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  • The Matter of Language: Guilhem de Peitieus and the Platonic Tradition
  • Daniel Heller-Roazen (bio)

Thought finds the double; it divides it until it arrives at a simple term that can no longer be analyzed. It continues as long as it can, dividing it to the bottom. The bottom of all things is matter: this is why all matter is dark, why language is light and why thought glimpses language.

Kai nous heuriske to ditton. Houtos gar diairei, heos [an] eis aploun hekei meketi auto analuesthai dynamenon. Heos de dynatai, khorei autou eis to bathos. To de bathos hekaston he hyle. Dio kai skoteine pasa, hoti to phos logos kai ho nous logon [horai].

—Plotinus, Enn. II, 4, 5


How are the texts of the troubadours to be read? In his 1966 essay, “Aux origines de l’amour courtois: La Poétique amoureuse de Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine,” 1 Roger Dragonetti proposes an answer to the question that has perhaps never been fully considered by Romance [End Page 851] philologists. Offering the first critique of the attempt to reduce Guilhem de Peitieus’s poetry to his historical situation and lived experience, Dragonetti suggests that the troubadour’s texts be instead considered with respect to the philosophical and theological thought of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. “To understand” the work of Guilhem de Peitieus, he writes,

it does not suffice to paint a picture of the erotic customs of the age. This work must be situated in its spiritual tradition and by this we mean first of all the values that founded the romance civilization [la civilisation romane] of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, immersed in a mystical and theological, Platonico-symbolic tradition with which William IX, as we will see, remained painfully confronted. 2

The sense of the first troubadour’s work, Dragonetti argues, can be grasped only when examined in relation to this tradition.

That the critic most attentive to the rhetorical and formal structures operative in the troubadour and trouvère lyric should have so insisted on the need to consider the medieval love poets in relation to the philosophical tradition attests to the degree to which poetic and philosophical production in the eleventh and twelfth centuries cannot easily be separated. The unity of literary form and philosophical discourse in the twelfth century, moreoever, has been repeatedly stressed by historians of medieval philosophy: hence the introduction, for example, of the notion of involucrum or integumentum, among the masters of the period, as the type of discourse by which pagan philosophical thought finds expression in specifically literary forms. 3

The question posed by this essay concerns a corpus of texts that belong to this period and this philosophico-literary horizon. If the poetic texts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries must be situated within a tradition that is both literary and philosophical, what is the significance and place of troubadour lyric poetry? Roger Dragonetti’s answer to the question is clear. The philosophical climate common to the poets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, he writes, is that of [End Page 852] “Plato’s Timaeus and its radically dualistic account of the universe;” 4 the achievement of the lyric poets is to have found in love a “purely human union” 5 of the two terms opposed in the Platonic tradition, namely “the sensible and the spiritual,” “matter” and “ideas.” 6 The Amor of which the first troubadour sings, we read in “La Poétique amoureuse de Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine,” constitutes the “reconciliation” 7 of what the schools of Chartres and Poitiers 8 absolutely separate in the form of a division between “the radical abyss of the sensible world” and the “transcendental spiritual vision centered on the Pauline conception of union in the Word.” 9 Lyric poetry, according to Dragonetti’s essay, is thus originally an attempt to resolve a dualism at the center of the Platonic tradition.

This essay approaches the question differently. If poetry and thought belong together in the Middle Ages, then the question of the “origin of the lyric” cannot be developed as long as poetic practice and philosophical reflection are simply opposed to one another in the form of an antithesis between the...

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