Self-doubt in art and the art of self-doubt

What holds me back? Quid ergo me retinet?

Francesco Petrarch distances himself from this question even as he asks it: it is spoken by a fictional version of himself, ‘Franciscus,’ in dialogue with a fictional version of St. Augustine (‘Augustinus’) in a ‘secret book’ (whose title is My Secret Book) which Petrarch claims was never meant for anyone to read but him. And yet, this question is urgently intense and disarmingly universal. Petrarch writing as Petrarch and not as fictional ‘Franciscus’ may not be willing to ask it so openly and nakedly, but there it is on the page.

Here is something that my browser history knows about me that maybe you don’t: I adore advice columns. I listen to at least three advice podcasts a week, and I read question-and-answer-style written features on the internet almost daily (okay, daily). Savage Love, Captain Awkward, and Dear Prudence are just the beginning. This might explain my affection for Petrarch’s curious Secretum (De Secreto Conflictu Curarum Mearum, or The Private Conflict of my Inner Thoughts), which we might glibly call a 14th-century self-help manual for aspiring Stoics. Petrarch, one of the great Italian poets of the Middle Ages known as the three crowns, the tre corone, is often associated with a highly influential form of the sonnet, in addition to being called one of the fathers of humanism. If you read any Petrarch in college, whether in a world literature curriculum or an Italian curriculum, you probably read a handful of lyrics from the Canzoniere, his famous collection of Italian vernacular poetry. The Secretum is a little bit of a Petrarch B-side: a short Latin dialogue, written in three parts, between Franciscus and Augustinus.  

In the proem, Franciscus tells us that while meditating on life and death one day he sees a woman approaching, beautiful and virginal (of course), the embodiment of Truth herself. She in turn, taking pity in his misery, calls upon Augustinus to assume the role of teacher for Franciscus and to help him in “relieving the weight of his weariness.” Franciscus then tells us that the intense dialogue between himself and Augustinus goes on for three days, and he has committed it to writing so that he may never forget what was said. This book, he proclaims, will not be included among his other public writings, but kept purely for himself, a source of personal solace rather than of fame. You are, he says, my Secret Book, and “just as you once recorded all that was said in private, so then you will remind me privately of it.” If indeed Petrarch meant the book for his eyes alone, it certainly didn’t work out that way; there are sixty or so extant (surviving) manuscripts of the text, one of which written in Petrarch's own hand.

‘What holds me back? What kind of hidden obstacle is there which has meant that until now my meditation has brought me nothing but terror and distress, and that I’ve remained as I was before, and what kind of people are those to whom nothing similar perhaps ever happened in their lives?’ - Petrarch, Secretum, I.12.5

So what is the Secretum doing? Given that the ‘secret’ book shows no signs of Petrarch actually having tried to keep it a secret (why, for example, would such a book need any preamble or address to the reader like the one I just described, when its only intended audience is the person who wrote it?), I like to think of it as a performance of introspection. Petrarch shows his fictional self tough love and forces him in turn to respond with humility. The act is occasionally undermined by little moments of self-praise that Petrarch can’t help including. He clearly ‘is’ the Franciscus character, the miserable lost soul, but Augustinus the counselor, too, is Petrarch’s creation. At one point, Augustinus manages to slot into the conversation that Franciscus was the only poet of his own generation who “earned” the honor of the laurel crown, setting him apart from his contemporaries in literary achievement. The introduction to my volume by Nicholas Mann (who also provided the translation that I am quoting from) notes that “the division of roles enables Petrarch both to praise and blame his own literary achievements and habits; while we might judge that it is Augustinus’s criticism that is the more revealing of [Petrarch’s]self-awareness, any certainty is surely removed by the self-satisfaction ... revealed by the literary bouquets that his fictitious critic hands to Franciscus.” Dear readers, do not forget that Franciscus, miserable though he may be, is a damn good poet (writes Petrarch).

Augustinus wastes no time in identifying the root of Franciscus’s unhappiness: Franciscus himself. “[H]e who wishes to free himself from his misery, so long as he wishes it truly and fully, cannot fail in his desire.” Not only is Franciscus miserable because he actually wants to be, he is actively choosing not to pursue greater happiness. 

The leap that Augustinus is trying to get Franciscus to make here actually frees him up to consider that question, and it’s a question that is often worth considering. My beloved advice columns ask this a lot: if you are in a situation that makes you miserable, ask yourself what you are getting from it, and why you aren’t doing something to change it. Augustinus is challenging Franciscus to reframe the terms of his plight, and to disavow his own helplessness: “As for the words I want you to use,” he goes on, “they are these; instead of saying ‘I can do no more’ you should say ‘I don’t want to do any more.’”

Reading the Secretum this time was different for me – I opened it with no academic agenda, only a desire to relive what I remembered as some pretty profoundly harsh but beneficial reflections on how people can convince themselves to be miserable even when they are Petrarch. I return to his agonizing question of “what holds me back?” – for that is how I read it, with the emphasis on me. Everyone else seems to have it together, what’s my problem? When I read advice columns, I am comfortingly reminded that I am not special, that people everywhere ask themselves that question. The Secretum, despite Petrarch’s gestures towards the text’s fictionality and towards the separation of himself from his insecurities, makes hand-wringing self-doubt into an art form.