by giacomo leopardi
translated by kathleen baldwin, richard dixon, david gibbons, ann goldstein, gerard slowey, martin thom, and pamela williams
edited by michael caesar and franco d’intino
farrar, straus and giroux, 2,592 pages, $75
In the history of Italian literature, arguably only Dante occupies a more exalted position than Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837). Both Leopardi’s verse—collected in the various volumes of his Canti, Canzoni, idylls, palinodes, and so forth—and his works of prose—the Operette morali and Pensieri—enjoy an unassailable reputation for lyrical beauty, philosophical depth, immense erudition, and indefatigable originality. The Italian language has known no more brilliant master of both its native extravagances and its native subtleties. And no Italian poet was ever more innovative: At the high meridian of European Romanticism, he produced verse at once austerely classicist and precociously modern, distinguished not only by its verbal ingenuity and inexhaustible flow of potent images, but by a sensibility so confidently remote from prevailing fashions and a voice so irreducibly personal as almost to constitute a new genre. In short, he was a literary giant, and was for the most part recognized as such in his own time.
His most gigantic achievement, however, may have been the work we have come to know as the Zibaldone—the “gallimaufry,” “hodgepodge,” or “miscellany”—his heterogeneous, sprawling, positively oceanic journal intime, which was composed from 1817 to 1832, but which did not appear in print intact until 1900. Had this work never become known to the public, Leopardi would still be revered as a genius, but the sheer magnitude of his genius would scarcely be suspected. He poured everything into its pages: philosophy, philology and general linguistics, historical studies, cultural observations, critiques of the arts, political ruminations, personal confessions, and much more. It is a vast compendium of impromptu treatises, ringing aphorisms, hoarded curiosities, subtle observations, oracular pronouncements, and flights of invention. It is wholly absorbing and unflaggingly brilliant.
But it defies summary. The autograph manuscript exceeds 4,500 pages, and this unabridged translation exceeds 2,500, and the topics discussed therein, and the insights and ideas ventured, are far too numerous and too unusual to distill into any kind of brief picture of the whole. Suffice it to say that it is a magnificent achievement, rich and varied and well worth both its large price and the strain it will put upon one’s bookshelves and wrists. The seven translators and two editors who produced this English edition have accomplished something heroic and precious, and they deserve the gratitude of the Anglophone literary world. That having been stipulated, I shall concentrate upon only a few particular aspects of this enormous book.
In attempting to understand the singularity of Leopardi’s voice in his journals—that perspective that seems to be situated at some panoptic point within the world of European culture never previously discovered—one ought first perhaps to consider the singularity of his life. The remarkable achievement of the Zibaldone is a reflection of the still more remarkable achievement of its author’s own self-creation. He grew up, for one thing, far away from learned society. This is not to say that he lacked advantages. His father was Count Monaldo Leopardi, an impecunious but socially elevated scion of the landed gentry, and one who owned a large library.
Still, Leopardi’s education was entirely informal: He was tutored by two priests, but ultimately made himself into a prodigious linguist, philosopher, and poet principally through the unabated energy with which he absorbed the books collected by his father. He had to. The family seat was in Recanati, a provincial town in the Papal States (in Le Marche, to be exact), and his youth was spent under the tireless gaze of a mother whose rigid religiosity bordered at times on psychosis.
As he grew into young manhood, moreover, he still could not leave the region without a passport, and could not obtain that without his parents’ consent (which was always withheld). He was also debilitated by tuberculous spondylitis (at least, that is the likeliest diagnosis), which caused him considerable pain and weakness, as well as the gradual deformation of his spine. Only in 1822, when he was in his middle twenties, was he able to begin to see more of Italy, living at various points in Rome, Milan, Florence, Pisa, and Bologna; but his infirmity made it difficult to stay away from Recanati permanently. In the end, he did make a kind of escape from his provincial prison. His final days were spent in Naples, where he died during a cholera epidemic in 1837.
It is always perilous, of course, to attempt to find some direct continuity between an artist’s life and his art; but obviously the rule can be relaxed when the work in question is as much a private diary as a public statement. I think it correct to say that the Zibaldone is written in a voice that, again and again, bears the inflections of someone whose life consisted to a great degree in the tension between, on the one hand, physical and cultural constraints and, on the other, boundless imaginative and theoretical creativity. It is an almost titanically exuberant treasury of astonishing insights and mental adventures; it is also in many ways one of the bleakest books ever written. Leopardi’s vision of reality was, before all else, unremittingly atheistic—which is to say, it was a vision purged not only of faith, but of every one of those lingering vestiges of faith with which shallower, less reflective atheists console and seduce themselves, and shield their minds against the logical conclusions their unbelief entails.
Leopardi was resolute in his desire to face, without flinching, the icy emptiness of a universe reduced to mere monstrous, soulless mechanism, utterly devoid of any purpose or of any tenderness for humankind; and that meant, for him, the rejection of any form of personal or collective optimism, and certainly of any kind of rosy meliorism. His repudiation of every soothing idealism—moral, social, historical, what have you—was uncompromising and, in a quietly constant way, ferocious.
He had a particular disdain for the beguiling myth of progressive enlightenment. As far as he was concerned, all cultural values are historical contingencies; and those of the modern age enjoy no conspicuous superiority over those of antiquity. Quite the reverse, in fact. He saw the tension between traditional religious piety and scientistic rationalism as no more than the natural hostility that exists between incompatible, and equally arbitrary, dogmatic adherences. The latter devotion has perhaps brought about considerable advancement in the sciences, but this he regarded as anything but an unequivocal good. The practical benefits of modern science can hardly compensate for the abyss of meaninglessness that modern rationalism opens beneath our feet, or for the surrender to total nihilism that it invites.
Yet, even so, Leopardi was a convinced materialist. Here, as in any number of other ways, he startlingly prefigured Nietzsche in his thinking. The godless universe was for him an unquestionable fact; but, for just that reason, he doubted the ultimate value of truth as such. His love of the ancient, pre-Christian world—which was perhaps his fiercest intellectual passion—was largely prompted by his belief that it had been a world of particularly ennobling illusions. Under the sheltering canopy of its myths and native devotions, it made a truly human existence possible: cultivation of the body, animal enjoyment, guiltless vitality, clan loyalty, close horizons, heroic ideals, local affinities, the familiar hearth and native heath, and the whole fabric of religious dreams that the cult of disembodied rationality tears away from before the void.
The modern pursuit of truth in the abstract, no matter what the moral or cultural consequences, was for Leopardi an essentially inhumane and remorselessly destructive fanaticism. Since this kind of rationalism is thoroughly unnatural, he predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that it would ultimately lead to acts of utter barbarity; in abstraction from familial, autochthonous, and ritual allegiances, reason can and will find motives and justifications for anything, no matter how depraved, violent, or pitiless. And, inasmuch as modernity involves a deracination of men and women from the world of the senses, it has supplanted antiquity’s healthy devotion to the flesh with the withering interiority of modern individualism and its attendant obsession with that pallid ghost, the self; and this has made modern men at once sicklier than their ancient forebears and possessed of a far larger capacity for cruelty.
As it was for Nietzsche, moreover, so it was for Leopardi: In his genealogy of modern nihilism, the principal culprit is Christianity. It was the Gospel that taught Western humanity to abandon all faith in the visible world, to cast aside any hope of final happiness in this life, and to submit to that merciless spiritualization of desire by which bloodless truth in the abstract has been elevated to the position of God. As a result, the curse of scientific reasoning has rendered the world uninhabitable for us. “Is it not a paradox,” he writes, “that the Christian Religion has in large part been the source of atheism or more generally of religious unbelief? . . . Man is not naturally incredulous because he does not reason much and does not care a great deal about the causes of things. . . . Metaphysics delving into the hidden causes of things and examining nature, our imaginations and ideas, etc., the profound, philosophical, and reasoning spirit, these are the sources of unbelief.”
At the same time, Christianity inspires a secretly voluptuous delight in the inner torments of conscience, exacerbated by a morality of universal love that is ultimately fantastic and impossible, and that produces instead universal hatred masked by sentimentality. This is because hatred is the most natural, the most primordial state of all living things, while love of others is a habit prompted by necessity and enforced by cultural illusion: “The love dreamed of by many philosophers, which embraces not only all men but all living beings and, as much as possible, all that exists . . . is in contradiction with nature, which has indissolubly joined to self-love a quality of exclusiveness, in which an individual puts his own interests before those of others, and desires to be happier than others, and from which there arises hatred, a passion as natural and as indestructible in all living beings as self-love is.” Thus, by dissolving the closely bound community of clan and homeland that alone has the power to discipline the hatred that animates us all, Christianity set loose universal malice and hostility instead: a “principled” hatred of the world and of others, taking the form of a devotion to an insatiably nihilistic abstraction.
Grim as all of that may sound, Leopardi’s literary genius, philosophical agility, colossal erudition, and immense fertility of imagination make his ideas somehow as much entertaining as provoking. As Schopenhauer, a great admirer, remarked, no one else had so great an ability to make ultimate despair so engaging, seductive, and abundant in novelties. And, frankly, the bleakness of Leopardi’s vision is so free of any pathetic self-deception that at times it seems positively sublime. In the end, he concluded, we possess no real knowledge of anything, because we ourselves are nothing, arising from and returning to nothingness, with nothing to hope for. And we moderns are now no longer able, in the desert that Christianity has made, to gather around ourselves the beautiful illusions necessary to make life tolerable. The best we can do now is to seek solace in art, which arises from the primordial energy of nature, and which alone can connect us again—however tenuously—to the dream-worlds of ancient men and women. (Even that, of course, was a barren hope, since the arts can only decline in a materialist culture.)
All that said—and here I shall sound a single discordant note—as brilliant as Leopardi’s mind was, it was not always particularly profound. At times, pace Schopenhauer, the unremitting intensity of his melancholy becomes oddly callow, as if he has self-indulgently exaggerated his own private disaffections to the dimensions of the cosmos. In this he was Nietzsche’s inferior. And it is strange that his keen sense of the illusoriness of social progress never caused him to question whether the materialism of modernity might not also be an illusion. For all that the Zibaldone is a great surging ocean of brilliant insights, at times it drains itself into shoals whose glittering surfaces cannot entirely conceal the shallows of something disturbingly similar to adolescent discontent. The book is, unquestionably, a work of magnificent genius; but that is not to say that it is a source of great wisdom.
David Bentley Hart is a contributing writer for First Things. His most recent book is The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.