Petrarch's Melancholy

Dernière mise à jour : mai 18





Extract from :

Petrarch

Petrarch's Secret, or the Soul's Conflict with Passion

(Three Dialogues Between Himself and St. Augustine)

(1347-1353)



"(...)

S. Augustine.


You are the victim of a terrible plague of the soul — melancholy ; which the moderns call accidie, but which in old days used to be called cegritudo.


Petrarch.


The very name of this complaint makes me shudder.


S. Augustine.


Nor do wonder, for you have endured its burden long enough.


Petrarch.


Yes, and though in almost all other diseases which torment me there is mingled a certain false delight, in this wretched state everything is harsh, gloomy, frightful. The way to despair is for ever open, and every thing goads one's miserable soul to self-destruction. Moreover, while other passions attack me only in bouts, which, though frequent, are but short and for a moment, this one usually has invested me so closely that it clings to and tortures me for whole days and nights together.


In such times I take no pleasure in the light of day, I see nothing, I am as one plunged in the darkness of hell itself, and seem to endure death in its most cruel form. But what one may call the climax of the misery is, that I so feed upon my tears and sufferings with a morbid attraction that I can only be rescued from it by main force and in despite of myself.

S. Augustine.


So well do you know your symptoms, so familiar are you become with their cause, that I beg you will tell me what that is it that depresses you most at the present hour. Is it the general course of human affairs ? Is it some physical trouble, or some disgrace of fortune in men's eyes ?


Petrarch.


It is no one of these separately. Had I only been challenged to single combat, certainly I would have come off victorious; but now, as it is, I am besieged by a whole host of enemies.

S. Augustine.


I pray you will tell me fully all that torments you.


Petrarch.


Every time that fortune pushes me back one step, I stand firm and courageous, recalling to myself that often before I have been struck in the same way and yet have come off conqueror; if, after that, she presently deals me a sterner blow, I begin to stagger somewhat; if then she returns to the charge a third and fourth time, driven by force, I retreat, not hurriedly but step by step, to the citadel of Reason.


If fortune still lays siege to me there with all her troops, and if, to reduce me to surrender, she piles up the sorrows of our human lot, the remembrance of my old miseries and the dread of evils yet to come, then, at last, hemmed in on all sides, seized with terror at these heaped- up calamities, I bemoan my wretched fate, and feel rising in my very soul this bitter disdain of life.


Picture to yourself some one beset with countless enemies, with no hope of escape or of pity, with no comfort anywhere, with every one and everything against him ; his foes bring up their batteries, they mine the very ground beneath his feet, the towers are already falling, the ladders are at the gates, the grappling-hooks are fastened to the walls, the fire is seen crack ling through the roofs, and, at sight of those gleaming swords on every side, those fierce faces of his foes, and that utter ruin that is upon him, how should he not be utterly dismayed and overwhelmed, since, even if life itself should be left, yet to men not quite bereft of every feeling the loss of liberty alone is a mortal stroke ?

S. Augustine.


Although your confession is a little confused, I make out that your misfor tunes all proceed from a single false conception which has in the past claimed and in future will still claim innumerable victims. You have a bad conceit of yourself.


Petrarch.


Yes, truly, a very bad one.


S. Augustine.


And why ?


Petrarch.


Not for one, but a thousand reasons.


S. Augustine.


You are like people who on the slightest offence rake up all the old grounds of quarrel they ever had.


Petrarch.


In my case there is no wound old enough for it to have been effaced and forgotten: my sufferings are all quite fresh, and if anything by chance were made better through time, Fortune has so soon redoubled her strokes that the open wound has never been perfectly healed over. I cannot, moreover, rid myself of that hate and disdain of our life which I spoke of. Oppressed with that, cannot but be grieved and sorrowful exceedingly. That you call this grief accidie or cegritudo makes no difference; in substance we mean one and the same thing.

S. Augustine.


As from what can understand the evil is so deep-seated, it will do no good to heal it elightly, for it will soon throw out more shoots. It must be entirely rooted up. Yet know not where to begin, so many complications alarm me. But to make the task of dividing the matter easier, will examine each point in detail. Tell me, then, what is it that has hurt you most ?


Petrarch.


Whatever I see, or hear, or feel.

S. Augustine.


Come, come, does nothing please you ?

Petrarch.


Nothing, or almost nothing.



(...)"


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