The Medieval Review 11.12.06

Zak, Gur. Petrarch's Humanism and the Care of the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. x, 179. $80.00. ISBN 978-0-521-11467-7. . .

Reviewed by:

Daniel Bernard McCann
Queen's University Belfast

With Petrarch's Humanism and the Care of the Self, Gur Zak has made an important contribution to our understanding of the wider cultural significance of medieval reading practices, and how they inform and interact with Petrarch's writing and life. By focusing on a single author, the book offers an excellent examination of the psychological uses of narrative in medieval culture, and points towards its wider therapeutic usage in the care of the self. The book is divided into an introduction, four chapters, a brief conclusion, a bibliography, and an index.

In the introduction, Zak situates Petrarch within the historical context of the day and shows how this informs the writer's experience of a state of psychological fragmentation. Zak then highlights how writing is used by Petrarch as a method by which this psychological state could be contained. He then provides a brief summary of the concerns of each subsequent chapter. Over the course of the introduction, the importance of time and the experience of "self-in-time" (10) are stressed. Specifically, the idea that selfhood--or rather Petrarch's selfhood--undergoes processes of "diachronic and synchronic dismemberment" (10) is used to delineate the main purpose behind Petrarch's writings: they are attempts to cope with or contain a sense of fragmentation. To do so, Petrarch developed "a new ethical program, a new philosophy of self--based primarily on a return to the ancient spiritual tradition" that aims to use "writing as a spiritual affect and transform the self, to take care of it" (10-11). This focus on the therapeutic aspect to writing is the central merit of the study, as it allows us to reconsider the interaction between narrative, writing, and psychology in fresh ways. In this sense, the book builds on work by Brian Stock and Glending Olson, both of whom offer accounts of the therapeutic value of reading in classical and medieval culture. Zak is deeply aware of the classical connection, and sets out to analyse Petrarch's development of a writing practice in three different, but interconnected, modes: the Stoic, Ovidian, and Augustinian modes. Each constitutes a specific attitude towards the impact of writing and reading upon the self: the Stoic mode sees them as a means of self-mastery and virtue, the Ovidian mode is ambiguous as it notes the constant presence of desire in all such activity, while the Augustinian mode rejects all secular reading and writing in favour of ones based on sacred texts. These modes are used as structuring elements throughout the rest of the book.

The first chapter focuses upon Petrarch's use of writing in his vernacular poetry--the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. Zak asserts that writing is used as means to combat the passage of time, as a method by which the poet can constantly return to his "golden age" (31, 54). Zak mentions that such writing is inflected, or at least informed, by monastic meditative practices. This is a fascinating aspect to Petrarch's writing--his own brother was a Carthusian monk (109)--but it remains a tangential issue here (we must wait until chapter 3 for a more full discussion). Instead, the temporal dynamics of the act of writing are given priority: they seemingly allow the poet to transcend time, to constantly return to a psychologically preferable state. This endows the writing practice with a moral ambiguity. Far from allowing Petrarch to overcome his desires, it further intensifies them and is all the more problematic as it fashions a self that is more subject to them. While initially drawing from Dante, Petrach ultimately rejects the idea that such writing can transcend time and comes to view it as something corrosive to self. However, as the chapter ends, Zak shows further ambivalence in Petrarch's attitudes, in that Augustinian and Stoic modes are similarly rejected. A healing narrative, therefore, cannot be created (55).

The second chapter deals with the idea of the narrative self and Petrarch's need for a healing narrative. Focusing on canzone 23, the chapter explores how Petrarch attempts to heal the fragmentation of self through the construction of a new self- narrative that can "attain unity and order through the construction of a meaningful narrative of his past" (57). However, as Zak asserts, the poet cannot accomplish this due to his "failure to reach the authorial point from which such a narrative might be revealed" (57). The reason advanced for this is that Petrarch's desire--the subject of his writing--cannot be transcended due to its own temporal embeddedness: there is a circularity here that constantly re-opens the wound. The Ovidian mode of writing is presented as the means by which Petrarch demonstrates the impossibility of constructing such a narrative: it is all based upon, so must intensify, his desire. Given this failure, Zak asserts, Petrarch rejects a writing practice based on desire and instead embraces a Stoic mode that views writing as a practice aimed at the cultivation of virtue (77). While his vernacular works focus upon revisiting and re-narrating his desires, his Latin works focus on the opposite: the "complete abolition of desire" (77).

The third chapter focuses on this Stoic phase and the explicit agenda of care of the self. Using the Secretum and the collections of letters, Zak explores how Petrarch constructs a writing and reading practice which draws upon, and also departs from, later medieval monastic ideas. Specifically, Augustinian and Stoic models are combined by Petrarch to create a distinct "spiritual alternative to the monastic traditions of 'care of the soul' in the later Middle Ages" (86). In my opinion, this is the most satisfying chapter by some margin, as it explores how the rhetorical processes of composition are understood by Petrarch to engage with, and indeed transform, the self. Breaking fresh ground, Zak builds upon prior studies dealing with the psychological complexities of meditative reading to engage with the effects of writing upon the self. Later medieval monastic culture provides the context and methodology for this (109-115), as Zak rightly notes the fundamental connection between reading, writing, and experience during that time. Consequently, reading and writing can indeed alter the self as, if done properly, they train or fortify the soul with a whole range of experiences. The assertion Zak makes that the "entire Secretum, as a result, should be regarded as a spiritual exercise" (108), is sound as it is informed by monastic practices that advocate a "muscular" theology: the soul, just like the body, must be trained to work properly. Integral to this is the theology of kenosis or "self-emptying", yet Zak does not really engage with it despite its importance to monastic, in particular Carthusian, meditative practices. Granted, this is part of Petrarch's departure from monastic sources, but it would have been interesting to see how the monastic "disavowal of self" (119) is understood and transformed by Petrarch. The chapter ends by asserting Petrarch's development of a "secular spirituality" (120) through his writing, and the complex tensions between his Stoic, Ovidian, and Augustinian attitudes on the relation between such writing and the self.

In the final chapter, a range of texts including the Seniles, and the Familiares, are explored to see how they demonstrate the tension between the three modes in Petrarch's writings. Zak quickly establishes how Petrarch oscillates between different attitudes regarding the merit and purpose of writing and reading. We return to those initial modes set down in the introduction. The Stoic "notion that the practices of reading and writing can lead to virtue, the 'Ovidian' realization that writing is always motivated by desire and hence that its impact is inevitably ambiguous, and the Augustinian challenge that only the disavowal of secular letters might lead to virtue" (143). Each has its own allure for Petrarch, and Zak provides sound arguments for each before showing how Petrarch attempts to reconcile them in his later writings. Here we come full circle, as Zak contends that while Petrarch is deeply aware of the therapeutic limitations of writing and reading, he ultimately comes to see them as beneficial as they permit at least some increase in virtue and relief from a fragmented self. In his letters to Boccaccio, we see Petrarch's re- working of monastic spiritual techniques with a specific focus upon the Passion of Christ (144-9), yet also his distinct augmentation of those techniques for his own purposes. Zak carefully arranges the evidence, and so persuasively shows how Petrarch is a thoughtful and complex writer who works out his own path and technique to create healing narratives.

In the brief conclusion, Zak recapitulates his arguments and sums up his findings before gesturing towards potential future directions--specifically, how Petrarch's humanist techniques of self-care are engaged with by subsequent writers. Finally, a useful bibliography and index are supplied.

This is an interesting and thought-provoking book, but it is also a short one. The topics covered are book-length subjects in and of themselves, and Zak's ambitious attempt to engage with them is for the most part successful. However, I would have liked a study of greater length, which would have provided extra detail regarding medieval psychology and theology. The use of monastic meditation by Petrarch is fascinating, but this practice has its own specific agenda and purpose: it is meant to lead to contemplation, a psychological state particularly interesting to Carthusians. Moreover, as the final stage of lectio divina, it has its own specific therapeutic purpose: contemplation of God is itself a transformative encounter that works to heal the soul by returning it to a prior state. The use of emotion in this process is key, and the book would have benefited from engaging with it more directly. There is a vast medieval engagement with the passions of the soul-- of the non-naturals in medieval medicine--and their therapeutic regulation. This study could have been enhanced by such additional considerations, and they would have allowed us to see the uses of emotion in the precise training--or rather rehabilitation--of the self. Despite this, the book is still an excellent contribution to what is a new and important area of study: the therapeutic value of reading and writing in medieval culture.