Self-Reflexive Fulfillment in Lyric Tradition and its Theological Troping by Dante

The directly manifestational function of language, its faculty of modeling and in some sense making present a higher degree of reality through selfreflexivity, was discovered and exploited already by the Troubadours. The language of song was created by them as possessed of a purpose and meaning all its own. It was not circumscribed by its functioning for directly realistic reference, even though it was supposedly directed to an Other, a superior instance embodied in the lady who was extolled and supplicated. This destination, as is effectively emphasized by Zumthor, tended to lose its objectivity and to become confounded with the song in love with itself. The lady demanding unconditional devotion as domina models the presence of a transcendent ground of meaning in the language of lyric, and precisely this transcendent dimension is what undergoes theological transumption in the Paradiso. It is prepared for by the indispensable precedent of the Vita nuova.' Developed on this basis, the lyricism of the Paradiso serves as a clue to a largely hidden telos of the lyrical impulse at an historical moment particularly favorable for interpreting its metaphysical significance.

Dante understood his effort as vernacular poet as stemming from the tradition of the Italian lyricists and their Troubadour predecessors in Occitanea. Both in the Commedia (most concentratedly in Purgatorio XXIV-XXVI) and in De vulgari eloquentia, Book II, Dante lavishes attention on this lyric tradition as forerunner to his own poetry. However, one of his most radical and far-reaching innovations is to trope this tradition with theology. The theological bent or bias is potentially present within this tradition from its origins, but Dante makes theology programmatically the originary ground of the poetic and prophetic word in his Commedia. In doing so, he is building on the work of predecessors such as Alamis de Insulis in medieval Latin poetic tradition.

Alanus’s De planctu Naturae is already a profoundly theological poem that claims to be the transcription of a divinely inspired dream. Even

1 In “Dante’s New Life and the New Testament: An Essay on the Hermeneutics of Revelation,” The Italianist 31 (2011): 335-66,1 examine this stage of the theologization of lyric. This interpretation, expanded into a book, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

more directly anticipating the Divine Comedy in his Anticlaudianus, Alanus writes:

maiorem nunc tendo liram totumque poetam

deponens, usurpo mihi nova verba prophetae.

Caelesti Musae terrenus cedet Apollo,

Musa lovi, verbisque poli parentia cedent

verba soli, tellusque locum concede! Olimpo?

  • (5.268-72)
  • (A greater lyre I now tune, putting down that of the poet entirely,

I now claim for myself the new words of the prophet.

Earthly Apollo gives way to the heavenly Muse,

And the Muse to Jove; words of the soil yield obediently to words Of the polestar, and the earth cedes its place to Olympus.)

Furthermore, the commentary tradition of the school of Chartres, particularly with Bernard Silvestris, anticipates in a more purely Platonic, sometimes frankly pagan key, aspects of Dante’s theological understanding of poetry? These works illustrate the claims of poetry to mediate and transmit theological revelation. Still, Dante learned how to realize such revelation performatively as lyrical presence in language most essentially from vernacular tradition and especially from the Troubadours. Performance here passes to writing itself—and to how it is read.

As practiced originally by the Troubadours, lyric is the supreme poetry of presence, of jouissance and of sensual plenitude. This is so in spite of (and sometimes because of) the fact that this poetry is also predicated on absence, on the necessary unattainability of its object—paradigmatically, the beloved. It is grounded in a striving after transcendence in the form of the Other as the beloved and reverenced lady, but also in a feeding upon the self in the immanence of the self’s own self-consuming celebration of its joy in singing. That joy is a fullness in its very emptiness of external content. It ferries along a concomitant foregrounding of the purely formal properties of language. This paradox already becomes apparent in the vernacular lyric tradition that Dante historically reconstructs in his treatise on the vulgar tongue (De vulgari eloquentia) and into which he inscribes his own work as a maker of verses, a “rhymer” (“rimatore”

  • 2 Alan of Lille, Literary Works, ed. Winthrop Wetherby (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 380. My translation.
  • 3 Winthrop Wetherbee, Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century: The Literary Influence of the School of Chartres (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972). Ernst Robert Curtius’s Europäische Literatur und Lateinsiches Mittelalter (Bern: Francke, 1948), trans. Willard R. Trask as European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (New York: Bollingen, 1952) remains an orienting landmark in this Platonic landscape. See especially 118-23, plus chapter 12 on “Poesie und Theologie.” or “dicitore per rima” Vita nuova XXV.7). Dante gives this tradition a theological twist in his own poetic magnum opus, thereby fully realizing its inherent significance. Not only his youthful lyrics, but most importantly his last poetry in the Paradiso, with its emblematic rose rounded into a celestial amphitheater, is animated by this extraordinary reinvention of lyric. The Paradiso is an apotheosis of lyric that renews and reveals, as never before, the theologically inspired origins of modern tradition in the vernacular.

Most conspicuously, the Roman de la rose offers Dante a literary precedent and paradigm for the image of the celestial white rose, the “Candida rosa,” that mirrors God in the assembly of the blessed souls enjoying the beatific vision in Paradiso XXX-XXXII. The scene is described with an insistence on self-reflexivity that brings to culmination this overarching motif structuring in filigree Dante’s entire text. The dynamics of a creative and fecund narcissism are omnipresent in the first 4,058 verses of the Roman de la rose by Guillaume de Lorris. The ensuing satirical sequel penned by Jean de Meung generally takes, instead, a pessimistic view of merely linguistic reflexivity. Jean advocates, instead, for literal, physical, profane reproduction. Nonetheless, the positive potential and fecundity of reflection is presupposed and is already clamoring for notice among the Troubadours at the courtly origins of modern lyric poetry, and for Dante its basis is theological. God creates through desire, a desire to see his own being’s likeness mirrored in other beings—indeed a “narcissistic” desire for his own image reflected back to himself. God redeems and sanctifies and beatifies his creation out of this same “self-seeking” motive. By “just desire” (“giusta voglia”), he “wills his whole court to be like himself” (“vuol simile a se tutta sua corte,” III.44-45).

Dante celebrates a new awakening to awareness of self as reflected in the Other in the fresh light of springtime as urged on by the innate promptings of desire, the natural animations of love, in a self-reflexive rhetoric that expresses a budding sensibility and consciousness. He heralds the onset of the new literature and culture of the modern world. He pictures desire of the kind represented by the self-reflexive jouissance of lyric ecstasy in the lark’s objectless singing for sheer joy that embodies just such a creative narcissism. This desire powers the perception whereby things can again be perceived in their origin and ontological truth.

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