Musings On Metaphor And Allegory

Corbin’s distinction between the imaginal and the imaginary, discussed in the last article, runs parallel to the distinction between metaphor and allegory. Corbin claims that

…the general tendency is to juxtapose the real and the imaginary as if the latter were unreal, utopian, just as it is customary to confuse the symbol with allegory, or the exegesis of spiritual meaning with allegorical interpretation. Allegory, being harmless, is a cover, or rather a travesty of something that is already known or at least knowable in some other way; whereas, the appearance of an Image that can be qualified as a symbol is a primordial phenomenon (Urphaenomen). Its appearance is both unconditional and irreducible and it is something that cannot manifest itself in any other way in this world (Mundus Imaginalis, translated from French by Ruth Horine, 1972).

This German word, Urphaenomen, is an idea from Goethe that refers to an archetypal phenomenon, particularly in Nature. Much of Goethe’s theory of science rests on this principle. An image as Urphaenomen is Nature (as Gestalt) revealing Herself primordially as an irreducible element of the complex whole. This order of image is a complex unveiling of truth that will always remain mysterious, for the true symbolic image possesses infinite meanings. One will never plumb the depths of the image of Soul, for instance.

These primeval symbolic images are best presented, not as allegories, but as metaphors. Metaphorical language is the language of Soul. Thus, there is a correlation between imaginal reality and metaphor, just as there is a correlation between imaginary reality and allegory. The imaginal, presented as metaphor, is much deeper and more complex in describing those aspects of reality that have infinite layers of meaning, such as the metaphor, God.

An allegory is nothing but the use of something known to represent some moral truth or trope in figurative terms, such as in the book, Pilgrim’s Progress, written by John Bunyan in 1678. No new truths were revealed in this work, just the retelling of the Gospel story. In a lecture on Pilgrim’s Progress, Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University), comments that

Allegories need to be distinguished from symbolic stories. Both allegorical structures and symbolic structures derive their full meaning from something beyond the literal meaning of the word, event, image, or character in the fiction. That is, they both point to a range of meanings beyond themselves. The major difference is that in allegories the reference point is clear and relatively unambiguous; whereas, with symbols the range of meaning is more ambiguous and uncertain.

The metaphor is the preferred language of the unconscious because metaphors are images that catapult one beyond the literal to the Mundus Imaginalis. The unconscious speaks through imagery. This is not the imaginary kind of images, but imaginal symbols, which originate from the realm of the Imaginal.

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