Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Marvelous Crystals, Perilous Mirrors: Le Roman De la Rose and the Discontinuity of the Romance Subject

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Marvelous Crystals, Perilous Mirrors: Le Roman De la Rose and the Discontinuity of the Romance Subject

Article excerpt

Critics have, for some time now, highlighted the discontinuity of Guillaume de Lorris version of the Roman de la Rose. (1) Postmodern approaches have, appropriately for the first extended first-person narrative in French, focused on the psychoanalytical discontinuity of the subject. This focus has led to some exciting work on the Narcissus scene (Hult; Huchet; Nouvet, "Allegorical Mirror"; Gilbert). These readings, I believe, also open the door to a consideration of broader discontinuities at work in Guillaume's version of the Roman, discontinuities beyond the Narcissus scene that may be at the very heart of romance and are integral to understanding the early thirteenth-century discourse and practice of self-representation. Daniel Heller-Roazen's "poetics of contingency" (28) and "referential duplicity" (34) reinforce this image of an unstable, self-deconstructive subject at the heart of the dual-authored Roman. Suzanne Conklin Akbari's Seeing through the Veil similarly finds in Guillaume's romance an allegorical "multiplication of the self" (66) that "complicates the effort of self-recognition" (69). Like Heller-Roazen and Akbari, I think that the postmodern assessment of the discontinuity of the subject should include and go beyond the Narcissus character and scene, and even beyond Guillaume's romance. I would like to analyze Guillaume's project of self-representation in the Roman and to contextualize it with two other works: first, Chretien de Troyes's Yvain, which could loosely be called a literary source, Guillaume's matiere; and then a set of manuscript illuminations (the lavish Vatican manuscript, Urbinatus Latinus 376), at least a reaction to and perhaps even an interpretation of Guillaume's romance. These two works reinforce the modern assessment of an unstable subject in the Roman and lead us to think of this instability as a more widespread condition.

Guillaume's and Chretien's stories and the manuscript illuminations share a common dilemma: the juxtaposition of quest and obstacle in the development of the protagonist. In the Romana series of obstacles threaten the dreamer's, and more particularly the lover's, progress toward the beloved, symbolized by the rose. The fountain at the center of the romance nicely embodies this dilemma. ! will summarize the scene briefly here and return to it later. When the lover/poet comes upon the fountain at line 1425, he immediately notices an inscription that announces that Narcissus died here. (2) For about seventy lines he tells the story of Narcissus. Then he tells us that this story made him afraid to look at the fountain and his reflection, and he backs away from the fountain (1514). Then, inexplicably, he leans over the fountain, looks into it, and sees the bottom of the river (1524). There at the bottom he sees marvelous crystals that have the power of showing the whole garden in its exact order (1537-70). Then, again abruptly, he tells us that this is the perilous fountain where proud Narcissus saw himself and died (1571-74). This striking and much commented-upon scene juxtaposes two forces within one image. (3) First, the surface of water in the fountain creates the perilous mirror. Second, inside the fountain, the bed of the river is covered with marvelous crystals that sparkle and reflect the garden. For the questing romance subject, the crystals seem to allegorize the progress and possibilities of love. The mirror surface, on the other hand, seems to allegorize obstacles to love, including the danger of pride and self-absorption. The magical power of the crystals also seems to fulfill the many promises of revelation that the text has repeatedly announced. Likewise, the dangerous surface of the fountain seems to extend and to expand the warnings about what a lover ought to avoid, about the obstacles to love. (4) This complex and layered fountain image balances the delicate play of progress and obstacle in the Roman. Yet it also confronts the reader and protagonist with an irreconcilable tension, a tension that leaves the lover at an impasse: the fountain simultaneously represents possibility and promise as well as warning, obstacle, and resistance. …

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