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The Original Event of Language in Modern Lyric Tradition

Language is absolute not in anything that it denotes or designates by its ineluctably differential logic, but rather in what it is as an event of being. This event is what we must return to self-reflexively in order to ponder the origin of anything meaningful, including the world itself. However, this ontological event of language cannot be characterized in existing terms of any language. We cannot grasp what it is, but only that it is. To this end, Giorgio Agamben studies particularly the way that language—and exemplarily the language of lyric—points to the place of its own taking-place. Agamben reads the Troubadours as showing that the place of origin of the poetic word can be indicated only negatively. It is experienced as nothing.

Agamben brings to focus in the poem the negativity of the origin of language from the experience of the abyss—or of no pre-established meaning or given object. The poem triggers an experience of the nihil. This is made explicit by the Troubadour songs themselves. The nihil is expressly the theme of the tenzo by Troubadour Aimeric de Peguilhan and Albertet de Sisteron— who is cited by Dante in De vulgari eloquentia as affording an example of the highest type of poetic construction.

Mas ieu faz zo q’anc om non fes, tenzon d’aizo qi res non es;

q’a razon pro m respondrias,

mas al nien vueil respondatz;

et er la tenzos de non-re.

  • (VI.1.9)
  • (But I am doing what no man ever did, making a tenzo of what is nothing;

you would surely respond to a razo, but I want you to respond to nothing; it is the tenzo of nothing.)


Giorgio Agamben, II lingnaggio e la morte: Un seminario sul luogo della negativita (Turin: Einaudi, 1982).

The art of the Troubadour is the art of finding—literally trobar—the word as it springs from its place of origin in Nothing. As the invention of an original language, poetry in a certain sense creates from nothing. This is not quite creation ex nihilo in the theological sense, for poetry shapes language taken as a material that already exists. It is rather an art of “making” (poiesis), and its means are considered traditionally within the frame of rhetoric.

Classically, the poetic topos is the place of the origin of language, of the emergence of the word from inarticulate no-thing. As such, language is understood to be a metaphysical revelation, a revelation of being itself. As Émile Benveniste shows in Problèmes de linguistique générale, the Aristotelian categories are categories of language, but not of language in the modern, nominalist sense of only a representation of something that exists independently. They are rather to be understood as originary revelation—or as a showing forth of the possibilities and modalities of being itself. The Aristotelian categories (substance, accident, quantity, quality, relation, etc.) reveal not fixed forms of language so much as language in its emergence as the showing forth and originary articulation of being.

After Aristotle, however, classical rhetoric generally presupposed language as something already given. The “art of invention” (ars inveniendi) was a process of finding and selecting the right tropes from among those available: Latin tropus and tropare are connected etymologically also with trobar in the sense of “find”—as in the French “trouver.” This classical conception of “topics”—beginning from Aristotle’s Topics—had devolved from the experience of the event of language as a shining forth of the word, an “argumentum” (from argentum, silver, hence connoting a flash of insight), to a technique of memory that operates by rummaging through linguistic commonplaces or loci communi. In the more original sense, we could say that what is produced by the art of trobar is a “work” (in French travail = Spanish trabajo) as well as a “find” (trouvaille).

The Troubadours, according to Agamben, rediscover in these terms the experience of the origin or “event” of language. The Provençal poets, at the dawn of modern poetry, thereby surpass classical topics. Specifically through Amor, they attain to an original experience of the event of the word. At stake in courtly song is not psychological or biographical experience—as reflected in the razos and vidas that spring up around the Troubadour poems to introduce and comment on them—so much as an ontological event of language. Agamben traces the razo de trobar, or the art of composition in Provençal poetry, from the ratio inveniendi, the art of invention of classical rhetoric. The topical word may, of course, be found by the mnemonic techniques of rhetoric as already given, but more originarily the word springs from amorous desire as invention of the new.

The Troubadours experience the event of language as love, as Amor or desire understood in a sense derived in part from Augustinian inner illumination or inspiration. This event exceeds words; it is even liable to being cancelled or reversed by being glossed in words. This glossing takes shape particularly with the razos and vidas that supply prose interpretations of the Troubadours’ lives and works.[1] They are a later accretion of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They were composed in Italy at a significant remove from the origin of Troubadour poetry in Occitanea, even if they are written in the Old Provençal language. Like the Vita nuova's ragioni, the Provençal razos can state the reasons or causes that give rise to the poetry, as well providing commentary on it.

As delineated by Gregory Stone, the naming of the Troubadours— giving them their particular historical identities—was their death. Such naming occurred first in the razos and vidas, once they began to appear, supplying authors’ lives and circumstantial commentaries as background for the songs. But in its primordial form, Troubadour song was rather anonymous and universal. It was anyone’s and everyone’s song, independently of any individual identity or life story. Such song, at its core, is simply language itself in the sense of a universal paradigm or “grammar”—the rules and paradigms that enable speech.

The referent of song is not historically determinate: the song can be recited by anyone anywhere and has no fixed meaning. Stories, in contrast, are about individual protagonists, and they grow old like the persons they are about. But song is perpetually new: a breaking out into song understands itself as without reason or antecedent history. Stone quotes Jean Renart (twelfth-thirteenth century), who plants melodies— chans (songs) and sons (sounds)—in his narrative romance Le roman de la Rose, or Guillaume de Dole (early thirteenth century) in order that it may be always a “new thing” (“une nouvele chose”) and “new every day” (“nouviaus toz jors”). To give song a particular origin in an author and a life story is its death. When the pro-nomen, the generic pronoun “I,” becomes a nomen, a name, the impersonal singing voice becomes an individual subject, and the Troubadour dies.

In this perspective, Troubadour lyric shows up as originally not a communication of a particular speaker but rather an impersonal song repeating the origin of language as such. This is implicitly the perspective of Catalun Troubadour Raimon Vidal’s Occitan grammatical treatise Las razos de trobar (c. 1200). The poetry’s true object is the universal

language of lyric more than facts about individual poets. However, the two are made to interpenetrate by Dante in his deepening of the quest for the origin of language through theological-existential reflection.

Particularly with Dante’s Vita nuova, the poetic impersonality of Troubadour lyric becomes individual and autobiographical by implicating a real historical subject.[2] Dante invests heavily in the biographical contextualizing of his poems in the Vita nuova, but at the same time he heightens their orientation to a transcendent mystery. They remain universal utterances in spite of the narrative frame imposed on them. Dante combines and adapts the genres of the cansos, vidas, razos, and also grammars (whence the division} to produce his own unique amalgam.

This hybrid genre—at the simplest level the prosimetron—has proved to be something of an enigma occasioning the most divergent interpretations. Nonetheless, it clearly demonstrates Dante’s penchant for creating a summa of all genres available to him in the cultural field in which he works. Implicated is surely—and centrally—also the turn to nothingness that marks song since its inception (as explored previously in section 6). Dante’s experience in the Vita nuova builds up to and ends with the Void created by Beatrice’s death. Dante’s libella suspends its quest in expectant waiting for the revelation of other means of access to its now glorified Lady (XLII). With all its self-reflective mirrorings, the Vita nuova produces a detailed portrait of Dante himself, yet it yearns toward someone (w)hol(l)y O/other.

  • [1] Biographies des Troubadours: Textes provençaux des Xllle et XlVe siècles, ed. Jean Boutière and Alexander H. Schutz (Toulouse: Edouard Privât, 1950). 2 Gregory B. Stone, The Death of the Troubadour: The Late Medieval Resistance to the Renaissance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 1-12. 3 See, further, Paul Zumthor, Speaking of the Middle Ages (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986) and Leo Spitzer, “Note on the Poetic and Empirical T in Medieval Authors,” Traditio 4 (1946): 414-22.
  • [2] Olivia Holmes, Assembling the Lyric Self: Authorship from Troubadour Song to Italian Poetry Book (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 120-44. 2 Elizabeth Wilson Poe, From Poetry to Prose in Old Provençal: The Emergence of the Razos, the Vidas, and Razos De Trobar (Birmingham, AL: Summa, 1984), Chapter V: “The Poetics of Copying: The Scribe as Artist in the Chansonniers and Dante’s Vita Nuova.”
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