Lyric Self-Reflection and the Subversion of the Proper

The return to self is a necessity of all knowledge. Even the movement of being itself, in the Neoplatonic conception, is a going out or emanation (strophe) from the One followed up by a return (epistrophe) back to the One. In Dante’s cultural heritage, this schema of “procession and return” is the other major paradigm, alongside the Trinity, that figures reality from its source and origin as essentially dynamic self-reflection—a going out from and then a returning to oneself again. All life and reality, from their highest instance, are governed by this structure.

Odysseus’s nostos or return home was read allegorically in the Hellenistic world as a figure for the journey of the soul departing from and returning back to itself like a reflected ray of light. This Greek myth, as a quest to return to the fatherland, contrasts typologically with the narcissist’s speculative turning in upon self. Yet, in its Latin transmogrification, the myth’s protagonist becomes himself a sort of narcissist full of deceit. Virgil’s “Ulysses” masterminds the deception of the wooden horse bringing about the fall of Troy (Aeneid II). Ovid’s Ulysses’s employs crafty rhetoric to defraud Ajax of Achilles’s armor, provoking the great hero’s suicide (Metamorphoses XIII). This scheming trickster is no longer the archetype of return home to the fatherland: Dante damns Ulysses for leaving father, son, and wife behind in his “mad flight” (“folie volo,”) and rhetorically fabricating a false transcendence (Inferno XXVI. 125). Dante’s Ulysses is a speculative narcissist like Dante himself, but an unrepentant—and finally a fraudulent—one who misses the mark of true transcendence because he lacks the divine grace that saves Dante (Purgatorio 1.130-33) and reconciles this form of speculative narcissism with return to the Father.

Reflection is required to penetrate the deeper sense of these myths. Contra epic teleology, in lyrical song all reality becomes—or is revealed as—reflection and even self-reflection. There is no stable goal or freestanding object, but rather a circle of self-referentiality. This reflective


See Franke, The Revelation of Imagination, 355-59, on “Discursive Traps: False Transcendence and Bad Faith.” self-constitution of the real takes place through what Catherine Pickstock analyzes as “non-identical repetition.” The Trinity is an archetype for this quasi-circularity, and lyrical language is its preeminent mode of expression. Such non-identical or supra-identical sameness is subversive of the proper in the sense of anchorage to an extra-linguistic referent. The subject, the lyric “I,” from this point of view, is just another object that gives way in a general assault on objective being.

By ungrounding language in this way, lyric can become a subversive force—contrary to the sense assigned it by Mikhail Bakhtin, who attacks lyric for being inherently reactionary (section 49). Self-reflexivity forms the basis of a metaphysical dynamism in which identity is actively synthesized rather than imposed as objectively given. These aspects of self-reflection belong to any complete picture of lyric: they form a counterweight to some of its other, more conservative connotations.

The lyric subverts the epic and its linear genealogies and etymologies by substituting in their place an economy of signs, with its infinite series of metaphorical substitutions.[1] Sociologically backgrounding this substitution is the shift from an economy based on real property, particularly land and livestock, to an exchange economy fostered by the rise of a banking system and the use of currency. The modern lyric involves construction of a self-referential system of signs structured by binary oppositions—joy/pain, singing/silence, hope/despair—in which meaning is always differential. It is, moreover, always metaphorical and never proper. Such meaning consists in a relay always to other signs—without anchoring reference to anything extra-linguistic. This circular self-referentiality is read by many following Bloch as subversive, for it obscures reference:’ it breaks links with the world and with the word’s own etymological origins or proper sense.

Bloch emphasizes the repercussions on aristocratic genealogy:

Thus romantic love, as it was invented in the 12th century, introduces a potential obliqueness of family line that remains intimately tied to the process of linguistic deflection. Rhetoric ... the art of poetry, constitutes, in fact, the map of such potential digressions.


The poetic figure mobilizes language’s playful potential, destabilizing fixed and proper meaning. This instability is fully registered in the Leys d’Amors (1328-38), Guilhem Molinier’s treatise prescribing stylistic codes and grammatical norms for adjudicating Provençal poetry contests. Disruptive marriages between rhetorical terms and figures such as Barbarism and Solecism, the sister of Diction, or Schematism, etc.,

Lyric Self-Reflection and Subversion 303 give rise to monstrous offspring. The dynamic mobility of poetic language threatens the straightness, orthodoxy, rectitude, and regularity of language. This is felt acutely also in Alanus de Insulis’s De planctu Naturae, which associates poetry with perversion and particularly with sexual deviation. Natura complains (in metrum primum) against the sodomite or “hermaphrodite,” who extends too far the laws of grammar (“Grammaticae leges ampliat ille nimis” 1.20). Jean de Meun, then, employs the myth of the castration of the father (Saturn) giving rise to dissemination in the sea and the birth of desire (Venus) as an allegory for the dismemberment of meaning. Jean’s text, following out the implications of the myth of Saturn’s mutilation, breaks with Guillaume de Lorris’s allegorical, hierarchical truth and disseminates meaning in free-floating, ever-to-be-supplemented poetic forms and formlessness.

The figure of Peter Abelard (1079-1142) gruesomely instantiates, in both body and mind, the mutilations that menace wholenss here. He upset the canonical, inherited intellectual order with his logical investigations and also violated moral norms—for which he suffered in his own flesh, being castrated by Eloise’s male relatives as punishment for socially transgressive sex. For Bloch, “Abelard’s status as the arch-interrupter of genealogy is obvious in the association with castration, in his attitude toward authority, in his doctrine of the Trinity” (145). Even Abelard’s denial of the reality of universals orients this problem away from foundational metaphysics toward dialectical logic and linguistics. All nouns, including general names, refer only to particular things. Thus a thing can be only itself: universality is reserved for concepts or common nouns that apply to many things. Without a foundational self, self-reflection becomes a proliferation of reflections as mere images of nothing original.

The related narrative of the subversiveness of lyric is part of the truth, but not all. What this story leaves out is the transcendent foundation that is not graspable as this or that—and thus cannot serve as a criterion for separating the proper from the improper. Self-reflection can be a way of reflecting a ground or unground higher (or lower) than all divisive dichotomies. Such self-reflection is the royal road to turning upon one’s own presumable starting point or foundation and seizing it as only an image of an ideal toward which one remains in evolution. The ideal is virtual and futural and projects, from within a world of irreconcilable opposites, the unattainable unity after which all strives.

The self-reflexivity of lyric can thus sing “beyond the genius of the sea,” as Wallace Stevens writes in “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Selfreflexivity can orient us even to what is beyond any concept or image such as the sea, which in its amorphousness already has much genius for enveloping all in undifferentiated union. The same could be said of Dante’s Paradiso as “the great sea of sense”—Stierle’s “das grosse Meer des Sinns”—that empties itself into “the great sea of being” (“lo gran mar dell’essere,” Paradiso 1.113). Only self-reflection can create structure and differentiation within an open sea of limitless possible sense.

  • [1] R. Howard Bloch, Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 109-27. 2 John M. Flyer, Language and the Declining World in Dante, Chaucer, and Jean de Meun (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
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