The Problem of Allegorical Distance
“A pathway which is long ‘Objectively’ can be much shorter than one which is ‘Objectively’ shorter still but which is perhaps ‘hard going’ and comes before us as interminably long. Yet only in thus ‘coming before us’ is the current world authentically ready-to-hand.” (Heidegger 1962:140-1 ).
One: A brief phenomenological pedigree of the concept of distance
What ‘occurs’ to us is brought before us in the manner of an encounter. We take it to be part of the living world, just as we ourselves are taken by that world to be at least alive, sentient, somewhat conscious, perhaps also conscientious and even beholden to conscience. The ‘coming before’ does not reference history directly. What has objectively preceded us concedes nothing to our presence other than the dumb luck of happenstance. So it must think, if it is to be able to remain present without having itself such presence. Instead, this phenomenological occurrence at once occurs and is presented. The first is seemingly of its own volition, as in the unexpected or even, after some deliberation, the untoward. It stops short of the uncanny because it is not irruptive. It remains an encounter and not an outright confrontation. The second is an event that takes into account our presence and thus must realign, or even reassert itself. The new ‘presents’ itself in this second sense. It comes to be present in our own time and space, and it also performs an introduction for itself, as if it had in its possession and old-fashioned calling card, served up to us on a silver salver. Persons can of course, deliberately ‘put in an appearance’, and the more commonplace understanding of what it means to present oneself is thus called forth. Even so, we are not generally thought of as metaphors for ourselves. Nor are we mere likenesses, presenting ourselves as if we were but a simile, worse still, a facsimile, of some other and more ‘real’ being.
Since this is mostly the case – one might suggest that we are all ‘actors of our own ideals’ in presentation perhaps more than in any other social instance; coming before another does mean some kind of adjustment in our own subjective ideals as no other person will precisely conform to our self-understanding – one aspect of the puzzle of distance in narrative as well as in living-on occurs to us precisely as does the otherness of the presentation, of selves, of events etc. At first we would balk if we were to understand ourselves as living allegories of the Dasein which we are and within which we dwell as the subjection to others, the subjectitude to the world, and more pleasantly, one would hope, the simple subjectivity of our imagination. Let us not decide prematurely that all relationships that involve some distance must necessarily be violent in this way. We too subject the next person to our presence, some more than others. We too manipulate and reconstruct the world, mainly through material technology and yet also through a more ‘symbolic’ history. Subjectitude is phenomenologically diverse if not ideally value-neutral. Subjection, a harder term that has commonplace connotations, is at least symbiotic if not particularly dignified. And apart from the Diltheyan problem of boundaries in subject-object distinctions – though our ‘much vaunted subjectivity’, to again refer to Nietzsche, may not be all that it has been cut up as being – it remains a profound ethical conception along the simple lines of being-able-to–be-with another or the others. In a word, this fragile aspect of auto-epistemology – and not ontology, to respect one key difference between Dilthey and Heidegger – allows us to maintain ourselves by maintaining our selfhood in the face of knowing that another to self has her own sense of what this must mean. This shock also ‘comes before us’ in both senses we have been touching upon. She exists already, in the world, and thus also in my world given that I too inhabit this space, and as well, she also presents herself to me as an event of ‘intersubjectivity’, an occurrence that is too personal to be overlooked as one might think about measurable distances. Here, Heidegger desires to speak about the experience of distance and not its physicality. Even when we do measure, as when comparing our speed with the mileage signs on a freeway, it still remains for us to flesh out that basic framework in terms that will be more familiar to us having undertaken to actually drive it. At first, we might consider such aspects of world such as road conditions, weather, speed limits, construction, proximity to towns, curves in the road and all of this. We then might bring forward to consciousness the amount of time we have already been driving, our relative fatigue or freshness, and whether or not we have a second driver with us. Are we under a deadline? Must we stop to refuel? Could there be an accident up ahead, or might we ourselves be prone to become involved in one? Yet further, we might then factor in more personal aspects to such a journey and its corresponding conception of distance. Is the terminus sought a desired one? What kind of welcome might we expect upon reaching it? Indeed, whether there is room at the inn or no, what others might have also arrived with whom we would generally not wish to spend time or be in proximity to?
If, after all of these ruminations, none of which are yet phenomenological in scope, we find our right foot failing on the throttle, we will have begun to access a more potent meaning to our undertakings. We are at the threshold of asking more important questions of ourselves, ones that are ethical, even existential, in their notice. What is the merit of such a trip? This is more than asking ‘what will I get out of it?’ which is often a standard part of consideration once again, ‘coming before’ we actually set out. This ‘more’ touches upon our self-understanding in a metaphoric way. Here, we skirt the boundedness of both limits that are, or can be, placed upon human life in general – in this case, objectively, driving remains the most dangerous statistical risk with which we engage in the everyday – as well as the value we place on our own lives in particular. Indeed, the simile at work is an imagined doppelganger, a ‘stand in’ for ourselves, who undertakes the same trip in an ideal fashion and arrives just as we thought he would, on time and intact. In a well-known analysis, Schutz states that we engage in ‘projects of action’ in order to more objectively comprehend the idealized occurrence which we might plan to undertake or yet undergo. A road trip might be closer to the former, a medical operation closer to the latter, for instance. Either way, because Dasein is a being which is always ahead of itself as part of its ontological structure, I must visualize, so to speak, a future which not only does not exist but in fact will never exist. This is so because there will inevitably be some diversion from the ideal in practice. Even when a surgeon sums her work up as ‘textbook’, no two operations are exactly the same. Projects of action are, however, not decalogic in character. We always allow for some variation, insofar as we can imagine it at the time. This is the equivocal chestnut of experience, of course, and also the chief reason why young people are apt to sniff at an older person’s view of the world. On the one hand, the world has changed, so that I cannot in all certainty explain what will happen to a youth if she decides to apparently follow in what have passed for well-trodden footsteps. On the other, experience does mitigate variation, and so it is never itself completely at a loss to engage even a changing world. That one can only test the apparently wobbly balance through the undertaking itself in turn presents its own two-souled premise: one, there is the anxiety of trepidation; will I be able to complete this task within a reasonable variation from my ideals? And two, the very uncertainness regarding this question presents me with a liberating freedom of decision, improvisation, spontaneity; perhaps I will innovate and surprise even myself.
Projection in this quasi-temporal sense is the most common manner of constructing some distance between the real me and the future of what I will become through and after the next undertaking or undergoing. It is sourced in an imagination specifically turned to the future and just as specifically tuned to my action within it. Thus phantasms, in Schutz’s language, or actionable ‘daydreams’, are the most common form of allegory. Each of us is also a ‘writer of our own ideals’ as it were. The specter of failure is always present, but we deem it far less misery to have thought things through as best we can, no matter mice nor men, and given it our best shot, than to have gone off ‘half-cocked’ and promptly made a hash of things. In the first instance, we can always ‘plan it again’, with more experience and thus hopefully more foresight. Schutz is himself keen on maintaining this distinction: though we can never ‘swim in the same river twice’ – both the river and ourselves have been altered by the more or less simple passage of time – yet we can ‘do things again’ because doing again does not mean doing over. Just as Freud poignantly notes that lost loved ones can never be replaced, he equally emphatically asserts that we can find substitutions for them, and indeed, must find such substitutions, not only to honor our love for those passed on but also to live on. Just so, living again is not living over.
Understanding this, Dasein nevertheless finds itself already and always within its ‘primordial spatiality’. The beloved, present or absent, found or lost, past or present, remains as part of the intimitude of ‘closeness’. I here use the term ‘intimitude’ to suggest another kind of space that is the phenomenological obverse of infinitude. Heidegger himself now: “That which is presumably ‘closest’ is by no means that which is at the smallest distance ‘from us’. It lies in that which is desevered to an average extent when we reach for it, grasp it, or look at it.” (ibid:141). This aspect of worldhood is ‘severed’ from our being-in at a number of levels, including its thingness, its lack of sentience, its abruptness, its silent objection to a presence it cannot understand or undertake in any way recognizable to me, as well as its relative age – many things in the world outlast by far a human life, for example, though perhaps equally others do not – its cultural value or absence thereof, and so on. ‘Desevering’ in phenomenology includes all of these aspects of distance, resulting in a composite ‘distanciatedness’ which can be then accounted for. Along with projects of action, another quite commonplace function of the individuated imagination is the series of questions which follows from such encounters. Why was this thing built? Why does it exist, and exist here? Who built it? What is it made of? Does it still have a recognizable function? What is it worth as infrastructure, artifact, even as aesthetic object? These too are allegorical versions of similar questions we might – though we tend not to – ask of ourselves.
We now begin to sense that though simile is generally a value-neutral exercise – I am going to travel from here to there and what might I expect to encounter along the way? – the function of metaphor is not so lightly regarded. Metaphor is, in a word, pregnant with meaning in a way mere simile is not. Just as doing again does not mean doing over, so ‘asness’ is not ‘isness’. It is more than old hat to recall classroom definitions at this point: a simile suggests that one thing is like another, but a metaphor states that one thing is another. The first is prosaic, the second poetic, as Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton lectures, frequently points out. The casual distances between Dasein and World, or, more experientially, between myself and the world, are given to simile first, before metaphor can occur to us or place itself before us. One place reminds me of another; perhaps it is my home I am missing. But at the end of the day, this new place is not my home in any sense, let alone that poetic. In order for a new experience to actually be some other that I have already had, it appears on the face of it that we must refute both Freud, Schutz, and many other thinkers. This is, however, not absolutely the case. In substitution I recognize that simple sameness is not the same as metaphoric consubstantiation. In simile, there is resemblance, not exactitude. But as sameness itself cannot in fact be – what is lost is lost, past is past, dust is dust – we forgive our casual language in contriving in the face of asness a sense of ‘just like’. Here, embedded in the meaningfulness of our use of such a seemingly trite phrase, lies our ability to merge phenomenology with ethics. Likeness, or asness, need only remind us of the other. But consubstantiation, while not ever being exactly the same river, is yet more than a simple likeness. It has, through devotion, experience, or even time served, attained the just value and status in our existence to connote a certain kind of justice when it is present. We may be warm if we think of vindication, valediction, even veneration if we were so adoring of what is now forever absent. Yet, just as with the composite whole of distanciatedness we encounter when coming into or up against the world as it is and thence the unshared cosmos arcing out into infinitude, we also now are immersed in a holism of closeness that plunges into the shared existential arc of intimitude.
Two: Allegory in Popular Narrative as an attempt to obviate infinity and intimacy
However revelatory this newly recognized holism may occur to us as, it presents itself before us neither as an objection nor as an intended subjection. Certainly, the range of human charm and gloss may be fraudulently intending us as its next victim, but even so, such is eventually detected and cast aside, or it may yet ennoble itself confronting our presence, or that same may occur to us. In fact, this is in itself a narrative oft given over to sentiment; the usurious – or at least, the relatively ignoble, and this known to themselves or no – are redeemed by love (Winston Smith), by fate (Oedipus), by charity (Scrooge), and so on. And yet in each of these examples redemption is itself only partial. Orwell’s hero is not so heroic after all, giving into his material fears, Sophocles’ regent is blinded so that he can see the better, and Dickens’ caricature remains a caricature, even though he’s now suddenly a decent fellow. Rather than any of this, what we do in our own lives is experience the partiality of largesse and egress therefrom along the way, at each moment and in each encounter. R.D. Laing’s difficult and disconcerting dialogue ‘Knots’ speaks to the first without necessarily providing the second. And we do know that much of what is lost in living narrative is so because I and Thou have not been able to come to meaningful terms about what each of us holds as indeed meaningful. This said, there are enough, once again, living examples of egress that allow us both to simply live on without an overwhelming self-mockery, as well as undertake the self-understanding that relies not so much on experience alone but rather in the just likeness of the next.
This ‘next’ is raised beyond her mere instrumentality. Though we place a great deal of import on events and things, other persons remain for us the most fulfilling, as well as the most inscrutable, encounters and presences over the life course. We may understand the mystery of the non-conscious cosmos well before we attain the same facility with human consciousness, let alone that of prospective other species. But in undertaking the second task, we bring to it some in-built existential advantages. One is our ability to circumspect: “When something is close by, this means that it is within range of what is proximally ready-to-hand for circumspection.” (ibid:142). Here, closeness is itself concerned-with ‘concernful Being-in-the-world’. It is an apprehension regarding intimitude. Once again, this experience is two-souled: we are apprehensive about such an encounter, especially if we have, in our phantasms, projected an imaginative sequence upon the to-be-lived narrative in which we emerge heroic or at least redeemed. Yet we are also apprehended by it; one, we may be ‘caught out’ either in our daring dulcissimo – I’m not her type after all, or more widely, not God’s gift to women et al – or two, we may become entangled by her own wiles, however contrived or authenticating. We keep to ourselves as best we can the first, but in both species of the second, all becomes known. Hence the gift and task of circumspection. How will I avoid being apprehended? How can I accept my apprehension? How might the other seek to avoid apprehending me in the manner of an ethical vivisection – we are not generally ‘out to get’ one another in this sense, for instance – and how might she as well overcome her own trepidations about any potentially ensuing closeness with me. Our casual language betrays these ethical bemusements. We say ‘there is a certain intimacy between us’, or that ‘the two of us are like one thing at times’. Inherently contradictory, such phrases and many others exemplify our equivocal understanding of both ourselves and the others involved in any ‘coming before’. The terms ‘intimacy’ and ‘between’ are at odds, and the simile of the two-in-one is always to be taken as a kind of passion, or at best, a compassion, and not a reality to be discovered as one might discover a way to ‘observe’ the Big Bang. Though we are not desevered from another being in the same way was we are with the world’s elemental presence let alone with our own presence upon the planet as physical world, we nonetheless are aware of the proximal relations between objects in the world and the thou. In the end, we are not one thing. With sobriety, there is a between after all. So redemption is but partial in real life as well as in story, and heroism is just as human, if not generally as hyperbolic, as it is narrated to be.
This is not a resignation. Only novels and epics have patent endings. Dasein is completed not when it ends but when it no longer exists. I am completed in my personal death. I am made complete by it. I am not a creation of another, and thus I am also not a character let alone a caricature, that is, unless I permit myself to descend to such a level. Personhood has its penumbra, certainly, but nevertheless its authenticity remains in its concernfulness, in its care. It cannot be ‘written over’ though it can write itself again and again. Through circumspection, we might identify with a fictional figure and recognize in him an aspect of ourselves. Writing is like waking dreaming in this way. Akin to therapy but with both a more noble and a deeper concern and outcome – this second due to its generalizability and its occurrence in the lives of others whom we otherwise would never touch – writing is the isness of being. Yes, poetry, as mentioned, attains a loftier height because it no longer feels the recursive pull that recourse to simile exerts upon meaning. But because we are beings of language first and history only following from this – the instance comes before the circumstance, as it were; we encounter one another through language and only then do we place ourselves in a history towards one another – writing overcomes what is at first only likeness by virtue of reading. The reader becomes what the writer only suggests. This of course may be a passing encounter, kindred to all those we would have loved if only we had made more intimate contact with them. Even so, the key to de-severing what is at first almost as desevered as is the world is to engage in the language of self-understanding; taking the isness of metaphor ironically quite literally. I am Thou. But equally so, she is me. Much of western ethics travels from this point of self-recognition. Yes, the currents of our contemporary river state that we must recognize the other for herself, and this too follows therefrom the moment of self-recognition. But even so, we are compelled to primordially accept that what can happen to one can happen to all.
I thus direct my being not to the world as something which objects to me or to that which makes me into an object, but rather a being who is subjected to my presence inasmuch as I am to her own. I may not intend such subjection in any darker sense, but my coming before the other is at least a two-souled prospect into which my Dasein is at first desevered. My very subjectivity – itself a distanciated composite of subjection, of becoming a subject in another’s narrative, as well as perhaps more obliquely, the sometimes shocking subjectitude of being merely another and neither hero nor redeemer – confronts her own and forces upon it a self-recognition. If not, we risk the holocaust of fatal deseverance, where the other is no different from the object alone. Enter once again Dasein’s ability to not only engage in circumspection, but also to be circumspect: “Both directionality and de-severance, as modes of Being-in-the-world, are guided beforehand by the circumspection of concern.” (ibid:143, italics the text’s). Often enough thus far, I and Thou are beholden in degrees to this ethical process that the nominal sharedness of the world is at least seen as an impediment to its self-destruction.
Not so in fictional narrative. In the main, contemporary allegory is shamefacedly in avoidance of self-recognition, and by this I mean it seeks to do the very opposite. Whenever current disquiet is addressed, whether it be ethical iniquities or material inequities, entertainment fiction distances the world portrayed far enough from us so that the audience can ultimately dismiss it as ‘mere fiction’, which it unfortunately is, or at best, ‘a good metaphor’, though in fact here it is neither. It is not good because it does not participate in the ‘just likeness’ with enough ethical proximity. It is thus also not a metaphor because it remains stuck in asness. Yet it is more than a mere fiction, for the injustice of such narratives comes before us because in fact they were planned ahead of time to be just that. Their projects of action included the caveat that the reader or viewer must not take the story metaphorically. It cannot be real; it cannot possess the isness of intimitude. ‘Three Percent’, an oddly glamorous Orwellian dystopia, is set into the future. ‘Game of Thrones’, an unsophisticated Shakespearean political melodrama, is set into an alternate world. ‘His Dark Materials’, Paradise Lost meets Harry Potter, is at once set into 1950s Britain and into the warmed-over theatrical settings of an imperial nostalgia, if not as well a nostalgia for imperialism; of the world, by the word, for the idea of truth. Once again, distancing, calculated and cynical, attempts a composite of distanciatedness in mimicry of that which Dasein brings to the world of objectifying encounters. Popular narrative is but a simile of existence.
If this were unplanned we might take it apart and adjust it the better. We might simply rewrite the tired sophism of plot and the mechanical inevitability of plot device. We might engender a new respect for our shared weaknesses, or yet we might even engage in circumspection. But because popular allegorical narrative is deliberately distanced from reality in a manner no classical epic would have tolerated, we instead must interrogate the motives for such undertakings that in reality eschew metaphor all the while proclaiming themselves to be ‘only metaphorical’, that is, not to be taken literally or at face-value. The dishonesty of such works is both patent – in that it repeats itself without end in streaming, gaming, novels and film – and potent – in that it seeks the impotence of the agentive interlocutor by turning him into a mere consumer of sentiment. If it is the reader/viewer who brings the isness to the narrative, the story must first be set at such a distance as to sabotage the existential metaphor. We cannot become overly concerned with a fictional character who must, after all, act in a world which does not in fact exist. We cannot overtly care for a factional cause that animates a community or organization that is not real. We cannot truly empathize, within the ambit of Dasein’s authentic self-undertaking, with a hero who betrays his chorus by reaching for a zenith of excitement about, or desire for, or camaraderie with, yet another heroine who in her turn, makes false the lie that we viewers are forced to live. This screening over of reality is popular allegory’s dominant task. Its function is to distance ourselves from ourselves, decoy us from our shared lot. It does so by at once pretending to show us our condition ‘at a distance’ so that we can reflect upon its reality in the world as it is. But the allegory is too distant, the characters too villainous or too heroic, or perhaps yet sometimes even too introspective, to be ultimately believable. They might be believable as characters, yes. They have, in their best moments, attained the asness of simile which reminds us of ourselves. What we so desperately need is, however, characters who are ourselves and narratives which intend the isness of concernful being in the world. The distanciatedness of composite metaphorical narrative in allegory must give way to the authentic metaphor of a playing out of actuating circumstance that in turn seeks concernfulness in the world.
Contemporary and urban fantasy genres in their most realistic instances have the greatest chance of providing this more authentic metaphor, if only in principal, and not necessarily in actual product. Here, outré elements are secondary to both plot and character development. The setting is our own world, not some other distant in time, space, imagination, or all three. The concerns are our own concerns, not those of Milton, Orwell, or Shakespeare, let alone Marvel or DC Comics. It is still somewhat sage to nod to perennial human conditions, that Sophocles still tests us, though in a different way, even as he tested the Greeks of his own era. This much remains true, and it is also, after all, enough. But even dramatizations of the canon cannot save us. What needs be done is that the kerygma of concernfulness that exists in literature and art be ported into the reality of worldly concern. Art should no longer ‘imitate’ life, for this is but another asness, another simile. That human life cannot be art in any literal sense is also not what is at issue. Rather, it is the lack in popular culture of what art itself interrogates us with that allows us to blithely go on watching as the wearied world passes us by and along with it, any sense that caring, concern, circumspection, and justice should continue to animate our once-shared consciousness.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.