Tuesday, October 14, 2008

why there are not "bokes ynowe": all our little laborers, toiling for revolution

Here's a short meditation of of sorts from my current coursework--specifically a course the 'Piers Plowman Tradition," dealing with all the short poems around the big one (the Symonie, Parliament of the Three Ages, etc.), both before and after, but with Langland as the centerpiece. Now, I have some good friends in the discipline of medieval studies who happen to find Piers rather dry at best, and totally unnecessary to study and a little bit just plain boring. I happen to find it....fun.

The poem for me is so fun, largely, and most generally, because its structure and poetics seem to elude the workings of literary history which seem to depend so much on economies of representation (think both the history's ability to represent trends and work etc. in literature across time--breaks, shifts, etc., and also the works which form the 'object' of the history's study to need to be themselves little machines of a mimetic economy in order for a mimetic economy to account for them). This allows us to track things like a 'history of representation' across western lit. And this is surely useful and great. I love Auerbach, for instance and I mean that. But, this limits us to writing a history of tropes and trends and leads us into obsessions with continuities, etc--ie. we always end up asking about how to understand literature in terms of its relationship to its ability to represent, and what it values as worthy of representation. This whole movement in turn depends on believing very strongly in a fundamental separation between literature and criticism, poetry and serious thought. It fails to account for the possiblity that poets took up Plato's prescriptions about poetry not as a condemnation of poetry's function, but as a challenge--to prove that poetry itself could philosophize and indeed be a mode of philosophy itself. The thing about Langland's poem is that so much of it does not seem to be interested in representing an outside world or an outside truth. It is a poem obsessed with 'truthe,' but not in representing it--but in finding it. It would then seem to be a poem which is of its own agency working.

So, enter the poem itself. In the early Passus, within a little episode of personification, with the King, and a trial concerning Wrong and company, Reason reads a little thing to the King: "Ne for mede have mercy, but mekenesse it made;/ For "Nullum malum the man mette with inpunitum/ And bad Nullum bonum be irremuneratum."/ Late thi confessour, sire Kynge, construe this on Englissh,/ And if ye werchen it in wek, I wedde myne eris/ That Lawe shal ben a laborer and lede afeld donge, / And Love shal lede thi lond as the leef liketh" (Passus 4:142-148). Now we can read this passage as Reason urging the King to put the law to work, and pay wrong with justice and and good with good etc. In that way some would call it a 'conservative' passage, with its advocacy of simply, a working state legal code which 'works' in that it gets the people into the fields and enforces their injunction to 'work.' But, let's put that aside for a minute, and think about the genius of this formulation of Law as a laborer. Law has a functioning status all its own. It (and perhaps this is just the personification talking, but either way, it makes it happen) seems to be able to go on and work without a specific wielder in this little micro-exhortation. The possibility that a concept can work is truly a fantastic one, and not entirely new to 'modern' criticism, especially that with a nice Marxist bent. But I want to index as here in this little gem of a Langlandian moment, and then keep it in mind when we read a rather key passage a bit later in the work. Keep this in mind, I promise I will return to it in just a second.

Later in the poem, in the midst of a dream within a dream, Ymaginatif presents a big challenge to Wil who is sseeking after these three concepts with his poem (Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest) and to all of us who play with our own makings, be they critical or 'creative.' Ymaginatif never was idle (Passus 7:1), apparently always busy forming images in the mind and composing and dividing them so as to actively make up a part of a person's soul, and so he scorns Will's poetry, which he sees as idle. "thou medlest with makyng--and myghtest go sey this Sauter,/ And bidde for hem that yveth thee breed; for there are bokes ynowe/ to telle men what Dowel is, Dobet and Dobest bothe,/ And prechours to preve what it is, of many a peire freres" (7:16-19). For the busy and useful Imaginative, all that's needed apparently are all the books that are already out there and the preachers who can tell us what is in them. We of course might dismiss this as 'typically' medieval or whatever, a recourse to the function of books as preserving not producing knowledge, a recourse to autoritas. But Will insists on the active role of his book--implicitly assigning agency to the book itself: "Ac if ther were any wight that wolde me telle/ What were Dowel and Dobet and Dobest and the last,/ Wolde I nevere do werk, but wende to holi churche..." (7:25-27). It is not only that Wil's work is worthless according to Imaginative, but the book itself. There are bokes ynowe. All that is left is to figure them out.

It seems to me that this is an attitude we are sometimes unlucky enough to find still lingering in works of our own contemporaries--in courses, books, papers, ideas, etc. That, if we could only figure out X and/or Y then we would be doing our job. But figuring out X and Y won't necessary produce anything which does any active work, which continues to produce. Call me a Modernist, but we need to be messing around with our makings and trying to make things new, and make new things, even if these are impossible propositions.

Hearken now back to the bit about Law being a Laborer. For Wil, it seems that his poetry, his dreaming, all that's tied up in this, as a practice of the poet, the [its important to him] christian, the thinker, theologian, student, etc--that all this is itself Work, a practice. But the only way that this actually responds to the problem of there being 'books enough' already, is if this implicitly implies that the book itself if also able to Work. If there was a book that was already working to find Dowel et al., then he wouldn't need to write one.

We need books that can understand this structure, even if they aren't all in tuned with project of harmonizing orthodox belief (I would hope my books are nothing of the sort, at least). We need lots of books. We need books to be working, and working for us. Each little book we send out there, if a reader runs up (or, for that matter, rubs up) against it, is laboring in our efforts. And if those efforts be revolutionary, then, each little book, in its small way, is a kind of wind-up-toy with a secular-soul, a little soldier, actively working when in the absence of, sometimes against, our 'presence'--but as a laborer and a producer. These books aren't for producing knowledge. Such books seriously mess with--or could, if we caressed them rightly--with most literary history. They are for thinking, and looking for things. Books think, look for, pursue. Books don't contain.


Myra Seaman said...

I asked you to tell me why I love Piers so much, and I see that you had already done so, here, less than an hour before I made the request. So I see now that I love it so because it refuses to be a "little machine of mimetic economy." Of course. Absolutely. And PP is perhaps a nearly-too-perfect example of a book that looks for, pursues, and certainly does anything but contain. Thanks for this, and for how it makes me consider your talk on Orfeo in yet another intriguing way.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan--yet another characteristically affective and critically generous reading of a text. I especially love the idea of a book as a kind of agency all on its own, a moving/reaching toward something, an open plane, a field of possibility. Righteous. And yes, I said "righteous."

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Un livre lui-même est une petite machine, as D&G would say. Thanks for unböring post on a rather ennui-eliciting text. What I admire here is the agency that you grant the book, and art's liberation from mimesis and straightforwardness.

It's funny, Dan, I hear your voice so clearly in these paragraphs.