquired skill. Nonetheless, right reading remains a continuous challenge, both for the pilgrim protagonist and for the poem's pilgrim reader. In Luxon's terms, the pilgrim keeps falling back into allegory that he mistakes for truth. Luxon situates Bunyan's work between the two extremes of literally becoming one with Christ and the inability to achieve this ultimate conversion because human existence prevents it.

The result of Protestant reformed typology (which is the name Luxon, following Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, assigns to Protestant allegory) is that one identifies "one's self and one's own experience as figural, rather than fully real."9 As Luxon elaborates in much greater detail, the accusation of "allegorical Fancy" was made by both the orthodox against the radicals and the radicals against the orthodox.10 Luxon aptly titles one of his chapters, "'Not I, but Christ': The Puritan Self-Escape from Allegory?" perhaps playing on the impossibility of an escape from the island prison of Alcatraz. He argues that no contingent of the Protestant Reformation manages to free itself from some sort of "allegorical faith" despite strident claims of doing so.11 He concludes that "reformed Christianity, for all of its insistence on literalism, remains profoundly committed to an allegorical ontology."12 The "crisis in representation" characteristic of the Reformation led to extreme overliteralization of the Gospel or extreme allegorization of oneself, as in the case of William Franklin, a man who declared himself quite literally united with Christ, and Mary Gadbury, who claimed to be this Christ's spouse.13 The Protestant crisis of representation is the focus of Luxon's b...

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