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  • Petrarchan Narratives:Representation and Hermeneutics1
  • Robert R. Edwards

Francesco Petrarch wrote narratives of selfhood across the genres and other discursive forms that comprise his vast body of work. These narratives are crucial to the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta and Petrarch’s letters, collections chosen and repeatedly revised with an eye toward their shape and impact, and to reflective works such as the Secretum, De vita solitaria, and De remediis utriusque fortunae. Narratives of selfhood underwrite, too, the large developments—the emergence of the Renaissance, Humanism, and modernity—that historians of culture and ideas have associated with Petrarch over the last century and a half. Jacob Burckhardt famously pronounced Petrarch “one of the first truly modern men” (300), highlighting the account of the ascent of Mont Ventoux written for Dionigi da Borgo San Sepolcro, Petrarch’s former confessor (Familiares 4.1). Even in our current view of Petrarch as a divided, fragmented subject who holds together separate worlds, narratives furnish the connections for a dynamic composition of selfhood, in which the subject’s contradictions and flux correspond to scattered and unfinished texts arranged in patterns of provisional unity (Mazzotta). These critical and historical understandings collaborate with Petrarch as much as they interpret him and his work, for they take as their starting point the production of the self made immanent through narrative. Whether biographical truth or fiction, Petrarch’s [End Page 1] narratives are accepted as forms of representation expressing selfhood directed from its internal source in the sovereign self outward through the writer to readers, intimate friends, cultural and political élites, and posterity. What has gone largely unnoticed is the hermeneutic dimension of narrative that complements representation. Within his narratives of the self, Petrarch embeds scenes that demonstrate how his narratives are to be read. These scenes school and condition readers, and they structure the broad domains of critical and historical reception. If Petrarch fulfills any of the roles commonly ascribed to him, it is because he has furnished not only the materials for describing selfhood but also the apparatus for interpreting it.

Petrarch’s narratives of the self fall under “self-writing,” a rubric derived from Michel Foucault’s essay “On the Arts of the Self.” In a recent overview of medieval self-writing, Gur Zak distinguishes self-examination, self-portrait, and confessional narrative as the three dominant modes (“Modes of Self-Writing” 486). As a rubric, self-writing enjoys the considerable advantage of sidestepping issues of authenticity, sincerity, and accuracy, which typically haunt autobiography as a genre. What remains in the foreground of self-writing, even with modern critical refinements in method and approach, is the practice of representation. Nicholas Mann usefully describes “the characteristically Petrarchan theme” of “making oneself into what one wishes to become, of creating an image of oneself consonant with one’s aspirations,” specifically through literature (Petrarch 87; “From Laurel to Fig”). Petrarch’s gestures of self-definition, as Mann suggests, are mimetic and rhetorical, and they remain such throughout his corpus of writings. The hermeneutic dimension of self-writing that concerns me is at once aesthetic, communicative, and ideological. It works in tandem with representation. Petrarch’s hermeneutic control makes his narratives of the self legible and thereby establishes a context of literary and cultural reception that is necessarily social and political as well. It positions the sovereign self of representation precisely within contingency.

In this respect, my sense of hermeneutics differs from Kathy Eden’s proposal that Petrarch’s letters are hermeneutic because they are read “intimately” (familiariter) and restore friends to each other’s “innermost thoughts and feelings” (63–64, 68). The hermeneutics I examine assert influence and control rather than mutual self–disclosure. My sense of hermeneutics differs, too from the “hermeneutics of the self” that Zak describes, in which the reciprocal activities of reading and writing function as a technology serving the “care of the self.” The self, in [End Page 2] Zak’s formulation, “is not a given presence but a state of mind from which we are exiled, or absent.” It is an agent of virtue and reason, he proposes, that follows a humanist alternative, based on Stoic conceptions of right living, rather than Augustinian and monastic...


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