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V Dante’s Redemption of Narcissus and the Spiritual Vocation of Poetry as an Exercise in Self-Reflection

Lyric Subjectivity and Narcissism—Totalization and Transcendence

As a founding myth of Western culture, from its main literary source in Ovid through numerous medieval elaborations to baroque, symbolist, and modern reworkings, the myth of Narcissus refracts operative interpretations of the psychological and even the ontological foundations of self and society. Narcissism is most often taken to be synonymous with a short-circuiting of love misdirected not to the other, the beloved, but rather to an illusory image merely of oneself. This danger was marked with a particular stigma in the Middle Ages, when love was understood to be most deeply the love of God, the divine Other. The goal of human life conceived in Christian terms—namely, to regain one’s original integrity by restoring the corrupted image of God in oneself—is perverted into self-love by a narcissistic turn toward this corrupt image itself rather than toward the pristine ideal revealed in Christ, the “last Adam” (I Corinthians 15:45). In this viciously circular orientation, the Narcissist remains fallen and even repeats the Fall all over again—like Dante’s archetypal “Master Adam,” who in turn reproaches Sinon the Greek with desire “to lick the mirror of Narcissus” (“per leccar lo specchio di Narciso,” Inferno XXX.128). Hellishly athirst, he would require “few words of invitation” (“non vorresti a ’nvitar molte parole,” 129).

Tellingly, Adam’s phrase connects this desire with words—insinuating the narcissistic liabilities of language that the present argument enucleates. Dante’s emphasis falls on the instrumentality of language in Narcissus’s turning himself into an object as a mirror image whose reality nevertheless eludes him. Technological objectification (which begins with language) and narcissistic image gazing turn out to be two sides of the same corrupt coin in the counterfeiter of currency (Adam) and in the minter of mendacious discourse (Sinon). Both enact one side of the “ambiguity” elaborated at the core of Part IV (section 52).

A number of fine analyses have long since evidenced in considerable detail how the lyric tradition of courtly love rehearses the essentials of the Narcissus myth. This deep investment begins with Troubadour


Distinguished older examples of this scholarship (before Goldin and Kristeva) include Jean Frappier, “Variations sur le theme du miroir, de Bernard de Ventadour a Maurice lyric, becoming accutely self-conscious, for example, with Bernart de Ventadorn. The persona who speaks in Bernart’s poems declares himself lost ever since his beloved let him gaze into her eyes. For these eyes are a mirror showing him his own image, just as the fountain showed Narcissus his-.

Mirallis, pus me mirei en te,

m’an mort li sospir de preon,

c’aissi’m perdei com perdet se

lo bels narcisus en la fon.

  • (26.21-24)
  • (Mirror, since I beheld myself, in you,

the sighs from my depths have slain me,

and I have lost myself, as fair Narcissus

lost himself in the fountain.)

(Goldin translation, 146)

The Nichols translation of stanza III of Bernart’s “Can vei la lauzeta mover” makes clearer the extent to which narcissistic self-reflection opens into an uncontrolled space rather than fixing on and freezing a determinate image of self. Starting from the stanza’s first four lines:

Anc non agui de me poder

ni no fui meus de l’or’ en sai

que*m laisser en sos olhs vezer

en u miralh que moût me plai

and continuing with the verses just given, Nichols renders the entire eightline stanza as follows:

Never have I been in control of myself or even belonged to myself from the hour she let me gaze into her eyes:—that mirror which pleases me so greatly. Mirror, since I saw myself reflected in you, deep sighs have been killing me. I have destroyed myself just as the beautiful Narcissus destroyed himself in the fountain.2

The death in question has connotations of the mystic death that frees the soul into an unbounded life by destroying the limits of ego.’

Scève,” in Cahiers de l’Association internationale des études françaises 11 (1959): 134-58 and Erich Köhler, “Narcisse, la fontaine d’Amour et Guillaume de Lorris,” Journal des Savants 2 (1963): 86-103, who extends the analysis to subsequent courtly tradition.

  • 2 The Songs of Bernart de Ventadorn, ed. Stephen G. Nichols, Jr. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1962).
  • 3 Alois Haas, “Mors mystica: Thanatologie der Mystik, insbesondere der deutschen Mystik,” Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 23/3 (1976): 304-92.

Lyric Subjectivity and Narcissism 291

This lyric core is developed at length in the twelfth century in an Old French narrative poem, Narcisus,[1] and in the 160 verses of Marie de France’s Le lais de Narcisse. But it finds in many respects its consummate treatment in the thirteenth century in Le Roman de la rose. The Fountain of Narcissus (“Fons d’Amors”) is the center of Guillaume de Lorris’s text and the animating source of the Garden, in which the quest transpires. L’Amant, wandering in quest of his ideal love through an idylic landscape, happens upon a fountain placed in a marble block. On the edge of it, he reads an inscription telling him that here died the beautiful Narcissus:

Ou bout amont, lectres petites,

Qui disoient que ci dessus

Se mori li biaus Narcissus ....

  • (vv. 1436-38)
  • (At the upper end, in little letters

Which said that in this place

The beautiful Narcissus died.)

After 68 verses (1439-1507) summarizing the story of Narcissus, and after some trepidation on the part of the poet, the Lover looks into the fountain and sees two crystals interpretable allegorically as the eyes of his future beloved. The lover does not see himself or his own image in the stream, even though he is fully aware that this precisely is what happened to Narcissus—to the latter’s peril and ultimate perdition (“C’est li mirëors perilleus, / Ou Narcisus li orguilleus / Mira sa face et ses yex vers / Dont il jut puis mors touz envers,” 1571-74). Instead, the lover sees (symbolically) the eyes of his beloved, in which all the world is reflected for him in a unified, totalized, idealized image of his world—in effect, the Garden.

The world seen in the fountain as centered and unified is a narcissistic universe, a reflection of a unifying principle, which is the subject’s own self. Courtly love is quintessentially narcissistic by virtue of its totalizing devotion to one object, the ladylove, who enters the subject’s world, giving it a unified meaning and elevating all actions performed in her service by their single purpose. In fact, the lover is already in love before even seeing the rose. The Garden itself is an ideal order possible only on the basis of love—the principle ideally ordering all by means of a unifying

subjectivity. The beloved is simply a projection of such self-reflecting, selftranscending passion. Given this structure, narcissistic self-contemplation has a vector of transcendence built into it.

The quest for ideal beauty in the shape of the beloved lady of lyric devotions is exposed as narcissistic in its basic motivations. The implications of vanity and death are clearly stated in a note of moral admonition. But, at the same time, narcissism is elevated to an ideal plane of lyric—if not sexual—fecundity and is revealed in its capacity to refine the soul in its directedness, via self-reflection, toward an ideal that transcends it. The fountain is indescribably beautiful and its water always fresh and new (“L’iaue est tousdis fresche et novele”), in fact, perpetual and inexhaustible (“Ne que l’iaue ne puet tarir,” 1597).

  • [1] Narcissus, Poème du Xlle siècle, ed. Pelan et Spence, 6th ed. (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1964). 2 Le lais de Narcisse, ed. Martine Thiry-Stassin and Madeleine Tyssens, Bibliotèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de ¡’université de Liège, fasc. 211 (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1976). 3 Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le roman de la rose (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1974).
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