15.11.14, Schrock, Consolation in Medieval Narrative

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Natanela Elias

The Medieval Review 15.11.14

Schrock, Chad D. Consolation in Medieval Narrative: Augustinian Authority and Open Form. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. pp. 256. ISBN: 978-1-137-45335-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Natanela Elias
Beit Berl College
nok-390@zahav.net.il

In his Consolation in Medieval Narrative: Augustinian Authority and Open Form, Chad D. Schrock picks up the somewhat popular subject of medieval consolation, but instead of focusing on the traditional text usually associated with this particular genre, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, Schrock chooses to analyze St. Augustine's narrative form as possessing a particularly consolatory form. In so doing, he manages to deconstruct the traditional conception of the text and introduce a much broader, perhaps more enlightened possibility for interpretation.

In the introduction, Schrock describes the medieval state as one wrought with questions and indecisiveness; a moment of turmoil seeking a more immediate kind of salvation through consolation. Augustine seems to offer exactly that in an open form narrative that may come to replace the problematic present with a knowledgeable and revelatory past that "orients the reader away from the present toward some certainty of revelation behind" (7), and which should ultimately rectify the present.

Schrock introduces this form as a typology where the major characters play a recurring role. However, the characters themselves are not the only ones making a reappearance, rather it is the divine knowledge that is presently absent and was once possessed, seeking to be repossessed in a kind of Neoplatonic interpretative endeavor, leading to a "consolation not within the presence and clarity of philosophical vision but during its absence" (2).

The question of whether an open-ended narrative could possibly offer consolation is explained through the concept of "posthistory" where the present is a mere shadow of an enlightened past where "through figural reading, sufferers can assemble a diachronic community to accompany them in crisis" (6).

To substantiate his position regarding Augustine's narrative form, Schrock utilizes other so-called turbulently ambivalent works such as Peter Abelard's Historia calamitatum, William Langland's Piers Plowman, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, Geoffrey Chaucer's Knight's Tale, and Thomas More's Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. By doing so, the author establishes an Augustinian paradigm shared by these uniquely diverse literary works.

In his first chapter, Schrock delineates the proposed paradigm by paralleling two of Augustine's most influential works, City of God and Confessions. In doing so, he brings to the fore a previously unexplored dimension of these differing texts, claiming that "both begin with a pattern of events that moves steadily toward a climax assigning meaning to all that has come before and will come after...the ultimate end of Augustinian narrative structure is the converted Christian, as member of the City of God, experiencing a vision of the Christian God. At this vision, taking place in eternity, the meaning of time will be finally assigned...an Augustinian narrative returns into time after a meaning-grounding climax...the way forward, the path toward understanding, is on earth a reversion" (15-16). In other words, the option for consolation, for a kind of revelatory message/meaning lies in the past though it remains open for present interpretation by an attentive reader.

In the following chapter, he presents Abelard's historia as a narrative of the self constructed of similitudes; dependent upon the past, and yet independently singular. This form, which Schrock identifies as consolation, attempts to create presence out of absence through a shared sense of suffering. "What [Abelard] suffers is not, then, unique to himself, but the common manifestation of a narrative pattern that includes...all human history" (41). In Abelard's case, the locus of consolation, of revelation, is the epistle styled autobiography.

Chapter three deals with Piers Plowman and his quest for consolation, reiterating, according to Schrock, the formerly established Augustinian paradigm, namely, "a combination of linear biblical narrative with recursive figural echo" (60). The open ending and thus, the apparent lack of comfort, figuratively sets up the possibility of reclaiming it. Piers Plowman is debatably one of the most turbulently intriguing pieces of medieval literature with a wide and diverse range of scholarship. That said, many scholars would concur regarding the poem's ambivalent nature and in particular, its seemingly misaligned ending. Schrock's scheme, aiming for textual consolation reaches a middle point with this poem, where the Augustinian form exists yet consolation is yet to be fully achieved. The end result leads to an organized type of chaos whose intensity and ramification is somewhat reduced by Schrock's explanation.

The following chapter discusses the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and the elegiac form as another type of narrative of consolation. The overall message of the book seems to culminate nicely in this chapter when the author concisely states that "to memorialize Arthur, the poem must kill him off" (101): in other words, extracting the inevitable present from its unforgiving circumstances and reestablishing one's self in that same present through a more knowledgeable position.

Chapter five follows along the same lines of the previous two chapters, discussing Chaucer's Knight's Tale. This section may seem somewhat out of place in comparison with the other chosen texts, but a persuasive effort demonstrates the importance of the text in this growing scheme toward consolation; "a completion of a cycle, the self's return to past transcendence" (121).

In chapter six, Schrock's scheme seems to reach full circle. He (re)constructs a Morean self that is similar to Augustine's, then proceeds to deconstruct by claiming that "the self is slippery, guaranteed only by an outside ground difficult to discern" (143). Once certain clarity or knowledge is gained, consolation becomes attainable, the only surviving remnant of an otherwise lost existence.

In the conclusion, Schrock brings the dichotomous structure he has laid out to a kind of open-ended closure; a reappropriation of a lost past reiterated as the possibility of a hopeful present and future.

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