1 - Indeterminacy of meaning  pp. 17-49

Indeterminacy of meaning

By Sarah Kay

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Raimon de Miraval begins one of his songs with the declaration

Chans, quan non es qui l'entenda,

no pot ren valer,

(XXII, vv. 1–2)

A song is worthless if no one can understand it,

but despite such commitment to accessibility, troubadour lyrics are far from transparent. In addition to philological problems of language and manuscript transmission, and to the difficulties arising from some poets' cultivation of obscurity (the so-called trobar clus), major obstacles to the extrapolation of meaning inhere in the rhetoric of the courtly canso. In my Introduction, I contended that criticism which espoused the ‘autobiographical assumption’ was often vitiated by failure to recognize these obstacles. I shall not maintain that they render meaning so indeterminate as to be beyond discussion, or indeed beyond an analysis grounded in traditional rhetorical vocabulary. In fact the sections of this chapter discuss what I see as the most characteristic tropes of troubadour composition: irony and hyperbole; metaphor, metonymy and catachresis. But I use these headings somewhat loosely, with a view to showing how they make meaning elusive, subject to slippage, and resistent to univocal reading. I use the term ‘irony’ rather broadly to refer to the capacity of a text to signal disengagement from its apparent meaning, and thus admit uncertainty about its purport.