Diving into the Wreck: Embodied Experience in the Interpretation of Allegory
Allegory refers to a narrative that can be interpreted to reveal an additional layer of symbolic meaning beyond what appears on the surface. More specifically, an embodied allegory is created when the target domain is never explicitly mentioned and the source domain draws upon embodied concepts. For example, the poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” by Adrienne Rich, describes a scuba diver going down to explore a wrecked ship. Although the poem describes the diverse, specific actions, it also invites an allegorical interpretation in which the investigation of a wrecked ship symbolically represents one person’s look back at a past failed romantic relationship. The present studies investigate whether ordinary readers are capable of inferring allegorical messages when reading Rich’s poem and how they might do so. Two studies prompted participants to think of the poem in a literal way (as though the poem is about scuba diving), in a particular metaphoric way (as though the poem is about a failed relationship), in a general metaphoric way (as though the poem has multiple valid meanings), or with no prompt (in a control condition participants saw no prompt). In general, the data suggests that participants could interpret the allegorical messages in the Rich poem, not through abstract, disembodied processes, but rather through embodied simulations. These results are considered in relationship to current theories in cognitive science on conceptual metaphor and allegory. I argue that allegorical interpretation is not limited to formal analyses done by literary scholars. Instead, the embodied simulations that are a fundamental trait of human cognition drive allegorical interpretation. The same resources used to reason about action and perception are used to comprehend both everyday language as well as poetic instances of allegory.