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21.06.12 Ealy, Narcissism and Selfhood in Medieval French Literature

The Medieval Review

21.06.12 Ealy, Narcissism and Selfhood in Medieval French Literature


It is a pleasure to share my experience of reading Nicholas Ealy's rich, insightful, and highly readable critical work on the use of the Narcissus myth in selected medieval French narrative poems. The critical analysis in this work focuses on texts dated between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, specifically: The Lay of Narcissus, Alain de Lille's Plaint of Nature, René d'Anjou's Book of the Love-Smitten Heart, Chrétien de Troyes's Story of the Grail, and Guillaume de Machaut's Fountain of Love. Beginning with the Narcissus myth as it underscores a well chosen poem by Bernart de Ventadorn, along with pertinent excerpts from the Roman de la Rose in his introduction, Ealy demonstrates his methodology: close readings and psychoanalytic interpretations focus on the ways in which the Ovidian character both seeks and obliterates his sense of self: "the desire to conform to an image marks the self, not as a source, but as a byproduct of the image, thereby destroying any sense of an integral subject" (143). Additionally, Ealy brilliantly demonstrates how narratives that present "wounds of desire" create a space in which protagonists both gain and lose their identity, breathing new life into fin'amor rhetoric.

Ealy highlights the modulation between Ovid's tale and the version told in the anonymous twelfth-century Lay of Narcissus: whereas the prophecy of Ovid's Tireseas stressed Narcissus's long life only if he never knew himself, the Lay now substitutes a prophecy that Narcissus not see himself if he is to enjoy old age. The twelfth century work now pits the truth of the prognostication against the sense of sight: voir vs. veoir. But of course, Narcissus cannot truly see himself because he is too distracted by a reflection of himself which both is and is not him. The wound of desire is played out in this narrative by the character of Dané who has a greater presence here than in Ovid's poem. She lives the paradox of a wound resulting from Love's arrow, feeling the pain deeply within herself, even though she can find no exterior evidence of the injury. In Ealy's analysis, Dané's sense of self is initiated by a wound that provokes her desire to be desired and, as Narcissus and Dané come face-to-face with their still wobbly sense of self, dependent on their need to be desired, they are incapable of desiring someone outside of the self: "Two absent selves, fractured reflections of desire's horrific consequences, cannot come together and create a mutual oneness" (49). Ealy suggests that the male lover in fin'amor doesn't position himself as the possessor of the gaze, but rather as the one who longs to be looked upon.

In his intertextual reading of the Lay and subsequent narratives, Ealy has enacted Nature's "creation of a chain of mirrors" (60), as described in Alain de Lille's Plaint of Nature. In this latter work, Nature laments the sin that shatters that divine reflection or man as imago Dei, though it can be mended through the language of scripture "which, acting as a reflective surface, cultivates and transforms Christian subjects into images of holiness, thereby positioning them, as a result, within the chain of mirrors that begins and ends in the divine," explains Ealy (61). Narcissus's undermining of heteronormativity and "ungrammarly" desire underscores the difficulty of achieving a coherent (Christian) self-identity.

In Alain de Lille's evocation of Narcissus, Ealy discerns the development of a self-identity based on an egotistic illusion that destroys the traditional social order. He interprets the Narcissus myth as a warning about how easily images/reflections/language can be distorted and misinterpreted by desire. For Alain de Lille's Nature, man is a reflection of the universe, a conglomeration of disparate parts. In this context, identity or meaning results from the juxtaposition of a thing or being with its opposite, just as Narcissus is and simultaneously is not his aquatic image. Ealy sublimely describes Narcissus's interpretive abilities as necessarily limited due to humanity's oppositional language and reasoning, separate from and in contrast to the divine unity of thought. It is Narcissus's inability to decipher all the meanings of his reflection that leads to his demise. And it is man's desire to know oneness and unity of meaning that will eventually bring him back to God following an ungodly, ungrammatical life.

In the prologue of René d'Anjou's allegorical Book of the Love-Smitten Heart the narrator infuses his love-suffering into the protagonist's "heart-rending" story in which Love and Desire remove his heart from his body to save the object of his desire from her imprisonment. Ealy includes in this chapter his commentary on the interplay between text and illuminations in two manuscripts: Vienna 2597 and Bnfr 24399. While René d'Anjou does not literally evoke in his poem the Narcissus myth in the manner of the Romance of the Rose, he certainly invites us to consider his poem as a reflection of his own experience, with its attendant deceptions, and as commentary on the consequences of the love wound for the sense and unity of self.

Ealy next turns his attention to Chrétien de Troyes's Story of the Grail and the narcissine basis of Perceval's obsession: the reflection of his true love in the image of three drops of blood on the snow. In Ealy's reading, Perceval's general ignorance (and particular ignorance even about his own name) is attributable to the family's general inability to discern the falseness behind the chivalric reflections of honor and glory, the source of the father's wound and eventual death. Chrétien's poem, in this psychoanalytic reading, re-enacts the inability to discern reality from delusion in the form of repeated penetrating wounds that appear regularly throughout the narrative.

The chapter on Guillaume de Machaut's Fountain of Love situates this mid-fourteenth-century poem as writing that reflects a speech act, a promise to give witness to a story of love, uniting the experiences of both the narrator as scribe and the character of the interlocutor knight. Ealy returns to Ovid's Narcissus narrative (which is evoked in the poem as an inscription on the Fountain), this time to consider Ovid's donation to the story: Echo, who ultimately "forces Narcissus to speak a desire he never intended" (191).

Ealy concludes his study of use of the Narcissus myth in selected medieval texts with the understanding "that selfhood is always infiltrated by otherness, that subjectivity is always intersubjective in nature" (227-228). I would add that just as one narrative often depends on its preceeding narratives for a full understanding, so the self is also dependent on other selves for identity.

Our social mentalities of the twenty-first century include much effort devoted to revising and redefining our categories of identity: what does it mean to be a man or a women, to be gay or trans? Black or white? How do others categorize me and how do I identify myself? Is identity static or malleable? Contrary to some popular opinion that dismisses the importance of medieval literature, Ealy's work reminds us that the Middle Ages contributed greatly to the discussion of what constitutes one's sense of self with sophisticated writings that continue to be pertinent to the twenty-first century.Narcissism and Selfhood in Medieval French Literature has laid the groundwork for the next needed installment on this topic: the ways in which medieval narratives depict women's sense of self.