I admire writers who boil down to a (relatively) brief essay the arguments they have elsewhere explored in long books. This is my attempt to capture the gist of my new 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, ainigma identified what the language of the poems associated with Orpheus and Homer have in common with Delphic oracles. Ainigma is often translated “riddle,” but Greek had another term, griphos, for verbal puzzles that involve mere puns and tricks with letters—and that mostly 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.
The point of a griphos riddle is the contest, something ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed as after-dinner entertainment. An ainigma, on the other hand, aims at a shared insight into 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 (though in medieval usage, the native Germanic word redel encompassed the whole territory). 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 the term 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, whatever literary means they use, 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 readers into never-ending contemplation that grows from new interpretive 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 a playfulness different from 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 older authors rarely ask this question outright, they often suggest a process of reading that leads to gradual growth both in understanding and in desire 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 the book of nature as well as the action of God in history down to their own time and in the end. Medieval encyclopedias and devotional works exemplify the same approach, as seen in frequent titles that include the Latin word for mirror, speculum. 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. And, as one might imagine with a grandfather who 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, he is very much an enigma. Scholars often call his poem enigmatic, in a loose sense, in order to suggest what makes its difficulty worth reading. It is enigmatic, in a medieval sense, 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, we have 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, which could also be served by the kind of poetry its author was trying to write.
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, whether or not seen as infinitely meaningful 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. As necessary as it is 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 a more affirming, imaginative, and empathetic stance, a dynamic captured in Ricoeur’s aphorism, “To explain more is to understand better.” Teachers and students 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, and a helpful word, in the ancient poetics and hermeneutics of enigma.
The didactic and the esoteric modes each serve ideology and power, which is mostly what the hermeneutics of suspicion are suspicious of. Suspicious critique that finds an agenda behind everything often takes the further, deconstructive step of showing that this agenda is an arbitrary construct that does not bear scrutiny but dissolves into self-contradiction. Critique tends to set itself up as a privileged, esoteric discourse that renders everything else either didactic or esoteric. One way or the other, the hermeneutics of suspicion risks excluding the possibility of the enigmatic.
Yet “enigmatic” remains a member of what seems a dwindling species: an almost unreserved term of approbation for ambitious literary or other artistic works. It has survived the loss of theological consensus that nurtured a sacramental approach to the world. It gained strength in opposition to revivals of classical decorum. And it seems to be weathering the rise of suspicious critique in the humanities, as well as the accompanying ascendance of science as the language of truth.
But how can we still talk about the enigmatic? One answer is by recovering its vertical dimension. One of the fruits of suspicion in the humanities is suspicion of suspicion: not so much suspicion turned on itself, perhaps, but mutual suspicion among different schools of critique (Marxian, deconstructive, psychoanalytic, Foucauldian…), so that eclecticism and radical pluralism open the way again for theological perspectives. The history of the enigmatic suggests that a rich affirmation of horizontal, human meaning may depend on an equally rich vertical reference.
At the same time, however, the Christian understanding of the enigmatic is fully incarnational, in the sense that it affirms the accommodation of divine truth to the conditions of human embodiment. It also reckons with human finitude and fallibility. Enigmatic language reminds us of the limitations of all attempts to articulate what transcends scientific reduction. What these limitations withhold behind the curtain of mystery, however, they also give by opening the entire theater of creation and history as moments of potential revelation. In the authors such as Dante and Langland who fully embraced a poetics of enigma, this path brought suspicion of precisely those authorities that claimed to be sacred. It looked for truth rather in the victimized and outcast. In this respect, the critical movements focused on the political margins—feminism, post-colonialism, race and ethnic studies, queer theory, disability studies, even ecocriticism—can find in the enigmatic an alternate genealogy. In the road beyond oneself to the other, there are no shortcuts, either vertical or horizontal.
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.