Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Petrarch: Conversations with the Dead

It took me almost a full minute to realize Petrarch was writing letters to dead men – which should have been more obvious, because I started with his letter to Homer. Three letters later, I’m still unsure as to why he would.

Is he trying to connect more intimately with the revered authors of his education, as his era attempts to reestablish enlightenment by returning to a previous one? Perhaps by addressing his essays to the men behind the texts, he hoped to bring them from the past to his present. Maybe he wanted to feel smart.

Or maybe he was experimenting with literary criticism, which is our way of entering in a dialogue with something we’ve read. Today we like to focus on the text itself, dissecting and categorizing it like literary grave-diggers. Then, rather than throwing that analysis at a person, we use it as a spyglass to peep on history. We dig graves to make time machines. Perhaps Petrarch invented a time-machine to dig at the graves of ancient writers. 

Image Credit goes to Ephemeral Scraps on Flickr. License found here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

OR: his time machine was not so he could communicate with the deceased, but so the public could. I imagine he knew Homer would never read, much less respond to, a letter written several centuries later. Death is a huge communication barrier. I wonder if hiding behind the audience of “Homer” and “Tullius” were the faces of his contemporaries, and he thought to introduce the living to the dead.

Then he wrote to a living man and treated the texts as dear friends. We still do that – sometimes going even a step further, and befriending not the author, but the characters within. Which leads me to a question you are free to ignore: do “literary” texts create a disconnect between people the way social media does today? They both began as forms of communication, but both also have elements of removing, replacing and altering the speaker’s presence in the conversation. And then they traverse time and distance so that a man some three-thousand years ago can say something to a twenty-first century undergrad half a world away. 

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