Jamie Richards on Giacomo Leopardi

I once attended a conference where a prominent Leopardi scholar likened the writer's musings to those of an angst-ridden adolescent in the manner of Kurt Cobain in "Smells Like Teen Spirit." No matter Leopardi's preoccupation with subjects like boredom, unhappiness, and futility, the comparison seemed unfair. Yet I reconsider it as I turn to his newly translated notebooks, the Zibaldone (composed from 1817-1832, first published in Italian in 1898-1900). Take, for example:

. . . it would be as well for philosophers to get it clearly into their heads that life in itself has no importance whatever. What is important is living it well and happily, or at least, or even above all, not living it badly and unhappily. And so they should ascribe usefulness not to those things which simply ensure or preserve life, considered simply as an end in itself, but rather to those which make it worthwhile, that is, really happy. But the only thing that makes it truly happy is the false, and every happiness founded on truth is profoundly false, or we could say, every happiness proves to be false and empty when its object is recognized in its reality and truth (Z 352).
This very artfully arranged translation of Leopardi's idea is emblematic of his many statements about human existence, statements that may at first appear simplistic ("everything is evil," as in Z 4174) but quickly develop into complex dialectical arguments. Indeed, Leopardi's apparently aphoristic statements signify quite differently when excerpted than when considered in context. A careful read—or at least, a leisurely skim, given the book's biblical dimensions—reveals a perceptive, idiosyncratic, original thinker who has as much to say to the everyday humanist and flâneur as to disaffected Nietzsche-toting youth. Less rock n' roll and more Beckett.

But we Anglophones have not had much exposure to Leopardi. In a 1979 talk on the image of Italy abroad, Italo Calvino lamented:

For us, Leopardi is a presence that looms ever larger and closer; for ages each Italian literary generation has constructed its own Leopardi, different from that of the previous generations, and they define themselves through their definition of Leopardi; and Leopardi supports all of these things. And yet, beyond the borders of Italy, Leopardi simply doesn't exist.
Now, along with Jonathan Galassi's 2010 translation of Leopardi's poems, the Canti, the publication of his Zibaldone makes a monumental stride towards raising the writer's profile in English. Begun when the author was nineteen, the Zibaldone consists of Leopardi's notebooks—never intended for publication—with impressions, observations, reflections, and aphorisms on all aspects of culture, society, and the human condition. It's like reading philosophy, literary criticism, a diary, and a dictionary all at the same time. All this in the elegant prose of a master poet, inevitably modernized in English but tempered by the slight archaism of the rhythm and terms of his thought. Leopardi's perspective is as vast as his knowledge, extending far back into the past and projecting into the future, for he was a prodigy who by eleven had taught himself a handful of foreign languages and spent his time reading Homer in the Greek and translating Horace. Leopardi is notorious for his bookishness. At one point, he admits "my mistake has been in wanting to lead a life which is all and entirely internal" (Z 4259), perhaps thinking of the ancient ideal of μέτρον ἄριστον, moderation in all things.

Yet the publication of this enormously rich text gives us the opportunity to participate in that prodigious inner life. Even merely the lengthiness of the above list of editors and translators or the book's acknowledgements section suggests the scope of the monumental achievement we have before us here—what took one man to produce has taken an enormous team of academics, translators, editors, supporters, native informants, and specialists in fields ranging from Sanskrit to law to Roman history to philosophy to reconstruct in English. Their coordinated efforts have paid off. The meticulous paratextual material, from the introduction to the notes and index, provides an invaluable foothold in a potentially overwhelming text. The Zibaldone is meandering but highly readable, absolutely addictive as an intellectual diary, though at 2,000+ pages it is not something to read cover-to-cover—rather, it is something to keep and return to, something to think both through and with.

Why Zibaldone? Let us take a cue from Leopardi himself, who states, "There is no more effective means of gaining access to the origins of nations (together with the progress of the human mind and the history of the peoples, matters all faithfully represented in languages) [...] than through etymologies" [Z 1273]). I cannot base my comments on an extensive reading of pre-19th century sources to argue for a certain etymology as would a modern Leopardi, but consulting Italian dictionaries reveals that the term "zibaldone," meaning a miscellany or hodgepodge, initially in the pejorative sense of a disorderly or disorganized heap of ideas or writings, is believed to be culinary in origin. According to the entry found in most dictionaries (though others offer alternative hypotheses), it may derive from a compound of the word "zibanda," a regionalism from Emilia for "vivanda" (victuals, vittles) and "zabaione" (the desert, which figuratively came to mean a mixed-up jumble). Leopardi's effort consolidated the term within the literary sphere, leading the celebrated Italian practitioner of the genre Giovanni Rucellai to call it a "salad of many herbs."

This Mulligan stew has much to offer, as Leopardi is essentially a missing link in a constellation of modern thought in the Western tradition. Some Leopardian keywords: illusion, unhappiness, pleasure, boredom, nothingness, habit, nature. Although he repeats himself, there is something new to observe with each repetition. He'll present an anecdote or an analogy and then conclude, "from this, many considerations can be drawn." For example:

The tortoise, whose movements are extremely slow, lives extremely long. Thus, everything is proportionate in nature, and the sloth of the tortoise with which nature could be charged is not really absolute sloth, that is, when considered in the tortoise, but relative sloth. From this, many considerations can be drawn (Z 32).
And Leopardi's knowledge is both material, the fruit of extensive, encyclopedic reading, and theoretical, based on an unending wonder about the nature of things. He is someone who can confidently make pronouncements on topics like vowel shifts in several ancient and modern languages and reflect philosophically on language and literary expression—on mimesis, art, translation, style, writing. He is mistrustful of religion but agrees with the Christian concept of the Fall, since for him human history is a history of degradation. The further we get from nature, he says, the further we decline. Nature is indifferent, but absolute; human existence, like all inventions and innovations, is a chance occurrence. His considerations on beauty, the imagination, and the sublime speak to aesthetics from Plato to Vico to Kant all the way to Graham Harman; his concepts of history and of nature, his anti-Enlightenment critique of progress and reason, are in dialogue with philosophers from Hegel to Nietzsche to Adorno. At every point an incisive critic of modernity, and a great admirer of the ancients, Leopardi's slogan might be, contra Pound, "make it old." Yet his endlessly inquisitive and critical mind heralds the secular humanism and relativism of today, and the Zibaldone is a precious record of a genius at work.