Saturday, 19 February 2011

Jennifer Rushworth on Petrarch

A reading of Petrarch's "Canzionere" in the light of Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure" principle or how modern theory might apply to medieval texts

Jennifer Rushworth (DPhil candidate, Worcester College)

First of all, I3MS would like to thank Jennifer for being the first speaker at our seminar and bringing such an interesting topic up for discussion. The point of departure for Jennifer's proposal can be found in some characteristics shared by contemporary as well as medieval theoreticians, which inspired her to try to apply modern theory to medieval texts. Moreover, she took into account that modern scholars read contemporary but also older authors, despite anachronistically, so that they are influenced by ancient theories too as part of their cultural background. With regard to Petrarch, the application of modern theory seems sensible as he represents the awakening of poetry to human consciousness, therefore, he deals with some eternal human obsessions that are the object of modern literature and criticism too.

According to Freud's "Beyond the pleasure" principle, all human activity is aimed to produce pleasure. But at the same time the aim of every life is death, so that a kind of death-wish results from the combination of the two. To a certain extent this applies to Petrarch's "Canzionere", where the poet's desire for peace can be seen as a manifestation of this death-wish. At the same time, this death-wish is reflected in the importance of death in the structure of "Canzionere", whose circularity could be defined as a death-ring. In it, the End is desired an feared but, above all, it is omnipresent as a result of Laura's being dead, so that the ambivalence of death is a constant. These results are strangely similar to those reached by the traditional scholarship.

In the discussion that followed, these were the main points:

1- What is the sense for applying modern theory if the results are the same? And, is there a reason for applying a theory and its assumptions to a text instead of analysing the text from an independent perspective? We could not reach an agreement but the conclusion was that minds should be open to modern theory.

2- Modern and ancient authors shared concerns and practised similar writing techniques (e.g. Petrarch's and Proust's rewriting of their works), then the application of modern theory should be useful for interpreting medieval texts too.

3- Modern theory arises from older theories, so that they are not totally incompatible with medieval texts.

Thank you to all that participated and we hope to see you in the next session.
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