18.11.08, Gruenler, Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma

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Sarah Wood

The Medieval Review 18.11.08

Gruenler, Curtis A. Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric and Theology. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2017. pp. xii, 586. ISBN: 978-0-268101626 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sarah Wood
University of Warwick

In this learned and comprehensive volume, Curtis Gruenler studies how writers from Augustine to William Langland explore "the value of difficult reading in education and spiritual formation" (4). It takes as its central theme the way that enigmatic language encourages a "participatory view of reality" (13), that is, a perspective according to which the visible world shares in invisible divinity. "As a theological idea," Gruenler writes, "the enigmatic might best be defined as a style or practice of language that intensifies spiritual meaning by generating a metaphorical surplus while drawing attention to its inadequacy in the face of what it points to" (71). After an introduction and preliminary chapter, the book is divided into three parts of two chapters each, focusing in turn on "riddles," "rhetoric," and "theology," as three categories involving respectively "play," "persuasion," and "participation."

Chapter 1 surveys the major theologians who comment on the value of enigmatic language, including Augustine, William of Saint-Thierry, Hugh of Saint-Victor, and Bonaventure. Inspired by Paul's famous verse in 1 Corinthians 13, "We see now through a mirror in an enigma," these authors, Gruenler writes, "understood the enigmatic as a kind of language most suited to the goal of entering further into participation in the divine" (32). Gruenler also traces briefly here the disappearance of the enigmatic from the Latin theology of the later Middle Ages. He shows how increased academic specialisation tended to undermine a "participatory" view of reality in favour of dividing the world into distinct realms of the natural, the province of science and reason, and the supernatural, accessible only to faith. This demise of the enigmatic in Latin theological writing opens up, Gruenler asserts, a productive space for enigma in the vernacular compositions that form the major focus of the remainder of his study.

Turning to one key locus of the enigmatic mode, the riddling tradition, chapter 2 explores Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Latin, and Middle English riddles alongside the Plant of Peace passage in Piers Plowmanpassus 1 and Conscience's prophecy in passus 3. Chapter 3 examines the literary tradition of riddle contests, found in grammar school texts, The South English Legendary, The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolf, and Conscience's banquet in Piers Plowman passus 13. These two chapters together make up "the first general account of riddling in later medieval England" (85). The seventh-century bishop Aldhelm is a key figure in this fascinating history, since he "writes riddles not so much to create verbal puzzles as to represent the mysteries inherent in the created world" (98). Equally important, however, is the social dimension of riddling. While riddles can intensify competition by dividing those with inside knowledge from outsiders, the more enigmatic forms of riddling "[point] to knowledge that cannot be simply possessed but asks to be played with in the company of other players" (91). The riddle contest in Piers Plowmanaccordingly emphasises friendship, love, and "kindness toward opponents" (164). By moving from the dialogue mode that characterised the earlier encounters between Holy Church and the Dreamer and Conscience and Meed to a drama of five characters, Langland "opens up," Gruenler argues, "richer possibilities of resolution" (156). Here the author displays a keen sensitivity to the dramatic and characterological levels of the poem sometimes lost in exposition.

The next two chapters focus on the role of the enigmatic in the process of education and inward conversion, under the somewhat oblique and enigmatic rubric of "rhetoric." Chapter 4 looks at Will's education in the third vision of Piers Plowmanalongside Augustine's account of reading and conversion in the Confessions. Augustine's conversion through "learning to read enigmatically" (187) illuminates, Gruenler proposes, the enigmatic inner dream of vision three as a similar narrative in which grappling with perplexity produces inner transformation. Chapter 5 examines Piers Plowman's most famous enigma, the tearing of the pardon, and the revisions to this episode in the C version. Like other scholars, Gruenler considers these revisions a kind of commentary on what was there before, and he argues that the new passages on "lunatic lollares" and the dreamer's apologia introduce further enigmas. This chapter considers in particular how the poem uses the enigmatic as the source of its own authority and persuasion. While institutions seek to exert control either through didacticism or through possession of esoteric knowledge, Piers Plowman's use of enigma claims an anti- or extra-institutional authority embodied in Piers and in the dreamer, whose "alienation, sloth, and seeming idleness" may yet point beyond religious authority to "a more creative, daring, and individual sense of vocation" (260-261).

Moving to consider the enigmatic more directly in its relation to a "participatory" theology, chapter 6 explores how Langland and Julian of Norwich use enigma to "sustain and intensify a vision of conscious participation in the life of the Trinity" (29). Chapter 7 examines the end of Piers alongside Dante, Chaucer, and the Romance of the Rose as examples of "infinite literary play" (332), in Chaucer's case a form of play confined, however, to the worldly realm. A provocative Epilogue considers Chaucer as the precursor to a modernity in which the enigmatic moves from contemplation of divine mystery to the social plane. For Chaucer, "[t]he enigmas posed by one's neighbours and fellow pilgrims are enough" (386). As the author concludes his remarkably wide-ranging discussion with this thought-provoking long view of literary and Christian history, one might object only that Langland, just as well as Chaucer, might have had the last word here. Gruenler's earlier discussion of the pardon-tearing episode implies that Langland's C-text revisions take a similar direction in removing the source of enigma from the pardon-tearing (with its echoes of biblical episodes) to the social realities of fourteenth-century England. In Langland's new verses, the reader is invited to contemplate with compassion the hidden sufferings of his or her neighbours as "real-life enigmas" (252).

Piers Plowman is the sole work named in the title of the book, but as the foregoing outline indicates, readers will find equally detailed and thoughtful discussion of other major authors from Augustine and Aquinas to Dante and Chaucer, as well as of some of the more obscure and ephemeral materials of the riddling tradition. Gruenler's work will therefore be of interest to those studying and teaching in the diverse fields of medieval philosophy and theology, vernacular religion, and the broader literary history of the late Middle Ages. Readers whose specialism is not Langland's Middle English are welcomed with glosses of difficult words in quoted passages. Scholars, like this reviewer, whose primary interest is Piers Plowman will find that that work moves in and out of focus, rather like the enigmatic disappearance and reappearances of its titular hero. The division of the book into three parts provides a neat means of organising what might otherwise have threatened to become an unwieldy volume of material, but conceptual clarity at this higher level necessarily sacrifices some of the reader's sense of how various episodes in Langland's iterative and accumulative narrative develop from each other (notwithstanding the author's unusual suggestion that readers unfamiliar with the poem may wish to tackle some of his chapters in reverse order (29)).

Having said that, in some ways the enigmatic character of Piers Plowman means that it is often best approached obliquely (or as Paul writes in Gruenler's signature bible-text, "in part"). Some of the book's best insights accordingly come in the form of passages of exposition that are themselves almost riddle-like both in their brevity and in their rich concentration of thought. Gruenler is especially sensitive to the modes of the poem, for example in his description of its riddle-like opening, or of the Plant of Peace passage, which "plays with catechetical knowledge in a way that evokes wonder" (119). With his deep immersion in medieval theology and riddle traditions, Greunler is uniquely positioned to provoke the reader to puzzle over how Christ's thirst for mankind in C20/B18 is at once a riddle (how can love be a drink?), a paradox ("love is both the thirst and the drink"), and a mystery (how can an infinite God suffer need and lack?) (360). In a similarly inspired moment of Langlandian intellectual play, he proposes that the poem's final mantra, "Redde quod debes" (pay what you owe, a quotation from the parable of the wicked servant) might contain a bilingual pun on redde and rede, "the word for 'read' and the source of redels, Middle English for riddle" (363). That would make the phrase quod debes a riddle to be worked out, for what one owes one's neighbours is not simply restitution, but charity and mercy, a form of participation in the divine act of forgiveness (363).

His close attention to the verbal texture of the poem permits Gruenler to argue that Langland rejects the logical style of "cutting-edge, academic theology" (276), tying his poem ever more closely to the text of the Bible rather than to "academic and ecclesiastical authority" (285). In discussing Langland's theology, the author argues powerfully against attempting to translate the poem into the kind of theological language that was increasingly dominant in the universities, since Langland's enigmatic style bypasses strict logic and binary propositions in the defence of orthodoxy. In some of the longer and more densely theological sequences of exposition, however, Gruenler does not always sustain, to my mind, the close distinctions between different literary modes that characterise his best moments. I was not wholly convinced, for example, that the Samaritan's rather didactic, homiletic images of the torch and the hand as figures for the Trinity could properly be called "enigmatic" in the same way as the pardon-tearing or the riddle-contest, or even the Tree of Charity as another, earlier image for the Trinity. At this and other moments, a certain strain is placed on the notion of the "enigmatic" itself, which seems at times stretched to describe any process of interpretation with the goal of more fully apprehending human participation in the divine. The final chapter contains an acknowledgement that to call all of Langland's play with multiple levels of signification enigmatic "is perhaps to stretch the term beyond meaningful limits" (352). The acknowledgement of the danger is welcome, but the hazard is perhaps not entirely avoided.

Works like Piers Plowman come with a formidable reputation for difficulty, and a book that ranges over such vast intellectual terrain in 386 pages plus notes is no more a work for the faint-hearted than the poem upon which it comments. Many readers, I suspect, will dip into particular episodes or histories of special interest rather than attempting the whole. Specialists in Piers Plowman may well find that the historical surveys of the Latin theological and riddling traditions are more extensive than is strictly required for comprehension of the poet's debt to those traditions, while other readers researching riddles or the theology of participation will find those discussions useful stand-alone sections while passing over some of the detail on Piers.

If one sometimes feels that Gruenler has combined into one volume two or three distinct books that he might have written, however, he has also provided his reader with a humane and timely manifesto for the value of slow and difficult reading as a space both of intellectual play and of renewed community. He charmingly imagines "small groups of people listening to Piers Plowmanbeing read aloud, puzzling over it together, and finding empowering seeds of thought and friendship in tumultuous times" (27). Later he conjures up with Augustine "a non-competitive community of interpretation in which, as long as all are moved by a sincere love of truth, there can be many different good readings of a text" (202-203). At times this emphasis on loving communities of interpretation encourages, in this reviewer's eyes, a too-sentimental picture of Piers Plowman's often irascible and competitive narrator, whose progress toward more cooperative relations with his interlocutors is unsteady. (Will does not seem always to be in so cozy a relationship with the reader, either, as Gruenler implies when he writes that the dreamer "places himself at the reader's level [...] he implicitly invites readers to join him in a community of interpretation" (265)). But if he is more of an optimist and idealist, perhaps, than the author of Piers Plowman, Gruenler has admirably embodied in his own writing the ideal of intellectual enquiry and community that he describes. He wears his deep learning modestly, sharing in clear, generous prose many "good readings" that are clearly the result of long years of sustained meditation on his chosen texts. And in our own tumultuous times, in which the ideal of interpretative community seems increasingly fractured into competing special interests, it is salutary to be reminded that while Piers Plowman is enigmatic, in the terms of this book, it is neither esoteric nor exclusive. Undeniably and purposefully difficult, Piers continues to invite all inspired to the arduous pursuit of truth to participate in the pleasure of thinking about its puzzles.

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