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Writing, Desire, Dialectic in Petrarch's Rime 23

 Originally Appeared in: Pacific Coast Philology: Volume 9 | Published: April, 1974

As speech is the index of the soul, the soul governs speech. The one depends upon the other: the former lies hidden in our breast, the latter goes outside; the soul prepares speech to go outwards and moulds it as it wants it to be, and speech, coming forth, manifests what the soul is . . . While it is true that once one has provided for the soul speech will never be neglected, speech cannot, on the other hand, be dignified if the soul is lacking in majesty . . . If first our desires do not find accord among themselves, which only the wise man can achieve, it is inevitable that in this contradiction of feelings our inner character and our words will also be in contradiction. But a well disposed mind is always calm and tranquil like a serene and immobile sky: it knows what it wants and what it has once wanted it continues to want . . . And even if eloquence were not necessary for us, and if our mind, virtuous from its own strengths and unfolding in silence, had no need of words, we would yet have to work for the good of those with whom we live, and no one can doubt that our conversations with them can be of great use to their souls.’ 

Thus wrote Petrarch in a letter to Tommaso da Messina on the study of eloquence. The passage sets forth a number of propositions concerning the formation, value, and efficacy of spoken discourse. I arrange them as follows: 

1. The speaker is the simple subject of the spoken discourse, which in turn reveals the soul that produced it. 

2. The soul, therefore, determines the order and value of the discourse. If the soul is disordered, because of the internal discord of its desires, the dis course it produces will likewise be misshapen. This does not mean, however, that the disordered discourse will adequately reflect the contours of the soul’s disorder. Petrarch says instead that contradictory desires will produce a contradiction between the speaker’s inner character and the words of the spoken discourse. What is threatened, therefore, is the very intelligibility of discourse. 

3. Petrarch posits an ideal condition of the mind’s harmony and self-sufficiency in which-“virtuous from its own strengths and unfolding in silence” it does not need speech. It is here that Petrarch insists on the ethico-social responsibility of the wise man, who must take up speech even though he does not need it and engage in conversation with others. Implicit here is the proposition that the superiority of the speaker is what makes the discourse efficacious for others.
Can this system of propositions be maintained if we move from oratory to poetry? How do these propositions-and especially the problem of the shape and readability of the discourse produced by a mind whose relation to wisdom has been made radically eccentric by desire–stand in relation to Petrarch’s literary vocation, and to his literary practice?

Arnaud Tripet has confronted this order of questions through an analysis of how “the phenomena of the work take a meaning by appearing as consequences of the properly Petrarchan use of writing.” Tripet defines this Petrarchan use of writing in a commentary on the letter quoted above. He argues that “the moral benefits brought by the exercise of eloquence are the very ones that the Petrarchan soul must desire so ardently: inner unity, order, stability, will, consistency, and so on. In this profession of literary faith, Petrarch indicates . . . the total use he intends to make of writing, since he sees in it the specific remedy of the evils and difficulties which are only too evidently his own.” 

Tripet refuses to judge whether Petrarch’s literary practice succeeds or fails in attaining his ideal of eloquence. However, because he views the poetry as the consequence of Petrarch’s commitment to this ideal, its juridical force continues to shape his own interpretation. In order to make the Canzoniere conform to this procedure, he accentuates two of its aspects. In both instances it is as though the poems suppress and surpass those desires, directed to Laura, that undermine Petrarch’s attainment of wisdom. The first is the theme of moral self-criticism: “The poems in the Italian collection condemn in many places the errors, illusions, and the amorous madness which the Canzoniere precisely manifests. This internal disavowal . . puts into question, at the very threshold of the monument, its principal inspiration and . . . places the Canzoniere in the category of works that are constituted by contesting them selves” (pp. 186-187). Secondly, Petrarch sees in Laura the perfection he lacks and so, through his devotion to her, “intends to accede to this world of perfection, dialectically conceived in his mind as a reality opposite from the world which is offered to him hic et nunc” (p. 187).

A series of questions about Tripet’s argument will serve as an introduction to my analysis of Rime 23….

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