Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.03


David Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 341. ISBN 0-520-07102-6.


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

'Modern commentary on allegory ... has tended to follow the misleading self-interpretations of the ancient writers by focusing on the text being read.' (Dawson, 235)

Indeed, for a generation now, the standard study of allegorical interpretation across the boundaries of religious communities in Roman and late antiquity has been Jean Pépin's Mythe et Allegorie (Paris, 1958; new ed. 1976). But that study, for all that it has the elegance and staying power of early Elvis or a '57 Chevy, was written in the face of pre-conciliar ecclesiastical (both orthodox and liberal) views of scripture, a pre-structuralist anthropological view of myth, and a pre-deconstructionist literary view of texts and interpretation. Much water has flowed under the bridges, of the Seine and elsewhere, since then. Though theoretical and practical studies abound in various domains covered by Pépin, there has been little enthusiasm for venturing anything on a comparable scale.

David Dawson has taken a large and successful venture. If Athens is where the Greeks learned the power that accrued to the one who knew how to write, Alexandria is where they learned that the reader has special power as well. But within Alexandria, Dawson wisely eschews any attempt at large-scale cultural history in favor of taking four representative traditions and then gradually thickening the context within which he presents them: Cornutus and Heraclitus reading Homer represent the 'pagans', Philo reading the Torah represents the Jews, Valentinus stands for the 'gnostics', and Clement speaks for -- one could almost say the 'gnostics' again, with a different accent -- what would come to be recognized as orthodox Christianity. What appears schematic at the outset (four figures read in detail, as poster children, so to speak, for the traditions they represent) becomes in Dawson's handling a rhetorically effective way of drawing together much material in comprehensible space, and of giving the powerful figures he treats in detail the space and attention they deserve.

What stands out in this four-dimensional analysis is the seductive power of the siren song of Hellas. Philo and Clement are every bit as much under its sway as the devoutly 'pagan' Cornutus. The loyal Homeric exegete explains and in explaining transforms the tradition for those who are happy to receive it, while Philo especially is shown to be rereading his own tradition to show explicitly that it overmasters the Hellenic ('Philo's work was a bold hermeneutical and sociopolitical bid for the right of the Jews to define authentic Hellenism' [Dawson, 126]), but implicitly his first anxiety is really to assure that his Jewish tradition survives the encounter with Hellenism on Hellenistic terms -- and in so doing, of course, his Judaism is Hellenized well beyond the limits of many of his co-religionists to bear. The express 'pagans' are handled in a way that shows clearly the literalism that underlies allegorical reading. To claim that the text says one thing and means another is a double assertion: of the literality of the supposed one thing that it says as well as of the allegory of the other thing that it supposedly means -- most of our sophisticated ways of literary reading do not have the literalist foundation and so do not need the allegorical excuse.

For Valentinus and Clement, the tools of allegory are brought to bear in different ways to establish and justify not the place of the author's community in the wider society (as was the case with Philo and his Judaism) but now more precisely the place of the teacher in the new sub-communities of Christian origin taking shape. Both men derive their authority from the way they manipulate texts, in other words, both are consciously derivative and dependent not merely on the charismatic authority from their God, but on the way they manifest that authority through the interpretation of texts. It is tempting to call Christianity the high-tech religion of late antiquity, for the way it used the new techniques of the written word with a sophistication and a dexterity that older religious communities failed to achieve; in that world, Clement becomes orthodox because he finds the balance that succeeds between preservation of the received text and (for all his allegorism) respect for its power and the independence that he finds for himself as teacher through his allegorism.

The method of the book is a felicitous blend of cultural history and theoretical reflection. Frank Kermode's blurb on the jacket will reassure most readers and at least define the middle-of-the-road approach for others. It is not possible for a study of this sort to be free enough from jargon and rich enough in historical detail for some readers today, nor again sufficiently rigorous and path-breaking on a theoretical level for others, but to this reader the middle path followed is rewarding and instructive. It is not an easy book to read, but the horizons opened are broad and important ones. To follow out the story to Origen and the medieval Christian world beyond is a tempting path Dawson has left to his readers. In the context he describes, Origen is far less radical in his allegorism than he seems when compared only with bien-pensant Christian literalism, and indeed Origen's own fidelity to the letter of his text is striking when set against, say, the gnostic traditions limned here. But when 'Western civilization' (to name an allegorical creature of dubious historical existence) does not run aground on the Scylla of bathetic mimesis (with Hellas the paragon, be it on the 'Renaissance' or Nietzsche models), then the Charybdis of allegorism is the other pitfall the culture of the written word has found (and I think it just possible so to characterize the ambages of contemporary literary theory). A book like this helps us get past the point at which we imagine that either one provides the vantage point for the decisive refutation of the other and can instead begin to surmise what it would be like to escape both.

'Only when God or meaning is present to the text but less so to the world or present to the world and less so to the text does the allegorical imagination emerge. In that imagination's founding discontinuity lies both its discontent and its hopes.' (Dawson, 240, closing the book.)