Penance Terminable and Interminable reads Piers Plowman as a penitential poem. The dissertation will argue that Langland’s repeated staging of penitential fantasies, tropes, and structures of feeling helps illuminate the narrative procedures of late medieval allegory, even as it points to conceptual disturbances internal to the category of penance itself. Langland, on this account, resists the reduction of penance to the moralizing fantasies of pastoral theology; in part for this reason, the poem’s interest in penance cannot be subsumed within more confessional narratives of Foucauldian historiography. Building instead on a tendency within recent Langland scholarship to think through Aristotelian accounts of ethics and enjoyment, on the one hand, and psychoanalytic accounts of longing and desire, on the other, the dissertation argues that penance is a temporally dilated and open-ended structure of activity—one in which sin is made legible as suffering, and suffering takes on a redemptive form. But for Langland, the relays and transitions between sin, suffering, and salvation are neither smooth nor straightforward. In one Passus after another, fascinated with the way peculiar styles of impasse shed light on the ways penance goes wrong, Langland produces figures who are entangled in bad, unskillful, and unproductive penance. What lies behind such fascination, this dissertation will argue, is a properly philosophical interest on Langland’s part in making sense of the antinomies intrinsic to penance—antinomies that, on this account, are produced by the slippages and gaps between intention and action, suffering and enjoyment, and retrospective and future-oriented forms of activity. The first chapter sets the stage for the larger inquiry, using Robert Mannyng’s exemplary narratives to ground the historical considerations of the dissertation, while demonstrating how perversion is baked into the very structure of penitential activity. The second chapter examines the complex styles of mirroring and disavowal that tether penitential to sexual activity in Piers Plowman; this chapter is also particularly interested in Langland’s deployment of romance genres. The third chapter turns to Aristotle and Aquinas, using form and matter distinctions to make sense of Langland’s complex mapping of the relationship between sin and suffering. The final chapter turns to Hannah Arendt’s distinctions between work and labor in order to think about penitential reification, the gap between fruitful and fruitless penance, and Langland’s insatiable desire to begin anew.




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