So I started reading another renaissance-era autobiography. I like this little sub-genre, and checked to see what I’d written about the last one that I loved, Cellini’s autobiography. Not much, by way of explanation; just snippets. So I thought I’d explain what makes them so interesting, and what it says (in contrast) about the times we live in. Both of the ones I’ve read were written around 1500 or so, pre-Reformation.
The first difference you note is political. Compared to the way we live now, everything is political; everything has political implications, and these have a very real bearing on the way you live, where you live, your opportunities in life, etc.
Today, when we think of politics, we think of something almost unimaginably huge – politics at the national level, in terms of parties with multi-million dollar budgets, enacting changes that might take months, or years, to reach us. Obama and Romney are more like forces of nature than people to me, and the things they do will only trickle down to me fractionally, as 1/300millionth of the total effect on everybody as a whole.
In the Renaissance (I’m just going to call it that to simplify my writing), the connection is direct. Your politics decides your fate in life; the people you know have positions to hand out and money to connect you to, and having good friends equals power and wealth. This isn’t like volunteering to campaign for a national politician for a year, putting in 1,000 hours, and then, at the end, getting a very nice-thank you letter. It’s more like being introduced to someone famous, and bringing them letters of introduction from their friends, vouching for your integrity; then getting hired on and very quickly making enough to hire servants and turn the power of the state in your favor.
There’s a very satisfying sense in which friendships really mean something; real money, real resources, real valuables are being exchanged by people who have friends, just as real penalties (like imprisonment, banishment, etc.) are levied on those who don’t. People can go from next to nothing to greatness in a year. The ‘wheel of fortune’ is a noticeable fact of life, how someone who controls a treasury can be cursed by everyone a year later, then returned to power a year after that (or not, depending).
Today we have the phrase “Platonic friends” to describe men and women who are friends in a strictly defined relationship; behind that phrase is a witty, even cruel comment about how such friendships depend on intangible ideals. In a way though, all our friendships today are Platonic; the good things about our friendships are ideal and intangible and not material, like those Platonic solids that phrase brings to mind.
In the Renaissance, friendship has a very obvious cash value (to use a blunt phrase), and cultivating friendships means better access to everything. Friends make a material difference all the time. No one thinks of them as ethereal or ‘Platonic.’
The flip side of great friends, however, is terrible enemies. People who are your friends are fountains of warmth and wealth, but people who are your enemies are a literal threat to your life. The two can even switch places, in one person.
Enemies once again.
One of the things that’s exhilarating about Cellini’s life is the way he sweeps up piles of enemies, and even seems to expect it; for him, antagonizing people in a dangerous way (and then staking his life on the complications) is one of life’s little pleasures. I’ve described it as a kind of medieval American Psycho, which isn’t just exaggeration; the dead bodies of the people he dislikes pile up in the book (one of them, essentially a policeman who shoots Cellini’s cousin in self-defense, dies particularly badly, when Cellini stabs him in the neck). Not long ago I was reading that one of the objects of art he created has been valued at $75 million, in the museums.
Death is also different, then. Waves of disease go through the population, making holes in the community at regular intervals. People fall ill for weeks at a time, and barely escape with their life. It’s not that everybody dies all the time, but death is very present and it’s common for people you know or encounter to die a short time later. There is a real sense in which being alive, simply surviving, is an accomplishment; if you are tired of life you’re likely to be carried off by the next lethal wave, and there will be at least one point in your life where you’ll go to death’s door and back, if you live past twenty.
Today, when people today tell their stories of success and failure, it seems like they’re boring because so little is at stake: a moderately better lover here, an arguably better job over there. In these books the account always seem huge: pardon from a jail cell or recovery from a deathbed. Every day you wake up is a day you have fought to live to and enjoy.
There’s more that I like about these books, but this is a good introduction.