Monday, September 15, 2008

Norton Anthology: Piers Plowman, by William Langland

I am currently preparing for the GRE Subject Test on Literature in English. This means I'm reading a lot of things I should have read but have put off or avoided because I thought they'd be fairly boring. I am finding, as was perhaps inevitable, that I was mistaken in my prejudgment most of the time. And so I sit, in my apartment (I've stopped working full-time in order to carry out this sedulous enterprise), listening to the same 15 tracks of Italian pop music on repeat emanating from the external speakers of the corner market next door, my windows open, enjoying this late summer fair weather. I sit here, learning how stupid it is to be recalcitrantly ignorant when it comes to literature, how much one loses just by assuming something will be dull.

The first notable mistaken assumption I'll talk about regards William Langland's alliterative verse vision Piers Plowman, although I would like to excuse myself from the charge of thinking it boring in such a way that only embarrasses me further: I didn't really know enough about it to have formed any opinion about it. And though I have only read a few hundred lines (the Norton, my Holy Writ on this pilgrimage, only affords this much), I'm soon going to pilfer my girlfriend's copy to read the rest.

I have, since reading Blake my freshman year, been tremendously fascinated by heterodox borrowings or revisions of religious imagery, ideas and systems. Milton is therefore naturally a favorite, as is Kushner. Actually, come to think of it, my interest in this form of artistic heresy probably derives from my participation in high school in a performance of J.B., a dramatic retelling of the Job story, scripted by Archibald MacLeish, for which he won a Pulitzer, his third (the other two were for poetry). The play thunders and roars with ambiguity; its unwillingness to answer a single question about theodicy (or even the nature of reality) captivated me.

This is perhaps more than you need to know about why I liked the bits of Piers Plowman that I read. At any rate, here are a few lines:

Wool-clad and wet-shoed went I forth after
As a mindless mortal that minds no sorrow,
And trudged forth like a tramp, time of all my life,
Till I grew weary of the world and wished again to sleep,
And lay down till Lent, and long time I slept...

[Piers dreams of the Harrowing of Hell—depicted at right—the quasi-apocryphal story of Christ's descent to Hell after his death to retrieve the souls of the virtuous pagans. What is fascinating about Langland's version, however, is not the description of the event itself (which, like Milton's "action," occurs mostly through and as speech) but the mechanics of salvation he envisions. Here, Mercy, personified as a woman standing with her fellow virtues Truth, Righteousness, and Peace, argues that Christ will be able to free the souls entrapped in Hell.]

Then Mercy full mildly mouthed these words:
"From experience," she said, "I suppose they shall be saved.
Venom destroys venom, and from that evidence
That Adam and Eve shall have cure:
For of all vexing venoms the vilest is the scorpion's—
May no medicine amend the place where he stings
Till dead he is dabbed thereon; then he undoes it,
The previous poisoning, through the power of himself.
So shall this death destroy—I dare bet my life—
All that Death and the Devil did first to Eve.
And just as the beguiler through guile beguiled man first,
So shall grace that began everything make a good end
And beguile the beguiler—and that's a good trick:
Ars ut artem falleret."

[Later, Lucifer and Satan (who are different demons in this) are arguing about their chances for survival when Christ comes calling. Satan, whom the Norton notes refer to as "Lucifer's most articulate critic," reproves Lucifer for resorting to deception in order to tempt Eve:]

"Certainly, I'm afraid," said the Fiend, "that Truth will fetch them out.
And as you beguiled God's image by going like an adder,
So God has beguiled us all by going like a man..."
"I say we should flee," said the Fiend, "all fast away,
For it were better for us not to be than abide in his sight.
For your lies, Lucifer, we first lost our joy,
And out of heaven hither your pride made us fall.
Because we believed your lies there, we lost our bliss,
And now for a later lie that you lied to Eve
We have lost our lordship on land and in hell:
Nunc princeps huius mundi eiicetur foras."

[Now Christ speaks (though he's been glowing, a disembodied light, just outside the gates of Hell for awhile), and returns to the idea of lies redeeming lies:]

"For the deadly sin that they did, your deceit caused it:
With guile you got them out against all reason.
For in my palace Paradise in the person of an adder
Falsely you fetched there what befell me to guard,
Closed them and beguiled them and my garden profaned
Against my love and my leave. The Old Law teaches
That beguilers be beguiled and in their guile fall.
And whoever hits out a man's eye or else his front teeth
Or any manner of member maims or hurts,
The same sore shall he have that any one smites so:
Dentem pro dente et oculum pro oculo.
So life shall lose life where life has taken life;
So that life should requite life the Old Law requires:
Ergo soul shall requite soul and sin to sin turn,
And all that man misdid I, man amend it;
And what Death undid my death shall restore,
And both quicken and requite what was quenched through sin
And guile is beguiled through grace at the last:
Ars ut artem falleret.
So believe it not, Lucifer, against the law I fetch
Here any sinful soul solely by force,
But through right and through reason ransom here my liegemen.
Non veni solvere legem sed adimplere.
So what was gotten through guile through grace is now won back,
And as Adam and Eve through a tree died,
Adam and all through a tree shall turn to life.
And now begins your guile against you to turn,
And my grace to grow ever greater and wider."

The explicit mechanics of salvation here is not, in fact, all that heterodox—it is not in doctrinal terms substantially different from the Pauline epistles. However, a strange alteration takes place in the salvation narrative from the way Christians normally conceive it.

Humankind does not play a very large role in this narrative; souls are the prize of a struggle between Christ and Lucifer. And therefore it is Lucifer that is beguiled by the Incarnation, in completion of the Old Law (a lie for a lie) and the formation of the New (grace for sinners). Lucifer tricked Adam and Eve, so he too has been tricked to even the score, opening the way for a new agreement between God and man, one based on mercy and grace.

But the interesting thing about how Piers Plowman dramatizes the contest between Lucifer and Christ is that it does so not as a battle or even really a conflict of opposing wills or forces—there is no clash of arms or even of words. Although Christ demonstrates his power by ramming through the barricades of Hell and scaring the bejesus out of the demons, the fact that there is no opposition makes this effort seem less like a triumph and more like an empty (though impressive) display—a Mission Accomplished banner flutters over his head.

The crucial turn comes, however, when one realizes that there is no opposition because Lucifer has come to understand that he botched things from the get-go: the fact that he resorted to deception in tempting Eve foiled his plans even before they were (briefly) consummated in the Fall means that he has no lasting claim on the souls of men. As with the scorpion in Mercy's speech, Lucifer's own poison—his guile—is the only cure for itself—and thus, heretically, it is Lucifer who is the true savior because it is only through his lies that these souls are in a position to be saved. Using guile to tempt Eve was his mistake—and the fact that it was quite clearly a mistake positions him as being in a very real way more autonomous that Christ. Christ, in this sense, is just practicing Salvation-Judo, using his opponent's force against him. Or, to use another metaphor, Lucifer breached his contract, and Christ is just collecting damages for his client.

This is going too far—I do not think that Langland would explicitly affirm this reading. For him, Christ is the prime agent of salvation. However, as Milton would later find out, the presence of Lucifer in the salvation narrative forces its own logic upon that narrative: give Lucifer any attention at all, and he can quickly make himself the whole center of the salvation story. It is an interesting property of the Christian problem of salvation that its greatest temptation is to resolve itself by tilting the power dynamic increasingly toward Lucifer, making him the prime mover of the whole contraption.

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