Saturday, January 01, 2011

`The Nativity of Our Common Adam'

On April 26, 1336, Petrarch, his brother and two servants climbed to the summit of Mount Ventoux in Provence. The poet has been called the first mountain climber, the first man to travel for pleasure, though his primacy in such matters is less important than the mingled sense of chastening and exhilaration he experienced at the peak, where he read a passage from the tenth book of St. Augustine’s Confessions:

"And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not."

The volume had been a gift from Petrarch’s friend and confessor Dionigi da Borgo San Sepulcro, an Augustinian monk and Doctor of Theology. In Petrarch and his World (Indiana University Press, 1963), Morris Bishop writes:

“Father Dionigi recognized in his charge’s spirit a state similar to that of St. Augustine in his youth. He gave Petrarch a pocket copy of the Confessions, which the poet had not read. The book was Petrarch’s cherished companion for forty years. It journeyed with him to a mountain top, and once, in its owner’s pocket, it was near drowning with him in the sea.”

Petrarch wrote a famous letter to Father Dionigi describing the ascent of Mount Ventoux, later collected in Epistolae familiars. About the effect of reading Augustine he says:

“I thought in silence of the lack of good counsel in us mortals, who neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within.”

While staying in ChambĂ©ry in the French Alps, I bought a Penguin paperback of Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories and dated it “7-24-73.” From the same small bookstore I bought the Signet edition of King Lear, which I’ve lost. Both I carried in a manila-colored filet with a ham sandwich and a bottle of vin ordinaire while walking up le Nivolet, topped with the famous Croix du Nivolet. I was self-consciously imitating Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux more than six hundred years earlier and one-hundred fifty miles to the southwest, but never made it to the summit. The wine and sun got the better of me. It was, as Petrarch writes, “a vain show.”

New Year’s Day is a sort of symbolic summit from which we can climb or descend, depending on contingencies and our inclinations and gifts. In “New Year’s Eve,” the most revealing of his Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb writes:

“No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left. It is the nativity of our common Adam.”

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