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Pilgrimage and Narrative in the French Renaissance.

Wes Williams, Pilgrimage and Narrative in the French Renaissance: The Undiscovered Country

Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press Oxford, 1998. x + 326 pp. n.p. ISBN: 0-19-815940-4.

This book sets out to be nothing less than a narratological and thematic analysis of French Renaissance writings on pilgrimage, and it probably is to be commended for so grand a vision. Towards its ends, the work undertakes both a study of the themes of pilgrimage and of the broader ontology of the narrative voices in an array of Renaissance pilgrim texts. Ultimately it seeks to reexamine the relationship between worlds, real and textual, as scholarship has defined them to date.

The book's best success is in the latter effort as it does lead the reader to an understanding of (and delineation between) worlds and contexts of pilgrimage. It is, however, difficult to read for reasons that include the scope of its ambitious project and the conceptual confusion which that scope entails. To its credit, the study organizes itself in a series of so-called "dialogues," as its seven chapters and conclusion deploy comparisons and contrasts (arranged thematically, for the most part) between successive pairs of pilgrim authors and those authors' takes on the pilgrimage experience and narration. The confusion sets in early, however, as pilgrimage is understood first to be "always in part a metaphorical practice" (17), and subsequently to be almost anything at all: a "more generally determined philosophical quest" (22); a movement "closer towards the Jerusalem of self-understanding" (45); then something as unforeseeable as "reading romance" (called "an orthodox form of pilgrimage in itself") (192); and finally even staying at home to travel vicariously through reading and thought.

The study does offer rewards, nonetheless, as it leads the reader through informative debate over the merits of pilgrimage within the pilgrimage literature (chap. 3), and description of the route and locus of pilgrimage experience (chap. 4). Chapters 5 and 6 endeavor to elucidate the effects of the theological and normative debates (outlined in the chapters preceding), and to "measure the impact of these debates on the texts and the subjectivities of those who undertook the journey to Jerusalem themselves" (177). This effort steers the study somewhat awkwardly into the narratological theory of Foucault, leaving the reader to puzzle as to the motivation and the expected benefits of such a foray.

Similar ventures, indeed, appear throughout the book, as the project makes its own pilgrimage past the shrines of Kristeva, Barthes and Derrida; allusions are passing and applications of these theoretical models are not sustained, leading the reader again to wonder at their point. Most puzzling of all is the appeal to the genre theory of Northrop Frye (192-93) set, ostensibly, within an application of Foucault (177-209). In general, the various theoretical detours contribute little but confusion to a study which might well stand freely and more cogently without them.

And yet, what could be more bewildering than for the present review, at this point, to arrive at the assertion that Pilgrimage and Narrative in the French Renaissance should figure in every research library collection? So it should, and the reason is as easy to explain as it is compelling. Williams's work leads a double life. On the one hand, the study has its shortcomings, though it certainly has the strengths described above, and it is just as certainly not written without considerable elegance; unfortunately these virtues do not make the book's principal arguments more coherent. However, the documentation and bibliographic apparatus of this study are, on the other hand, nothing short of stunning. Rare indeed is a work of such painstaking and thorough scholarship. Williams merits the greatest praise for contributing a remarkably detailed, complete, and lucidly presented catalog and bibliography of the topic of pilgrimage in Renaissance (and earlier) literature. His book will surely and deservedly be a compa nion to future scholarship on the thematics of pilgrimage.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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