Dissent and literary reading, 1381 and 2018
Last December The Onion published a story that immediately went viral: “Time-Traveling Hillary Clinton Warns Self To Do Everything In Exact Same Way.” “Listen very carefully because we don’t have much time,” Clinton tells her 2016 self. “Make sure you do everything that you’re already intending to do.” The joke depends on the widespread perception that Clinton’s public statements last year, especially her book What Happened, were calculated to exempt herself from blame for Donald Trump’s victory. Of all people, Clinton ought to welcome a do-over, but even in The Onion’s sci-fi fantasy she can’t bring herself to want to do anything differently.
There are no do-overs in electoral politics — but there are in literature. Literature enables readers to revise the past, tour the future, and return to the present armed with a big idea. The Onion headline may be the perfect joke for an age of pessimism, in which we can only ever look forward to more of the same (June update: or worse), but the joke works by neutralizing the imaginative power of fiction. In other contexts, fictionality retains its force.
One of the most remarkable episodes in literary history occurred in southeastern England in 1381, in an earlier age of pessimism. In the summer of that year, peasants, laborers, artisans, and local officials took up arms against the government. The event is known today as the Peasants’ Revolt. The rebels murdered high-ranking administrators, burned buildings and legal documents, and demanded the abolition of serfdom from the adolescent king Richard II. The revolt took place in reality, but it also took place in a poem. In letters circulated around the time of the uprising, the rebel leaders represent themselves as co-conspirators of Piers the Plowman, the title character of a contemporary English poem.
On some level, every revolution has to be imagined in writing before it can happen. The virtuality of literature, its asymmetry with the bare facts of life, turns out to be a major strength. In an interview about his recent book The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner observes that contemporary readers want poetry to do “something that only a revolution could do — to eradicate different kinds of inequality and social differences and violence.” The obverse of this (which is also Lerner’s point) is that in failing to satisfy the desire for real change, poetry becomes terribly important. Poetry can define the negative space in which a revolution becomes thinkable.
That’s exactly what happened in 1381. Piers Plowman is a political and social allegory in alliterative verse. It is a poem in the shape of a search, and what it is searching for is justice in the Christian community. In a radical decision, the poet cast a humble laborer, the title character Piers, as Christ incarnate.
The author of Piers Plowman, a wealthy cleric named William Langland, may have been as mysterious to the 14th century as he is to us. Piers Plowman circulated in manuscripts without Langland’s name attached to it (a typical situation for English poetry of the time). Born into privilege, Langland represents himself as having abandoned the manor-house and chosen a life of asceticism. From this vantage, he criticizes the most powerful members of his society — those who most resemble himself. The ethical message of Piers Plowman is directed primarily to the rich, whose consciences stand in need of a poetic wake-up call.
The political radicalism of Piers Plowman appears through the work of literary imagination. At multiple points, the poem drafts the social world from scratch. Each of these foundations ex nihilo fails in precisely the same way, by generating the unacceptable present reality. In one memorable sequence, Piers the Plowman convenes society by assigning tasks on his farm to a lady, a knight, and laborers. Once their collective labor has produced a surplus, some of the workers put down their tools, head to the tavern, and sing songs, undermining the agrarian social contract.
In the following section, Truth/God sends a pardon to the people detailing the conditions under which they may win salvation. When Piers, with the help of a priest, reads the document, the plowman tears it in two “in pure rage,” declaring: “I will quit my sowing and not work so hard. . .from now on my plow will be made of prayers and penance.” This renunciation and recommitment initiates the second major movement of the poem, which will now recoil from the world and enter the psyche of its narrator, Will.
The scene on Piers’s farm seems to have resonated with the 1381 rebels. Though many of the leaders of the rebellion outranked plowmen, their letters celebrate the power of manual labor. One letter requests that “Piers the Plowman my brother dwell at home and harvest wheat for us.” The rebel preacher John Ball is reported to have asked rhetorically in a sermon, “When Adam dug, and Eve spun, / Who was then a gentleman?” The manual labor of the biblical parents of the human race ennobles work and brings the present-day “nobility” down to earth. It’s an idea that had occurred to Langland, too, who has Piers the Plowman warn the knight on the farm: “In a charnel-house at church, low-born men are difficult to discern, / Or a knight from a knave, there — know this in your heart.”
In December — four days after the Onion article — Sebastian Sobecki uncovered a rebel from Norfolk who adopted the nom de guerre ‘William Longwill’ in 1381. This name mirrors an autobiographical passage in Piers Plowman. Other rebels burned official records, actions that it is tempting to connect with Piers’s tearing of the authoritative pardon.
The rebels assumed an attitude toward Piers Plowman that Lerner says characterizes the avant garde. For them, Piers Plowman was “an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel: It explodes the category of poetry and enters history. The poem is a weapon — a weapon against received ideas of what the artwork is, certainly, but also an instrument of war in a heroic, revolutionary struggle.” Lerner is thinking of the Russian Futurists, but the shoe fits.
In 1381, the rebels had asked a revolution to do something that only a poem could do. The uprising was not successful. Richard II and the nobles quelled the rebellion and executed the leaders. Fourteenth-century unfree laborers would not live to see the abolition of serfdom, only slightly less egregiously oppressive taxation.
Yet the conceptual significance of what had occurred did not escape contemporary observers. A door had opened. Just as the rebellion happened in a poem, so too the official responses took place through the medium of literature. The London lawyer John Gower wrote a poem in which he expressed horror at the events of 1381 by representing the rebels as gibbering animals. An official poetic vision cancelled out an unofficial one (or so Gower reasoned).
Langland responded, too, revising Piers Plowman both intensively and extensively. He took the opportunity for a do-over. Langland returned to the scene of the crime, as it were, with the evident goal of distancing the social imagination of Piers Plowman from the social imagination of the Peasants’ Revolt.
Most notoriously, Langland cut the tearing of the pardon. In the post-uprising version of the poem, Piers never quibbles with the priest, never tears the pardon, and never declares he will retreat from manual to spiritual labor. The dreamer simply wakes up. “A bomb that never goes off,” writes Lerner, “the poem remains a poem.”
Piers Plowman differs from almost all other medieval English literature in that it garnered an early unofficial readership, whose interpretations molded the poem into a weapon its author (we surmise) never intended. We are fortunate to have evidence of multiple versions of the poem. Through them, we can perceive Langland’s response to unsanctioned political violence in the name of Piers the Plowman.
Yet the poem the rebels read was the poem Langland wrote and the poem we know. Between the poetic world and the political world there is a family resemblance. The poem in the revolution confirms the revolution in the poem. Although Langland deleted the tearing of the pardon in the 1380s, this decision did not negate the scene as it stood in the 1370s. Both versions of Piers Plowman continued to circulate.
Neither Piers Plowman nor the Peasants’ Revolt can be a fully satisfying roadmap for revolution today. The poem is oppressively masculine, for example, excluding women from most forms of public life except as allegorical personifications. Women did participate in the 1381 uprising, including as leaders — here the rebellion was more democratic than the poem — but they likely formed a tiny minority among the bands of rebels. Lerner argues that poems inevitably fail to do everything poets want them to do; it might also be true that revolutions inevitably fail to do everything revolutionaries want them to do. That’s not a knock against poems, and it’s not a knock against revolutions, either.
In 2018, a Piers Plowman-like rendezvous of poetry and political violence appears intrinsically unlikely. For one thing, poetry no longer occupies a central position in the public sphere. And then, official present-day writing, like official medieval writing, is much less conceptually supple than Piers Plowman. Since the election, commercial media have been churning out artworks that pander to the anti-Trump zeitgeist: The Handmaid’s Tale, a television series about women’s experience under theocracy; Darkest Hour, a feature film about a world leader who roused his nation to an anti-fascist war; The Post, a feature film about journalists who stood up to a corrupt president by exercising the freedom of the press.
It’s easy to imagine the meetings behind these projects. All of their creators, producers, and main characters are white. The cultural artifacts of #TheResistance serve an understandable therapeutic function, but read as political arguments they rarely venture beyond nostalgia for establishment liberalism. It’s no accident that more probing political visions on screen in recent years have come from black directors and black actors: I’m thinking of Moonlight, Get Out, and most recently Black Panther.
It’s probably a mistake to expect to discover the details of some future revolution in the official aesthetic objects of the present. The example of Piers Plowman and 1381 suggests that revolutionaries are capable of reading texts against the grain and tactically inscribing them in new discourses. One of the letters associated with the rebellion, assigned to the fictional Jack Truman, complains that “truth has been set under a lock” (books were often kept in locked chests in the Middle Ages) and “true love is away.” These despairing sentiments characterize Piers Plowman, but they could only become a rubric for resistance through the prism of a different political position, one not shared by the gentleman cleric William Langland.
In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner mischievously describes hatred as a form of love. Pessimism, too, is a kind of optimism. To expect the worst, you already need to have imagined something better. Literature — and perhaps experimental poetry in particular — hosts the mysterious confrontation between things as they are and things as they could be. It’s not just a matter of legitimating revolution in theory. To judge from the case of Piers Plowman, the experience of building a revolutionary moment can come to resemble the experience of reading literature, even a specific literary work.
Literature has always seemed scandalous when measured in terms of labor and value, whether those terms are socialist, liberal, or fascist. Literature never seems to pay off. Lerner surveys the history of “the question of whether poetry is work or leisure (or somehow both or neither).”
When revising the poem in the wake of the uprising, Langland added a defense of his literary labor, as if testifying before a court that sat in judgment of his life. What Langland could not say was that Piers Plowman had already gone to work, on the streets of London in 1381, when rebels beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury and burned law buildings at the Temple. The operative question facing writers, readers, and revolutionaries may not be, Can literature change the world? but instead, What world will our literature help us make?