Personification and Alienation

by Nicolette Zeeman

What we call personification, classical, medieval and early modern theorists named, amongst other things, traductio, immutatio, prosopopoeia, conformatio, or ethopoeia[1] Long associated with enargeia, the “enlivening” of the text, this figure of thought takes many forms and appears in many different kinds of text in the Middle Ages.[2]  This is substantially due, I propose, to its structural hybridity—the fact that it involves a number of contrasting elements, some more conceptually oriented, and some variously anthropomophising. Although a long tradition of readers have claimed that some of the elements of personification constrain or delimit others, I suggest that it is truer to say that personification plays on and makes meaning out of the tension between its different parts. It is as a consequence of this fact that the trope can be turned to many uses and oriented in many directions. In this paper I will be giving sustained attention to the fact that personification always yokes together discourses or elements that are potentially at odds with each other—a feature that it shares with allegorical narrative more generally.[3]

One way of thinking about the various dimensions of personification is to focus on Classical and medieval rhetorical definitions of the trope. Despite their huge variety, these fall into two fairly clear camps: either personification is the attribution of a person, body or voice to an inanimate noun, concept or object, something referred to with terms such as traductio (“transferring,” “metonymy”) or immutatio (“indirect naming,” “metonymy”); or the figure is a person, usually a speaking person, whether she is historical, mythical or fictional, or, indeed, as before, a person representing an inanimate noun (this latter emphasis on the speaking nature of the figure is reflected more clearly in the terms prosopopoeia (“speaking person,” “personification”) or conformatio (“expression” of voice, “arrangement” of words).[4]Although these two definitions of the figure can overlap, at their extremes of “metonymy” and “speaking person” they are potentially quite distinct. On the one hand, then, this figure potentially invokes the idea of “the person,” with its many different implications, such as the potential to desire, choose, act or change, the imagined possibility of inner life, as well as the possession of a body (with the many things that might entail).[5]  On the other hand, the figure does not just imply “person.” It also involves some characterising feature, a delimiting category or bias; this is true whether the personification represents a particular term, concept or “thing,” or whether it represents a particular historical, mythical or fictional person, along with the characteristic features, identifying quality or narrative for which that person is known. This tension between the potential for flexibility and change implied by the idea of “person” and the implications of being shaped according to particular characteristics, categories or biases constitutes one of the central dynamics of the trope of that we call personification. 

Such tensions within the figure of personification have not always been seen as a positive thing. The well-documented tradition of negative criticism that has been directed at personification (along with allegorical narrative) from the eighteenth century onwards involves a variety of claims: that personification is too abstractive, and therefore both overly intellectualising and simplistic; that it is absurd and unrealistic; or that it is somehow deadening or objectifying. To some degree, these attacks on personification seem to involve a reduced notion of the narrative and figural potential of personification. But above all these attacks involve a loss of any sense that the work of personification lies precisely in the variety and complexity of the relations between its different components (in one of his critiques, for example, Coleridge legislates that the figure’s parts must “combine to form a consistent whole”).[6]  The effect of such assumptions tends both to constrict personification’s narrative/figural potential and to deplete its conceptual reach; until the twentieth century at any rate, the result is usually denigration on each count. These negative views of personification, then, lose sight of the fact that the trope depends on the interaction of its various discursive elements, as they extend, gloss, complicate, pressure and even contradict each other. 

One very influential, but also in my view unhelpful, recent version of this critique is that of Gordon Teskey. It is true that for Teskey allegorical narrative derives its dynamism from the tension between, on the one hand, its narrative with its embodied imagined persons and, on the other hand, the language of explication or gloss, which, according to Teskey, is constantly doing “violence” to the bodies that it explicates. The problematic aspect of this provocative version of what is actually a very traditional thesis, is the idea that, of the many different kinds of discourse that constitute allegorical narrative, it is always the “masculinist” language of explication that is delimiting and coercing, “doing violence to,” other, more figured (and apparently feminised) materials. For Teskey there is quite a simple and traditional ontological hierarchy present here, which he attributes to medieval and early modern thought.[7]  But what of the possibility that the language of narrative, figures, persons, actions and bodies might also comment on,[8] and indeed even “do violence to,” other elements in the allegorical text—such as the language of explication? It is after all common for the narrative actions and words of medieval personifications to query and subvert the language with which the text, or other speakers in the text, might analyse or gloss them. There are many techniques whereby the trope of personification pressures its own elements, making meaning out of its own internal tensions and contradictions. 

One of the things that personification does is to subject its element of “person” to certain biases or determinations, often putting it at odds either with aspects of itself or its surroundings. The great theorist of allegory Angus Fletcher drew on late antique descriptions of personifications as daemons to argue that personifications can be seen as “manic” figures, representations of people driven by one overriding characteristic or preoccupation. Fletcher’s inspired insight allows us to see that personification might represent forms of dysfunctionality in the subject—not only the subject at odds with, or somehow alienated from, her surroundings, but also the subject at odds with or alienated from herself.[9]

Recently Andrew Escobedo has also described medieval and early modern personification as a manifestation of daemonic thinking, but also of medieval faculty psychology: for Escobedo, personification portrays a subject who channels forces from the world outside as well as being motivated by inner powers and passions. Describing personification as a representation of human “volition” or “wilfulness,” Escobedo explains that for him this means the free or rational will but also includes all sorts of other urges and compulsions.[10]  As part of this argument, however, Escobedo insists that Fletcher is wrong to see in these personifications the possibility of “clinical compulsion”: “When characters in a personification fiction are suround[ed] by figures named Conscience, Despair, Love or Sin, such scenarios do not imply pathological or alienated states of self but anatomise the typical protocols of pre-modern agency—protocols that assume a gap between self and volition.”[11]  This seems to me a false move. The “gap between self and volition” is precisely the place where pathologies and the experience of alienation are to be found. Escobedo argues that Fletcher’s notion of the dysfunctional, manic personification is predicated on later, “novelistic” (in fact, more likely psychoanalytic) ideas about the subject. But the writers of the Middle Ages, with their pervasive interest in sin, passion and the more solipsistic forms of desire, also had their own ideas about the possibility of a dysfunctional, obsessive or manic subject. I suggest, then, that we can have this both ways: it is true that personification is a dynamic and interactive way of describing a subject operating within an environment; but it also has the potential to describe how a subject might also be pulled in certain directions, be pressured by certain biases and determinations, or be at odds with herself or her surroundings.[12]  In the essay extracted here, Michael Silk reminds us of twentieth-century theorists such as Walter Benjamin for whom fragmentary and anti-holistic nature of allegory made it the proper reflection of a modern condition often understood to be unquiet or alienated; Silk asks, “is this a truth about the modern world only?”[13]  Surely not. 

In the Middle Ages too it is the tensions, non-sequiturs and contradictions of personification that enable writers to think about the tensions, non-sequiturs and contradictions of being a subject. Although she is reluctant to use the language of subjectivity, something similar is implied by Masha Raskolnikov’s excellent study of “the relationship of the self to itself in the Middle Ages,” in which she uses often militantly “literalising” readings of personification to show how in English works of sowlehele (“soul health,” “soul cure”) it “genders, divides and dramatizes” the self.[14]  To sum up, then, the internal tensions and contradictions that characterise the different levels of the trope of personification make it a potential vehicle for articulating the tensions and contradictions of self, allowing writers to evade some of the holistic tropes of personhood to be found in more mimetic narrative modes. To choose to write about the subject by means of personification, therefore, is not just a matter of historical moment: it may also reflect a distinctive conceptualisation of that subject. 

We can see something of this in the “manic” and prolix personifications of Jean de Meun’s continuation of the Roman de la rose (Reson, La vieille, Le jalous, Faux samblant, Nature). They have exactly the animus-driven and compulsive quality described by Fletcher. These features do not just derive from the language with which they are named or glossed – on the contrary, in every case it is the embodied action and speech of these personifications within the textual diegesis that complicates and problematises their names and apparent meanings. Although the postures and words of these personifications are riddled with internal contradictions and aporias, they evince no awareness of this; seemingly generated in narrative response to each other, they are studies in angry and combative tunnel vision, whether they are giving advice, complaining, confessing or preaching. Their speeches, which might have been thought of as part of the poem’s self glossing, are in fact further symptoms of their monomania, their attempts to control the fragmented environment of the text. We should not be surprised to notice the same monomania in Jean’s portrait of the poem’s central protagonist, seen especially vividly at the end of the poem, when he undertakes his pornographic erotic conquest almost entirely without a side-glance or any kind of articulated reflexivity. This final portrait is, of course, also an unexpected and disturbing narrative commentary on what has gone before—Genius’s ebullient description of the garden of sexual procreation and the philosophy with which he has explained it.[15]

In Piers Plowman, we can see similar parallels between the poem’s personifications and its narrator, reinforcing once again the view that a text’s personifications may tell us much about its understanding of what it is to be a subject. In this poem many personifications exhibit a propensity towards anxiety, oppositionality, and a kind of explosive critical aggression, something that is also a marked feature of Langland’s uneasy but feisty and quarrelsome narrator. Once again we might note that these characteristics derive from the poem’s diegesis, not from some language of gloss (here too, of course, much of what looks like the language of gloss is in fact framed by being spoken by particular protagonists). My point here is not just that in the allegories of Jean de Meun and Langland personifications and narrators look somewhat alike, but rather that in both poems the nuancing of the trope of personification does indeed turn it into one index of subjecthood. Personification allows these poets to focus on the “pull” of certain characteristics, tendencies and preoccupations in the subject—even to the point of disfunctionality. And all this, of course, has complex implications for the larger narrative and conceptual trajectories of these poems.

In the rest of this paper, I propose to look at something similar in another medieval poet—the fourteenth-century French writer and Cistercian, Guillaume de Deguileville, who in his hugely successful Pelerinage de vie humaine (Pilgrimage of Human Life) undertook the counter-intuitive project of composing a religious version of the Roman de la rose. In Deguileville’s poem we again see some of the characteristic tensions of the trope of personification, but in a different form. Here the personifications seem to be circumscribed and over-determined by the coercive presence of their own bizarre and intractably material bodies: it is my proposition that Deguileville’s sense of subjecthood, even psychic life, is shaped by a powerful but anxious sense of embodiment.

Excerpt from an essay in preparation titled “Personification and Alienation: The Case of Deguileville,” a version of which was presented in the seminar series Poetics before Modernity: Literary Theory in the West from Antiquity to 1700  (Cambridge, 2016–17).

[1] See James J. Paxson, The Poetics of Personification  (Cambridge, 1994), 11–22. 

[2] See Cicero, Orator, 25.85, in Brutus. Orator, trans. G. L. Hendrickson (Cambridge, MA, 1939); Andrew Escobedo, Volition’s Face: Personification and the Will in Renaissance Literature  (Notre Dame, 2017), 3–8, 15–18. Personification (conformatio) is defined as a figure of thought in the influential Rhetorica ad Herennium; see Ad C. Herennium de ratione dicendi (Rhetorica ad Herennium), trans. Harry Caplan (Cambridge, MA, 1954), 4.53.66. Further evidence of current interest in personification can be seen in a forthcoming essay collection in the Yearbook of Langland Studies  (2019).

[3] Allegorical narrative is best described as textuality that foregrounds the intersection of two or more contrasting kinds of discourse, at least one of which has a diegetic aspect; it is true that discursive intersections are a feature of all complex language, but allegorical textuality occurs at the juncture of markedly different languages and conceptual frames, and exploits and revels in their modes of difference. This is a variant of Maureen Quillligan’s brilliant description of the genre as characterised by the use of the pun. See Nicolette Zeeman, “Medieval Religious Allegory: French and English,” in The Cambridge Companion to Allegory, ed. Rita Copeland and Peter T. Struck (Cambridge, 2010), 148–61, p. 150; Maureen Quilligan, The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre  (Ithaca, 1979).

[4] For this dichotomy and an excellent survey of classical and medieval taxonomy, see Paxson, Poetics of Personification, 3, 11–22.

[5] On speech as “the signature of the vital, sentient mind,” see Paxson, Poetics of Personification, 96. On the medieval rhetorical notion of vultus, expressive “face,” Monika Otter, “Vultus adest (the face helps): Performance, Expressivity and Interiority,” in Rhetoric beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Carruthers (Cambridge, 2010), 151–72, p. 154: “Vultus carries strong implications of intentionality, of turning towards somebody . . . . It is also a technical term in rhetoric: Quintilian explains . . . how an orator should use his vultus, meaning deliberate, studied facial expression, to help make his point. . . . vultus  is about intention, about expressing, communicating.”

[6] Steven Knapp, Personification and the Sublime, Milton to Coleridge  (Cambridge, MA, 1985), chapters 1–2 (citing Coleridge from Miscellaneous Criticism, Knapp also comments on how Coleridge “narrows his conception of allegory . . . to the single issue of personification” [11]). See also Paxson, Poetics of Personification, 24–29 (Paxson illuminatingly comments that eighteenth-century theorists “tried to avoid” the rich “conceptual slippage” of earlier theorisations of personification); Michael Silk, “Invoking the Other: Allegory in Theory, from Demetrius to de Man,” forthcoming in Allegory Studies: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Vladimir Brljak (Routledge), and extracted here; and Escobedo, Volition’s Face, 2, 41–47.

[7] Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence  (Ithaca, 1996). An interesting reworking of this view, which nevertheless ultimately attributes the decline of allegorical narrative to the tendency of the gloss to explicate allegory away, is found in Jason Crawford, Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics  (Oxford, 2017). Other critiques of Teskey include Larry Scanlon, “Personification and Penance,” The Yearbook of Langland Studies 21 (2007): 1–29, pp. 8–10, and Escobedo, Volition’s Face, 50–55, esp. p. 54.

[8] See, for example, Jill Mann, Langland and Allegory  (Kalamazoo, 1992).

[9] Angus Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode  (Ithaca, 1964). Other recent readers who have drawn on the “daemonic” view of personification, but who do not endorse or take up Fletcher’s psychoanalytic perspective, include Escobedo, Volition’s Face, and Crawford, Allegory and Enchantment.

[10] Volition’s Face, 18–26 and chap. 2, on “the dual quality of volition—the instrument of our self-control, but an instrument we must keep in our control” (79), though rather a lot of this in fact focuses on volition of the “freely willed” sort. For an alternative perspective on the “will” in medieval thought, see Nicolette Zeeman, “Willing,”Middle English Literature: Criticism and Dissent, ed. Holly Crocker and D. Vance Smith (London, 2014), 470–79.

[11] Escobedo, Volition’s Face, 4; cf. pp. 4–6, 48–50, critiquing Masha Raskolnikov, cited below, in much the same way (46). Escobedo’s desire to emphasise the active quality of volition/wilfulness, as opposed to the possibility that it might be experienced as a form of passivity or coercion, leads him into a number of difficulties, as when he describes wilful people as “in a sense temporarily stuck with their will” (24).

[12] The Roman de la rosePiers Plowman, and the English lyric poems attributed to Charles d’Orléans all contain medieval equivalents of the combination of a “fanatical” personification and a speaker who “contemplates the personification as his own allegorical surrogate” noticed in later poetry by Knapp, Personification and the Sublime, 4.

[13] Silk, “Invoking the Other,” [12-13].

[14] Masha Raskolnikov, Body against Soul: Gender and “Sowlehele” in Middle English Allegory  (Columbus, 2009), 8, 11, 13.

[15] Paxson, Poetics of Personifications, chapters 3–5, also explores the way that personification can comment on and express narrator subjectivity, but by a very different route.

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