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Lyric Reflexivity in Panoptic Historical-Philosophical Perspective—Troubadours, Christianity, and Romanticism

In his essay on “the extended poem” in The Other Voice, Octavio Paz contends that modern poetry has taken poetry itself for its theme by a conflation of song (canto) and narrative (cuento).' The two become identified, starting with Romanticism, which “made song into the story itself. I mean: the story of the song became the story itself, the theme of the poem was poetry itself” (“hizo del canto el cuento mismo. Quiero decir: el cuento del canto fue el canto, el tema del poema fue la poesia misma,” 25). Paz brings out self-reflectiveness, its persistent thematization of itself as poetry, as the defining characteristic of modern poetry, from its inception with the Romantics. The modern poem is “narrative which turns into song and song which, in telling a story, sings itself to itself—to the act of singing” (“cuento que se vuelve canto y canto que, al contar el cuento, se canta a si mismo—al acto de cantar,” 25). Song becomes the story of itself—its history turned into song. Such singing can substitute, moreover, for the loving that is sung about and itself becomes the fulfillment of that love.

Paz considers this self-reflexivity to be characteristic of the modern age presumably because the individual subject becomes the new fulcrum for a comprehensive determination of the real in modern times. However, we have seen that self-reflexivity emerges already with vernacular lyric in its medieval origins and becomes fully reflective theoretically and theologically with Dante, especially in his Paradiso. What has often been described as characteristic of modern poetry might be taken more broadly to disclose something essential about the nature of poetry per se. This specular structure does not so much distinguish a particular moment in poetic history as determine a concept of the essentially poetic—and even of the real itself (at least as it can be apprehended culturally). For anything to be recognized as “real,” it can hardly avoid the reflexivity that comes with its being represented in language. Beyond all historical explanations for why self-reflexiveness should define modern poetry—or perhaps any poetry that has at last come into its own—this fact of seeing specular

1 Octavio Paz, La otra voz; Poesía y fin de siglo (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1990).

Lyric Reflexivity in Panoptic Perspective 313 self-reflective structures in everything belongs to us, to Paz, to our commentary invoking him, to the tradition of Western literature as a whole, and even to thought as such. It is a constant motif of the perennial attempt to conceive of something that can attain to the relative stability or “eternity” of meaning.

The sonnet, as the pathbreaking form of modern lyric poetry in the West, epitomizes this stability achieved through self-reflective specularity. Invented in the thirteenth century in Italy, the sonnet form has a claim to being considered the matrix of modernity in its being engendered by self-reflection. The sonnet introduced, according to Paul Oppenheimer,

[T]he logic of a form that turned expression inward, to a resolution in the abiding peace of the soul itself, or if one were not so certain of the existence of the soul, in reason. Reason, after all, was perceived as a manifestation of God’s mind and of divine love.[1]

The sonnet’s intensively self-reflective structure, redoubling repeatedly in recursive folds its inward reflection on self, opens in this way to a dimension of theological transcendence that will become explicit in Dante’s Paradiso.

Its self-reflexivity seems to make modern poetry a typical expression of narcissism. We overlook, however, what made this self-reflexive turn compelling if we simply reject it as obviously futile, vain narcissism. We take a common sense view of the relation of inside and outside and condemn self-reflexiveness for dwelling upon an empty self in sterile isolation. This is to forget the higher-order worlds that have been discovered within the self, for example, by Plotinus. Such a dismissive judgment does not understand transcendence profoundly enough. It takes transcendence simply as an outside, as lying without and above the self and the world, whereas for Augustine, to name one crucial reference, transcendence is the source and origin of the inner self. Even among moderns, for example, Proust and Eliot, interior worlds are discovered with a sense of their opening upon a transcendent order of things.

Once transcendence is understood apophatically as transcending all positive determinations, it needs to be apprehended from all directions and thus as “transdescendence” no less than as “transascendence.” Jean Wahl forges these terms for bridging between ancient Christian (specifically Pauline and Patristic) and Heideggerian transcendence, which is supposedly without theology, in ways that indelibly marked the thinking of Levinas and Derrida among others.

Modern lyric poetry can plausibly be made to begin with the Troubadours. Their language, Provençal, and more profoundly the language of lyric, thereby emerges as an Ur-vernacular of Europe. It is an artsy poetry, refined, often learned and cultured, not folksy or pragmatic. Troubadour song, beginning with Guilhem’s writing, is “for art’s sake” and essentially without extra-literary motivations—none, anyway, that are not erased in the context of the whole artwork. Such art is based on the self-conscious and sometimes exasperated development of craft in place of practical communication. And yet, precisely this absoluteness of art may achieve something theological in purport. Form becomes an autonomous value: formal invention can be inspired and reveal truth. In this way, writing becomes an indispensable medium of poetry, with far-reaching consequences (section 5). It signals the attempt to seize reality, even a transcendent presence, in the medium of experience itself by specular reflection. Hence the special role of mirrors in Troubadour poetry and in lyric generally.[2]

Sicilian lyric is the major link between Troubadour tradition and Dante. Its leading figure in crucial respects, notably as inventor of the sonnet form, is Giacomo Lentini. His name contains the Italian word lente for “lens,” which works as an emblem for the centrality of optics, the science of reflections, to the mirroring function of this style of lyric. Lentini’s fifty-five or so poems are dominated as a whole by the imagery of reflection of visual images. The word viso, used for sight, face, and vision, plays through a virtuoso diapason of reflections of the same. They come to focus around a meditation on how love is generated by images. This, too, is the dynamic work of self-reflection, which opens a new, revolutionary dimension of love in lyric.

Juri Lotman and the Tartu school analyze the social semiotics of mirrors in a way that emphasizes their opening to a wholly other world. Lotman suggests that the mirror is typically a border between our world and an other world—as in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. “Thus, in the history of culture, the mirror is revealed as a semiotic machine for the description of an ‘other’ structure” (“Cosí, nella storia della cultura lo specchio si rivela una machina semiótica per la descrizione di una struttura ‘altrui’”). The mirror effects a structural reorganization that, even in presenting an identical image, transposes it into another register. This capacity is most simply emblematized by the fact of the reversal of left and right in the mirror image. In a sense, all signs are

Lyric Reflexivity in Panoptic Perspective 315 originally mirrors: semiosis is born with mirror reflection and vice versa. At their core, speculation and semiosis are “inextricable,” as Umberto Eco demonstrates.[3]

Rooted in this submerged continuity, there is an immeasurably rich esoteric tradition that stands deeper in the background here, one that figures pervasively in Dante’s works, with their thirty explicit references to specchio and its cognates. Jean-François Marquer develops the alchemical background of the esoteric pseudo-science of mirrors, drawing on Robert Marteau’s numerous poetic works, notably Liturgie (1992). This mirror motif is crucial for Dante’s self-reflexive revelation of truth, especially as it opens into another world.

  • [1] Paul Oppenheimer, The Birth of the Modern Mind: Self, Consciousness, and the Invention of the Sonnet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 3-4. 2 Wahl’s landmark lecture “Existence humaine et transcendence” (1937) is placed in the context of its history of effect in Human Existence and Transcendence, ed. William C. Hackett (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016).
  • [2] Frederick Goldin, The Mirror of Narcissus in the Courtly Love Lyric (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967). More broadly, Mark Pendergrast, Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection (New York: Basic Books, 2003) reflects on the shifting valences of the mirror trope in Western culture as turning on reflective repetition. 2 Juri M. Lotman, “La semiótica dello specchio e della specularità,” in II símbolo e lo specchio, ed. Rotneao Galassi and Marherita De Michiel (Napoli: Edizioni scientifiche italiane, 1997), 129.
  • [3] Umberto Eco, Sugli specchi e altri saggi: Il segno, la rappresentazione, I’illusione, I’intmagine (Milan: Bompiani, 2001), 10: “Ed ecco che percezione, pensiero, coscienza della propria soggettività, esperienza speculate, semiosis, appaiono come momenti di un nodo abbastanza inestricabile.” 2 Elémire Zolla, “La verità è uno specchio,” in Verità, segrete esposte in evidenza: Sincretismo e fantasia, contemplazione ed esotericità (Venice: Marsilio, 1990). 3 H. D. Austin, “Dante and Mirrors,” Italica 21/1 (1944): 13-1. 4 Jean-François Marquer, Miroirs de l’identité: La littérature hantée par la philosophie (Paris: Mermann, 1996).
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