It wasn’t just the legal profession which Petrarch responded to, but the decayed version of scholasticism rampant in quattrocento universities. The “subhuman argot” of scholastic jargon, as Hankins calls it, uttered like the Opish of summer camp kids, was put then towards the same ends that it’s put now. Baffling clarity of thought. Creating cabals of agreement. Automating perception and avoiding the inevitable mistake which always attends authentic thinking. Petrarch in his day advocated for eloquence. It wasn’t enough to say something which carried the weight of logic. Speech must also persuade with beauty. And of course it wasn’t enough to be beautiful, but it must also resonate with rationality. Whereas the jargon of professions, and the language of ideology in general, always tends towards something like a curse or magic spell, full of hidden meaning but when uttered affects immediate change in the physical world, Petrarch advocated for the wisdom of speech as art. A living thing resonating in the hearts of his fellow citizens because it was also crafted within the chambers of his own. Academic jargon is the linguistic equivalent of the player piano. Humanist eloquence is a piece performed by human hands.
The player piano itself was just a doomed creature, and a victim of the historical process by which it came into existence. Its lifespan was relatively short, only a couple decades in all. It would go on to be replaced by the radio and the gramophone, themselves succeeded by television, tapes, CDs, computers, etc. Nothing grew but the business. Gaddis’s final book, Agapē Agape, was his most autobiographical. It was about a dying old man who always meant to write a vast history of the secret role of the player piano in the automation of the arts but never quite got around to actually doing it. Sound familiar? The title alone reveals a wry sense of what Gaddis was after his entire career. His entire life. Agapē is a form of love, broader and more profound than the sorts of love reserved for family or sexual partners. Gaddis defined it as “that natural merging of created life in this creation in love that transcends it, a celebration of the love that created it.” The description seems to invoke God. It might. But what it most certainly references for Gaddis is the love reserved for the things which we create ourselves out of the materials of our lives. Art, in other words. The loss of such a love, gently murdered by automation, is concealed by a conspiracy of language. Art and eloquence, nearly synonymous, are victims of the same crime.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor