- Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology by Curtis A. Gruenler
In Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma, Curtis A. Gruenler makes three arguments. First, that in the Middle Ages, riddles, rhetoric, and theology converge in a poetics of enigma—of play, persuasion, and participation. Second, that William Langland develops this poetics from earlier sources, and that his poetics influences other late fourteenth-century English writers. Third, that medieval enigma shapes modern literature and theory. On riddles and theology, and play and participation, this book succeeds beautifully. Gruenler deftly manages a vast array of sources and offers elegant close readings of Langland and his contemporaries. The book's handling of rhetoric and persuasion is less convincing, mainly because this section does not dialogue with current developments in scholarship of the medieval imagination, and because it implies links between conversion and social action that it does not fully explain. These concerns aside, Poetics of Enigma represents a rich contribution to the study of medieval poetics.
Throughout this book, enigma appears as an alternative to dangerous binaries, such as violent competition that ends in death, taunting for losers and fanfare for winners, totalizing social hierarchy, settled possession of truth, or total obscurity or total clarity. It is not didactic (a mode in which, Gruenler argues, readers learn and leave texts), nor is it esoteric (a mode that accepts some and banishes others). Rather, enigma is contemplative play for its own sake, interpretation as endless game, participation in creation (creation as both noun and as verb), folly that undermines hierarchy, and unresolved tension between individual and community. Enigma involves wonder, marvel, reconciliation, and face-to-face relationship. Per Gruenler, it "inhabits the gap between perceptible things and the divine" (19), as it "presses ever further into the riches of what is always already being said" (1). If these phrases sound familiar, that is because they are: according to Gruenler, medieval enigma informs current literary writing and theory. Yet scholars—and literary writers—consistently fall short of acknowledging their debt to medieval enigma. As a corrective, Poetics of Enigma seeks to understand what medieval authors thought their poetry did and the reading experiences they created. [End Page 112]
Gruenler's first chapter derives a genealogy of enigma from medieval theology. It begins with Latin authors from Augustine to Pseudo-Dionysius. As theologians focused increasingly on rigid and esoteric questions, enigma found expression in the vernacular writing of mystics and poets. Langland and others rework theologians' contemplations to create texts in which "faith and works, predestination and free will, justice and mercy" coexist in irreducible parallels (75). This chapter foregrounds readerly participation as a facet of enigma. Through interpretation as play, readers participate in human communities and in the divine.
Chapters 2 and 3 initiate a structure of paired chapters that explore, consecutively, riddles, rhetoric, and theology. This first pair examines riddles as enigmas vital to defusing societal violence. Chapter 2 traces riddles from folklore through Classical writing, Aldhelm, the Exeter Book, and later medieval vernacular texts. No scholar has yet attempted such a history; this chapter not only accomplishes this impressive goal but also, using René Girard's mimetic theory, highlights riddles' ethical stakes. According to Gruenler, Piers Plowman's Plant of Peace passage relies on this tradition. Neither iconography nor prophecy (as others have taken it), the Plant of Peace riddles a community created by ambiguity. This chapter concludes with a reading of the John Ball letters of 1381. On this point, Gruenler's study is less convincing. The analysis of the letters considers more what the letters accomplish than how they overcome violence, though the latter is the chapter's stated goal. Gruenler points out that the letters resist authority, invite their audience to join a community, and establish an alternative identity outside social hierarchy. Yet this answer to what the letters do does not address their pervasive violent undertones. A more thorough study would have demonstrated that these letters wanted "not...