When writing about the poetics of enigma, a built-in challenge faces the author, namely, to clarify what by nature defies elucidation. Despite this inherent difficulty, Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma crafts a lucid, learned discussion of its origins and rhetorical power to foster a kind of reading and a way of seeing reality that contrasts with the didactic maintained by institutional authority. Its object is to reconstruct the elements of the poetic to inform the writings of William Langland, Chaucer, and Julian of Norwich. To achieve this feat, the chapters first address the historical/theoretical development of enigma, as it serves a rhetorical or theological purpose and then applies this knowledge to texts that employ this obscure linguistic form to apprehend divine reality. As Curtis Gruenler states, ‘The most fully developed enigmatic texts take into themselves this entire terrain of thought: they embed simple riddle forms within allegorical narratives that use a theological framework to initiate an endless game of interpretation’ (p. 21). For a poem that resists a linear reading like Piers Plowman, the poetics of enigma generates not just meaning but models and parameters for playing a game of interpretation and explicating allegory. The first chapter focuses on major texts in the Latin medieval tradition that articulate the value of enigmatic language for the sake of understanding the theology of participation—defined as creating a community of interpreters—and entering into a deeper experience of this knowledge. Gruenler observes that Augustine and Aquinas actively rely upon enigma to maintain a productive tension between seemingly opposed concepts that shape much of Christian theology, such as faith and works, justice and mercy, and divine sovereignty and human agency. The implications caused by this kind of language can be seen in the programme of contemplative reading found in William of St. Thierry’s Enigma of Faith and Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion and culminating in Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God. The chapter closes with a sketch of changes in the climate of late Scholasticism towards the fourteenth century that would shift the poetic of enigma from Latin to the vernacular. With this historical foundation in place, the second chapter addresses its literary origins, beginning with Bishop Aldhelm’s Enigmata, as it formed a model for the Old English riddles in the tenth-century Exeter Book. It then directs its attention to the first vision of Piers Plowman, particularly the Plant of Peace passage and Conscience’s prophecy. The riddles present in these two scenes present an intellectually playful view of catechetical knowledge that evokes wonder and extols the possibilities of different interpretive strategies. ‘If the Plant of Peace is an early pointer to the kind of interpretive play that Langland will increasingly put to use for the sake of initiating reconciliation, Conscience’s riddle serves, rather playfully and at his own expense, to block the formation of community based on a more exclusive sort of discourse and to clear the way for something harder to achieve that depends on patience with ambiguity’ (p. 124). Chapter 3 continues this line of thought by examining how riddles expose the limitations of a definitive authority and, in the process, illuminate a broader mode of inquiry. Focusing first on the Eclogue of Theodulus, it culminates in the most fully developed riddle contest in Piers Plowman, the banquet of Conscience. This scene exemplifies Langland’s recapitulation and extension of enigma’s traditional use to indicate how meaning, such as explicating the Dowel triad, requires a kind of knowing that surpasses academic learning. The next two chapters move from riddling traditions to an analysis of enigma as a trope within academic texts. Chapter 4 frames the story of enigma in the educational curriculum with moments from the third vision of Langland’s poem that tell an Augustinian story of conversion through learning to read the enigmas of scripture, self, and the world. The dreamer’s interaction with personified figures like Scripture and Lewtee fosters a shared desire for understanding that can be the basis of community. Its figurative language underlines the cognitive and affective value of the rhetoric of enigma and proves that it is not an exception to common discourse for the sake of ornament but integral to Christian understanding. Chapter 5 discusses the second vision to show that enigmatic authority is not anti-institutional as much as it maintains a tension between the institution and the individual. In his detailed analysis of the tearing of the pardon or the role of ‘lunatic lollers’, Gruenler emphasizes how the social and theological implications point to the function of similar models in other enigmatic medieval narratives, accounting for why the later medieval flourishing of enigmatic theological writing in the vernacular fills a gap left by changes of thought and expression in Latin discourse. The final two chapters return to the question of the theology of enigma, as it adapts to the intellectual climate of the late Middle Ages. It asserts that a revival and even extension of a participatory theological vision occurs in fourteenth-century England and that ‘Langland best exemplifies this English movement and explores the distinctive capacities of enigmatic language in the vernacular to express a traditional but threatened theology’ (p. 272). Working under this belief, Gruenler argues that the fifth vision of Piers Plowman and Julian of Norwich’s parable of the lord and the servant utilizes a self-consciously enigmatic mode to sustain a vision of conscious participation in the life of the Trinity. The last chapter then considers how the final three visions of Piers draw from a tradition of enigmatic endings that links this poetic to both pastoral and apocalyptic poetry, a conjunction also seen in The Romance of the Rose and Dante’s Commedia. While the sixth vision offers a series of contests, such as the Crucifixion as a joust, to open a new space for playing with the serious matter of Atonement usually reserved for the judgment of religious and political authorities, the seventh and eighth visions show how the counsel of Need and Conscience supersedes the tenets of social wisdom, urging the individual to maintain an awareness of how all things and all actions participate in a spiritual reality. For Gruenler, it is a puzzle that can only be resolved by being put in a larger perspective of both natural and spiritual order. From here, the study’s attention falls upon Chaucer’s House of Fame and asserts that a complex narrative extends from this dream vision by bending its movement towards a heavenly infinity back around to an earthly one. It concludes by noting that the reorientation of the enigmatic to earthly infinites points to the direction in which modern literature would develop. The strength of Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma is the scope of its learnedness, surveying the influences of medieval theologians and grammarians ranging from Augustine to Donatus upon dream vision poetry. Its extensive literary and philosophical erudition show how enigma operates not so much as a form but as a function and, in the process, provides a means to explicate the theological mysteries lying at the heart of Piers Plowman and similar narratives. That a scholarly book can encourage the reader to welcome the enigmatic rhetoric of a poem that thrives off challenging one’s interpretive abilities is a valuable contribution to Langland studies. Its thoroughness and detail allow both medievalist and generalist to appreciate the rhetorical import of obscurity to explicate ideas lying beyond reason, allowing all involved to participate in truths both transcendent and immanent. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 29, 2018
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