Convention has been often misunderstood as a static and reductive device; thus, highly conventional works are thought to lack originality or imagination. In fact, in my experience, convention simply increases the potential for semiotic density and precision. The aesthetic text is particularly useful for the articulation of oppositions, tensions, and problematic contradictions not unlike those Levi-Strauss found to underlie myth. Because it is more conflicted and ambiguous, this aesthetic exposition is more precise than other discourses, more true to lived experience.
The poetic convention always implies its opposite and a host of other variations. By creating expectations in the reader which then may be fulfilled or disappointed the author adds another level of significance and complexity. Convention can effectively summarize known meanings and then play with them, rendering art ever more efficient and exact, especially once a whole tradition has accumulated around a usage.
The debates over the status of what continue to be called by the useful name of courtly love have raged for decades. Why would such a privileging of the feminine have arisen in a patriarchal society? Do the texts reflect actual behavior at all? If not, what did it mean to voice sentiments at odds with accepted social practice?
“Aller wîbe wünne” by der von Kürenberc seems a wholly “courtly” lyric. The poet expresses extravagant praise for his beloved (as in the opening words “most beautiful of women”); he follows the codified behavior prescribed for genteel lovers (such as communicating through love notes); and he expresses a seemly doubt about his own worthiness.
In the same author’s “Ich stuont mir nehtint spâte” the first reversal of expectations one encounters is the feminine voice. Then the persona reflects back on the text itself as she hears the knight sing “in Kürenberges wise” [style]. What could he be singing but her praises? And her response is “er muoz mir diu land rumen,/ ald ich geniete mich sîn” ["He has to leave this land before I bring him to his knees"} He must depart, frustrating love, in order to achieve it. The knights’ reaction is instant compliance. He heads off to crusade or some other war, declaring that his leaving is due to the beloved. He understands that her demand arises from the fact that he is attractive to her (“hold”), though the consequence is that she must do without his love.
In other words, the poet’s adopting the woman’s perspective generates a flood of self-consciousness and the conclusion that the way to exalt their love is to prevent its being realized in the flesh, an idea similar to Jaufré’s amor de lonh. He provides a proof that his devotion is altogether free of self-interest and thus of the very highest quality, but at the sacrifice of the muddier business of actual physical love.
Kürenberc’s intentions seem even more complex when juxtaposed to another poem of his small surviving oeuvre. “Jô stuont ich nehtint spâte” provides an inversion of convention in numerous ways, thus balancing the picture of love. Even in summary resume these four lines have more twists than a Hollywood thriller. The contemplative, slightly melancholy mood set by the opening line is deflated by the woman's sexual aggression, the power of religion is invoked not to hallow an uplifting affection, but to condemn the man for frustrating the woman’s lust, and the conventional poetic image of the falcon is replaced by the unexpected comparison of the woman to a boar, a figure generally associated with martial ferocity! Each of these tropes on convention adds to, without replacing, the courtly picture of love.
It is in the light of such structural reversals as these that one must read the medieval attitude toward love (and toward poetry). Apparent self-contradictions or mélanges such as Andreas Capellanus’ book four, Chaucer’s retraction, or the highly complicated picture of love that emerges from narrative compilations such as Confessio Amantis or Romance of the Rose are in fact integrated, albeit complex, structures of meaning at once more “true” to the dizzying variety of human experience, more poetic and more entertaining than any straightforward and simple formulation could possibly be. The psychologist would consider such ambivalence to be, not inconsistent and thus unlikely, but definitively human.
The contrast need hardly be so dramatic. In the texts associated with the name of Dietmar von Aist, similar contradictions are implied rather than foregrounded.
For instance, in “Uf der linden obene” the nature introduction sketches a scene of generative joy. The poet’s heart responds in kind, in an almost mystic elevation, he is uplifted to a place he had earlier reached, a place presumably of favor with the beloved. This transport, though, can only be understood to suggest a current loss.
The delicately oblique ending, though too discreet to be an overt complaint, can only be construed as a confession of loss, all the more eloquent for its Germanic understatement: “die manent mich der gedanke vil die ich him zeiner frouwen hân." ["which brings much to mind the thoughts that I have of a woman"]. What, then, is the poet's relation with the natural scene? Clearly one of subdued envy, of opposition rather than delight in the “prettiness” which seems to govern the poem's opening.
The image of the falcon which in der von Kürenberc’s “Wîp unde vederspil” conveys semantic elements of training, obedience, and dominance, reappears in an altogether different light in Dietmar’s “Ez stuont ein frouwe alleine” where the falcon is an image of the uncontrollable, where choice belongs to the bird alone (the choice of a roost, “einen boum der ir gevalle,” corresponding to a lover), but the persona’s worry is explicitly directed not over the bird's unpredictable flight, but over other women's influence on him
(“owê wan lânt si mir mîn lieb?”).
Thus the earlier associations for the falcon have not vanished, but have merely sunk into a significant background role. It is now others whom the poet fears are “training” the bird; its independence was illusory from the start.
In this way the poet’s vision accumulates, just as lived experiences does, by observing data, paying equal attention to repeated patterns (what in literature would be meters, tropes, conventions of all sorts) and to deviations from those patterns. Each conveys information, and the complex sum of countless observations generates the individual’s consciousness. Art alone can provide a record, and in this record, as in Indian mythology every deity is accompanied by its counterpart of the opposite gender, every convention brings its opposite.
If a woman is most beautiful, might she be also in certain moments a fearsome beast? Is not the power of her beauty what allows her to cause such torment? Perhaps the “wild boar” is itself erotic in a new way, but that reaction might itself be trivialized as male fantasy, which might then in turn be viewed as an elegant, affectionate satire of male-female relations . . . And thus the wheel of semiosis turns. The poet’s task is to note the relevant psychic pitches and tighten the string of contradiction tautly enough that his lyre might sing.