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My Secret Book
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B+ : rather too mortality-obsessed, but quite a bit that's of interest and appeal
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Francesco Petrarca's -- Petrarch's -- My Secret Book was probably composed between 1347 and 1353 and was not meant for publication: "you will shun the company of men and be content to remain at my side", the poet writes to and of the book in his introductory Proem.
This might seem to suggest that Petrarch wants to hide something sensational -- but My Secret Book is hardly salacious.
Instead, it is an imagined dialogue between Petrarch and St.Augustine -- with Truth hovering by their sides, passing: "silent judgment on every word" -- extending over three days (a "triduano colloquio").
Petrarch explains that he recorded the conversations in this little book so that he: "can savor by reading as often as I wish those delights that I once savored in discussion" -- but it's not meant or needed for public consumption (though hardly out of humility: he notes: "I am planning more important ones" with which to seek fame ...).
Who can adequately describe the boredom and daily unpleasantness of my life, and the gloomiest and most turbulent city of any land, the meanest and lowest sewer swollen with the filth of the whole world ? [...] (W)hen I look around me, I often seem to have descended alive into hell.St.Augustine -- who is of course the St.Augustine of Petrarch's own invention, exaggerated in his his ideological severity (and, as such, a bit of a caricature, too) -- is rough on Petrarch: "I judged you were of maturer mind" he sighs early on, berating him for: "saying such stupid and ignorant things", and complaining repeatedly that, for all his reading and learning Petrarch doesn't seem to have picked up many of the lessons he could and should have.
Petrarch admits he is unhappy, and St.Augustine is certain he knows what the root of the problem is: basically, Petrarch just isn't thinking about death enough:
Fr. So I don't reflect upon death ?Mortality is the 'predicament' St.Augustine sees as the be-all and end-all, and even as Petrarch is of course dimly aware of it, St.Augustine argues that mortality should be pretty much the entire focus of all his thoughts. Mortal life comes to an end ! Grasp that !
Simple as it would appear to grasp, for St.Augustine mortality -- well, the mortal life -- is of course almost just incidental: ii isn't literally the end-all, in fact it's just the preamble. What it's really all about is the everafter. So while still stuck on earth, man should really get his act together and focus on death and what happens then. And Petrarch doesn't seem to get the import of this.
St.Augustine tries to convey the proper death-thinking frame-of-mind:
If whenever you think of death you are not disturbed, you will know that your thoughts have been useless, as if you had been thinking of something else. But if at the very thought of it you have stiffened, trembled, and gone pale; if you have seemed already to be struggling in the throes of death [...] if you have thought that death is not an end to your toils, but a transition amid a thousand kinds of torture and tormentor; the shrieks and groans of Avernus, the sulfur rivers, the darkness, the vindictive Furies and finally the whole savagery and pallor of Orcus, and what is worse than all these evils: eternal and never-ending unhappiness, despair of any end to calamity, and the everlasting anger of a God devoid of any further compassionYou can kind of see why Petrarch might not be wholly on board with this afterlife-obsessed Catholic hokum and more concerned with more mundane everyday matters.
St.Augustine sends some mixed messages: "I want you to know this above all else: that there is no cause for despair", he assures Petrarch. Of course, the caveat is in the Augustinian Kool-Aid -- go all-in on that death-focused way of life.
St.Augustine's believes that Petrarch's misplaced priorities are the root of his misery. In the first dialogue he really hammers home the death-obsession that he believes is key, but fortunately it's not quite so bad over the remaining two -- where he addresses Petrarch's other faults. Two things, in particular, are a huge problem: "Amor et gloria" -- "Love and desire for fame". St.Augustine is annoyed by Petrarch's silly, endless Laura-obsession, and, as he dryly points out: "Your desire for fame among men and an everlasting reputation is greater than it should be". And then there's all that book-writing (when he could have been contemplating death !):
I must say with all due respect that you have gone seriously astray by exhausting yourself in the effort to write books, particularly at your age.Here, more obviously, Petrarch is talking with himself, wondering about how he has spent his life and whether those ambitious projects -- unfinished, in some cases, still -- were really worth it. Obviously, the whole humility thing never really takes -- recall that even in the Proem (an after-the-fact introduction) he has to mention that: "I am planning more important" works. Petrarch is concerned about his mortality -- but not entirely in the way St.Augustine wants him to be. He's as concerned with posterity, and with having lived a full, rich life while still a simple mortal man, not too concerned yet with what becomes of his soul (or whatever it is that takes the next steps). St.Augustine's plea that he: "Rip off the veils and dispel the darkness: fix your gaze upon it" don't fall on deaf ears -- but Petrarch can't bring himself to fully abandon everyday-life and navel-gaze unto death.
My Secret Book is a fascinating dialogue-with-the-self. Petrarch clearly admires St.Augustine, but is -- and largely remains -- miles away from his position, an interesting approach in a dialogue that is presumably meant to lead to resolution (but then it doesn't, of course). I'm far from an ideal reader for this, baffled by Augustinian faith and any concepts of existence-after-death, but even Petrarch occasionally veers -- intentionally or not -- into comedy in his exaggerations, his St.Augustine prone to broad-sweeping solutions left and right without really thinking through the implications -- most notably about that whole death-obsession, but also even just in casual asides:
The safest thing is to scorn oneself; scorning others is extremely dangerous and vain. But let's move on.Petrarch's struggles -- what he was apparently wrestling with -- do find voice here, including admissions such as:
I deeply regret not having been born indifferent to the senses. I would prefer to be some inert stone than to be tormented by so many stirrings of the flesh.One can see the appeal of turning to St.Augustine, who found his way, but it never feels like a path that Petrarch can follow. Imagining a different conversation partner might have been able to help him work through matters better. A nice observation of his, well into the third dialogue has him admit:
I've already been thinking of running away, but I'm not quite sure which way is best to go.My Secret Book is a personally revealing work, a fascinating inner struggle put down in words. There's a nice interplay not only with Petrarch's own words and work, but also others, quoted and referred to. And St.Augustine does touch on a few more relevant, personal concerns -- as in the nicely expressed:
What use was all that reading ? How much of the many things that you have read has remained implanted in your mind, has taken root, has borne timely fruits ? Search your soul rigorously; you will find that everything that you know, when compared to what you don't know takes on the proportions of a stream drying up in the summer heat when compared to the Ocean.True, one wishes Petrarch had more often complained: "Come off it, please ! I never heard anything more absurd" (and, yes, 'Come off it, please !' is quite right for the original 'Apage obsecro') and certainly that St.Augustine weren't quite so fatally fixated -- the dialogue is much more convincing and interesting when they get sidetracked elsewhere (though St.Augustine does have a way of bringing everything back to death again ...) -- but even so My Secret Book is a fascinating piece of work, and generally a very good one. This bilingual I Tatti Renaissance Library edition, with the original Latin facing the only occasionally too fresh English of Nicholas Mann's translation, certainly presents the text -- along with a helpful, succinct Introduction, and useful notes and bibliographic information -- ideally.
- M.A.Orthofer, 30 June 2016
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Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) lived 1304 to 1374.
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