Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Petrarch: Inventor of the Seance For Purposes of Flattery

[Italy. A small home seemingly decorated with fervent but sporadic mini-shrines.]

Ohmmmmmm. Is Cicero there? Ask our spirit guide if Cicero is there.

Cicero. Yes. Hi. Um, I'm Petrarch and I invent sonnets and so forth, and I don't really have any questions for you because I am your biggest fan and have devoted serious effort to stalking you transtemporally. Ahem. Love you bye.

[End scene.]

I wonder if Petrarch ever felt, as I do, that it's all too easy to get caught up in secondary sources. When was the last time you read On the Nature of the Gods without annotations? When was the last time you read it in its native Latin? (De Natura Deorum...sounds like the motto of an Ivy League dental school.) Of course, as soon as you finished it you headed to your friendly neighborhood literary journal to find a few good things to say about it the next time someone brings it up in conversation (which you sincerely hope they will).

Secondary sources are valuable, of course. But the spirit of Ad Fontes, that of genuinely interacting with a text, face to face, alone—not at the metaphorical social event, going from conversation to conversation, not under the guidance of a professor—in a word, a Formalist-like close reading—is easy to forget when such vibrant academic conversation is available. Petrarch gets that (at least, from my interpretation of his Familiar Letters, which, I realize, superimposes prescience on him). His foremost desire, it seems, is to speak to Cicero and Homer: actually speak to them as listeners, not as topics. On the other hand, he must be doing it demonstratively, since the aforementioned, may they rest in peace, will never read his messages. It only makes sense that they are intended for the living, for a vague "us." What is he trying to teach us, then, and why does he adopt the pretense of mortal coexistence with the classical authors?

I'll let these questions hang in the air for a moment, but I think if Petrarch were among us today, he would engage heartily (though perhaps under a pseudonym) in the debates of modern critical theory. Petrarch would be the one arguing that the Author is not dead, not as long as we see him reflected in his prose and are willing to engage with him as a person and as equals. This paradigm would shape our reading of a text, leading us to look at it not as the product of preexisting cultural or literary variables, but as the metaphysical brainchild of someone who has transcended both their culture and their literary milieu, someone so rare—even out of place—that they actually deserve the praise afforded by Petrarch. I'll conclude there, but I'm convinced that there's something greater than poetry to be extrapolated from Petrarch's Letters, something that adds depth to our understanding of Ad Fontes and pushes the boundaries of our critical paradigm. Heretical as it may sound to post-modern ears, it worships both the author and the text, both the word and the context. We shouldn't take it lightly; it proceeds from a source which, as much as any other, is worth returning to.

--Isaac Lyman

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