in verse # 18 : a monstrous fable

Like many a medieval manuscript, Piers the plowman has no title as such.  Walter W. Skeat, who gave it that title, notes, however, that, in the manuscript he used as the basis for his Oxford edition, “we find here [in place of the word Prologue] ‘Incipit liber de petro plowman,’ nearly obliterated.”[i]  In the introduction to his edition, Skeat spends the first seven pages clarifying his title — a necessary labor in 1869, when he first published his “student’s” edition, but one indicative of a modern preoccupation with titles.  Perhaps because we have no titles of nobility in America, we are very particular about the titles of our own works.   But Skeat was an Englishman, so my cheap psychologizing doesn’t apply to him anyway.  He begins that note, headed Title, thus:  “The English title is a translation of the title found in numerous MSS., viz. ‘Visio Willelmi de Petro Plowman’.”[ii]  Notice, however, that Skeat entitles his book “The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman,” not “Peter the Plowman,” as he might have done (according to Wikipedia, “Piers is an old English Christian name, and has the same origins as Peter,”[iii] and “Pierce is a surname, a cognate of French Pierre (‘Peter’)”[iv]), and he eschews the more contemporary translation used also in Wikipedia, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, in its article “Piers Plowman.”[v]  Skeat is using an antiquated form of title for his own purposes, which I will take up in my next post.  The Wikipedia article does a good job of summarizing the scholarship about the poem, especially that published since I studied the poem in graduate school in the Seventies, so if you are interested in that, I commend it to your attention.

But more than in its title, I am interested in the poem’s social matrix, and in the strong contrast between it and Chaucer’s work (and I now see that I will return and consider Piers Plowman one more time as a poem).  I can remember reading articles back in grad school asserting that Chaucer was the first novelist, because he was so interested in the psychology of his characters, and in their motivations, and in drawing fully-rounded portraits.  That is not the nature of allegory, nor of the dream vision, which both tend to draw the world in more stark Manichaean terms.  Not to pursue this theme too far, but this view played into my own favorite dichotomy, that between the fantastic and the mimetic, which I would have avoided in this post were it not that I made the mistake of reading the post “Mormon LitCrit: Do We Need New Mormon Literary Theory?” by Scott Hales, and instead of polishing up my prepared posting and publishing it, I had to respond to his query and its implied request, and re-write.  So rough and ready though it be, let me begin with the dichotomy I introduced in my first posting to this blog:

Verse and its proper counterpart prose are contrasting conventions for representing speech — speech clarified, speech refined.  Each can be used in poems, in short or extended narratives, in essays, in dramatic works, in reports, in précis.  They are contrasted primarily in rhythm and compactness:   prose tends to be looser, with rhythms governed by the paragraph and little ornamentation; verse tends to be tighter, with rhythms governed by the line, and using repetition emphatically to maintain structure:  devices like rhyme, alliteration, repeating patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and, in even the most free of verse, a very tight focus on each word, rather than each sentence.

That is, verse and prose are a proper contrastive pair.  So are fiction and non-fiction[vi] for purposes of this taxonomy.  Fiction and poetry are not (see last ¶).  But in literature, the most reliable contrastive pair is the fantastic and the mimetic,[vii] and the fantastic is the older (but not by much) and more numerous category.  The proper contrast to the novel in this my view is the romance.  Contributing to the former strain are Chaucer, Defoe, Richardson, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, Joyce, Patrick O’Brian and Dean Hughes.  Contributing to the latter — Langland, Sterne, Swift, the sisters Brontë, Byron, Kipling, Joyce, Tolkien and Orson Scott Card.  Yes:  science fiction is a form of romance, and the only science most of it utilizes is sociology.  I know that it used to be called by its practitioners “scientifiction,” but it shares with the mystery, the thriller, the spy novel, the love story we usually designate as a ‘romance,’ Dante’s Commedia and the Revelation of John of Patmos, that larger world not constrained by the world available to our senses only (the proper arena of psychology, philology and sociology).  And much of the production of Mormon literature is, I submit, in the realm of fantasy, not mimesis.

Why is this so?  I think it is because of the same forces that drove Langland to write, and revise, and revise again[viii] over a period of perhaps 30 years, perhaps less.  As I pointed out in “in verse # 15 : the alliterative resuscitation, King John lost Normandy to France in 1204 and signed the Magna Carta in 1215, beginning the long process of separation between England and France, a process that had run its course by 1509, with the death of Henry VII.  Perhaps the earliest alliterative poem in Middle English, Laȝamon’s Brut, runs to 16,095 lines, expanding on its sources with, among other things, “an enlarged section on the life and exploits of King Arthur.”[ix]   I speculated then that the resurrection of Arthur as an English (and perhaps British) hero, one who features heavily in the poems of the Alliterative Revival, may result from the disgust of King John’s subjects with his perceived fecklessness as a leader, and a more generalized discontent with Norman rule.  I don’t believe that Laȝamon thought he was writing history; I think he thought he was creating myth, much as Vergil did in his great fantasy Aeneid wherein he creates an origin myth for Rome.  This idea of mine finds an echo, but not its source, in that Wikipedia article:  “Several original passages in the poem — at least in accordance with the present knowledge of extant texts from the Middle Ages — suggest Layamon was interested in carving out the history of the Britons as the people ‘who first possessed the land of the English.’”[x]  That is just to say that Laȝamon, in revising his sources — one of which was the Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut of Wace, a 15,000-line poem[xi] — was drawing on Anglo-Saxon and Welsh and Cornish heroes and ideas and traditions, then deliberately casting them in an old-fashioned verse form that hadn’t been favored in the courts of rulers for over 200 years.  Brut, his long poem, is dated by Baugh and Malone to circa 1189-1206, and in the Wikipedia article to between 1190 and 1215,[xii] right at the end of John Lackland’s reign (I argued all this more extensively in “in verse # 15”).  Chaucer, one hundred and fifty years later, by contrast, is a court poet more comfortable with his contemporary society than Laȝamon,

“So,” you say, or is that sigh, “what?”  Well, let me posit with Baugh and Malone that the fantastic is the response of the outsider to a world (s)he is not comfortable in, and the mimetic of the insider to a world where (s)he is more at ease.  That might explain why so much of contemporary Mormon literature is expressed in one or another of the forms of fantasy, and why so much less of it occupies the mimetic sphere.  Let me be clear:  I am talking about works here, not authors.  I am talking about trends, in a fluid environment, drawing on my investigation of Piers the Ploughman and other poems of the Alliterative Revival, in the context of a blog about the uses of verse, to suggest a theory of Mormon lit.  None of these ideas are original with me, none of this is new.  But Mormon literature begins with a new mythology[xiii] resonant with an earlier world, providing a new history of the foundation of its nation, offering a sharp critique of the nation’s culture, attempting to restore an old form to useful life, offering dream visions of alienation and histories of the clash of civilizations on a grand scale.

But hold on, I hear you say; does that really describe my world?

Your turn.

 

[i] The vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman / by William Langland (or Langley), according to the version revised and enlarged by the author about A.D. 1377. — Edited by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat.  10th edition, revised. — Oxford : at the Clarendon Press, 1923; p. 91.

[ii] Ibid.  And speaking of titles, I stole my title for this blog from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, chapter 45, and will again the next time around.

[iii] “Piers,” Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers, accessed 28 June 2012.

[iv] “Pierce (surname)”, Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierce (surname), accessed 28 June 2012.

[v]Piers Plowman”, Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piers_Plowman, accessed 28 June 2012.

[vi] Yeah, I’m an old librarian, but we are not the only people who divide up a universe between one category and its absence.

[vii] Those of you who know Eric Auerbach’s Mimesis : Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur (or Mimesis : The Representation of Reality in Western Literature) will recognize where I’m drawing this distinction from.

[viii] Here I am accepting Skeat’s hypothesis of single authorship and revision, which some more recent scholars reject (again, see the Wikipedia article on Piers Plowman).

[ix] “Layamon’s Brut,” Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Layamon’s_Brut, accessed 28 June 2012.  This is a more recent overview than the sources in my earlier post referred to above.

[x] Yup, Ibid.

[xi] A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – 2nd ed. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1967.  From that work’s “Book I, The Middle Ages (to 1500)” by Kemp Malone and Albert C. Baugh, pp. 170-171.

[xii] Op. cit.

[xiii] If a certain commenter frequenting the Salt Lake Tribune’s pages under the handle “Joseph’s Myth” only understood the uses of mythology, he would drop that handle like a hot potato — but he’s a mimetic mind confronting a fantastic world.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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14 Responses to in verse # 18 : a monstrous fable

  1. Wm says:

    The staunch postmodernist in me wants to say that all mimesis is just a particular form of the fantastic. But I’m not really willing to defend that claim.

    I think your observation about so much of modern Mormon literature being part of the fantastic is right on. And I think part of the reason that post-OSC, so many LDS authors and readers have turned to genre works (aka the romance) is because the home literature movement was very much a neo-Romantic (or belated Romantic) thing. It’s a natural outgrowth of that.

    • Well, William, there are science fiction people (writers as well as readers) who have claimed that all realistic/mainstream fiction is a subset of science fiction under the definition of science fiction as “fiction about what could happen.”

      • Dennis Clark says:

        But that definition is really one of those that divides like Fiction & Non-fiction, since the alternative would then be “fiction about what couldn’t happen,” and since you can’t prove a negative, that would only include fictions like Finnegans Wake and Tristam Shandy and The Third Policeman, in which nothing happens, but happens magnificently.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      And the staunched pre-modernist in me would probably agree that all mimesis is just a particular form of the fantastic, especially when one considers the problem of solipsism.

      But I long ago gave up solipsism because I hated arguing with myself.

  2. Wm says:

    Or to put it another way: the two most influential figures for the bumper crop of genre novelists we have right now are David Farland and Orson Scott Card. And both of them self-consciously rejected literary realism, in particular, that brand of literary realism championed by Creative Writing MFA programs in the late ’70s/early ’80s, which made a saint of Raymond Carver.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Raymond Carver didn’t need no stinkin MFA program to become a saint; he just drank and wrote, wrote and drank, hemming and hawing his way into the consciousness of readers around America.

  3. Scott Hales says:

    I like the ideas put forth here, too, although like William I’m not 100% on board with the mimesis/fantasy binary–but maybe only because I spent yesterday afternoon writing about the precession of simulacra.

    At any rate, I’ve long thought of Mormon literature as being grounded in the realms of the fantastic although I’ve hesitated to say that because I don’t want to be included among those who say that science fiction is Mormonism’s best mode of literary expression. But, when you think about it, Mormon literature–even when it is striving for mimesis–usually ends up either with the attributes traditionally ascribed to romance or, because of the worldview of the characters (and even the author), with the potential to become romance. What is Mormon realism but “magical realism” or “spiritual realism”? I think it’s an aspect of Mormon literature that ought to be explored more…which is partly why I like many of the more “realistic” stories in “Monsters & Mormons”–they push the spiritual aspect of Mormon life to a more extreme level in order to give emphasis to it.

    Of course, I also think Mormon writers who try to write about Mormon life remain wary about including spiritual experiences in the work because such experiences are hard to write and can come off heavy-handed or “preachy”–especially when Mormon lit already has a reputation for being heavy-handed and preachy. But even Raymond Carver includes a kind of spiritual experience in his short story “Cathedral,” which suggests to me that writers of Mormon realism who use him as a model aren’t without examples of how to blend literary realism with the spiritual sublime.

    Basically, in other words, what I’d like to read is more Mormon “realism” that explores the fantastic without becoming science fiction.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Years ago, one particular Mormon critic, and I can’t recall his name, argued that Mormons could never produce science fiction because we already know the end from the beginning, and thus couldn’t speculate. He was one of those for whom mimesis was the only approach to literature, and to criticism. I say again, it takes an outsider to create satire and fantasy, and anyone who’s ever read Heinlein knows how hard he worked to portray himself as an outsider.

  4. Jonathan Langford says:

    While potentially useful on a broad level to divide up genres, works, and authors according to the fantasy/mimesis dichotomy, I think it ultimately yields a richer criticism if we start with the premise that all fiction (indeed all literature) includes elements of both fantasy and mimesis, and then talk about the varying functions those elements serve in specific genres and works. Along those lines, I’m intrigued by Kathryn Hume’s premise (in her book Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature) that fantasy tends to be the meaning-bearing element of a literary work, though I remember finding her follow-up attempt at analyzing various genres a bit plodding in application.

    Nonetheless I will suggest that the affinity of Mormon writers for the fantastic has less to do with viewing the world from an outsider perspective, and more to do with the fact that we *do* see meaning as important and tend to write stories that are at least as much about what things mean as about what they are.

    I’ll end (for now) with the opinion that seeing Chaucer as coming down on the mimesis side of things is less a reflection of his actual work and more a critical artifact of a tradition that placed a higher value on mimesis and wanted to claim Chaucer for that tradition. Because, yeah, the realism is there, particularly on a meta-level in the development of the character of the various pilgrims. But Chaucer also was the author of various romances and fairy tales of different types–including the Knight’s Tale, the Squire’s Tale, and Wife of Bath’s Tale, and several others as I recall — even within the frame of Canterbury Tales alone. Ultimately Chaucer may indeed come down on the mimesis side of things, if you have to push him to one side or the other, but it’s a more split decision than the realists acknowledge.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Well, of course, if you insist on a fair and rigorous appraisal of literature, it’s never really easy to insist on any Manichaean taxonomy because writers, being fully-rounded human beings (except Randy Wright), don’t divide their labours up in neat packets. And elements and flavors and shadings of the opposite slip into almost any writing the one class claims for itself. But I think you’re probably right, especially when I have Dante’s Commedia to hand as a witness, in which Dante mixes Florentine politics and vendettas with Christian and Roman mythology. Stop being so damned right, alright?

  5. Jonathon says:

    Tele-kinetic creation of world by highly advanced alien species, transplantation of inferior version of alien species from off-world qua experiment, tele-transportation, transmutation, regeneration, alien abduction, mysterious impregnation, visions, dreams, revelations, visitations, and the ultimate celestial terraforming of the planet: no wonder Mormons like the fantastic so much. It’s basically our theology.

    I wonder if that’s helpful, however cheeky. Like the others here, I’m not prepared to say that, in a Mormon context, and indeed in any context that favors the mystical to any degree, that fantasy and mimesis are entirely dichotomous. Even in the current, very real-world debates about homonormativity, praxis, and theology, those looking for a radical change in the position of the Church generally adopt one of two approaches: dudes, church is culture, and culture ought to change to reflect the times (mimesis); it is apparent that the Spirit of the Lord is moving us in the direction of acceptance of homosexual covenant unions (fantasy).

    But the line between those two positions is pretty blurry, as is the line between expectation and desire. The mimetic expresses a reality-as-given, and roots itself in assumptions about what composes that reality, but what if those assumptions are, themselves, rooted in ideals? That is, we make the society in our own image/antithetical to our own image rather than account for the varieties and complexities productive of resistance to our reading it? The fantastic, of course, roots out those desires/ideals and renders them explicitly as what they are.

    Fantasy is a representation of what is desired as desire, mimesis of what seems to be evident but is filtered through desire (postmodernism) or skepticism (modernism).

    What Scott’s after would, I think, have to accept elements of the fantastic–visions, dreams, promptings–and the suggestible provenance of those experiences–God and angels–as rational objects, as parts of the world that are entirely sensible: as givens in reality and not as expressions of desire, but a reality that is self-consciously subjective, and is willing therefore to confound, to varying degrees, non-Mormon readers without apologizing for it. It would have to recognize that we do, to a considerable extent, make the world in our image and live in it accordingly. And readers of Mormon realism would have to be charitable to roll with that.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Well, yeah. It’s going to take me a while to digest all this, but in Piers Plowman, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the mixture of elements of “realism” into the fantasy are what makes the poems work. If you leave no way into the vision, no-one will enter in and share it with you. The artistry of these poems is not in alliteration but in bringing alliteration in as a pattern to help you follow the vision. And in the Mormon realism you end with, which I would say includes Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist as well as Scott Card’s Saints, without the element of the fantastic in the minds and hearts of the people there would be nothing of interest. No one wants to read fiction that reads like box scores of baseball games.

  6. I’m intrigued by the idea that verse and prose are conventions for representing speech, especially as mimesis comes into it.

    Isn’t it true that actually (and completely) mimetic representations of speech tend to not “work” in verse or prose (and possibly have never “worked” at all), because completely mimetic representations of speech would, by definition, I think, have to include all the incidents of “um” and “er” as well as verbal ticks such as “ya know” and “like,” not to mention the general inanities people include in their smallest of “small talk” while they are avoiding getting around to really talking at all?

    In verse, even more than in prose, speech has to be tightly edited so that the words can bring the reader to “the point.” In some cases we may, as listeners, be tolerant of the abovementioned kinds of unedited speech, but I submit that very few readers will tolerate completely mimetic speech in the verse or prose they read, and also very few if any of us will tolerate it in other forms of communication (movies, television, plays, lectures and other “speeches,” news reports, sports “color” and “play-by-play,” to name some examples).

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Well, given what I hear when I go to most movies, I’d have to say that there’s already a move afoot to disprove that. But when I said “conventions” for representing speech, I had in mind something other than transcriptions of talk. I’ve been experimenting with dictating to my computer, using Dragon Naturally Speaking by Nuance, and now I know why they use “Dragon” as the ruling metaphor: the software fries what I think I said. I’ve tested this by recording my poetic flights and then having Dragon transcribe the recording — results are even worse. I can train the software, but even transcriptions of speech, like those plays made from the Nixon tapes, are more interesting than the straight transcriptions, because of the conventions at work. Besides, because it involves a respondent, speech is a blend of the conventional and the natural. So I’m not sure that all those hesitations seem so horrible, since they represent what we’re used to.

      But I’m with you in not wanting to read them. That’s the same reason why I don’t watch “reality” TV.

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