Petrarch (on lost souls and tennis)

In pursuit of a possible piece centring on the too-soon departed David Foster Wallace, that brilliant and neuron-crackling and ultimately doomed writer, that Guy with Curious Hair (and an ever-present headband), that Broom of multiple Systems, that brain of infinite zest, that Pale authorial King, that supposedly fun-tastic writer-thing he’ll never be or do again¹ – and oh, the loss that was to us, though too few know it! – I bought a posthumously issued collection of his essays, Both Flesh and Not. Before I could even finish the first piece, his classic take on the on-court genius of tennis god Roger Federer, the universe delivered a piping-hot review of another posthumous collection of all the tennis-themed Wallace oeuvre. (It’s called String Theory, which title is a tidy bow linking ribbons of jockery and the nerdiest domains of physics. Would Wallace have approved of the title? Sure, it’s a pun, but not the most brainless, after all.) In eager pursuit of writing I didn’t actually have to do – that is, somebody else’s – I was electronically extracted from the old-school pulpy pages of Both Flesh, (surely by Twitter, or perhaps it was Wikipedia?) pricked by precisely God-only-remembers-what in the Federer piece, and then virtually dragged to an on-line review of String Theory, which rubbed my ever-forgetful nose in pungent memories of what little I know of the desperately sad and finally self-destroying DFW, laden meanwhile with my own fumbling, muted, doomed urgency about doing whatever for no particular reason or special benefit to anybody but my imaginings, vain or narcissistic or otherwise.

This is the author photo for "Both Flesh and Not". Very high, this man, on my Wish I'd Met Him list. Reading more will only make this worse, but that's okay.

This is the author photo for “Both Flesh and Not”. Very high, this man, on my Wish I’d Met Him list. Reading more will only make this worse, but that’s okay.

¹ DFW was famous, in his essays and even in his novels, for an exuberant use of superscripts and page-end notes, digressions and elaborations that were just as fascinating as the central march of his subject. Sometimes there were end-notes to his end-notes. This note of mine points back to a set of descriptions each of which nods to one of his most important book-titles. Way too nerdy-clever (clerdy! nerver!), I know, but I had fun.

And somewhere in that review was Petrarch, especially embarrassing now that I’m publicly quoting someone I know only as Some Famous Intellectual Dude that supposedly intellectual dudes know about and are therefore better than me and you. (And me.) It spoke to me, though. It was intended to show how ancient (how European, how worthy of brainy attention) is tennis, but it also recalled the sickening tragedy of David Foster Wallace’s inability to carry on living despite his prodigious intellect, dedication and skill in his craft. Petrarch was good: he described his contemoraries, and thereby predicted DFW and all of us, showing how misdirected, how distracted, how bliss-lessly ignorant we are and have ever been about how to pilot our lonely little life-boats:

“And what is the cause [of this anxiety which consumes us], but only our own lightness & daintiness: for we seem to be good for nothing else, but to be tossed hither & thither like a Tennise bal, being creatures of very short life, of infinite carefulness, & yet ignorant unto what shore to sail with our ship.”

PETRARCH (Franceso Petrarca, 1304 – 1374) was a 14th-century Italian scholar and poet, credited not only with the development of the sonnet form — that’s about what *I* knew — but also key to the foundation of the Italian language, the development of humanism and, oh, THE RENAISSANCE. 

And that was a lonely little ditch I lay in for a while — Frankie Petrarca, Dave Wallace and me — on the weekend, but that’s not the way a sunny Monday looks at all.

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