I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
I somehow managed to miss attending high school, so I’ve never personally had the experience of being forced to read a book and then told, piece by piece, what meaning the instructor ascribes to each passage of the book. It sounds to me very much like some contrived ironic hell for writers, but apparently that’s how a lot of people think we’re supposed to learn about literature. Which, of course, I think is pretty fucked up, but I find it’s not really useful to stop thinking about something when we realize it’s dysfunctional. We ought to probe deeper, to find the roots of that dysfunction and then to learn from it. It is also worthwhile to keep looking and trace the effects of it, to see the black stench it bleeds into the waters of discourse. Gross.
I keep seeing the effects of this style of criticism, and I wonder how it got entrenched in the first place. I’ve read a number of discussions about Braid that, and I’m going to preface this with a HEY SPOILER WARNING thing, seem to interpret the metaphor the game uses of the atomic bomb as the point of the game. The entirety of Braid is a huge complicated metaphor related to the mistakes we make in our lives, the ways in which events lead to other events and a small mistake can become apocalyptic, and how we create elaborate fictions where things happened differently– but, in the end, they are just that: Fictions. And they fall apart if we try to live them.
To paraphrase, the developer of Braid has stated that if he could explain the meaning of Braid readily then there would have been no reason to make it in the first place.
I can’t decisively conclude whether this is a particular problem with gamers– I may just be more sensitive to it in games. Certainly it makes sense that, as gamers, we tend to be solutions oriented. In a narrative loaded with ambiguity, we often try to find the ‘solution’, the real ending. I recently reread Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending to correspond with the release of the first Idle Thumbs Book Club podcast, and was struck by how much the emotional impact of the story was muted when I read it as a puzzle, read it trying to figure out what really happened. The basic theme of the book is that we never know, even right when something happened, what really happened. We all operate on incomplete information at the best of times, and our personal experiences color or discolor that information sometimes beyond recognition. Only after I began to let go again, to embrace the story for what it was, was I able to enjoy it as I had the first time I read it.
I suspect, and this is going to sound horribly elitist, that the reason why high school English classes are the way they are (or, perhaps, the way I understand them to be from second-hand descriptions), is because some mediocre person or persons witnessed learned discourse between people who had read good books. They passively observed those interpretations of symbolism which were gleaned from the characters, story, world, and discussions of how that symbolism applied to the theme of the work. And then they said:
“Aha. This is how smart people talk about books.”
And proceeded to ape the form joylessly, without understanding the heart of these discussions. I don’t know where in the chain of discourse this happened, but at some point metaphor and symbolism were atrophied and instead of adding meaning to a work they began to reduce it. Everything starts to mean something, some one thing, so much it ceases to mean itself: A train going through a tunnel is a swell symbol for fucking, but we make real trains and real tunnels because we need to transport our stuff and there’s a mountain in the way. Even if there’s a ‘fucking’ tonal resonance to the tunnel, there is still a literal mountain in the way which justifies the presence of that tunnel within that world, and ignoring one of these for the sake of the other is to not read the story you’ve got in favor of inferring another probably less coherent story.
Apparently people are into that.
Anyway, I feel like this subject has a particular relevance to me right now. I’ve been developing a game where new interpretations of the characters and events keep on occurring to me, and are one of the things driving the project forwards. As with many of my game ideas, the heart of Eve’s story seems to be my own relationship to creativity, how it is something that seems to emerge from within us but is in equal measure constructed by the world around us. So that’s one meaning, one interpretation, and perhaps the most personal, but I keep seeing how the metaphors I’ve written into that story can also be interpreted as ruminations on the human species, our place in the universe, and the role of faith in our lives. None of these ideas were explicitly intended when I had the idea for the story, but all of those interpretations I see inform the way I build that universe.
And, by the same token as interpreting metaphors allegorically reduces the scope and impact of a story, I think that starting with the intent of saying something ‘deep’ is the quickest shortcut to superficiality. I believe we should start with something inspired from our own sense of myth, our own sense of story, and expand from there. If something is genuinely meaningful to you, don’t try to hide it behind an allegory or make it the ‘moral’ of a story, make it the story. Make it the bones the meat the blood the brain, make your story the living breathing embodiment of your Idea. Be the idea, and in that skin write the autobiography of the idea.
To some degree that is what we are as writers anyway. We embody our ideas and we build elaborate pyramid tombs to enshrine them for what he hope, optimistically and naively, to be an eternity.
Don’t aspire to symbolism. Just write your goddamn story, make your game, play your song, film your movie, stage your play, paint your picture, mold your custom dildo, whatever. The symbolism will take care of itself. Symbols are what our brains are made of.