Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Julie Orlemanski reviews The Arts of Disruption: Allegory and Piers Plowman

Nicolette Zeeman. The Arts of Disruption: Allegory and Piers Plowman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 432 pp.

Review by Julie Orlemanski

8 June 2022

What is allegory? The question remains alluring to both theorists and historians of literature. In this sensitive, deft, and deeply learned monograph, Nicolette Zeeman puts forward a distinctive answer. Allegorical narrative, on Zeeman’s account, occurs “at the confluence of any two or more relatively distinct and mutually commenting discourses” (p. 7, emphasis original). It “makes meaning out of overlaps but also tensions and aporias between narrative and gloss, narrative and narrative, and even gloss and gloss” (p. 9). The essential criterion is that “whatever languages are at work in an allegorical narrative, they are used to comment on each other” (p. 7). At stake in this redefinition is the rejection of a model of allegory that necessarily revolves around the poles of myth and elucidation or analogues like narrative and interpretation, the concrete and the abstract, and earthly and metaphysical significance. Instead, wherever recognizably contrastive discourses come together to speak across, and about, one another—there is allegory.  

Readers interested in a general theory of allegory will find these claims persuasively laid out in the introduction, “Allegory and Undoing.” There, Zeeman acknowledges her departure from theories like those of Jon Whitman and Gordon Teskey and connects her account to the claims of Walter Benjamin, Angus Fletcher, Maureen Quilligan, and Deborah Madsen, among others. While Zeeman’s definition is notably pared down and open-ended, general tendencies nonetheless follow from it. For instance, allegory’s discursive disruptions often transpire sequentially and episodically, with whole sections of narrative standing “in dialectical and glossatory relation to each other” (p. 11). Allegory tends to assume “difficult, but also paradigmatic, form” in the shape of “‘ironic’” figures, which yoke together unlike things under a common name (p. 11). Finally, allegory shares with “many forms of religious discourse” the tendency “towards critique, anti-materialism, iconoclasm and apophasis” (p. 15), insofar as meaning emerges not within language but between discourses in an interstitial space that is not itself enunciated or represented. Over the course of the introduction, Zeeman’s unconventionally broad definition is clarified with examples from the Roman de la Rose, a thirteenth-century allegorical poem in Old French, and Piers Plowman, the fourteenth-century Middle English allegory that stands at the heart of Arts of Disruption. Although Zeeman hangs back from a programmatic account of how her definition might change the study of allegory, readers will likely find it exciting to contemplate.

A broad range of readers will also be interested in the excursus that follows the introduction. It offers two significant modifications to how scholars have approached personification heretofore. Zeeman first emphasizes the “speakerly aspect of personification,” as opposed to the trope’s much-studied metaphysical significance (p. 20). Second, she demonstrates the utter ubiquity of dialogue and debate as frameworks for the medieval practice of personification. While personification and allegory do not always go together, as she acknowledges, we better understand their combination in light of personification’s most pervasive usage—for the contrasting, conversing personae that medieval writers employed to teach, persuade, introspect, hypothesize, and play. Here as elsewhere, Zeeman’s scale of analysis modulates from rhetorical trope to genre and back again. Throughout Arts of Disruption such varied scales and grids of interpretation—including topos, theme, iconography, episode, and narrative plot—move across one another to disclose previously unnoticed units for interpretive consideration.

Most of this hefty book is not addressed to the wider audience of the "allegory curious" but instead to Langlandians (experts in the study of William Langland, presumed author of Piers Plowman) and specialists in medieval English writing, especially religious writing. Following the introduction and excursus, Arts of Disruption falls into five parts of two chapters apiece. Each part treats different “allegorical narrative structures” as they appear within Piers Plowman and the broader intellectual and religious culture from which the poem emerged (p. 372). These five parts address, respectively, paradiastolic personifications (vices masquerading as virtues, or virtues slipping toward vice), opposition in logic and debate, the rhetorical and apophatic frisson of verbal violence, entanglements of sin and natural illness, and, finally, the shaping role of romance quest narratives, particularly those concerning the Grail. These disparate narrative structures are all shown to play a vital role in Piers Plowman. Across ten chapters, Zeeman traces them through medieval textual milieus and into the poem, where they consequentially “undo” themselves and disorder one another as part of allegory’s disruptive arts.

The insights of Arts of Disruption are not packaged for ready transposition to different canons or archives. The book is theoretically informed but not eager to be taken up as theory. Instead, it prioritizes the conscientious historiography of themes and ideas and a mode of literary interpretation that is nuanced, discriminating, and somewhat restrained. Its greatest impact will be no doubt in the interpretation of Piers Plowman. Nonetheless, all scholars of allegory will find generative provocation in its introduction and excursus as well as a model of judicious historical criticism realized throughout.