In his famous letter to Francesco Dionisio da Borgo San Sepolcro, dated April 26, 1336, Petrarch writes of his ascent of Mount Ventoux, the first such climb we know of in Western literature accomplished solely for aesthetic reasons. The man who began the ascent was not the same man who returned to Malaucene that evening, at the foot of the mountain. The Petrarch who ascended that day was a man whose consciousness was changed in a way that would effect Western culture for centuries to come. After reaching the summit, Petrarch began to muse on the sights before him.
As if suddenly wakened from sleep, I turned about and gazed toward the west. I was unable to discern the summits of the Pyrenees, which form the barrier between France and Spain; not because of any intervening obstacle that I know of but owing simply to the insufficiency of our mortal vision. But I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of Aigues Mortes, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone (Petrarch).
According to Jean Gebser, “Petrarch’s glance spatially isolated a part of ‘nature’ from the whole, from the all-encompassing attachment to sky and earth and the unquestioned, closed unperspectival ties are severed” (Gebser 13). In other words, his perception, and subsequently that of all Western civilization, was transformed from one of immersion in a nature that was predominantly time-based, to one where space, the vast spaces of this new vista from Ventoux’s summit, gained the ascendancy.
Awe-struck to the point where he felt distressed by entering into this experience, he writes
While I was thus dividing my thoughts, now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes, it occurred to me to look into my copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions, a gift that I owe to your love, and that I always have about me, in memory of both the author and the giver. I opened the compact little volume, small indeed in size, but of infinite charm, with the intention of reading whatever came to hand, for I could happen upon nothing that would be otherwise than edifying and devout. Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustine’s from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “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” (ibid.).
Petrarch was astounded he had randomly chosen this passage. This bit of synchronicity heralded a struggle within him. From this moment on, he was torn between an idea he learned from the “pagan philosophers,” that “nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself (ibid.),” and the “externalization of space out of his soul” (Gebser 15). The Augustinian idea that, “Time resides in the soul,” gradually falls away and the dichotomization of subject and object begins its rise to predominance in Western consciousness. By the nineteenth century, the soul is viewed as nonsense.
According to Gebser, the mental-rational structure began around 1225 B.C. Petrarch’s experience marked its highest point. From that moment on, it has been in decline.
The consciousness of perspective, three-dimensionality, led to an externalization of space. Perspective takes as a preconceived assumption that space is infinite and homogeneous. The primary foundational stone of linear perspective is that of the vanishing point, what the Italians called the punta di fuga, the point of light. Through this new way of seeing that which is seen, a new relationship between humanity and the world is born. This new relationship would lead to the notion of an objective observer, one removed from what one is seeing. The new science that was just on the horizon would embrace this view of a dichotomy between humanity and the world, which would lead to Descartes’ schism between the mind and the world.
As much as I have criticized it over the years, I am beginning to think that our current mode of consciousness, the mental-rational structure, is something that was meant to be. It was necessary that Western culture pass through the various modes of consciousness to prepare us for the next evolutionary leap.
Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Trans. by Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.
Petrarch, Franceso. Familiar Letters. The Ascent of Mount Ventoux. <http://petrarch.petersadlon.com/read_letters.html?s=pet17.html>.
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