From Lyric Idealization to Epic Spiritual Journey of Self-Perfection

When the protagonist lover, Amant, in the Roman de la Rose looks into the Fountain of Narcissus, he does not in fact see anything recognizable as his own image: he sees, instead, an idealized, unified image of the Garden. To be sure, the world of the Garden itself reads as a narcissistic


Copyright©! 962 by William Carlos Williams. Used with permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Lyric Subjectivity and Narcissism 295 projection, a correlative image of the self-reflexive subject. But it idealizes and ennobles and universalizes the self—and thereby becomes a stimulus for growth, as is appropriate to the garden setting.

The inherent narcissism of courtly love is evident early on in the tradition, for example, in Bernart de Ventadorn’s seeing himself in his lady’s eyes. Contemplation of this ideal beauty and unapproachable Other is really a form of contemplating himself as exalted by this relation. Yet, because the image the courtly lover sees in his mistress’s eyes is an idealized image of himself, it inspires him to transcend his own present state and its inadequacy. To this extent, the courtly quest dovetails, and may even coincide, with Christian spiritual journeys of self-perfection.

In line with Genesis, Augustine’s teaching on the vestigia in De trinitate had suggested that our own image seen within ourselves, more deeply considered, is an image of God.11 This image contains a call to become what we truly are. What is most proper to humans is the image of God in them. In his Sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard repeatedly recurs to the likeness (iam in aliquo similes) between the soul’s self-knowledge and its knowledge of God.[1] Consonantly, Dante’s final vision of God reveals to him “our effigy” (“la nostra effige,” XXXIII. 131). This is why idealizing, dynamic self-reflection does not stop with self-enclosure and fixation (and thus symbolically death, as in the Ovidian myth) but carries over into transcendence toward God.

Dante deploys this pattern of reflection of self into a higher ideal in innumerable instances and, in fact, as the structural pattern for the Paradiso as a whole. This final work is the culmination of a trajectory that can be traced from the Vita nuova through the Convivia's aspiration to human perfection in the contemplative knowing of God. Definitively in the Paradiso, self-reflexive courtly loving drives the intellect with its Platonic eros toward a higher, feminized version of itself. Dante never lets go of the initial erotic impulses that awaken him to love and propel him forward—enticed by the irresistible beauty of Beatrice—all the way to the vision of God.

Tristan Kay outlines this trajectory by contrasting Dante with contemporary lyric poets, notably Guittone d’Arezzo and Guido Cavalcanti, whose spiritual quests require them, in contrast, to renounce erotic love. Kay studies Dante’s redemptive program of lyric against the background of tensions over several centuries between sensual and spiritual love in secular and Christian discourses, which both feed into Dante’s original synthesis. For Kay, Dante’s Vita nuova “proposes a new, boldly integrative solution to the moral tension at the heart of the lyric tradition. Its

mode of conversion transcends, rather than reinforces, a dualistic lyric paradigm whereby the poet must choose between his beloved and God” (31). This conversion to a transcendence integrating the spiritual and the sensual is accentuated to its acme in the Paradiso.

Further articulating this transcendence of dichotomous logics, Moevs demonstrates philosophically the illusoriness of any dualistic subjectobject optics in the Commedia’s metaphysical outlook.[2] Heather Webb, concordantly, pushes Dante’s experience of the other person in Beatrice to the limit where it coalesces with experience of the divine. At the deeper source of love, there is no discernible difference between the beloved and God. Self-reflection and its avatar in the erotic relation are the powerful means Dante employs in his pursuit of the Absolute. Self and beloved Other are eventually unveiled as equally illusory reflective reductions or mirages of an indivisible absoluteness of Love.

  • [1] Goldin draws out this connection in the Epilogue to The Mirror of Narcissus. 2 Etienne Gilson, L’Esprit de la philosophic medieval (Paris: Vrin, 1987 [1932]), Chapter XI, examines doctrines of Bernard de Clairvaux, Aquinas, and others on self-knowledge and its inherent dynamic of transcendence. 3 Kay, Dante's Lyric Redemption: Eros, Salvation, Vernacular Tradition.
  • [2] Moevs’s condenses and focuses his teaching on this theme in “Dante: Knowing Oneself, Knowing God,” in Dante, Mercy, and the Beauty of the Human Person, ed. Leonard J. DeLorenzo and Vittorio Montemaggi (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2017), 65-80. 2 Heather Webb, Dante’s Persons: An Ethics of the Transhuman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
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