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Self and Other between Order and Chance—Ambiguity in Lyric Language

In its most typically modern forms, which generally take their distance from traditional choral and impersonal models, lyric turns confessional and becomes a song of the self. Yet its standing purpose is to transcend and transform the self into song. The self as lover is naturally suited to this purpose. The self has a capacity of self-enclosure, of making itself self-sufficient. This capacity is mirrored in the intricately constructed, often closed, artifactual forms of the lyric. But precisely this self-definition opens to and evokes an otherness that exceeds the self. Thematically, lyric poetry in its origins revolves around the beloved, the lady, toward whom total loyalty and devotion, and even abject dependency, are avowed. Among the Troubadours, this is expressed by the metaphor of vasallage.

The capacity of self-enclosure is the enabling condition at once of sin or selfishness and of its redemption through the rehabilitation and perfection of form in the imitation of God. This ambiguity is acute in Christian epic poetry and riddles, notably, Milton’s Paradise Lost. In Book VIII, the Garden of Eden is structured by self-enclosure and by mirroring selfreflections at the levels of its contents and of its language, especially with regard to Eve’s ironically sinuous (snakelike) self-admirings. This selfreflectiveness insinuates a cutting-off of humanity from God in sinful and illusory self-sufficiency—indeed, the Fall. And yet, by the epic’s end, in Book XII, after the Archangel Michael bestows on Adam a prophetic vision of the redemption of humanity by Christ, the fallenness of the human condition has become a “happy fall” (469-78). Adam’s sin is eventually celebrated as a felix culpa, since it leads him by a way of (self-) negation to discover God outside himself, outside the Garden of his own self-absorption. This going out of himself, propelled by internal disharmony, is itself a way of mirroring the divine discord between Father and Son in Book III that expresses Milton’s Arian leanings (confirmed by his De Doctrina Christiana).

Lyric in modern times has often taken upon itself to break out of its self-enclosed form as language in love with itself. Lyric has sometimes turned into an attack of language against itself as a conventional form. George Steiner, in After Babel, dates this self-negating turn of the lyric— its aiming at the destruction of language—from 1871 and the rebellions of

Arthur Rimbaud. Modern lyric, eminently the language-destroying, selfdeconstructing verse of Paul Celan, follows along this line. We encounter here a turning point in the history of modern poetry provoked by a dialectic internal to poetic language. Lyric is driven toward articulating and fixing form—but also toward overcoming it and opening to an experience beyond form: such lyric reaches out in the direction of the formless.

Before arriving at such extremes of self-annihilation, however, lyric normally embodies the core of the attempt to construct an order within the immanence of the self, a microcosm. It is song, harmony, music— if not in the usual sense, then at least in the sense of intellectual order defined by Saint Augustine in De ordo and by Boethius in De institutione musicad In a certain sense, the lyric’s task is to purge itself of chance, of all that is not dictated from within by its own internal order, like Dante’s Paradise in which no “contingency” (“casual punto,” XXXI.52-60) can be found. This humanly impossible poetic task is pursued later still by Mallarmé in his “grand oeuvre,” which pivots precisely on the discovery and declaration of its own impossibility: “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance” (“Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”).

The construction of an order without contingency, an order which receives only from and into itself (“da sé in sé riceve”), is envisaged by Dante as an imitation of divine order (Purgatorio XXI.40-72). But it can also come perilously close to supplanting such order. The New Criticism, with its idea of the poem as a well-wrought urn, tended to treat the poem as a totally autonomous structure without connection to any world outside.[1] The dangers of this autonomous activity of self-building are legion and have been steadily subjected to the vigilant and discerning eye of higher authorities from the church to the psychoanalyst. They are a frequent theme also in literature, the most privileged place of production of such artifices of reflection, where they also expose false representations of the self. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for example, insinuates the psychological pitfalls of lyric as crystallized in the “Petrarchan” sonnets built into Troilus’s discourse of love. These indulgently narcissistic compositions are symbolic of deviation from the true and are instrumental in upsetting social hierarchy and public morality—and thus in bringing about the downfall of Troy?

Yet the subversiveness of lyric, its troping of the proper values of words and thereby of everything else, as well as its self-enclosure, while apparently irresponsible and insubordinate to any outside norm or objective

order, is not quite as pat as this story makes it out to be. Lyric can also be discovered as a way of opening to a higher order beyond the self, a way of creating harmony from below as a means of attunement to a universal harmony grasped in faith. Reflection, and especially self-reflection, work this way in Dante. Self-reflection engenders the self, but also orients it as aboriginally beholden to a transcendent Other. Dante’s Paradiso is arguably the consummate expression of this other-directed self-reflexivity: his achievement will be imitated and repeated obsessively, albeit only frag-mentarily and often unwittingly, by poets ever after.[2]

A path of development building up to the Paradiso leads from the Troubdadours through the lyric traditions of the Italian peninsula in which Dante schooled himself. This genealogy underwrites the course of his reflection. Much critical attention has been paid to Dante’s subsumption of his poetic predecessors, his drive to negate and sublate them into the higher synthesis of his more comprehensive truth. At stake here is not only a particular and outstanding personality characteristic of Dante, but also the literary logic of lyrical language itself as revealed in Dante’s work. The autotelic character of the poem is discovered with jubilation by Dante—but as a fecund resource carrying him beyond himself without limits. Self-reflection, as the enabling structure of this projection of oneself into an Other, entails momentously a logic of “repetition” as this notion has emerged in modern thought, especially in its development from Kierkegaard to Heidegger. Dante’s intensification of self-reflection anticipates this logic and is, in turn, elucidated by it.

  • [1] See, further, Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word “Stimmung," ed. Anna Granville (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 34-35. 2 Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947). 3 See R. A. Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word, Part Two: “Troilus and Criseyde and the ‘Falsing’ of the Referent.”
  • [2] Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante traces some exquisite instances. 2 One such axis of criticism runs from Teodolinda Barolini, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984) to Tristan Kay, Dante’s Lyric Redemption: Eros, Salvation, Vernacular Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
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