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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Perhaps a Problem for Piers Plowman

Posted by Adam Roberts on 09/24/06 at 10:19 AM

At the beginning of Piers Plowman the poet dreams of a field with a great shining Tower of Truth on one side, and a sunken valley, or in an alternate version a scary Dungeon Citadel of Falsehood on the other.  The field is our world in allegorical form, and is crowded with various folk going up and down about their business.  The tower is the Christian God-as-Truth.  The Dungeon Citadel is where the Devil lives.

Now Langland’s vision is of course a devotional and Christian one, and like Dante he exhalts truth above all things.  As Lady Holi Chirche herself puts it:

“Whan alle tresors arn tried,” quod she, “–Treuthe is the beste.
I do it on Deus caritas to deme the sothe;
It is as dereworthe a drury as deere God hymselven.” [1:85-7]

[“When all treasures are tested,” she said, “Truth is the best.  And to prove it and test what it true, I appeal to the text ‘God is love’.  For Truth is as precious a jewel as our dear Lord himself.” Here, and below, I quote J F Goodridge’s translation, p.34]

Fair enough.  But I have two questions about ‘truth’ in the poem. 

Before I ask them I’d add that Piers Plowman is something about which the enormity of the body of excellent scholarship is surpassed only by the enormity of my ignorance of that body.  But even a neophyte, reading only the B-text, and leaning heavily on a prose crib to guide him through, may be permitted to ask questions. I hope.

First question, and here it is.  The Father of Lies, Lucifer, speaks:

But Lucifer … fell from the angelic company into a deep dark hell where he must abide for ever.  And innumerable legions sprang out after him in loathsome shapes, for they believed his lying words – “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit in the side of the North … I will be like the most High.” [p.35]

‘...his lying words...’ My question is: can a prophesy be a lie?  Obviously, a prophesy can fail to come true, as this prophesy did; but is this the same thing as a lie?  Surely a lie implies both a material falsehood and an intention to deceive.  Let’s say Lucifer genuinely believed he could overthrow God; then his prophesy would be a genuinely-intentioned statement, undisproved at the time of utterance (though, of course, proud, self-vaunting and unpleasant).  How is it right to call that a lie?

The reason this, perhaps trivial, question strikes me is that it seems to illuminate a problem, or a possible problem, or what is perhaps a possible problem, not so much with Piers Plowman as with the mode of allegory itself.  In Langland’s poem Passuses (Passi?) Passūs II to IV tell the story of ‘Mede the Mayde’, Lady Mede, or as we might render it ‘Lady Bribe’.  She’s a bad sort is Lady Bribe, seemingly attractive on the outside and tempting, but an individual who leads to all manner of corruption and evil in the world.  She tries to get herself married to Fals Fikel-tonge (‘Fraud Serpent’s-Tongue’, Goodridge calls him) but gets stopped by Theology.  Then, worse, she tries to marry the goodly knight ‘Conscience’ and so become a high-roller in the Court itself.  Luckily Sir Conscience is having none of it, on account of her being such a liar and everything.  Lady Bribe ends up crestfallen, and ‘the mooste commune of that court’ revile her as ‘an hore’.

Obviously, it’s vital for the dramatic success of Langland’s allegory that Piers Plowman dramatise the Lie (as bad) as well as the True (as good).  It’s vital because he believes we live in a world in which God and the Devil, Truth and Lie, actually compete for our souls; and that we need to understand the battle in order to win it.  We need to learn that we should always, as somebody once said (it was either Socrates or Spike Lee, I can’t remember) ‘do the right thing.’

And this, then, is my second question.  Can allegory, in fact, include the lie?  What I mean is that a liar in an allegory will inevitably be given a name like ‘Lie the Liar’ (or Mede the Mayde, or Fals Fikel-tonge) when s/he should actually be called Truth the Straight-Speaker.  Why would Lady Bribe go about calling herself Lady Bribe?  She wouldn’t, of course.  She’s Lady Bribe from Langland’s perspective; not from her fellow characters point-of view; maybe (this is where characterisation gets interesting) not even from her own.

What I’m arguing is that, as a general rule we can only see any allegory from the perspective of Truth, not from the actual p.o.v. of our being-in-the-world as readers, where Lie the Liar does indeed call himself Iago and has, famously, an honest face.  I suspect that this at root is because the mode of allegory requires true decoding, and must set forcefully in place guidance to ensure the parameters of its own reading, that it embodies this fundamental limitation.  Allegory can’t afford to be mis-read.  If a reader were, genuinely, to take the Pilgrim’s Progress as the path to Catholicism, or Satanism, or Atheism, then Bunyan would, very specifically, have failed as an allegorist.  That’s why he gives his characters such deictic, unambiguous names; and why he hems his text around with interpretive marginalia and prefaces and poems spelling out the moral.  The reader must be able, truly, to decode the allegory in order for its message – in Langland and Bunyan’s case, the message that such-and-such is the Eternal Truth – to reach the reader properly.  But because of this the text cannot actually dramatise the lie in any terms except the terms of truth (can only, in other words, misrepresent the lie); the failure of representation is, as it were, built in.

This, I think, is why Lucifer gets called a liar for uttering a sincerely-believed prophesy.  It’s because in the terms of the poem anything Lucifer says no matter what it is must be a lie, because that (from the perspective of truth) is the totality of who Lucifer is.  He could stand up and say ‘you’ve got to fancy Chelsea’s chances in the Premiership this season’ or ‘warm for the time of year, aint it’ or ‘can I have a cup of tea?’ and, in Langland’s textual universe, every one of these statements would be a lie.  If that is not a problem for a creative and dramatic artist, then I don’t know what is.

And it might, perhaps, possibly be more than just a literary problem.  It may be a problem for one’s whole outlook on life, if J. A. W Bennett is right when (writing on Langland) he says: ‘medieval allegory at its most dynamic is not so much a literary genre as a mode of thought’ [ p.446].  I don’t know.  What do you reckon?


Comments

Drat, I keep wanting to write up something about your book _On_ on related themes, but I just have no time at the moment.  So I’ll have to put a little bit in a comment, which probably no one will understand, and which will keep anyone from bothering to read a longer version later.

My idea about this book is that it’s a sort of hidden allegory disguised as hard SF.  On the surface, it’s about a purely physical occurance, backed up by the full regalia of hard SF, even including some (dubious-looking) equations in the Appendix.  But what it actually seems to be about—at least, this is a much more interesting reading for me—is the relationship between God and man.  Or perhaps, if you prefer a less overtly religious reading, the relationship between writer and character.

I’ll have to wait on the various reasons why I think that this makes sense.  But since you write here about allegorical journeys, consider the midpart of _On_.  It’s not an allegorical journey, really.  It seems like the same kind of journey taken by the protagonist in Kosinski’s _The Painted Bird_—the picaresque of horrors, perhaps.  But this, combined with the focus on religous views of how the world works throughout the book, might make it a sort of allegory.  The God involved is the Godman, or the human considered as having technological power over other people—which, in the political tradition that we’re in, can’t help but be considered to be something like the Gnostic demiurge.

Perhaps allegory is the wrong word—there aren’t the symbolic names, painstakingly drawn out morals, etc.  But an allegory of a God of meaninglessness, error, and tyrannical power can’t indulge itself in these things.  Instead of everything in the book being seen “from the perspective of Truth”, everything is seen from the perspective of the deceived.

Does this make any sense?

By on 09/24/06 at 12:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve about 12 hours of grading in front of me today, so I’ve no time to respond to the heart of your post. Alas! A few nitpicky points is all I have (scholars rushed for time tend to be pedants: true or false?:

a) just to clarify for non-medievalists, a ‘Dungeon’ is not necessarily a sunken prison. It can also be a citadel (entry for the Middle English Dictionary is more detailed but much the same. Unfortunately, the MED is available only to subscribers). How a word derived from the same root as ‘dominion’ ended up being a word for a prison too is being me: I’m sure Agamben could answer the q.

b) Passus is fourth declension, so passus (long u) is the plural, in Latin. In English, I prefer passuses for the same reason I prefer syllabuses (since, iirc, because syllabus is neo-Latin, there’s no firm way to determine whether it’s based on second or fourth declension. Hence ‘syllabi’ is presumptuous hyper-correction. I’m willing to be corrected on this)

c) Interestingly, the dungeon appears and reappears between various versions of PPl. It’s in the A and B texts, but neither in the Z text (supposed to be earlier than A?) nor the C, which reads:

Estward y beheld aftir þe sonne
And say a tour – as y trowed, Treuthe was there-ynne.
Westward y waytede in a while aftir
And seigh a depe dale – Deth, as y leue,
Woned in tho wones, and wikkede spiritus.
A fair feld ful of folk fon y þer bytwene
Of alle manere men, þe men and þe pore,
Worchyng and wandryng as þis world ascuth. (C. 1 14-21)

Mea culpa for all errors in translation. This medievalist loves PPl but hasn’t studied it since his orals: I fixed my gaze East in the direction of the Sun and saw a tower. I believed Truth was in it. I looked West a short times afterwards and saw a deep valley. I believed Death and wicked spirits lived there. I perceived a fair field full of folk in between these [populated with] all kinds of people, ordinary people and poor people [or ‘poor people and poor people’], working and wandering as the world asks.

The substitution in C of a valley for a ‘Dongeon’ to signify wicked or scary things strikes me as a typical correction for the notoriously conservative C-Text: suggesting that the Keep of Truth might have an analogue in the Keep of (non-truth) is potentially dangerous. More charitably, Langland is just fulfilling generic expectations, as it’s more usual to portray the Holy as a castle, abbey, or some other structure under siege from the wholly external forces of evil, lust, etc.

But remember this (and here I engage, a bit, with your post). The Dreamer is a hermit “unholy of werkes,” clothed “as y a shep were” (that is, as if he were a sheep: see Matthew 7:15, “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves”). What if the whole allegory emerges from an untrustworthy Dreamer? Where is its truth then? On the one hand, the truth should be true no matter what the source. Thinking otherwise was heresy. No matter how unholy the priest, the sacrament is always efficacious (Robert of Greatham, a 13th-century canon I work on says that he’s a swamp through which a pure stream flows). On the other hand, why make such an effort to kneecap the benevolence of the reader right out of the gate? And why say that “the world” asks people to “wander” and “work,” since the C-Text, in particular, goes out of its way to portray wandering, including the wandering of dreaming, as the sinful opposite of or at least the dubious alternative to work?

Aagh. Grading calls. No answers from me today.

By on 09/24/06 at 12:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In one of Donne’s sermons, the claim is made that even the devil tells the truth in holy writ. When the snake tells Eve that she won’t die if she eats the fruit of the forbidden tree (Gen 3:4), he may think he’s saying something false, but he’s actually foretelling the redemption.

Allegory may have to telegraph its punches, but scripture doesn’t.

By Jim Harrison on 09/24/06 at 02:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yass, that’s about all ye need to know about medieval manga

Or all “manga,” as you say.

By on 09/24/06 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: On as allegory … hmm.  Does it make sense as a reading?  I think so.  I mean the part of me that wants to say (with your last para) ‘of course On isn’t allegory’ [eg it lacks the systematic symbolic specificity] is rather stymied by the part of me that has to concede that, of all my novels, On is the one with the most ‘decodable’ stuff in it.  I’m wary here since I’m sure most readers of the Valve have not read it, and won’t be interested in it; and this is supposed to be about Piers Plowman rather than my own stuff; but there’s a bindweed-rooty autobiographical component to On that I’ve managed more effectively to purge from the rest of my writing; which means that in On an allegorical, or quasi-allegorical (or maybe anti-allegorical) thread does run through.

Nice to be able to write a sentence that contains the words ‘in on an’ in order.

I’m wary also of nudging you on with a ‘go on, write your critical piece’, because it sounds terribly vainglorious of me, and because I’m certain you’ve better things to be doing with your time.  But your critical account of Stone over in the decephalated place was immensely insightful, I thought, and taught me things about my own novel that I didn’t know.  I’m only the author after all, and dead.

The point I suppose I’m dancing around in this post, and others I’ve post-it-noted up on the Valve (such as the Dante one) has to do with truth.  I hope I don’t come across as airy or jesting-pilate about truth.  Or Truth.  It seems to me very important to tell the truth, actually; a duty an artist ought to observe.  I’m just not sure that I’ve yet quite worked out the best way of doing that, except that some swerve, some clinamen or creative re-imagining is absolutely necessary if the truth isn’t going simply to stultify and banalize.

By Adam Roberts on 09/24/06 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Karl, far from grumpy.  I shall shortly be shouldering a similar burden of marking, so you have my sympathy.  I’ve made some changes to the text in line with your corrections: thanks for those.

On the question of whether the narrator’s woolly clothing invalidates the (what John H. calls) ‘truthiness’ of the whole – that seems like a big step to me.  Unravel the truth of an entire text with a bit of dressing-up and touch of narcolepsy?  That seems to me really too much to swallow.

(So, Langland’s ‘shep’ doesn’t mean ‘shepherd’, then?)

Actually I don’t think I’m giving Langland his due in this post.  I mean, I do think there’s a fundamental problem in the allegorical mode in terms of what it’s capable of doing as far as ‘untruth’ goes; but nevertheless it’s clear that this matter of truth and falsehood goes much deeper in Piers Plowman than perhaps I’ve suggested here.  Certainly Langland rehearses the questions of truth and falsehood, the right and the wrong, at great length and throughout the piece; and towards the end [Passus XVIII, 157-61] he comes close to tying himself into knots … or so it seems to me:

So shal this deeth fordo – I dar my lif legge –
Al that deeth dide first thorugh the develes entisyng;
And right as thorugh gilours gile bigiled was man,
So shal grace that al bigan make a good ende
And bigile the gilour – and that is good sleighte:
Ars ut artem falleret [‘Art to deceive art’]

“So this death with destroy all that Death destroyed first, enticed by the Devil – I would stake my life on this.  Just as man was deceived through the Devil’s guile, so Grace, which was with man in the beginning, will beguile the Devil in turn – Art to deceive Art.”

Say what?

Later [ll.339-40] he says:”the Olde Lawe graunteth/That gilours be bigiled – and that is good reson”; The Old Law says that he who deceives shall be deceived, which is good reason.  Which I take to mean: ‘it’s OK to lie to liars.’

So tell me: is that really OK?  Good reson?  Surely not!

By Adam Roberts on 09/24/06 at 04:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Interesting questions, Adam. On whether a (Satanic) prophecy can be a lie, the traditional view, I think, is that when Satan says something like that — or when in the guise of the serpent he tells Eve that she will not die if she eats the fruit of the Forbidden Tree — either he is prophesying what he knows to be untrue or, if he really believes what he says, that very belief is the product of his sin. Thus Milton says that the rebel angels are self-tempted and self-deceived. According to this model you can sin your way into epistemic blindness.

On Bunyan’s names: my favorites are the members of the jury who pronounce on the case of poor Faithful: Mr. Blindman, Mr. No-good, Mr. Malice, Mr. Love-lust, Mr. Live-loose, Mr. Heady, Mr. High- mind, Mr. Enmity, Mr. Liar, Mr. Cruelty, Mr. Hate-light, and Mr. Implacable. (Tough to figure out how that one’s going to turn out, huh?) And Vanity Fair’s local aristocracy: Lord Old Man, Lord Carnal Delight, Lord Luxurious, Lord Desire of Vain Glory, old Lord Lechery, and Sir Having Greedy. Now that’s an all-star team.

By on 09/24/06 at 05:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Still grading dammit, but, you know, procrastination and pleasure.

(So, Langland’s ‘shep’ doesn’t mean ‘shepherd’, then?)

Er, maybe. Maybe some other things too.

Now, I’m not the person to ask about these things (who is? Anne Middleton, Katheryn Kerby-Fulton, Ralph Hanna: me? Not so much), but, with that cavaet as my pasport: no, doesn’t invalidate the whole thing, but certainly calls the whole project into question. C 5 is especially leery about the whole project of thinking as labor, iirc. Just assume that whenever you think you’ve a handle on PPl that it’s going to slip away, and you’ll do just fine.

Oh, the tricking Satan part. That’s a reference to the ‘Guiler Beguiled’ notion (google it and you’ll see how common the idea is). You see, the Devil didn’t know that Christ was w/out sin, so in punishing him, he broke the law that allowed him to punish only those deserving punishment. In so doing, he lost his power over those that gave themselves to Christ to be redeemed. There’s a history of this doctrine that I don’t have the time to track down right now (for instance, how does this jive with the other tradition in which the Devil tries to convince Pilate’s wife to convince Pilate to let Christ off).

Which is not to say that I identified the notion and that’s all there is. Clearly, it’s a problem: it’s just a systemic problem.

How about “Citadel/Dungeon”? Not that you should change it again!

Back to work!

By on 09/24/06 at 07:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam: “I’m wary here since I’m sure most readers of the Valve have not read it, and won’t be interested in it; and this is supposed to be about Piers Plowman rather than my own stuff”

Even if I didn’t know that you were from England before, I’d know now. :) At any rate, this does bring up the subsidiary question of why people in general would be more interested in more criticism of a very heavily studied work like Piers Plowman than of some SF book that no one has written about.  Peirs Plowman is ideally situated for your truth tour through the mountains of literature, but whenever anyone writes anything casual about it, they always have to gesture helplessly across the valley towards its facing mountain of unread scholarship.

At some time when I’m not as busy, I’ll write something about _On_.  I’m tempted to make it a giant Fallacy of Imitative Form piece in free verse, but I’ll see.

By on 09/24/06 at 08:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I realized just now, AR, that you’re the Grendel’s Glove fellow. If you’re feeling outnumbered, please don’t get the impression that medievalists exist only to bother you! If that’s the impression I gave, my apologies.

By on 09/25/06 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"...you’re the Grendel’s Glove fellow...“:  I actually won the Grendel’s Glove Fellowship to my old Cambridge College.  It was financially generous, but I had to wear an enormous Monstrous Glove woven of dragon skins the entire time I was there.  And once a year I had to burst into a Cambridge pub, murder half a dozen drinkers, stuff them in my glove and run away.

...please don’t get the impression that medievalists exist only to bother you!...“ Not at all.  The impression I get is that medievalists have much more pressing business to be getting on with than ‘bothering’ me.  I suppose I sometimes get the impression that medievalists feel duty bound aggressively to defend their territory against encroachment from Barbarians and Visigoths and Victorianists and such, by whatever means necessary.  But I daresay that’s because the Land of Medieva is so bountiful and fertile and generally lovely.

By Adam Roberts on 09/25/06 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Incidentally, to return to the questions posed in the post.  I don’t want to flog this to death if nobody’s interested, but I am curious about it.

Can a prophesy be ‘a lie’?  Here’s one: ‘I am going to win the Nobe Prize for Literature’.  A foolish prophesy, undoubtedly; unlikely; absurd.  But ... a lie?

Can allegory handle ‘the lie’?  Or is allegory, as a mode, allergic to the lie?

By Adam Roberts on 09/25/06 at 03:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You have to group prophets into at least two categorizations: those who really do have the ability to prophesy, and those who don’t.  A modern worldview holds that no one is in the first category.  But since most literature that features prophets was written by people who did believe that the first category was populated, then a prophecy could be a lie either because the prophet knew the truth and was purposefully providing a false prophecy, or because they were claiming to have the power of prophecy without really having it.  Additionally, in some belief systems, if the prophet was inspired by a source that provided only lies, then all their prophecies would be lies.

Saying that “I am going to win the Nobel Prize for literature” doesn’t really count as a prophecy instead of a prediction, or a hope, unless you claim that you really are inspired in some fashion.

By on 09/25/06 at 04:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What you say seems right, Rich.

It’s an interesting theological question I suppose.  Can Satan see the future? If he could, and foresaw that he was going to rebel against God and fail, but nevertheless told his followers ‘oh I’m, like, totally going to overthrow that God chappie’, then that would be a lie.  But if he had that foreknowledge, then why would be rebel in the first place?

By Adam Roberts on 09/25/06 at 04:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Some weird snow-blindness meant that I flat missed your comment there, Alan J.; sorry about that ... it’s interesting, and makes my burblings above a bit irrelevant..

the traditional view ... is that when Satan says something like that — or when in the guise of the serpent he tells Eve that she will not die if she eats the fruit of the Forbidden Tree — either he is prophesying what he knows to be untrue or, if he really believes what he says, that very belief is the product of his sin.

This latter makes a lot more sense, surely.  Al Franken, at the end of his Lying Liars and the Lying Lies They Lyingly Tell When Their Lying Mouths Makes Lie-stuff come out Lyingly, Lie, Lie, Lie book (very funny book, btw, or so I thought) reports a conversation he had with a minister of some church or other.  The minister said: ‘you know what the Bible says happens to liars?’ Franken says he expects they go to hell.  ‘No,’ says the minister: ‘it says they begin to believe their own lies.’ Which is, of course, an elegant and rather terrifying version of going to hell.

The alternative is to see the Devil as a sort of hypertrophic Bart Simpson, just mixing it up for the hell of it.

Thus Milton says that the rebel angels are self-tempted and self-deceived. According to this model you can sin your way into epistemic blindness.

Commandment 11: Thou Shalt Not Manoeuvre Thyself into Epistemic Blindness.

By Adam Roberts on 09/25/06 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read the Grendel’s glove thing three times and laughed every time. Thanks.

I have an anecdote that can address the allegory thing, although it sadly leaves the ‘big picture’ alone.

In the conversion narrative of Hermann of Cologne, a twelfth-century Jew who converts to Christianity, Herman has a dream in which an emporer gives him a horse, a bag of gold coins, and other material goods. Iirc, when Herman consults his rabbi about the dream, he learns that it presages great wealth. In fact, Herman learns the “truth” only after he converts, which is that the wealth the dream represents is only the spiritual wealth of his new faith.

Now, the allegory could have been true either way. One can imagine that if Herman had never converted, he may have grown wealthy in his family’s trade of moneylending; but, clearly, the work wants us to believe that the ‘true’ interpretation is only the one that reflects what happened.

I suppose in Herman’s conversion, we’re faced with prophetic allegory operating with amphibolies perhaps more suitable to Delphi than Cologne or Langland’s London. It’s hard to know where Herman and his allegory might take us if we try to follow them through PPl, so, for now, just consider all this just more for the mix.

By on 09/25/06 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the reply, Adam — when you repeated your call for help I just assumed that my epistemic blindness had produced a comment that was beneath contempt. . . .

But seriously, I think there’s something to the “epistemic blindness” line of argument. But maybe that’s just a quirk of mine. When I was a kid I was an astonishingly prolific and inventive liar, and I repeated my favorite lies so often that I eventually completely forgot that I had made them up.

By on 09/26/06 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know what you mean (about being a childhood liar).

Truth versus lies.  It was a big issue in the C19th, and the loudest voices in the debate were the Truth Fundamentalists, like Carlyle.  But isn’t (and I really hope I don’t sound like a jesting pilate when I say this; I’m asking genuinely) isn’t there more than one kind of lie?  Bad lies but also ‘good’ lies?  I don’t mean ‘white lies’ to spare people’s feelings; I mean the strong Derridean-pharmakon type of lies?

To put it another way: there are such things as lies that tell the truth (fiction, for instance).  There may even be kinds of truth that only lies can capture.

By Adam Roberts on 09/27/06 at 04:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For given Man, by birth, by education,
Imago Dei who forgot his station,
The self-made creature who himself unmakes,
The only creature ever made who fakes,
With no more nature in his loving smile
Than in his theories of a natural style,
What but tall tales, the luck of verbal playing,
Can trick his lying nature into saying
That love, or truth in any serious sense,
Like orthodoxy, is a reticence?

(Auden)

By on 09/27/06 at 09:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One footnote to the useful comments above, about Satan’s false pride in his prophetic powers: where there is prophecy, there is also an already accomplished future present in roughly the same way that Asia and Europe are both present, though occupying different spaces.

As a result, if you were a prophet, saying “I am going to win the Nobel Prize” would be exactly the same as saying “Right now I am winning the Nobel Prize.” Thus you can be lying in either of two ordinary sense: lying because you know differently, or lying because you don’t know, as discussed above.

The direction you indicate in your last comments makes me think of Nietzsche: On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, for example. There are lots of other places where Nietzsche writes about “falsehood” with questions similar to yours; I wrote recently about The Birth of Tragedy, where Nietzsche represents art as a lucid dream that encourages a culture opposed (in its beauty and harmony) to the “real.”

I think of the “lie” of art as having at least two consequences:

1) It removes experience (and whatever conclusions that experience implies) from history, and our tendency to be fatalistic about history—in other words, art recovers the truth of possibility by forfeiting the truth of outcomes.

2) It suggests a set of imperfect relations between experiences; it gives itself neither to the absolute singularity of actual individuality (our lives being condemned to uniqueness), nor to the abstract reductions of philosophy (which has no way of representing uniqueness except by empty gestures).

I wonder whether the responsibility of the artist to truth, which you mention above, lies in the relationship between truth and fantasy. It’s like the dilemma in Dorian Gray: when art is bitterly truthful, it ennobles and beautifies life by exposing what is ugly and base. On the other hand, when art is at its most saccharine, one should expect to find an audience of miserable people desperate to escape. For Wilde, art and life are always opposites, because they have a dynamic relationship; he conceives of the artist’s responsibility through these opposites.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 09/29/06 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To save wandering down the corridor, there are a couple of points here that need Langland put into his context as a medieval. First – there is a deep and deliberate (presumably) ambiguity about many of his figures; Lady Meed should not be read as Lady Bribe/Lucre or any of the other versions translators come up with, but simply as Lady Payment. So not good or bad until the payment is associated with either Conscience (good) or Fals (bad). She is amoral, as is money. And allegorical labels are often tricky – for instance Peace in Passus IV represents what we would call appeasement, as he is a figure who settles out of court with Wrong, despite the obvious crimes of the latter. But Peace in Passus 18 is a Daughter of God and an absolute good. So what does ‘Peace’ mean? I think Langland distrusts language although as a poet he has to use it.(plenty of books on this)

Secondly the poem is not just an allegory it is a dream, - much more explicitly so than the Divine Comedy, as Will has a waking and a dreaming life. That raises the issue of the truth-status of dreams. Dreamers are always unsatisfactory as guides. Chaucer’s dreamers are notoriously slow-witted. Not only does the description of Will as a sheep(?) make the reader suspicious from the start, but he is hopelessly dim when it comes to interpretation – even the Tower and the Dungeon have to be laboriously explained to him by Holy Church (and he doesn’t recognise her although she is in every stained glass window, manuscript, biblical commentary etc). The effect this has on the reader is to draw her/him in – we are pleased to be so much cleverer than the narrator, and we end up doing the interpretative work ourselves. Reading dream poetry is a very interactive experience.

It doesn’t undermine the value, even truth, of the dream and its message of course – and I like your link to the efficacy of the sacrament. I’ve seen it as listening to a badly tuned radio – the message is valid, but you can hardly make it out through the crackling; the dreamer is a faulty receiver.

Langland pushes the envelope of allegory – Piers Plowman himself is not an allegorical figure (lots of books on that too), and he keeps shifting mode. He doesn’t claim that finding/recognising truth is easy but is very concerned about the difficulties.

I could go on, I won’t. just to say that PP works if read directly, it doesn’t need all the mountains of scholarship to appreciate/understand/throw it across the room. Perhaps this is a heresy.

By R.P.Field on 10/03/06 at 10:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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