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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.

Filed under: Roubaud, Writing

from The Loop

There is a particular and astonishing thought process at work in this passage, linking a memory ‘snapshot’ and the conceit of a poem.  Roubaud tissues his writing throughout this book with asides and parentheses, not even counting the Insertions.  To get to the particular path of reasoning I want, I’ve elided bits (Roubaud loves his digressions) and passages (Roubaud really loves his opinions) quite frequently, and I’ve left out the ellipses for the sake of my period key.  If you want the unadulterated stuff, you can read the entire section (and the entire book, it seems) here on Google Books.  At the end of the post, there is a link to a translation of the poem which Roubaud discusses.  A few of Roubaud’s comments may be more interesting if you know that the poem is the precursor to the sestina.  Instead of the sestina’s weaving pattern of end-words, Raimbaut “repeats the same words at the rhyme, in the same order, in every stanza.”

from §3 My returning to this image

Seeing that nocturnal windowpane covered with its flowers of frost has become habitual for me, very familiar.  And sometimes the image appears to me on its own, at random, removed from its natural setting, without any particular thought of this memory preceding it.  But I recognize it immediately—I can hardly fail to recognize it, since it resembles nothing so much as itself.

But one day, one day I managed to associate this image with a spoken word, a word from a poem (if I grant for a moment that poetry is speech, a “music of the mouth proffering speech in meter,” as Eustache Deschamps said), a word spoken, then, and put down on paper centuries ago, and now caught on this paper between the blank spaces, the “margins,” that define verse:

Er resplan la flors enversa

These words make up the entire first line of a canso (a “chanson,” a music-poem) by the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange, written more than eight centuries ago: “Now shines [is resplendant] the inverse flower.”  Raimbaut d’Orange wastes no time in revealing the primary sense of this strange grouping: “quals flors” he says (“which flower?”). And he answer himself, taking the spontaneous and absolute solipsism of all verse even further: “neus gels e conglapis” (“snow, frost and ‘conglapi‘”), introducing, with this last vocable—so rare that it appears only here—who knows what sort of frozen thing.  I have decided to understand it, according to the needs of my own composition, as a vitrified conjunction of neus (snow) and gels (frost): as the condensation of a mist-noise and a cold substance, emblematic of the cold itself; and I hear in it an entire “glapissement,” a kind of screen, along with the scratching sound made by those transparent pellets of cold as they were scraped up, crying out under my nail:

Er resplan la flors enversa
Pels trencans rancx e pels tertres.
Quals flors neus gels e conglapis
Que cotz e destrenh e trenca.


(Then shines the inverse flower
among sharp cliffs and hills.
Which flower? snow frost and ice
that cuts and torments and slices.)

Now, every dawn is a new spring, even a dawn covered in frost.  And in this paradoxical beginning of a lover’s canso, Raimbaut d’Orange—instead of following a tradition that would have him echo the sweet and didactic love songs of the teacher-birds, the teachers of the song, essenhadors del chan—gives voice instead to abstract nightingales.  The poet sees blocks of ice in place of the craggy red mountains, which are now invisible; in place of the orioles or larks, whose throats are now numb; in place of their song now dead from the cold:

Vey mortz quils critz brays siscles
(I see dead calls, cries, noises, whistles)

For Raimbaut, invoking the great aviary cold of the hills, now gripped by frost , is a way to make the three-in-one flower of song, poetry, and love still more brilliant— the inverse flower absent from every bouquet (and here the absence is double).  When I read this image, when I found myself gripped, transfixed, and benumbed by these words, flors enversa, I recognized them as my own (this was near the very beginning of my reading of the Troubadours, I still knew virtually nothing about them), and I spontaneously and sentimentally placed myself, implicitly and without at first realizing it, in one of the two camps—each devoted to a certain method, simultaneously antagonistic and interwoven—of the trobar, the art of the Troubadours.

For this is not simply an insolent metamorphosis of the tradition’s “spring-time” metaphor (the beginning of poetic singing, in the spring, identified with the love songs of the birds), but also the affirmation of a certain way of speaking in poetry, which goes far beyond the privileged moment in which the singing flowers of the frost are discovered.  One could dub this the Way of Double Negation (which has its related and parallel forms in philosophy, theology, and even logic): the frost negates both the flower and the song.  But in the desert of first, a paradoxical flower blooms—in its silence an insistent disharmony resonates, and from this “hirsute” blossoming, as from this polar atonality, are reborn, in the vibratory evocation of the verse, both a happy music and its simultaneous and hopeless disappearance.

The poetic method called “obscure” and “closed,” according to Raimbaut d’Orange and Arnaut Daniel, never forgets that beneath love’s greatest “joy”—its “joi“— lurks the frost of fulfillment, the ferocity of a reality mingled with death.

This is why, even if it wasn’t within my power to dissolve this association between childhood and a fragment of poetry, I did not for a moment refuse it.  As I progressed (slightly) in my knowledge of the trobar, as I formed a clearer idea of it, this association became deeper and still more necessary, losing the sudden, fortuitous, and arbitrary character of its origins.  The memory image of the square pane made hazy with frost, the night that it hid and then revealed, and the bedroom around me all acquired from this association a greater force of conviction (the conviction of being an authentic and significant revelation of the past) and a greater legitimacy.

The poem which Roubaud discusses may also be read at Google Books, in a translation by William D. Paden and Frances Freeman Paden, here.

Filed under: Quotes, Roubaud

A Working Definition: On Roubaud and Poirier

I suspect my fascination with etymologies is rooted in the two semesters of Latin I took in high school.  I don’t remember a lick of it, but I have remembered how to break words down and root out the bits that can (maybe) tell you something on their own, which might get you by if you find yourself in a jam (the jam, at the time, being standardized tests).  I am by no means a linguist; I’ve no formal experience with the inheritances of words.  They’re a playground, a rabbit hole.  I admittedly enjoy how irresponsibly I follow their transformations, considering how the parts of a word have made up that word, and how they mislead, how easily a word’s present form can overwrite its past and still arrive at the same understanding for all the wrong reasons, and how then each root word leads you to suspect it is the root of another.  Suffuse: suf-, alternate of sub-, meaning under, beneath, up to; but ‘fuse.’  I think: parallel to infusion, but, while infuse has pleasant connotations, suffuse casts a glance towards submission, willing or unwilling.  It walks a fine line between terror and bliss, between a hot shower after a hard day and waterboarding.  Of course, this is trumping things up quite a bit, akin to exploring the significance of two plus two equalling four by means of numerology.  ‘Suffuse’ means, simply, ‘to pour liquid over a surface,’ though pour is misleading.  One Established Dictionary says ‘overspread,’ instead of pour, even as it says the root Latin word is ‘to pour.’  (Unexpectedly, ‘fountain’ has nothing to do with fundere, the Latin root.)  Or: one would expect ‘sect’ to follow from the root ‘to cut.’  A sect, one could assume, is a small group separated from— by an incision, a de-cision— but still part of a larger group.  But ‘sect’ comes from ‘secta’ for ‘following.’

‘Do your work, and I shall know you,’ [Emerson] says in ‘Self-Reliance’.  ‘Work’ is a way to confront the essential facts of existence and to discover in doing so the power of human desire which turns facts into mythologies and mythologies into facts.  – Richard Poirier, The Renewal of Literature, p. 94

Perhaps the most interesting aspect, the thing that keeps me going through Roubaud’s not always fun to read The Great Fire of London, is the dissonance of reading in the present tense.  We often consider grammatical tense and the effect it has on what is being narrated.  But rarely do we consider the tense of the activity of writing, except in such rare circumstances when it becomes so problematic, by the author’s intention or not, that we cannot help but notice it.  There is a bifurcation between experiencing self and writing self.  How an author handles such a dilemma, in an individual work or in their general method, I find to be one of the most interesting moves an author can make (can, because many do not). Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Poirier, Roubaud, Writing

from Roubaud’s “The Great Fire of London”

§136 Something that would be a project (a future), a project for existence

In a project for existence— it doesn’t matter which— only a single, pragmatic answer exists to the overall “what’s-the-point?”: time passes.  Every project, particularly a formal project of writing, like mine today, which has outlived all its value (I ascribed the Project value, thus opposing it to the what’s-the-point), takes up time, structures it, erases its empty pockets.  Each hour determines another, pushes it along, consumes and nullifies it.

If I myself seek (and I don’t, really) some sort of organized answer to the overall what’s-the-point today, I only come up with skepticism; I declare myself a skeptic in the classical style of Sextus Empiricus; I seek an ataractic calm in reading and “suspended judgement.”

From a philosophical point of view, my skepticism is essentialy shallow; I don’t seek the philosophical possibility of living skeptically, but simply (a lid on the kettle of appalling thoughts) some kind of protection for an affirmation: belief in nothing so as to not have death be my only belief.

This is a voluntarist attitude, whose corollary is a strategy for life that I’ve practice spontaneously, unreflectively, and unsystematically for a long while; I’ll dub it avoidism.  I avoid time by means of tasks—counting; describing, and searching for sonnets in libraries; this work at hand, pushing along and then recopying these black lines.  I avoid the world and its remains: I don’t answer letters, nor the telephone; I walk, I keep to myself, I keep my activity to a minimum.

It is true that in all this I am neither really “consistent” nor absolute.  Perhaps such is not possible without rapidly falling into the conclusions of a total what’s-the-point, but along another path, through a sort of death by starvation.  But precisely in this probable inconsistency (I don’t really subject it to questioning) lies the possibility for my current skeptical existence.  I practice a modest skepticism; I don’t allow myself to be dragged into the pitfall of passionately denying my contradictions.

This “avoidist” version of skepticism (which I acknowledge can only prompt an irritated shrug from a philosopher…), my own version of skepticism is, finally, rather close to what Coleridge recommended to fiction readers in his famous expression: “willing suspension of disbelief.”  I find this position eminently skeptical: entering into the novel (and more generally, placing yourself before the poem, the work of art) in such a frame of mind means (and the use of the word suspension, as in the skeptic principle of “suspension of judgment,” seems characteristic) living out my reading in the same exact terms as I live my daily life: by willingly suspending my belief, by deciding momentarily, and for a limited time, to believe in nothing at all.  The skeptical world is a world of the incredible that can be entered only in brief fragments odf demarcated time, in which the impossibility of accepting that things and worlds exist will be suspended between parentheses.  And the world of a novel is penetrated similarly; the world of the great novels imposes its force of conviction, not in its capacity as an exact replica or the revelation of a world that might be our own, but because by immersing ourselves withini t we gradualy yield our consent to the fact—though with an inner conviction that we remain masters of this choice—that every life is on the whole improbable.

Filed under: Quotes, Roubaud

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