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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

On Roubaud and the Troubadours

In the collection of essays The Troubadors: An Introduction, edited by Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, Stephen G. Nichols argues that, though there are indeed some salient features of the troubadour lyric which support modern ideas about troubadours by harmonizing with the modern conception of the artist (such as a ‘high seriousness’ of style and the distinctly individualized voices of the poets), the traditional conception of a continuous and homogenized school of poetry is more than a little misleading in its development from ‘early troubadour’ Guilhem de Peitieu, through the golden age of the ‘classic period,’ and then on to the end of the tradition in the 13th century (I wonder if Nichols was told that this first essay, entitled “The early troubadours,” would appear in a series of three within the volume, the next two of which are “The classical period” and “The late troubadours”).  One rupture emphasized by Nichols to spite this homogenized portrait is the transition from oral performance at a court, by the troubadour himself or by a “joglar” sent in his place, to the “chansonnier” or manuscript tradition.  A “chansonnier” is, essentially, an anthologizing of popular, well-known, or significant lyrics by various troubadours into one collection, and Nichols opposes this tradition’s importance to what he sees as the usual depiction of oral performance as the definitive means of presenting these poems.

In the midst of this discussion, Nichols drops this choice— especially for anyone reading Roubaud— morsel of information:

About the same time that secular poetry began to be recorded in manuscripts in the early thirteenth century, Geoffroy de Vinsauf wrote his Poetria nova (The New Poetry, c. 1210) which became one of the most popular and influential poetic treatises of the high Middle Ages.  [This work] reveals the new concerns with ordering narrative for written presentation.  Reading him, we can seize his excitement in the face of a new aesthetics, and his awareness of the need to create a new poetics for dealing with the innovation.  He makes us sense that writing was not simply a tool for remembering, but a technique for thinking.

Whereas classical rhetoric was concerned primarily with the immediate rhetorical effects of oral delivery… Geoffroy’s Poetria nova stressed techniques for organising and presenting the narrative of writing.  Consequently, for Geoffrey, the order of the book as arrangement or dispositio becomes paramount.  The poet has two choices: to follow the natural sequence of events, the historic order, or to invent a synthetic order based on aesthetic or other principles.  {I should mention here that, though he certainly implies that the principles may apply more broadly, Nichols probably intends to reference manuscript ordering here: i.e., ‘naturally’, Peitieu should come before Marcabru, but not necessarily thematically.} Geoffroy writes that the latter ‘strives on the footpath of art’, while the former ‘follows the highway of nature.’  Natural order renders an unimaginative sequence flatly.  The same brief space may be made at least pleasing and perhaps even interesting by a synthetic style: ‘skillful art so inverts the material that it does not pervert it; art transposes, in order that it may make the arrangement of the material better.  More sophisticated than natural order is artistic order, and far preferable, however much permuted the arrangement be.’

Geoffroy speaks about arranging or transposing existing materials.  The artist or poet ‘finds’ (in the medieval sense of trobar, trouver) his material already in the world and makes his poetry as a construction, a reconstruction and a reordering.  As Guilhem de Peitieu had already put it so brilliantly, the flowers of rhetoric are the product of artistic construction in the poetic workshop or obrador.  The song ‘Ben Bueill’ thematises Guilhem’s poetics… :

{The Occitan poem is followed by this prose translation:}

(I want all to hear if a song that I’ve produced in my workshop is of good quality [color = sign of quality in refining or smelting].  For I possess the flower of my métier, and that’s the truth.  The song itself will testify to this, once it’s finished [lit: ‘laced up’, meaning that the versification has been worked out satisfactorily].)

When Guilhem de Peitrieu and later Geoffrey of Vinsauf place the art of trobar at the heart of the poetic process, they are also describing exactly what the manuscript matrix invited the scribe to do with the material he sought to include in his chansonnier. From this viewpoint, the work of the scribe is not so very much different from that of the poet, since the art of the manuscript is the art of dispositio: artistic arrangement and construction.  …  The difference is that the chansonnier gives a meaning – or a sense of a whole – to a large body of pre-existing works, and in the sense of the whole lies the ‘intelligence’ of the chansonnier.  The poet creates a sense or an identity – a poetic logic – for a single poem; the scribe for an entire corpus.

And ‘corpus’ becomes a provocative pun when I consider the images Roubaud is conjuring, of the childhood body in various positions throughout his childhood home and its grounds, positions whose sequence of presentation is determined by a rigorously synthetic set of principles, so rigorous as to prevent any possibility of its appearing to be ‘natural’ in Vinsauf’s sense, a ‘synthetic order’ which is, by Roubaud’s argument, all the more natural for its caveat emptor depiction, in prose, of the experience of memory.  A double negation.  “the great fire of london” is not a poem, or an autobiography, or a fiction.  It is a manuscript which will have been written, and will continue to ‘will have been’ as long as there are readers to read its present of composition.

It is also important, for anyone not familiar with the troubadours, that the printing press was a few centuries off when this transition from sung song to manuscript happened.  Even if we consider writing as a “technique for thinking” to mean mainly thinking out one’s own thoughts, Nichols must also stretch such a meaning to include the scribes of the chansonniers, engaged in a mostly rote copying process, with a little of the artist’s flourish in the illuminations and choice of order.  The concord with Roubaud’s rigorous compositional method, writing his writing before dawn each day until the sun rises, is significant.  Even when the “moment of prose” written does not have a place in the developing format until the ‘inter-branches’ proposed (discovered?)  in branch two, The Loop, we learn in the midst of his discussion of them that he still writes every morning.

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Filed under: Roubaud, Writing

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