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  • The Sea and the Shield: Lacan and Epic Mirrors in Luís de Camões’s Os Lusíadas and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata
  • Christopher T. Lewis

The essence of the literary epic, regardless of its period or form, is a narrative that endeavors to consolidate an identity. Like Lacan’s mirror stage – “an identification” that takes place when one assumes “an image that is seemingly predestined to have an effect [. . .]” (76) – the epic, from Virgil through the Renaissance in particular, most often depicts the identification or conceptualization of a sense of nation, forging wholeness from fragments. In many epic narratives, the vortex of this mirror imagery converges around the hero’s encounter with an idealized Gestalt, reflected by fate, which casts him in his role as a national imago. For example, in Luís de Camões’s 1572 Portuguese epic, Os Lusíadas, Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese fleet face their epic mirror of fortune in the sea itself as they seek out the maritime route to India. Torquato Tasso’s rendition of the First Crusade, Gerusalemme liberata (published just eight years later), utilizes the sign of the shield to reflect the destiny of Rinaldo and the Christian host. This article will examine how these symbols each cast back an “ideal-I” to their protagonists, granting them situational apperception. Through reflection, the sea and the shield generate a desire for oneness, aiming to build empire in their own image.

Camões, Os Lusíadas, and the Portuguese Sea

Camões cuts an unlikely figure for a great epic poet. Though technically a nobleman, he was not particularly well born, and his works suggest [End Page 353] that his life was more bookish than it really was – an alternative he might have preferred, given the choice. What details we know about him outline an adventurous existence for someone of his lyric vocation: an odyssey of war, shipwreck, and financial ruin through Ceuta, Goa, Mozambique, and Macau. Yet Camões’s own experiences at sea imbue Os Lusíadas with a verisimilitude that Virgil, inventing Aeneas’s journey from the comfort of Rome, could never have hoped to grasp. The sea influences the tale in a very tangible sense, reflecting an authenticity that extends to its characters as well. Even in the context of his Roman-Christian mythos, Camões tells his story “very much as it happened. He does not even exaggerate Gama’s role. The result is different from anything done before in epic. [. . .] He believed that his truth was as interesting as fiction and his poem was written on that principle.” (Bowra 99). Indeed, in canto I.10, Camões explicitly rebukes Ariosto and Boiardo for writing fables; and, in V.86, he boasts that da Gama’s fleet sails farther than either of the fictional heroes of the Aeneid and the Odyssey. Nevertheless, as Christopher Lund reminds us, there had to be some “larger than life poetic apparatus” to elevate his expedition “to the mythical proportions that aptly conveyed its place in Portuguese history” (282). To accomplish this, Camões places the Portuguese at the apex of an Oedipal triangle involving Venus, who has taken a motherly interest in them because they resemble her favored Romans, and Bacchus, divine sire of the Portuguese, whose lust for fame has trounced the parental tendencies that he once harbored for his son Lusus and his Iberian descendants.

Of all the traditional epic considerations in Os Lusíadas, however, its nationalistic bent distinguishes itself. Da Gama’s quest is as much about reaching India as it is living up to the ideal-I of the Portuguese unconscious. As Camões saw it, Achilles, Ulysses, and Aeneas were not important for who they were, but for how what they did shaped cultural unity or promoted “collectivity in the national sense” (Andrews 62). Consequently, faced with a Portuguese golden age in decline, Camões sought to “recreate the spirit which had engendered [its] ascendancy” (63). A century of hindsight inspired him with an imago for the waning empire, a unified national unconscious to guide its progress. Throughout their travels in Os Lusíadas, it is this vision that da...


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pp. 353-361
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