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Troubadour Origins of Lyric Self-Transcendence in Nothing

Objectlessness is a preeminent condition of modern secular lyric experience right from its inception with “Farai un vers de dreyt nien” (“I will make a vers of exactly nothing”) by Guilhem de Peitieus (1071-1127), seventh count of Poitiers, ninth duke of Aquitaine, and “first” of the Troubadours. This inaugural poem of the vernacular lyric discloses from the outset the nothingness of the putative object of the lyric and of courtly desire. In this Troubadour’s oeuvre, the intention of the courtly word is already revealed as nothing outside of or apart from itself. In declaring “I will make a vers of exactly nothing” programmatically at the opening of the fourth of his eleven extant “vers” or poems, Guilhem (in Provençal), or Guillaume (in modern French), or simply “William,” negates all the positive content his song might have qua objective communication. But in so doing, he assumes an expressive posture, and he enacts a structure of language and subjectivity that effectively annihilates—rather than positing—any object:

non er de mi ni d’autra gen,

non er d’amor ni de joven, ni de ren au ..?

(there’ll be nothing in it about me or anyone else, nothing about love or youth or anything else ...)

Virtually the same blanket negation as in the first verse, then, is repeated again verbatim with variations in the envoy at the end of the poem—“Fag

Suhrkamp, 1978), 252-56, trans. Rodney Livingstone as “Music and Language: A Fragment,” in Quasi una fantasia: Essays on Modern Music (London and New York: Verso, 1992), 1-6.

2 Text and translation from Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères: An Anthology and a History, trans. Frederick Goldin (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973), 24. ai lo vers, no say de cui” (“I have made this vers, I don’t know what it’s about”).

This poem stands emblematically as the opening composition in the selection of the classic Troubadour anthology Le Parnasse Occitanien, ou Choix des Poésies Originales des Troubadours published in 1819 in Toulouse (Benichet Cadet). In this position, it becomes recognizable as the very first poem of the Troubadour tradition. With its shift away from objective referentiality, declared outright, it stands as a manifesto poem for vernacular lyric. It is taken up in numerous references by other Troubadours, including Raimbaut of Orange in his famous “Escotatz mas no say que s’es” (“Listen, I don’t know what this is”). Other echoes are found in Marcabru, Biraut de Bornelh, Bernart de Ventadorn.[1] Near the culmination of Troubadour literature, and building on these precedents, especially on William’s dreit nien, the “tenson du néant” (tenzo on nothingness) (circa 1230) between Aimeric de Peguilhan and Albertet de Sisteron reflects explicitly on the ontological void at the source of the poem and of the love it sings.

According to Roger Dragonetti, such a poem about nothing “forms a web of pure signs practically without relation to the exterior world” (“Un tel poème formerait alors un réseau de signes purs, sans rapport, ou presque, avec le monde extérieur”). The poem articulates “a desire without object, desire of love completely taken with itself” (“un désir sans objet, désir d’amour épris de lui-même,” 190)—or, in other words, a perfectly narcissistic desire.

Dragonetti analyzes this tendency as Guillaume’s attempt to reconcile spiritual and sensual love. They were deemed irreconcilable by the Platonism of the twelfth century as expressed eminently by three great Bernards: Bernard Sylvestris, of the school of Chartres; Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercian order; and Bernard of Morlaix, a monk of Cluny and author of De contemptu mundi. All arguably rejected sexuality as fallen, and all embraced some form of an aspiration of the redeemed soul to return to a virgin or angelic state. However, when both spiritual and sensual desire alike are revealed as most deeply and truly without object, the two no longer contradict each other. Instead of moving toward incompatible ends, sensuality and spirituality enter into

Origins of Lyric Reflection in Nothing 45 dynamic tension. They become complementary forms of undoing themselves and their finite limitations: each is broken open by the other to the infinite.

Intuitively reaching in this direction, William IX initiates a poetry of formal play (conjured out of nothing) and simulation that is based on repetition. In its lustful playfulness, its scandalous uproariousness as a jeu d’esprit, this poetry is purely “spirituelle” (witty) and has no representational pretenses staking a claim to portray things as they really are, or even just to represent a possible or fictive world. This poetry, strictly speaking, is about nothing. As such, this poetry stands as an immediate inscription of affect, of the joie de chanter—the joy of singing itself.

William’s boisterous, irreverent, impertinent, often obscene manner, as well as its inversion—his remorseful, repentant, supplicant manner (as in “Pos de chanter m’es pres talenz”)—can both be read as further ways of supporting and executing his dissolution of all into nothing. Both are key to producing his characteristically courtly poetic act consisting in a word whose immediate intention is primarily itself. This is achieved through the erasing or effacing of any referential object. This essential absence of the object of courtly love is also effectively monumentalized by Jaufré Rudel’s “amor de lonh” (“love from afar”)—another landmark shaping and displacing the landscape of the Troubadour tradition as a whole.

With the absence of an external referent, the object of love becomes more patently the chant itself. Joy is concentrated in the very incantation of the verse. Jouissance, which can be strongly sexual in connotation, is achieved internally to the lyric and its ecstasy as self-engendered. This is joie de chanter, the joy of singing, and the lyric is its immediate inscription. Such jouissance is self-engendering, but it is also a gift from beyond. Especially this latter aspect finds an irresistible emblem in the skylark and its heavenward ascent, an image with which the inspired poet strongly identifies. This image can be traced from Bernart de Ventadorn (“Can vei la lauzeta mover”) to Dante himself (“Quale alodetta che ’n aere si spazia,” Paradiso XX.73), and it has a long afterlife subsequent to him. We find it singing still, for example, in Romantic poet John Clare’s “The Skylark” and in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lyric “To a Skylark.” This progeny will be pursued further in section 8, once the Troubadour origins of lyric self-reflexivity and its theological troping by Dante have been established as frame.

These self-reflective leanings of the vernacular lyric were to be developed to their limit by Dante in the Paradiso, where they are expressly directed to the divine. However, the emphasis on form for its own sake is not to be taken unilaterally. That is only one direction in which this sort of lyric asks to be read. It does not, after all, exclude equally important readings


Leo Spitzer, L’amour lointain de Jaufré Rudel et le sens de la poésie des troubadours (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

based on presumable—usually negated—referential contents and their ideological underpinnings and social implications.

The poem, taken as an autotelic emanating nucleus of affect voiding reference beyond itself, cannot be understood, in the end, except in terms of its own historical context.[2] To this end, Rainer Warning deftly discusses the public conditions of possibility of the lyric “I.” The purely formal aspect of this poetry tends to suspend and dispel, or at least to sublate and transfigure, this more concrete material-historical referenti-ality. However, it cannot succeed completely or finally in this evacuation. In fact, the voiding of referentiality first becomes fully significant only in connection with the writer’s historical position and situation.

  • [1] Lynne Lawner, “Tot es niens,” Cultura Neolatina 31 (1971): 155-70, places the poem in the context of metaphysics and dialectical culture of the turn from the eleventh to the twelfth century. 2 For text and analysis, see Jacques Roubad, La fleur inverse: L'art des Troubadours, 2nd ed. (Paris: Belles Lettres, 2009), 23-53, who explicitly evokes negative theology as a matrix. This background is evaluated by Michel Stanesco, “L’expérience poétique du ‘pur néant’ chez Guillaume II d’Aquitaine,” Médiévales 6 (1984): 48-68. 3 Roger Dragonetti, “Aux origines de l’amour courtois: La poétique amoureuse de Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine,” in La musique et les lettres (Geneva: Droz, 1986), 169-200.
  • [2] Eva Müller-Zettelmann, “ 'A Frenzied Oscillation’; Auto-Reflexivity in the Lyric,” in Eva Müller-Zettelmann and Margarete Rubik, eds., Theory into Poetry: New Approaches to the Lyric (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 125-46. 2 Rainer Warning, “Lyrisches Ich und Öffentlichkeit bei den Trobadors,” in Christoph Cormeau, ed., Deutsche Literatur int Mittelalter—Kontakte und Perspektiven. Hugo Kuhn zum Gedenken (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1979), 120-59. 3 Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “The Transgression(s) of the First Troubadour,” Stanford French Review 14 (1990): 117-41.
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