The New Rhetoric of Reflexivity in Geoffrey de Vinsauf

Arguably rhe most provocative medieval rhetorical theorist of the new art form that takes shape in Troubadour poetry is Geoffrey de Vinsauf (fl. 1200). Self-reflexivity for Geoffrey, as for many modern theorists to follow, is bound up with a kind of evacuation of proper or literal meaning or determinate reference. The very emptiness of extrinsic content is understood from the outset to invest self-reflection with unlimited potential for productive creativity of images and fecundity in non-identical tropings and conceptual creation. This is the horizon for Geoffrey’s treatment in his Poetria nova (ca. 1210) of the problem of reflexivity in a form illuminating the origin of a modern poetics already in the midst of the Middle Ages.1 Already Geoffrey is obsessed with novitas, or with making the old new (rejuvenatio). Formal innovation and verbal renovation are the very life of literature, its perpetual rejuvenation. Some new inflection in its use gives the obsolete (caduc) term a wholly new lease on life making it, in effect, “modern.”

The treatise’s orientation to opening in original ways a precocious modernity has been emphasized by modern critics.[1] Alexandre Leupin presents Geoffrey’s project as self-consciously inaugurating a programmatically new approach to poetics. Leupin stresses especially the blurring of content and form in Geoffrey’s discourse as theoretical but at the same time richly and often enigmatically poetic. Geoffrey’s work abundantly employs the figures it explicates. This means that the newness in question is generated precisely by engines of self-reflection, by implicit reflection

Reflexivity in Geoffrey de Vinsauf 201

of the work on and by its own style. Though presented in the guise of a technical and pedagogical manual, “the Poetria nova actually transforms its own doctrine into a metaphoric veil for the speculative and specular enterprise that is its true aim” (Leupin, 121). Specular self-reflection drives Geoffrey’s rhetoric of novelty.

In these optics, poetry as radical fingere opens into a “bottomless specularity” (123). Geoffrey discovers and attempts to trace “the reflexive movements of this specular dynamism” (122). Leupin underlines the fact that the figure of transumptio for Geoffrey is attached to no proper meaning but is an empty space of exchange between one figure and another, a mere “intermediate step, signifying nothing in itself but proffering transition” (“médius gradus, nihil ipse significans sed praebens transitum”), in words borrowed from Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria 8.6.38.

The upshot is that the transumptio functions like a mirror for self-reflection:

Talis transumptio verbi

Est tibi pro speculo: quia te specularis in illo

Et proprias cognoscis oves in rure alieno

  • (802-4)
  • (Such a metaphorical use of a word

serves you as a mirror: for you see yourself reflected in it

And recognize your own sheep in an alien landscape.)

However, as Leupin points out, the mirror or speculum “is no more than an absence.” Pure reflexivity makes everything a revelation of what is absolutely other to any possible description. Leupin puts this in terms that match our description of poetry at its modern origins: “As the blank depth of writing, the mirror has no meaning per se, but by its very vacuity allows objects (the two terms of a comparison, poetry and history, etc.) to reveal what is radically other in each of them” (138). Hence, in conclusion, “Geoffrey of Vinsauf theorizes the speculum as that which reveals alterity in and of itself” (140). This models the opening to otherness that we have discovered as produced, paradoxically, by se//-reflection in the practice of the lyric by Dante and his Troubadour predecessors.

In Fiction et incarnation, his broad, speculative synthesis of medieval literary thought and theology, Leupin views Geoffrey’s poetics of self-reflexivity as ushering in the modern scientific age. Leupin connects the origin of modern science to Christianity by stressing the doctrine of the Incarnation as the fundamental “epistemological break” (“coupure


Alexandre Leupin, Fiction et incarnation: Literature et théologie au moyen âge (Paris: Flammarion, 1993).

épistémologique,” 7-18) that distinguishes the West and enables it to develop its empirical science and applied technology. But on its other, complementary side, this same age of self-reflection is also the age of fiction. Leupin traces this birth of modernity to the Middle Ages and specifically to their drawing out the consequences of the Incarnation in the domains of both science and literature (“... le Moyen Âge, en tant qu’il s’efforça de tirer les consequences de l’incarnation, est bien le lieu de naissance de notre proper modernité dans le domaine de la littérature aussi bien que de la science,” 18). The idea that divine perfection could enter, inhabit, redeem, and perfect the material, mundane universe was a revelation and reversal of all ancient philosophies, an irreparable rupture in what, to this extent, is wrongly designated as a unitary Western tradition.

Leupin works from Alexandre Koyré, who articulates an historical understanding of modern science as building on medieval-Scholastic scientific breakthroughs.[2] Koyré in turn draws on Alexandre Kojève, for whom modern science originates uniquely in Christian culture, having been rendered possible by the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. This cultural watershed of the Incarnation has been underscored specifically in relation to Dante. In the Incarnation of God in Christ, the dialectic of self-reflection breaks open to an immediacy—the concrete presence of the Absolute—that Dante interprets poetically and theologically. Science and poetry emerge in modernity as complementary ways in which selfreflection constructs the objectively real (compare section 28) under the sign of a theology of the Incarnation.

  • [1] English text available in Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Poetria nova, trans. Margaret F. Nirns, rev. ed. Martin Camargo (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2010). However, I have myself translated directly from the Latin text in Godofredo de Vinsauf, Poetria Nova, ed. Ana Calvo Revilla (Madrid: Arco Libros, 2009). 2 Ernest Gallo, ed., The Poetria Nova and Its Sources in Early Rhetorical Doctrine (The Hague: Mouton, 1971). 3 Alexandre Leupin, “Absolute Reflexivity: Geoffrey de Vinsauf,” ed. Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Schichtman, Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987). Reprinted and revised in Alexander Leupin, Barbarolexis: Medieval Writing and Sexuality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989). Citations are from the former.
  • [2] Alexandre Koyré, “Les origines de la science modern: Une interpretation nouvelle,” in Etudes d’histoire de la pensée scientifique (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), 61-86. 2 Alexandre Kojève, “L’origine chrétienne de la science moderne,” in Mélanges offerts à Alexandre Koyré (Paris: Hermann, 1964), vol. 2, 295-306. 3 Guy P. Raffa, Divine Dialectic: Dante’s Incarnational Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).
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