What the Medieval Poetics of Enigma Can Still Do

This is a slightly revised and expanded version of a piece published on the blog of Hope’s Department of English that tries to express the larger claims of my book, Piers Plowman and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology.

What kind of truth do we seek in literature? Readers of literature are looking for many things. In a post-truth era, it is getting harder even to count truth among them. But the question of literary truth has always been difficult. The oldest answer in Western letters hangs on the term enigma.

In the golden age of Greece (fifth century BCE), before terms like symbol and allegory had come into literary studies, the word ainigma was used to talk about poetry’s density of meaning and depth of insight—what Homer was seen to have in common with oracles from Delphi. Ainigma is often translated “riddle,” but Greek had another term, griphos, for verbal puzzles, using puns and tricks with letters, that lose interest once they are solved. The riddle of the Sphinx, by contrast, merits being called an ainigma: “What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet at dusk?” This complex metaphor not only challenges ingenuity but opens contemplation of human life, all the more so in the light of the story of its famous solver, Oedipus.

While the point of a griphos riddle is the contest, an ainigma aims at shared contemplation of something mysterious—what we still hope will happen in literature classrooms or after attending a good play or movie. The difference is important enough that Latin borrowed its word aenigma from Greek and English borrowed it from Latin, so that riddle and enigma still mark a distinction within the core idea of verbal puzzles. Enigma remains an essential term for writing that projects a surplus of meaning and elicits the kind of interpretive attention that distinguishes what we value as literature.

The uses of enigma in classical, medieval, and modern literary culture suggest recognition of a mode or style, the enigmatic, that I find it helpful to define over against what I call the didactic and the esoteric. Didactic texts, which make up most of what is ever published, have an agenda to impart a settled message or reinforce an established view. Esoteric texts, on the other hand, aim to exclude all but an elite from privileged knowledge. Both tend to draw a line between insiders and outsiders, whereas the enigmatic mode invites new interpretations and new voices while still being centered on a reality that transcends articulation.

Enigma reached modern English by three intertwined paths that each inform what the enigmatic mode can be. As the most common Latin word for a riddle, it implies playfulness rather than the serious intentions of didactic instruction or of withholding esoteric secrets. In the teaching of literary arts (what the ancients called grammar and rhetoric), enigma was defined as a deliberately obscure allegory, something between openness and hiddenness, between transparency and opacity.

What might be the purpose of such playful difficulty? While medieval authors rarely ask this question outright, they often suggest a process of reading that leads to gradual growth both in understanding and in desire and affection for what is understood. This kind of understanding is not simply owned by insiders and lacked by outsiders, as with the didactic and esoteric. Rather, enigmatic reading is open to beginners yet always finds more and more to be understood. That such reading is possible and valid, without dissolving into endless deferral of anything that could be called truth, depends on a sense of reality as mystery, one still captured by enigma and supported by its third line of inheritance, along with riddles and rhetoric: theology.

Augustine of Hippo, in his influential treatise On the Trinity, quotes one verse of the Bible more often than any other: “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). More familiar as the source of the idiom “though a glass darkly” from the King James Bible, this sole instance of ainigma in the New Testament captures both the limits of human knowledge of the divine and the value of contemplating its obscure reflections, the way one would play at possible answers to a good riddle. Noting that nothing is more enigmatic to us than ourselves, Augustine probes the experience of consciousness in order to find vestiges of the persons of the Trinity. Ultimately he finds the participation of the human mind in the incarnate Word, as the second person of the Trinity is called at the beginning of John’s Gospel, to be the most mysterious enigma and the one that grounds the possibility of truthful contemplation.

Since the rest of Creation was also seen, especially in the Middle Ages, to participate in and manifest the divine, all of nature and history are full of enigmas. Monastic practices of reading and meditation took the Bible as the key to reading both the book of nature and the action of God in history. A Christian view of the world as enigmatic became literature in the marvelous Latin riddles of St. Aldhelm (recently published in a brilliant translation by A. M. Juster) and the Old English riddles of the Exeter Book.

Further, the uses of enigma for playful entry into mysteries both divine and human offered a rationale for other efforts to stretch the resources of poetic language. No text has pursued the potential of the enigmatic to represent depths both divine and human—both vertical and horizontal, so to speak—more successfully than Dante’s Divine Comedy. For the legacy of the enigmatic in English literature, however, equally important is William Langland’s Piers Plowman.

Deservedly overshadowed by his younger fourteenth-century contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langland has been increasingly recognized for audacious experiments in what Middle English poetry could do. If Chaucer is the father of English literature, Langland has a good claim to being its grandfather. He spent decades writing and revising different versions of what became an obscurely allegorical poem of around 7,000 lines made up of several dreams and dreams within dreams. It is enigmatic on every level, from lines that use schoolroom riddle tricks to its overall ambitions as a theological vision. At his best, Langland pioneered English poetry that could evoke mystery, not merely as a puzzle to be solved nor as mystification, but as what, increasingly in the modern period, readers would come to seek in literature.

In Langland’s time, what pushed writing toward either the didactic or the esoteric instead of the enigmatic was primarily the massive influence of the medieval church. His visions often remix the doctrine that filled volumes of catechetical verse. He also satirizes the growing seductions of academic elitism. In the end, he seems to have lost confidence that the institutional church could foster the kind of inner conversion and peaceful, inclusive community that Christianity calls for. Piers Plowman finally envisions an extra-institutional remnant gathered around the scriptures and the sacraments, engaged together in an endless, figurative pilgrimage, one that could also be served by enigmatic poetry.

Though Langland has been claimed since the sixteenth century as a proto-Protestant, the national churches born of the Reformation remained just as prone to the abuses of authority he critiques, and the religious climate became even less friendly to a poetics of enigma. Entrenched doctrinal controversy is no better for the enigmatic than institutional hegemony. As common culture became increasingly secular, this became the place for play with enigmatic modes, now directed more to the horizontal, human dimension. Such a shift could be seen already between the theological visions of Piers Plowman and the human comedy of The Canterbury Tales (or between Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccaccio’s Decameron).

The story of the enigmatic in modern literature is more complex and yet to be told. It becomes in part an alternative to neoclassicism, since classical rhetoric preferred the elegant and clear over the obscure and difficult. Thus the enigmatic is an element of the metaphysical style of John Donne over against the classicism of Ben Jonson. Similarly, it is part of the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge in response to the neo-classical standards of the eighteenth century. Yet it goes deeper. The mysteries of individuals and their places in history, seen as infinitely meaningful (whether or not because of their divine author), are what interest enigmatic human authors. When religious discourse does not favor the kind of play needed to cultivate such a view of reality, literature becomes more necessary as a supplement or alternative, a view seen in Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, or the New Critics.

Since the New Critics, however, literary studies have been dominated by the hermeneutics of suspicion, a phrase coined by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur to capture a posture especially identified with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. While granting the need to read for subtexts and unconscious agendas, Ricouer’s point is that this can only take us so far (an argument recently reasserted by Rita Felski and others). Suspicious reading needs to be balanced by and integrated with a more affirming, imaginative, and empathetic stance, a dynamic captured in Ricoeur’s aphorism, “To explain more is to understand better.” Admirers of literature and other arts who seek to keep suspicion from stealing the show, or at least the ways we talk about it, can find valuable resources in the poetics of enigma.

Suspicious critique tends to see all texts as either didactic or esoteric. To find an agenda behind everything is to see it as an instrument of ideology, desire, or the will to power. This often leads to the further step of showing that any assertion is an arbitrary construct that, under sufficient scrutiny, dissolves into self-contradiction. At its worst, critique sets itself up as a privileged, esoteric discourse that reduces reading to a political contest waged through discourse that either tries to make its intentions transparent or cloaks them in artifice. Yet there remains widespread loyalty to the possibility of language with a different relation to power and desire, one more freeing and humanizing.

And indeed, “enigmatic” remains a thriving member of what seems a dwindling species: an almost unreserved term of approbation for ambitious literary or other artistic works. (As a quick index of changing cultural interests, try a Google Ngram of “enigmatic” and “perspicuous.”) In the wake of literary theory’s empire there is perhaps hope for a new primacy of the literary text taken as enigmatic. What would this mean? And what could be learned from the medieval poetics of enigma? Three purposes that define the enigmatic as riddle, rhetoric, and theology remain as relevant as ever: play, persuasion, and participation.

Playfulness on the part of readers keeps the literary text primary. The text is not a puzzle to be solved by the critic but invites open-ended play, play for the sake of playing. At the same time, though, there are good answers to the riddles of the text. Enigmatic play is not absolutely free from all constraint but free to enter further into meaning that reflects an ultimate, limitless truth best approached through literary language.

Persuasion, in the enigmatic mode, aims not so much at affirmation of a certain truth as participation in a community of interpretive play. The truth it affirms is not certain but given, and given in some texts more than others. These are texts that have become classics by gathering around them communities engaged in shared, inclusive, generous, and even passionate contemplation of words seen as creative works.

Enigmatic persuasion resists both hegemonic truth claims and, on the other hand, hyperpluralistic assertions of power that assume the impossibility of truth. Like the dialogues of Plato and the parables of Jesus, the enigmatic shapes a community around desire for truth that is infinite and always coming to further light outside the domain of institutional, ideological authority. This kind of rhetoric makes it possible to transcend the rivalries for power and authority that drive what usually passes for persuasive discourse.

The idea of participation, with roots in Platonic philosophy and Christian theology, has both vertical and horizontal dimensions, as seen in Dante and Langland. Enigmatic meaning participates and finds its source in transcendent reality, but reserves the full comprehension of that reality beyond the end of earthly life’s pilgrimage. This pilgrimage proceeds in large part by horizontal participation in communities of interpretation. Embrace of the enigmatic helps keep these communities open to new voices, especially those who have been marginalized or otherwise persecuted and are thus better able to bear witness to the distortions and blindnesses perpetuated by the orthodoxies that have contributed to their suffering.

A specifically Christian, incarnational poetics of enigma grounds transcendent truth in natural, finite, fallible human experience. What these limitations withhold behind the curtain of mystery they also give by opening the entire theater of creation and history as moments of potential revelation. Such truth, again, is not an escape to transcendence backed by a sacred institution. Rather, enigmatic texts cultivate an attitude and a community capable of listening as each person and each node in the web of life continues to unfold, like a riddle, what it has to say about itself and its place in things.

For authors such as Dante and Langland, the enigmatic went along with suspicion of precisely those authorities that claimed to be sacred. It looked for truth rather in the victimized and outcast. It brought into conversation those otherwise silenced and shunned. In this respect, the poetics of enigma anticipates critical movements focused on the political margins, from feminism to disability studies to ecocriticism.

Just as a riddle both conceals and reveals, the enigmatic invites a posture that combines both suspicion and advocacy. It welcomes new and strange voices into a play of reading whose truth is additive and symphonic, known by the complex harmonies and expanding communion that emerge. Enigma still names a kind of truth gained through generously contemplating, perhaps with the aid of literature, the mystery of one’s strange neighbor and home place.