Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the fundamental narcissism within German Minnesang, specifically in reference to Morungen’s Song 32 (Mir ist geschehen)

The concept of medieval German lyric may, on first inspection, seem outward-looking, given that its starting point is composition of an expression, putting innermost feelings of interiority into a form, giving them shape, writing them down to be read aloud and performed, often for a willing audience. There is a public dimension to these works which, for a long time afterwards, was anathema to the poetic sensibility represented by the Romantic composing in his private tower (though today’s predilection towards public readings and poetry in performance signals, perhaps, an acceptance of such a conceit, albeit at a glacial pace). Yet it is not merely the provenance, the composition history, which seems to proclaim the courtly lyric as something public, as something shared – even its very subject matter, its content, is by necessity outward-looking, since the poet re-enacts with his words the very act of looking itself, his gaze as it delights in his lover, the joy at another being. Surely, it could be construed, such a work is most properly concerned with the outward, with the available perceptions of the world outside one can or cannot receive.
Yet the work of Heinrich von Morungen within the Minnesang tradition, and most notably Song XXXII, notoriously referred to as the Narzißuslied, expresses a far more nuanced position: the Lied is in truth fundamentally bleak in its assertion that, to quote Edward Peter Nolan, “the object of desire is simultaneously made present to our minds by our image of it and doomed to eternal separation from us by the irrevocable différance that obtains between the original and its image”[1].
Such a statement requires some analysis. This dichotomy between the two antitheses – that by, as Shakespeare put it, composing a ‘woeful ballad/made to his mistress’ eyebrow’, a young lover should both draw nearer to her and see more truly the gulf that divides them – is a tension throughout Song XXXII, and puts lie to the assumption that lyric is an exclusively outward mode of expression. Its exterior representation is, instead, based on a profound understanding of the Narrator’s interiority, the world of intra nos – and it is that which renders the work so memorable, and ultimately so grim.
It seems apposite that we should start not only as Morungen himself presumably did, but certainly as Morungen’s Narrator-Poet would: with the choice of the poem’s topic, its subject, its focus. This act of honing in on a particular dedicatee – and however anonymous and universal she may remain, that is in itself almost part of the joke – is part and parcel of the basic function of a love poem. The formula of such lyrics is fairly familiar: we understand it either as being one of two things. It is either a direct profession from the Poet to the lover, directly, at some intimate moment, perhaps, or indirectly as a heartfelt epistle – in other words, the poet’s interiority as wrapped up in the present; or it is a recount, a lament of a lover of the past.
Needless to say, the two have quite distinguishable tones, and right from the melancholia of its opening line ‘Mir ist geschehen als einem kindelîne’ (I.1), it is clear Song XXXII falls squarely on the side of the latter. It is to be a lament – we are to hear regarding this unknown woman, ‘von der mir bî liebe leides vil geschach’ (I.8). What is fascinating about the way Morungen approaches this is the different strata, the different layers in which the poem can be read as a lament. The Poet is self-evidently from the very first stanza informing the audience of his crushing disillusionment after all the early euphoria bound up with his lady’s alleged perfection.
And yet it is not just a lament about the failings of love, but also indeed the failing of his very attempts to express it. The poetic form itself is indicted, and indeed we are left feeling rather bleak about poetry in general. Morungen achieves this in a variety of different ways, but the central iconography of reflection and of the mirror is very important in achieving his effect. We hear in the first stanza that, like a child seeing a mirror, the Poet ‘greif dar nâch sîn selbes schîne/sô lange vntz daz sîn hant den spiegel gar zerbrach’ (I. 3-4). An entire literary tradition revolving around the Greek myth of Narcissus is indeed foremost in our minds at such a juncture. Self-obsession is unhealthy; not recognising this in the way we approach others is damaging; it will ultimately only bring sorrow, no matter how great the initial beauty; and so on.
Morungen’s Lied is somewhat more unsettling even than that, however. What one sees in the lover is in fact oneself, as has been established (indeed, both physically and metaphysically – given the miniscule reflection of the Self one can detect in the Other’s eyes, that is to say in their own outlets for gazing at the Other in their turn). Morungen eschews the more mythological, romantic associations of a pool of water in a forest, however, as in the original telling, and notably settles for a mirror – a piece of craftsmanship, a product of mankind’s hands as much as it is something man can destroy. What is a lyric but a mirror, a reproduction, a representation of the corporeal – indeed, an incredibly vivid and accurate one – without ever being corporeal itself? The gap between them is, as Nolan says above, ‘irrevocable’. Art and poetry, one may freely admit, ‘hold the mirror up to nature’[2], but they are not nature.
The fractured mirror acts as a catalyst for a further set of potent images revolving around the imperfect slippage between the real and the ideal. The Poet sees the lady, the very object of his desire, ‘in troumes’ (II.2) – it is all quite literally in his head, but even in the imaginative realm one is not free of imperfections. Instead, we hear the Poet’s palpable disappointment that ‘niuwen daz ein lützel was versêret/ir vil vröuden rîchez <rôtez> mündelîn’ (II.7-8); this physical blemish sees the idealised vision of the lover marred by disillusionment. Such a negative physical image of the desired lady is in itself relatively unusual in medieval lyric, highlighting the extent to which Morungen is innovating here. The colour of blood and of vitality is replaced by pallid sickliness – mortality intrudes upon the ideal; the Poet is ‘sam ein kint, daz wîsheit unversunnen’ (III.6).
There is nothing specific about the lady in Song XXXII; we get the tiniest detail of a red mouth, which is hardly telling (she could be anyone) and thus we are left with no physical depiction of any real substance, rather we receive the half-remembered thoughts and memories of the central Narrator-Poet. The object of his desire quite literally only exists in his mind and in his words; in every other conceivable sense, she has no form. This is true not only, demonstrably, to us as audience, but even to the Poet himself; the mirror shatters and he realises that there is nothing behind it. Lines III.7-8 are some of the grimmest (‘sînen schaten ersach in einem brunnen/und dem minnen múoz únz an sînen tôt’) because the Poet illustrates that navel-gazing, that metaphorically staring at one’s own reflection, is an ultimately futile exercise that indeed hastens mortality rather than staving it off to some future date.
Therefore, the act of looking, that staple of the medieval love lyric, is in and of itself criticised – the reaching out to the mirror and trying to encompass the illusion – as actively harmful: ‘the act of looking transcends a purely erotic level of reflection, approaching a more existential one[3]’. Indeed, it plunges Morungen’s Narrator-Poet into a kind of crisis, since the central figure of the poem is left only with an image, an image more of himself than of his lady. The focussing, the honing in on the detail of the object, in fact obliterates the object as a whole. Nolan in particular suggests that this state of affairs reflects a strongly troubled and problematic relation to poetry in general – that the ‘fear of the mediating mirror as unreliable bridge [is] paralleled by the sense of literary conventions of genre as being not only necessary, but eventually self-defeating and deluding[4]’ [my italics]. Relying on an art form as mediation to cross the bridge, attempting to find self-expression in the mode of poetry, is necessary, since without it one has made no move towards reaching one’s lover, and yet all it achieves is to reinforce the totality of the divide between the two. What the Poet saw us consummation, as fulfilment, is as the tiniest scratch on the surface:

‘Owê leider, jô ich wânde ichs ein ende hân
ir vil wunnenclîchen werden minne.
nû bin ich vil kûme an dem beginne,
des ist hin mîn wunne und ouch mîn gerender wân’ (IV.5-8).

The Poet may have thought himself at the finish line, as it were, yet finds he is only at the beginning. The poem itself is therefore an endless and rather futile circling loop which sees the narrator bound up only in himself, only in his own imagery rather than anything healthily external. It seems that much like Virgil’s Aeneas, his soul feeds on empty pictures (animum picture pascit inani, Aeneid I.464), such that ‘Heinrich’s darker message may well be that there never is anything but art, that only in and through the mirrors of art do we discover the central reality of the fatal hiatus that obtains between ourselves and the objects of our desire’[5]. The ‘abyss of solipsism’ is never far away, and it is art which contributes to it.

Huber, Christoph, ‘Narziß und die Geliebte: Zur Funktion des Narziß-Mythos im Kontext der Minne bei Heinrich von Morungen’,  Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 59 (1985).
Nolan, Edward Peter, Now Through a Glass Darkly: Specular Images of Being and Knowing from Virgil to Chaucer, Ann Arbot, 1990.
Schmid, Elisabeth, ‘Augenlust und Spiegelliebe’, in Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift 59 (1985).
Speckenbach, Klaus, ‘Gattungsreflexionen im Morungen-Lied ‘Mir ist geschehen als einem kindelîne’ (MF145,1)’, Frühmittelalterliche Studien 20 (1986).
Sterling-Hellenbrand, Alexandra, ‘Heinrich von Morungen’, in Key Figures in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopaedia, ed. Richard K. Emmerson, Routledge, 2013.
Tervooren, Helmut, ed., Heinrich von Morungen: Lieder, Reclam, 3. Auflage 2003.
Young, Christopher, ‘Vision and discourse in the poems of Heinrich von Morungen’, in Blütezeit, Festschrift für L. Peter Johnson,  ed. Mark Chinca and Christopher Young, Tübingen 2000.

[1]Nolan, Edward Peter, Now Through a Glass Darkly: Specular Images of Being and Knowing from Virgil to Chaucer, Ann Arbot, 1990.
[2]Shakespeare, William, Hamlet.
[3]Sterling-Hellenbrand, Alexandra, ‘Heinrich von Morungen’, in Key Figures in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopaedia, ed. Richard K. Emmerson, Routledge, 2013.
[4]Nolan, Edward Peter, Now Through a Glass Darkly: Specular Images of Being and Knowing from Virgil to Chaucer, Ann Arbot, 1990.

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