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.

Imitation and Improvisation

I’ve been listening lately to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s recording of “How High the Moon” from Jazz at Oberlin. Paradise, as Dante imagines it, is full of music—mostly, I think, because music is our best metaphor for the harmony across difference that David Bentley Hart, in The Beauty of the Infinite, calls the aesthetic of Christian truth. Hart considers Johann Sebastian Bach the greatest Christian theologian because of his genius for harmony.

Romare Bearden, "Stomp Time"
Romare Bearden, “Stomp Time”

Bach is one idea of the sound of heaven. But Brubeck gives me a better idea what it will be like to be part of it. On “How High the Moon,” Dave and his rhythm section start a familiar tune. Then Paul Desmond comes in on the sax, and it becomes something new and wonderful, yet still woven around the same song. And then it’s Dave’s turn, and he’s clearly moved by what he has heard from Paul—moved to compete, perhaps, but also to create. I’m not a musician, but I know both were classically trained, and it seems like you hear all of their classical training and all of their jazz chops coming together in two wildly transcendent, romping solos. And then they come together, and Paul is cool. They take each other in. They wind it together, knit it up, play it out, and we are all lucky it’s on a record (and on Youtube).

In heaven, I hope I’ll be like Dave and Paul, able to pick up one of the old songs and improvise like they do. Marilynne Robinson suggests, through her narrator in Gilead, that the events of this life will be the stuff of the epics sung in heaven. Yes, and we’ll all improvise the telling together in ways that forever bring out more and more meaning and wonder from the stories we lived and are living.

Robert O’Meally, director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, spoke at Hope College’s Arts & Humanities Symposium this semester about the aesthetics of collage in the art of Romare Bearden and its analogues in the music of Duke Ellington and the work of Toni Morrison. “We Are All Collages” was the title, and the aesthetic involves recognizing how we all have many layers and are many selves over time. Creating in this aesthetic leads to improvisational collaboration, receiving the work of others into myself and making something with it that becomes both theirs and mine—ours.

Romare Bearden, "The Train"
Romare Bearden, “The Train”

Looking at all of this from the standpoint of mimetic theory, it seems like improvisation is an extension of what René Girard (who died yesterday at 91) sees as the enormous and deep-seated capacity for imitation that is fundamental to being human. Good improvisation requires suspending or renouncing the unconscious imitation of acquisitive desires—the most basic sort of mimetic desire, shared with other animals and necessary for survival but also prone to rivalry and violence. Humans direct acquisitive mimesis toward intangibles like honor, fame, and the very being of the rival. You can’t improvise well if you are trying to one-up your partner.

One the other hand, good improvisation could be a remedy for acquisitive mimesis and rivalry. It holds out a different goal for imitation, choosing to receive from your partners and adding something of your own to offer back to a larger creative process. My colleague Matt Farmer, who teaches dance improvisation, calls this “Yes and….” Scott Cowdell, in my favorite talk from this summer’s meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, drew from Sam Wells’s excellent book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics the idea of over-accepting as a technique for positive mimesis. Prior even to the tactics of good improvisation is a vision of shared, community-making activity—I was about to say work, but work in this vision becomes play.

Tolkien’s primary representation of positive, creative mimesis is his elves. They use their magic for what he calls enchantment rather than domination. What they imitate is not just each other but the whole created world, to which their lives are immortally tied. Their contemplative artistry says to the creating work of Iluvatar, “Yes and….” The movies of Tolkien’s works add to this the virtuoso improvisation of Legolas (and others) in battle. It’s too bad this is about killing—until one considers, as Rebecca Fox suggested to me, the movie-making artistry and collaboration behind these scenes.

Still, I like to place beside Tolkien’s vision of elvish artistry the improvisational enchantment of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, of Duke Ellington and his band, of Romare Bearden and the collaborators represented in his collages. It was wonderful to hear O’Meally humbly and masterfully sharing the riches of art he loves and the vision of community he finds in it, letting it inspire him as he spoke. He touched on a notion of improvisational listening (credited to his friend the composer George Lewis). This, I think I know, is what happens in good discussion and teaching about literature. What would it look like as a practice of literary criticism?

Parks and Recreation and Comedy and Fairy-story

Students in my senior-level introduction to literary theory were shocked as usual this semester at Plato’s argument for censorship in his ideal republic. As a parent, however, I’ve become a bit more receptive to his suggestion that creative writers be sent off with a garland and a wave. They often appeal to our baser desires, especially if they want to sell.

Of course there’s no shortage of good stories in books and other media. I like comedies, though, and it’s tricky finding comedies that are driven by more than desire for things like sex and status and derive humor from much more than ridicule—especially on TV. If you know Girard’s mimetic theory, you may see already where this is going: comedies, like other forms of culture, tend to reinforce the models of desire we are always picking up from our neighbors, and they tend to deal with the resulting conflict through some form of scapegoating. And if you’ve read my previous posts, you might guess what I like better: comedies that are more like what Tolkien calls fairy-stories.

Aristotle says tragedies are about characters of high status while comedies are about characters of low status. This pertained to matters of class in his time (and for a long time after), but also to matters of moral character, which includes, as Girard points out, desire. Tragedies focus on characters with noble desires. Comedies tend to focus on characters with more common, immediate desires. The ancient comic plot is two lovers trying to get together against the wishes of their parents. Much of the humor comes in tricking the elders. Success gratifies desire while uniting the audience in laughter at the expense of silly old people.

These ancient patterns seem remarkable persistent, but the more successful and satisfying comedies have perhaps always played with them. Last spring my family watched all seven seasons of Parks and Recreation, and part of what made it a favorite also makes it an interesting example of comic desire and comic scapegoating.

One of its funniest running jokes is the routine scapegoating of Jerry (a.k.a. Gary, also later a.k.a. Larry and Terry) Gergich, wonderfully played by Jim O’Heir. Early in the series he is funny just because he does a lot of silly, clumsy things. After a while, though, this becomes part of a more consistent pattern of blaming every small thing that goes wrong in the office on Jerry. So consistent, in fact, that it exposes by sarcasm the way that scapegoating often functions to maintain a sort of social equilibrium. Little patterns of blame and microaggression do on a small scale what more violent acts of scapegoating, like lynching, do on a large scale: maintain a sort of peace through managed violence.

Routine scapegoating works best when the victim either is already marginal or occupies a position of privilege (like the father in a family). The latter is certainly funnier. Jerry is a middle-aged white guy of no great ambition, but content, kind, and even forgiving. He’s made even more invulnerable by being given implausibly beautiful wife and daughters. And, in a twist that turns his story from mere comedy to something else, near the end of the show he gets picked to be mayor temporarily and ends up being adored in that office for the rest of his life.

Jerry’s ending comes out of the blue because he is the one character in the show who seems to have no unmet desires. The others are full of desire—so full in the main cases that it leads the story beyond comedy to something more like fairy story.

Leslie Knope, the central character, is the paradigm. She’s a dreamer who wants to do good for the anonymous public, symbolized through most of the series by the long-delayed project building a park at a construction site abandoned after a hole was dug for the foundation. She wants to fill the gaping hole in American public life with beauty and conviviality. Her boss, Ron Swanson, beneath his curmudgeonly obstructionist exterior, is a fierce idealist for self-reliance, good work, and harmony with nature. April Ludgate’s cynicism cloaks her longing for purpose and real human connection. Ann Perkins, source of Leslie’s desire to fill the hole with a park, far from becoming a critic or rival, dreams along with her. Ann gets involved with the Parks and Rec office purely out of friendship.

These big desires lead to plenty of situation comedy, but ultimately keep pointing to bigger things that the show eventually gets to in a series of fairy-tale endings I won’t spoil. Even Andy Dwyer, aimless sponge for the culture’s most romanticized ambitions (love, rock music, and sports), remains too innocent not to find a higher calling. In Dantean fashion, infinite desire leads beyond partial goods to true, unforeseeable ones, shared pursuit of which requires and generates real friendship, itself an infinite good.

Jerry as mayor

The kicker, as a sign of conversion from standard comedy to fairy-story, is when an over-the-top celebration of usual romance (trying not to spoil it) changes to an even-more-over-the-top celebration of Jerry/Gary/Larry/Terry, the genial scapegoat, that grants him a fabulous wish he didn’t even know he had. Such an ending is sort of like a Tolkienian eucatastrophe, but rather than unforeseen reversal from doom to joy, it is merely, at no one’s expense, a totally, hilariously unnecessary free gift.

Catastrophe and Eucatastrophe, Catharsis and Communion

What is the eucatastrophe at the end of The Lord of the Rings? I used to think it was the coming of the eagles, but this seems a bit shallow (though it’s hard to argue with the LOTR Project’s Gandalf Problem-Solving Flowchart). The “sudden joyous ‘turn’” (as Tolkien defines the term he coined in his essay “On Fairy Stories” for the opposite of the familiar dyscatastrophe) is no less than the deliverance of Middle Earth from the power of Sauron and the kind of power he represents. What this turn requires is more than just the eagles, and what it accomplishes, both within Middle Earth and for readers, is more than just joy (“The eagles are coming! The eagles are coming!”). Eucatastrophe, more than utopia, is a key to what much literature, not just fairy-stories, can call us to.

At the Foot of Mount Doom by Ted Nasmith
At the Foot of Mount Doom by Ted Nasmith

One thing the eucatastrophe of The Lord of the Rings requires is, in fact, dyscatastrophe: the failure of Frodo and the tragedy of Gollum. Eucatastrophe, Tolkien says, “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat, and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (Eucatastrophe shares the prefix eu- with evangelium, “good news,” and with one possible sense of u- in utopia, “good place” or “no place.”) Tolkien’s story suggests, in fact, that eucatastophe is not just a contrast to dyscatastrophe, but a completion and healing of its effects.

The catastrophic downfall of a hero is a distant repetition of the scapegoat mechanism that is, in Girard’s mimetic theory, the primordial human way of dealing with violence that always threatens within a group. The spontaneous choice of an essentially random victim unifies the group in a single, conclusive act of all-against-one violence and temporarily establishes peace. Repeating this mechanism and its effects in more controlled fashion is the origin and basic function of cultural institutions, beginning with religious ritual and continuing down to things like tragic drama. The catharsis that Aristotle sees as the purpose of tragedy is, according to Girard, a similar experience of unanimity through violence.

Girard sees the effect of tragic catastrophe as relational rather than individual. The catharsis of pity and fear identified by Aristotle serves the establishment of group solidarity just as does the killing of a bull on the altar of Dionysius at the same festival where Athenian tragedies were performed. Can the effect of eucatastrophe also be seen relationally? Tolkien focuses on individual joy, and eucatastrophe has an important function in calling individuals away from unanimity maintained through scapegoating violence. Yet fairy-stories also escape, he says, toward communion with all living things—like the communion with trees mediated by reading about Tolkien’s ents, or with the talking eagles. “Communion” seems just the right word, too, for the kind of relationship between people that fairy-stories press furthest into, but that is also a possible fruit of many kinds of literary reading.

The great tragedies, for instance, according to Girard, offer a double reading: one for the crowd unified in emotion and desire by a violent spectacle, and one for those who have ears to hear something else. Hamlet gratifies the desire for vengeance but also exposes the ideology perpetuated by revenge tragedies. King Lear, I would say, goes farther to nurture hope, at least, for a faithfulness that transcends death. A Winter’s Tale goes beyond tragedy to something more like a fairy-story with a eucatastrophe involving conversion from envy and the beginning of reconciliation.

For me, The Lord of the Rings goes still further toward imagining and generating the fullness of human communion opened by eucatastrophe: the moments shared by Frodo and Sam when they still expect to die despite the deliverance of Middle Earth; the coronation of Aragorn after decades of patient self-sacrifice; the honor paid to the hobbit heroes; even the parting at the Gray Havens; and maybe most of all Sam’s return home (expanded in a posthumously published extra chapter). Indeed, the whole eucatastrophe of Middle Earth is brought home, as it were, by its repetition on a smaller scale and through more ordinary agents—which is to say, more comically—in the final chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.” Through it all we glimpse something like the new community—the alternative to the violent solidarity exposed by the tragedy of the Crucifixion—that is inaugurated by the one eucatastrophe, the Resurrection, and tasted in the new ritual of Holy Communion.

Tolkien, Fairy-stories, and Utopia part 2

Last time I began to use Paul Ricoeur’s discussion of the relationship between ideology and utopia to think about what Tolkien says about fantasy in “On Fairy-stories” and how it heightens an important part of what all literature does.

Like ideology, utopia has both a necessary and good aspect and a negative, pathological one. Ricoeur identifies the pathology of utopia as escapism. This happens, he says, whenever writing becomes a substitute for acting. Of course escapism is also the complaint most often laid at the door of fantasy literature. Tolkien confronts this criticism head-on by holding that “Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories.” “Why,” he asks, “should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” (Neil Gaiman draws on this passage in a recent talk on the future of reading.) Distorting, violent ideology is the prison we most need to escape. Fantasy is the purest form of how fiction, and writing in general, help us out.

The making of a Secondary World in fantasy is the furthest extension of what I would say (modifying Ricoeur a bit) is the basic characteristic of literary writing. All writing has to cross the distance that separates reader from writer, which may be considerable. The kind of writing we call creative communicates not just sentences but a world that a reader may enter. A good test-case here is non-fiction: we call it creative when it uses the tools of genre and style to project a world, even though this world is understood to be part of what Tolkien calls the Primary World. Fiction, poetry, and drama all use various techniques to invite readers to enter a new world—new because it is someone else’s, and often also because it is different from the Primary World (at least as we know it now).

Entering the world of the work can do things to a person. Ricoeur, being a philosopher, emphasizes the new self-understanding that is possible in front of the work. If the work is utopian—and even “realistic” works usually have their utopian moments—this understanding can include critique of ideology. But Tolkien goes further. “Fairy-stories,” he writes, “were plainly not concerned with possibility, but with desirability.” Here again, fantasy is an extreme, but awakening desire is a big part of what all literature does. When Tolkien writes about the goal of Recovery, “regaining of a clear view,” he ties it to freedom from “possessiveness.” All good literary reading, I would say, inspires contemplative, receptive desire, rather than acquisitive, competitive desire. Such a conversion of desire is fundamental to every other good we look for in literature.

Tolkien's painting of Rivendell
Tolkien’s painting of Rivendell

Among Tolkien’s imagined places, Rivendell, I think, has a special function as a particular kind of utopia, one that represents literature itself. As the haven established by Elrond, greatest of lore-masters, its constant activities seem to be song, poetry, storytelling, and the giving and receiving of counsel. It is a place of peaceful contemplation, both as retreat and as source of healing vision. It is “the Last Homely House East of the Sea,” which sounds rather nostalgic, and it is an elven stronghold, which sounds closed. But Rivendell is not just cozy and backward-looking. Valinor, the First Homely House, west of the sea, is the place of the elves’ longing. Rivendell connects Middle Earth to an unimaginable destiny of ultimate harmony, the music of Iluvatar.

Rivendell serves in Tolkien’s story as a seed-bed of reconciliation. Here is formed the fellowship of the Ring, the great symbol of union between the peoples of Middle Earth at the end of the Third Age. Elrond is half-elven, son of the union of elves and men, the greatest sign of hope in Tolkien’s legendarium. Meanwhile, as the films capture well, it is a place of art, conversation, and play that cultivate peace: the elves letting the dwarves be dwarves and everyone cherishing the hobbits.

Rivendell points to Consolation, the third—with Recovery and Escape—of Tolkien’s uses of fairy-stories: the joy of the happy ending, for which he coined the term eucatastrophe (adding the Greek prefix eu- meaning good—one of the possible senses of u- in utopia—to invert catastrophe, which he then calls dyscatastrophe—as in dystopia). Ending in eucatastrophe, indeed, sets fairy-stories apart and makes them participate specially in the Resurrection. But this too pertains to the function of utopia because it enables us to understand, as James Alison puts it, “original sin through Easter eyes.”

Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories,” especially in the light of his fiction, suggests how literary sub-creation can be a powerful means of re-creation. In Genesis 2, God makes Adam from the dust. Jesus writing in the dust in John 8, then, could link sub-creation through writing to what originally happened when the breath of the divine Word met the dust of earth.

Bibliographic note: Ricoeur deals most concisely with the ideas discussed here in two essays, “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation” and “Ideology and Utopia,” both contained in From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics, II. He treats utopia primarily as an element of what he calls the “social imagination,” though he also suggests near the end of his Lectures on Ideology and Utopia that it has a particular relevance to literature, which, to my knowledge, he never developed.

Tolkien, Fairy-stories, and Utopia, part 1

The Big Question on the back page of the September issue of The Atlantic asks, “What fictional city (or other locale) would you most like to inhabit?” The first answer is from Howard Shore, composer of the film scores for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: Rivendell. I think that would be my pick too, though I’d want to make long visits to Lothlorien, and the Shire, and Rohan, and Dale….

Tolkien’s imagined places and communities are one of the most appealing aspects of his fiction, all the more so when gifted artists help us further imagine them. They are one of the clearest examples of what he means, in his essay “On Fairy-stories,” by the making of a Secondary World, the most comprehensive product of the heightened “sub-creation” for which he uses the term Fantasy.

Rivendell2Secondary Worlds, especially when they are idealized, set works of fantasy at the greatest distance from reality and from more “realistic” literature. At the same time, though, this world-making only intensifies what all literature does. A detour through the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of utopia, its relation to ideology, and his notion of distanciation will shed light on the importance of Tolkienian fantasy and how his essay makes a fundamental contribution to literary theory.

For Ricoeur, utopia—a word coined by Thomas More from Greek roots meaning both “no place” and “good place”—opens a perspective from which ideology can be seen for what it is and critiqued. Ideology is, most basically, all of the meanings and stories by which members of a community, society, or culture make sense of things together. In a more particular sense, ideology justifies a social order, especially its relations of power. This has a negative side (the original, Marxist sense) when ideology distorts reality in order to legitimate violence. Utopia, by thinking otherwise about how a society might work—especially with regard to power—makes it possible to think about ideology and choose differently.

A pure utopia, like More’s original one, simply invents a place that operates according to a new ideology, with a different kind of political order, economy, family structure, and so on. Secondary Worlds in fantasy literature do a lot of this, though it is less noted, even by Tolkien himself, than the ways they change the laws of nature, adding magic and talking animals and other marvels. What’s most marvelous about hobbits, though, is not their furry feet and ability to walk silently (despite eating six meals a day) but the way they live together. The Shire is not a complete utopia, but it is shaped by an ideology and other conditions that nurture healthy community and inhibit negative kinds of desire and the resulting rivalry. (See Anna’s piece on positive desire in the Shire.)

By making the Shire his home base and hobbits the main characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien begins to construct something like a utopian perspective from which readers can begin to see their own reality differently. The hobbits’ adventures then put them among peoples and places that either intensify familiar ideologies in order to hold them up for recognition and satire, or imagine unfamiliar wonders (though still based on things we can recognize) that open up ways of relating to the world and each other. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry distill the harmony with the natural world and mutual delight in its abundance that is also basic to hobbit culture. At the other end of the spectrum, Sauron and Mordor distill the essence of envy and desire for domination and the ideology of slavery and resentful servitude they lead to. In between are the cultures of men: Rohan with its heroism and desire for glory, come under the shadow of Saruman’s fixation on power and fear of futility; Gondor with noble dedication to the defense of civilization but temptation to idolize its own strength and hate rivals. In all of these, Tolkien represents strands in the real ideological heritage of Europe: the ancient dream of empire, the heroic culture he admired in texts like Beowulf, the utilitarian ideology of industrialism, the ideals of Rome, modern totalitarianism.

Of course this is just the beginning of a lot of analysis that could be done, and has been. What matters more than identifying particular real-world connections, though, is the effect they have within Tolkien’s larger aims. Tolkien is not writing allegory, as he made very clear. He preferred what he called applicability. Elements of his world are applicable in that they make newly visible the ideological air we breathe. This is part of what all literature does, and something fantasy can heighten. At the beginning of the modern literary tradition in English, in fact, William Langland’s Piers Plowman combines allegorical representations of contemporary ideology and visionary, proto-utopian scenes, all with what seems to have been revelatory effect.

Shedding light on the Primary World through a combination of ideology and utopia is just a first step, however, toward the further purposes of fantasy that Tolkien treats under the headings Escape, Recovery, and Consolation—my next topic.

About Writing in the Dust

Earlier this summer I finished what I hope is the final major round of revisions to a (very) long-running book project currently titled Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology: Piers Plowman and the Medieval Poetics of Enigma. It’s a little on the obscure side—in more ways than one, in fact, since it is about the literary and theological uses of obscurity.

During the second half of the summer, I’ve been working with two brilliant research students, Anna Goodling and Rebecca Fox, on projects inspired by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and René Girard, whom we take to be two of the greatest literary thinkers, and arguably the two most important Christian literary thinkers, of the past century. It’s been a rich time, generating more lines of thinking than we will be able to explore in fully researched detail.

Rebecca and Anna, experienced and eloquent bloggers, have been using this form (here and here) alongside developing their work in more traditional ways. I’d like to follow their lead and open a space to play with some ideas related to these projects. I hope blogging will be conducive to the kind of play that Dante finds to be the business, both serious and joyful, of heaven. Literature has, for me, been a major means of entry into what I imagine such play to be. I also hope blogging will lead to partnership in ways that regular academic publication doesn’t.

In order to begin to think about the purposes of literary play, I want to begin with a scene that is far from playful, but perhaps for that reason shows the greatest power of literature—though I may be stretching things a bit far. There is only one reference in the Gospels to Jesus writing, and we do not know what he wrote, only what effect his writing had. Yet this story indicates something about what writing can do—especially the kind that most presses the potential of literacy, what we have come to call literature.

A crowd about to stone a woman caught in adultery asks Jesus what he has to say. As they continue questioning him, he writes with his finger in the dust. Only then does he say the famous words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, NRSV). Then he writes on the ground again. Meanwhile “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders” (verse 9). Jesus is left alone with the woman, whom he releases from condemnation and directs to go and not sin again.

Writing in the Dust (2015) by Roger Wagner. Auckland Castle
Writing in the Dust (2015) by Roger Wagner. Auckland Castle

The result is forgiveness instead of persecution, individual reflection rather than unanimous violence, and a healing dialogue instead of an argument that the mob with stones would win—a conversion of relationship, selfhood, and community. I would like to ask how this scene might offer direction for thinking about what literature does.

I am thinking of René Girard’s interpretation of the scene (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 54-61; When These Things Begin, 121-6). Jesus writes in order not to look at the crowd because, if he did, they would see in his eyes only a reflection of their own violence, which would be enough to provoke the first stone. It does not matter what Jesus writes; he writes simply because he has bent down. Writing in the dust, as Rowan Williams puts it in his short book of that title, “allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently” (78). Writing is a stall tactic, and Girard pretty much says that it’s not worth bothering much about the particular significance of writing while stalling. But writing gives a certain character to Christ’s silence and evokes a certain kind of attention. The Gospels themselves ultimately enter the space of this silence and give shape to the attention it solicits. For a sense of how this shape might apply to literature more broadly, I would turn to the Gospels’ fondness for parables.

The word “parable” comes from parts meaning “thrown beside.” Used as a term for a figure of speech or a literary genre, the word seems to have been taken as a metaphor for comparison. Other early uses of the term, however—a piece of food thrown to animals or something thrown to a crowd—suggest to Girard another sense: Jesus throws parables to crowds in order to redirect their violent energy (The Scapegoat, 192-3). Elsewhere, he points out that the parables often portray a God of transcendent violence, but so that such a portrayal can be thought about, not simply believed, and can be seen to contradict Christ’s other teaching (When These Things Begin, 116). Some parables, I would say, also point beyond the usual projections of human violence onto God and ask us to imagine a God who is, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, always surprising us with love beyond expectation or comprehension.

Gospel parables are the cardinal example of what I call the poetics of enigma (another Greek rhetorical term, used by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12). Enigma was a word for riddles in Greek, and enigmatic texts pose interpretive challenges, but their challenge does not end with a single answer. Indeed, it never ends, but ever moves towards truth that is infinite and cannot be possessed or mastered. Jesus’ writing in the dust is the purest form of enigma because it summons the members of the crown to reinterpret themselves through knowing him. The poetics of enigma forms community around shared interpretive play rather than unanimous violence. (It’s a lot like, or maybe an aspect of, centered-set faith.)

Enigmatic texts such as the parables are condensed examples of literature’s capacity to move an audience away from one way of thought, feeling, and belonging and toward another. I find Girard’s mimetic theory to especially insightful about what literary reading can call us away from and J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories” to be similarly helpful in thinking about what it can call us to. These two will be the poles around which the next few posts will orbit.