Luxon, Thomas H. Literal Figures: Puritan Allegory and the Reformation Crisis in Representation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,1995.
Reviewed by Lois Annette Chalker Askew, Retired Educator, LACASKEW@aol.com
The title of Literal Figures suggests a preoccupation with the literalness of the seventeenth century manuscripts. However, Thomas H. Luxon turns a kaleidoscopic focus upon multiple paradoxes, allegories, and "otherness" meanings during the Reformation Period of English literature. It is important that Luxon incorporates these other literary devices, for, as Suzanne Langer, author of Philosophy in a New Key, points out: "The worst enemy of artistic judgment is literal judgment, which is much more obvious, practical, and prompt that it is apt to pass its verdict before the curious eye has ever taken in the entire form."(1) Luxon suffers not from this "blindedness," which Langer states makes us miss "artistic, mystical, and sacred import" of a selection.(2) Luxon does not disappoint us with an overwhelming use of literal interpretations. His kaleidoscopic coverage of literal versus allegory is intensive and demanding of uninterrupted attention to the historicity and complexity of the seventeenth century religious and literary scene.
In the preface, Luxon states his thesis: an attempt to explain why John Bunyan fell into the use of allegory when all around him Protestants protested anything but the literal interpretation of the scriptures and religious experiences. Luxon begins by referring to Humphrey Ellis' use of the stories of Franklin and Gadbury, two seventeenth century characters, to explain the shifting of Bunyan from the literal to the allegorical. Ellis reminds us that William Franklin considered himself a pseudo-Christ and Mary Gadbury portrayed herself as a Spouse of the Church. Like these radicals, Bunyan found literary ease in falling into the allegory of this unreal earthly existence in order to obtain the otherworldliness of the total experience. In the symbolic mode of the allegory, he achieves the otherworldliness that he desired. According to a literary definition, allegory is a "form of extended metaphor in which objects and persons in a narrative, either prose or verse, are equated with meaning that lie outside the narrative itself."(3) It was this otherworldliness, this "outside the narrative itself," that Bunyan sought. Somehow Bunyan let the message overwhelm his inherent support of Protestant opposition to excessive tropes, metaphor, etc. Nowhere does Luxon suggest that Bunyan aligns himself with the typologists, those who used allegory and denied that they did.
However, Luxon runs the gamut of highlighting polarized contrasts dating back to the unreal Israelite and the realistic Christian. Among the binary groups are soul/body, flesh/spirit, old self/new self, interpretation/experience, carnal self/spiritual self. In fact, in rotating from the explanations of one literal element as opposed to a figurative one, Luxon presents a view that irretrievably cannot be acknowledged as anything but nothingness. As Luxon points out " The very feature invoked to distinguish typology from allegory--the historicity of its signs and things signified--is in serious danger of evaporating before our eyes."(4)
Underlying the themes of literal and figurative representation, and perhaps being used as an example for the thrust of the explanation why Bunyan relapses into the allegory, is the repetitive explication that the Old Testament Jew is regarded as a "figure in the allegory of promise" and the Christian is the projection or fulfillment of the promise. Most Protestants would accept the Jew as the predecessor, but would ignore, or completely forget, the literary connection between the Jew and Christian (or, perhaps, not voice it at all). In today's worship, Christ is the image that blocks out the tradition of tying the Christian with the Israelite. Luxon elaborates upon this point many times and relates it directly to the shadowy allegorical state of the Old Testament.
Throughout the scholarship on Bunyan, Professor Luxon inserts side bars of information that distracts the reader from the flow of the literal figures and the crisis that existed in Bunyan's day. From these extraneous details, the reader must suction the essence of the truth of the Bunyan usage. The suggestion is that the author did not dwell with the synthesis of his subject long enough to find the higher level on which to present a thesis. Yes, he does thorough coverage of the period and some of the symbolic happenings in literature, but he also incorporates too many ramifications for the benefit of supporting his thesis. An example would be the Pauline interpretation, an excellent section if used only for the Pauline explanation. However, Professor Luxon must pursue the line of thought extensively without attaching the connective lines to Bunyan and the latter part of the seventeenth century.
Professor Luxon receives credit for heavily loading his volume with citations of support. On Paul's dismissal of the "Israelite history as allegorical drama and the Torah as an allegory of spiritual rebirth,"(5) Luxon cites the scholarship of Erich Auerback in Theory and History of Literature. Luxon uses the research of the reformers as Martin Luther throughout the text. In an effort to show the manner in which Protestants arrived at some meanings, he examines Luther's attempt to maintain among all possible meanings (allegorical, analogical, and topological) a literal interpretation of the word "begotten" in Psalm 2. He documents Luther's arrival at the meaning of "the eternal generation of the Son"(6) and reviews the interpretation of others such as Aquinas and the scholastics. 'Tis better if he had limited his book to the specific meanings of those Protestant authors connected with Bunyan.
Among all the erudite religious citings, Luxon plants an oversupply of directions about the volume. Like a teaser in modern television programming, he announces far too often his next step rather than depend upon a rhetorical lead-in to the next topic, which can be identified easily by the title of the chapter. For example, in the preface, he states the function of each chapter. According to Luxon, the final two chapters reread Bunyan's autobiography and both parts of Pilgrim's Progress" as deeply anxious about the potential of language to represent the 'gospel sense' of revelation and spiritual experience, but at the same time eager to employ the Pauline allegory of new birth to solve, or at least, to allay, these anxieties."(7) Later in Chapter 4, Luxon states that he will argue in the last two chapters "though he [Bunyan} may have come to Puritanism through the radical channels of congregationalism and Army preachers, he [Bunyan} follows the path of a return to allegory."(8) Such over usage of the authorial direction breaks the continuity of the reader's reasoning. Or, as he [Luxon] may have stated of Christians, Luxon takes the structure more seriously than the meanings behind the structure with which he is preoccupied.
Obviously Luxon's devotion to Women's Studies necessitates his examining the status of women in relation to the literal and figurative ranges of the criticism of Biblical claims. One theme that he constantly rehashes is displacement. Early he projects that he will be constantly concerned with the self and "its constitutive others, especially in the discussion of new birth..." Then he readily refers to carnal birth as being this-worldly figure for real birth; if such is true, then women become displaced in this birth of the soul--a displacement which he upholds in significant places throughout the text. Would that he develop a whole text on this displacement of womanhood. In almost all fundamental teaching of the Biblical message, woman plays an insignificant role. This theory is mentioned, but not fully developed. This theme of displacement permeates the Judah-Tamar story related in Chapter 5. However, quoting both Paul and neo-interpreters, Luxon reduces the concept of mother and motherhood to nothingness--"The discourse of new birth, as we shall see, threatens to put an end to the question, and thus an end to the interpretation."(9)
In the final chapter, Luxon identifies the special attention accorded women--women to be feared in view of their attempt to continue "the pilgrim's attachment to this world of things that are really nothing."(10) Christian is prepared in the end to play the role of Christ's bride--there is no place for his attachment to a marriage in the world which is mistaken for the real thing. Again the displacement of women occupies a rhetorical section. He elaborates fully on how Christiana must die twice, first as a woman and then as "the unwomaned being" before receiving the spirit of Christ.
In Chapter 6, Luxon waxes strong in his explication of the meaning of Christian and his companions. In the last chapter Luxon reveals in his interpretation that he follows the traditional fundamentalist meaning of Pilgrim's Progress; yet he borders on areas of nothing and nothingness that would annoy a modern Christian. Luxon closes his exegesis quite suddenly--shifting from a full explanation of Christiana to his commentary that all of mankind should be pleased with being less than "really real." In all parts of Literal Figures, the reader desires more of Luxon's beliefs and analyses. The flow of the criticism is lost by the multitudinous references to other scholars. Undoubtedly, Luxon experiences the allegory of Bunyan; 'tis unfortunate that he fails to disclose his "experiential" response for all parts of Bunyan's texts. True allegiance to a personal exegesis would be most pleasant for the seventeenth century literature scholar. Further development, the need for more exposure of these underlying themes from a subjective viewpoint, might well be honored in another Luxon work.
The aloneness of the Israelite, the displacement of women, and the value of the new birth---all these themes permeating the whole volume in the midst of consideration of the literal versus allegorical play in Bunyan's works titillate the reader. Each subordinate thought should be researched independently and included as one chapter in a reorganization of the research on Bunyan. Yes, Luxon does establish the representation crisis of the seventeenth century in a definitive way, but the reader must search intensively for the a priori of his reasoning in order to survive the clouded relationships added throughout the work. To his credit, one must recognize that the oversupply of explanations and side remarks do complement the Reformation points that he strives to make. The book offers worthwhile insights into the period even though the reader would prefer more analysis of Bunyan's works and, perhaps, others devoted to the hermeneutics of the day.
Lois Annette Chalker Askew, Retired Educator
Notes1. Susanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key. New York: New American Library. 1965. 115.
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May 26, 1998