Desktop version

Home arrow Philosophy

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Romantic Singularity as a New Universal Reflexivity

Occitanian poetry introduced new, non-classical aesthetic and moral values. It exalted a personal style expressed by formal originality rather than by universally rational order and developed a theory of love as a natural virtue and as the principle of all good human action. This favored an intellectual non-conformism, or freethinking based on personal and passionate experience of profane love.1 This vein of culture directly feeds Dante’s own milieu. Guido Cavalcanti’s “Donna me prega” comprises a philosophical treatise in the form of a lyric poem showing how human reason is inherently emotional—a view grounded in the Arabic-Aristotelianism of Al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes.[1]

This new poetry is a remote source of Romantic as opposed to classical values, and it pivots on self-reflection. It is made possible by the biblical notion of the individual as of infinite worth because of being made in the image of God. This status is reflected primarily in and through an unlimited capacity for passion and for relationships. Such absolute subjectivity was destined to reach a theoretical climax in Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith (Fear and Trembling, 1843) and in ensuing forms of existentialism. Unconditional amorous devotion expresses the infinite freedom of the individual and of subjective acts of willing. This involves totally mediating oneself through a defining relation with an Other. Radical Protestantism, as in Kierkegaard’s case, becomes one of the cultural matrices that continues developing this sensibility and outlook.

This new sense of individuality registers in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia in the form of a rationality that curiously does not impose uniformity among human beings but rather fosters the different individual sensibilities and choices of each. Dante conceives of human rationality as diversifying singular individuals: “and reason itself, whether in discernment or in judgment or in willing, is diversified in individuals”

(“et ipsa ratio vel circa discretionem vel circa iudicium vel circa electionem diversificetur in singulis,” I.iii.l). Human or rational consciousness is thereby differentiated from the mental processes of beasts, whose passions and instincts are all identical across the species. The faculty of speech, as exercised by human reason ad placitum, in different parts of the earth produces different languages. And each is further inflected by the irredu-cibly personalized reasoning and decision making of the free individual.

Such a self-conscious structure of language and love opens a whole new dimension of inner experience that was prepared for in philosophical and mystic tradition by Plotinus and Augustine. Georges Poulet argues that all the self-knowledge of the ancients from Socrates up to Plotinus, as enshrined in the inscription gnothi seauton (“Know thyself!”) over the oracle at Delphi, did not amount to a genuine act of self-consciousness: it lacked individual awareness of personal existence and entailed, instead, knowledge of general truths about humanity. Such self-knowing was rather a knowing of self in and through knowing the universe and one’s place in it. A truly existential knowledge of personal existence begins only with Christianity. “It is with Christianity that self-knowledge becomes knowledge of an existence and no longer of an essence” (“C’est avec le christianisme que la connaissance de soi devient la connaissance d’une existence et non plus d’une essence”)? Particularly Saint Augustine develops a new, intimate knowledge of the self. Finally, modern selfconsciousness, as in Descartes’s cogito or Kant’s Selbstbewusstsein, is made possible by the Reformers and their Augustinian sense of an individual existence that is guilty but forgiven before God and made wholly new by his grace?

These theological origins of self-consciousness are reminders of how far removed from a simple reduction of all to self the phenomenon of self-reflection stands. Such reflection springs, instead, historically, out of consciousness of the infinite otherness of God. This historical derivation determines certain implications that are built into reflection. Lyric language is especially apt for exploring the transcendent ground that selfconsciousness of a singular person reflects in new and provocative ways. Indeed lyric is the original mirror in which self-consciousness immediately develops and expresses itself. This is the case already with the lyricism of Augustine’s Confessions.5

The ineffable divinity becomes no longer remote, as in Plato’s purely intellectual ideal. Divinity is found, rather, as the deepest reality of the self and as accessible to experience by means of self-reflexive speculation. The

  • 3 Georges Poulet, Entre moi et moi: Essais critiques sur la conscience de soi (Paris: Jose Corti, 1977), 10.
  • 4 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989) investigates this history in its philosophical ramifications.
  • 5 Vincenzo Cilento, “Lo spirito poetico e la novita dell’opera agostiniana,” in Agostiniana (Naples: Istituto Editoriale del Mezzogiorno, 1955), 141-58. divine revelation, in principle, is of an ineffable Other, but in practice it is apprehended self-reflexively. As in the Vita nuova, the reflective medium of memory (LI) reveals things as they are (sicuti sunt)—essentially rather than just accidentally. Lyric can, of course, reduce everything to a mere reflection of self. This would seem to be the case with Cavalcanti, despite his theory of love as rational. Witness his dramatization of the inferno of the self-enclosed mind singing its destructive love in inconsolable despair.[2] But lyric can also be a triumphant revelation of light, as in Dante, thanks to its theological exposition and apotheosis.

Dante’s speculative turn inward by means of the language of love as absolute reality carries these impulses and inspiration from Troubadour lyric to their radical conclusion. Renunciation of enjoyment of an external object opens the possibility of an immediate consummation of love in the lyric itself. Hugo Friedrich points out the inward nature of the satisfaction and fulfillment celebrated by this poetry of “joie.” Such poetic joy—in Provençal gaug, deriving from Latin gaudium—confers happiness through an inner perfection (“Glück durch innere Vollkommenheit”). Friedrich stresses particularly the renunciation of outward-directed sexual drives involved in this joy in sheer loving: “This is the joy that is reserved for ennobling renunciation” (“Es ist die Freude, die nur dem veredelnden Verzicht gelingt”).

Such renunciation entails a complete interiorization of erotic drive and delight: “Overcoming of desire, entry into the realm where renunciation opens other eyes for beauty than those of the body, where the Lady does not even need to be present because poetic thinking of her is already fulfillment” (“Überwindung des Begehrens, Eintritt in jenes Reich, wo Entsagung andere Augen für die Schönheit öffnet als die Augen des Körpers, wo die Herrin nicht einmal gegenwärtig zu sein braucht, weil der dichtende Gedanke an sie schon Erfüllung ist,” 13). We see Dante making this move already in Vita nuova XVIII.6, after being denied his Lady’s “salute” and therewith all manifest consolation. Still, no one and nothing can prevent him from composing his words of praise for her and making just this his blessedness.

There is, however, something illusory about a one-sided emphasis on inwardness. David Wellbery analyzes the Romantic myth of inter-iority as arising out of a suppression of the exterior technical means that make the supposedly “inner voice” possible. The “rooting of the lyric in specularity” belongs to “a myth of the lyric that begins to emerge around 1770.”s in the Romantic myth that springs especially from Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Language (Abhandlung über den Ursprung

Romantic Singularity—New Reflexivity 319 der Sprache, 1772), inferiority originates from a primordial orality that eliminates externality. Homer is heard as the voice of the people, not as an individual external to others, but rather as the inner voice of all. He speaks or sings from within the nature of things themselves. The externality of the technology of writing is supposedly circumvented. However, precisely the opposite is the case with Dante, who underscores at the very beginning of the Vita nuova how his interiority is itself externally mediated and always already constituted as a book of memory (“libro de la mia memoria,” LI). Likewise, from the outset of his epic poem, memory wrote what the first-person protagonist “saw” (“O mente che scrivesti cio ch’io vidi,” Inferno II.8).

Wellbery maintains that the Romantic myth of “the absolutization of voice” introduces personality as a revolutionary novum into the world, but he is ignoring its anticipation by the dolce stil novo and numerous other poetic sequels. He highlights the regressive recovery of an infantile language linked with “primordial donation, the gift of the mother’s luminescent presence” (187), which is likewise anticipated by Dante, particularly in the Paradiso, with its persistent imagery of the nursing infant.[3] The narcissism of modern lyric needs to be placed in this extended historical perspective in order to highlight its revolutionary and revelatory power—but also its eventually recoiling into a reductive posture cutting its subject off from the transcendent sources of self.

We have noted recurrently how Julia Kristeva analyzed the peculiar, sublimated pattern of love developed by Troubadour lyric as “narcissistic.” Frederick Goldin likewise broadly declares Narcissus “a paradigm of the evolution of self-consciousness.” In Ovid’s myth, the medieval poets found the representation of their own radically new experience of “the birth of self-consciousness through love.”11 Kristeva and Goldin have both insisted on the narcissistic structure of self-reflection as constitutive of the modern subject that originates in the birthing of the modern lyric.

In the lyric, Narcissus’s self-love gives birth to the subject. According to Kristeva, “this auto-eros, which appears to us as a sublime hypostasis of narcissistic love, had to constitute the decisive step in the acquisition of an interior space, the autoreflexive space of the Western psyche” (“cet autou eras qui nous paraît comme une hypostase sublime de 1’amour narcissique, devait constituer le pas décisif dans l’assomption de l’espace intérieur, espace autoréflexif du psychisme occidental,” 141). Saint Augustine would most convincingly discover this space of eroticized introspection and thereby lay the psychological foundations of Western culture.

Kristeva, furthermore, following Plotinus (especially Enneads, treats Odysseus as the antithesis of Narcissus, an anti-Narcissus in his quest for his fatherland (“Ulysse vers le père,” 139-40). For Plotinus and Neoplatonism, as we saw in sections 60-61, the Odyssean and the Narcissistic impulses might correct each other: Odysseus bends selfreflection and self-awareness toward the father as transcendent Source. Dante’s Ulysses, in contrast, turns his back on his father and is not redeemed. He serves, instead, as model for a false transcendence needing to be renounced. Humans are indeed subject to many such illusions of self-transcendence that, in fact, remain only within immanence.

Dante finally separates his own path sharply from Ulysses’s, with his reference to the “mad crossing of Ulysses” (“varco / folle di Ulisse”) in Paradiso XXVII.82-83. Dante takes, instead, the speculative path of love for the Other as constituting the interior unity of his soul. Shoaf maintains that Dante opts for the path of Narcissus and redeems it, having been initially attracted by the way of Ulysses, which he finally renounces. Nevertheless, Dante remains still acutely conscious of the Ulyssean impulse working within him all the way to his final “winged” ascent to God (Paradiso XXXIII.139). “Wings” are a transformation of “oars” (“de’ remi facemmo ali”) in the “mad flight” (“folle volo”) of Inferno XXVI.125. In the end, Ulysses represents a vicious narcissism that recognizes neither son nor wife, nor father, nor the transcendent Other—until too late, with his damnation, ironically, “as pleased another” (“com’altrui piacque,” 141). Dante, in contrast, has folded an orientation to transcendent divinity into his own self-reflection as a redeemed Narcissus.


Ingolf Dalferth, Transzendenz und säkulare Welt: Lebensorientierung an letzter Gegenwart.

  • [1] René Nelli et René Lavaud, Les Troubadours: Le trésor poétique de L’Occitanie (II) (Paris: Desclée De Brouwer, 1966), Introduction. 2 Gregory B. Stone, “Animals Are from Venus, Human Beings from Mars: Averroes’s Aristotle and the Rationality of Emotion in Guido Cavalcanti’s ‘Donna me prega’,” PMLA 130/5 (2015): 1269-84.
  • [2] Robert Harrison, The Body of Beatrice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uuniversity Press, 1988), Chapter 4: “The Ghost of Guido Cavalcanti” reconstructs this drama. 2 Hugo Friedrich, Die Struktur der modernen Lyrik (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1956). 3 David E. Wellbery, The Specular Moment: Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginings of Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 187.
  • [3] 2 Kristeva, Histoires d’amour, “Narcisse: la nouvelle démence” and “Les troubadours.” 3 Goldin, Mirror, 210, 22. 4 Jérôme Lagouanère, Intériorité et réflexivitié dans la pensée de Saint Augustin: Formes et genèse d’une conceptualisation (Paris: Institut des Etudes Augustiniennes, 2012).
<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics