Lyric Poetics and Psychoanalytical Subjectification

The Narcissus thematics of the Roman de la rose reflect upon its lyric poetics and disclose parallel structures of self-reflexivity. An allegorical narrative, with its promise of a delayed senifiance, conventionally surrounds the courtly lyric enterprise in order to contain the undisciplined lyric impulse to immediacy, which is considered dangerous. This typically entails a moralizing reading, in which self-reflection is to be curbed and overcome. According to Akbari,

[T] he narrator’s increasingly accurate understanding of the meaning of his dream is precisely what causes the narrative to come to an abrupt end. The narrator gradually comes to realize that he, as the lover in the dream, and as the courtly lover in real life, reenacts the experience of Narcissus.

(Seeing through the Veil, 51)

There is, however, also another valence of self-reflection to be teased out of this type-scene. The lyric landscape of the Garden or vergier is “all enclosed”—just like the poem, in which the art of loving is “tout enclose.” Yet this self-encompassing landscape is actually an idealized image of the Lover. The world of the Garden is a reflection of narcissistic subjectivity: the whole world perceived through one’s own love becomes a reflection of oneself. It is through the unified, totalized image of the world as it is mirrored in the water that a unified subjectivity can be constituted in the first place.

According to Jacques Lacan, the idea of a unified world results from the unified image that the child first sees of itself at the mirror stage. Before this, the babe is only an incoherent mass of disparate, mutually contradictory impulses. As in psychology, so analogously in literature, it is through reflexivity that the “I” is constituted. Freud views narcissism


Jacques Lacan, “Le stade du mirroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je,” Revue française de psychanalyse 13 (1949): 449-55.

Lyric Subjectivity and Narcissism 293 as a primordial structuration of the libido: it is “the primal condition in which object-libido and ego-libido cannot be distinguished.”[1] Narcissism contains the potential for both fatal perversion and ideal perfection. Freud helps us to understand how all courtly love is narcissistic. For Freud, sexual over-estimation of the beloved woman—as in the hyperbolic style of superlative “praise” that Dante adopts in Vita nuova XVIII-XIX—is a sure indication of narcissistic springs of affective attachment. The courtly lover-poet abandons his narcissism only to reproduce it as projected onto the woman.

Hence the celebration of the incomparability and uniqueness of an essentially arbitrary selection of one rose chosen from a myriad in the Roman de la rose. It does not matter which object is chosen so long as it serves for the projection of narcissism, which precedes object choice. This indifference of the object can likewise explain Troubadour Jaufre Rudel’s falling in love at a distance with the countess of Tripoli. And has not Dante said as much in equating love simply with having a noble heart (“Amor e ’1 cor gentil sono una cosa, / si come il saggio in suo dittare pone,” Vita nuova, XX.3) in his adaptation of the founding principle of Guinizzelian stilnovism?

Narcissism in its essential structure is objectless. If you take the self as an object, it becomes just like any other object and can no longer be infinite and the principle centering the world. Narcissism is not objectlove it all. It is rather the cathexis of an ego ideal. Lyric, too, is essentially objectless, as we have emphasized in studying its Troubadour origins; it consists in a projective recreation of a world after the image of an ideal. In these lyric optics, language is specular, projecting a world by mirroring infinity (section 56).

The lyric mode asks to be read as the linguistic equivalent of what narcissism is in the sphere of affective psychology. Narcissism, in this sense, consists not simply in a choice of self over other or over the external world as object. Instead, it entails a certain structuration of the world, namely, as a unified, idealized totality: “all being” (“toste 1’estre”) in the Roman de la rose (line 1561). In this case, the self is not in the world but is rather coextensive with it as its ordering and transforming principle. Courtly love constitutes an absolutizing of the subject—it requires total self-possession for total devotion and subjection to an ideal. This willing subjection is what enables “subjectification.”

In the classic lyric poem, the animating principle is the lyric “I” as unity of consciousness. The poem does not have to be about the “I.” No

294 Dante’s Redemption of Narcissus

“I” as such appears, for example, in a purely descriptive, anonymous Japanese haiku, or in Ezra Pound’s

The apparition of these faces in the crowd

Petals on a wet black bough,

or in William Carlos Williams’s

so much depends upon

a red wheel barrow

glazed with rain water

beside the white chickens.

Nevertheless, the unity of the poem is none other than the unity of the vision and language of a speaker, and this projects a unity of consciousness. Narcissism, in the broad sense of self-reflexivity, is a necessary and universal structure of any coherent world. A world is inherently the world of a subject.

Lyric projects a self-enclosed, totalized, ideal world without confronting anything outside itself because it is fundamentally a non-referential use of language. Its world is specularly projected rather than referentially denoted. To some extent, all language works this way, as Part IV of this book undertook to demonstrate. Lyric language most intensely shows this tendency inherent in language generally toward self-enclosure—but also simultaneously toward self-exposure and ultimately explosion of its own self-made frame as surpassed by the ideal it projects. Dante’s Paradise formed as a “Candida rosa” (“white rose”) of blessed souls mirroring the light of God is all a thematic expression, on the grandest scale, of the selftranscending reflexivity of the language that enables Dante to reflect his ineffable experience of Paradise.

  • [1] Freud, “Die Physchologie des NarciEmus” (1914), trans, as On Narcissism: An Introduction in The Standard Edition of the Complete Pyschological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans, and ed. James Strachey, vol. 14 (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), 73-102. 2 Rouben C. Cholakian, Troubadour Lyric: A Psychocritical Reading (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), x, maintains that especially medieval lyric, with its dramatized interiority and subsemantic subtexts, calls for such a psychoanalytic reading.
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