On the Notebooks of Count Giacomo Leopardi

February 26, 2015   •   By Alan Williamson

IN THE HOT Italian summer, I think about Count Giacomo Leopardi, immured in the library of his father’s palazzo in the small town of Recanati in the provincial Marche, inland but within sight of the sea. Almost a total isolate, still in his early twenties in the early years of the 19th century, he was half-consciously forming the project of redeeming Italian poetry from what he saw as two centuries of mediocrity. And he was writing down his opinions in a series of notebooks called the Zibaldone (literally, “hodgepodge”). Translated for the first time into English, thanks to Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with a team of two editors and no less than seven translators, these notebooks come to more than 2,000 pages.

For Leopardi had opinions on practically everything. To begin with, there were languages. He knew Greek and Latin so thoroughly that he was an acknowledged philological scholar while he was still in his teens. He was fluent in French, though he nourished a lifelong grudge over the international prestige accorded to French culture rather than Italian. (If French was the “universal language” of his time, he thought, it was because it was a “mathematical” language, lacking in imaginative nuance.) He knew Spanish and Hebrew; he read English literature, at least in translation, and occasionally referred to Goethe. He even knew something about the Chinese ideogram. Endless pages of the notebooks are devoted to speculations on the interrelations between the Romance languages, the origin and history of words.

Those who love Leopardi’s poetry will be particularly intrigued by his reflections on aesthetics. “It will be more or less difficult for a man to be great the more he is governed by reason […] few can be great (and in art and poetry perhaps no one) unless they are governed by illusion.” This might lead one to expect a proto-surrealist, bursting all the boundaries. Quite the reverse, in fact. Leopardi’s touchstones for everything were the Greek and Latin classics, and what he cherished in them was their clarity and simplicity. “Reason,” for him, meant the self-consciousness of the poetry of his own time, the need to describe and account for one’s own emotional reactions. “Illusion” meant, for instance, the ancient Greeks’ belief in an indwelling divinity in nature, thanks to which simple accurate description, as in the Homeric simile, could summon up a strong emotional reaction in the reader, without any subjectively colored diction. That Leopardi strove for such classical simplicity, though his subject was often Romantic subjective misery, is perhaps the key to the unique timbre of his poetry. He was an extremely self-conscious artist, as I realized recently talking with a friend whose grasp of idiomatic Italian is much better than mine, about the “Chorus of the Dead.” My friend remarked, with surprise, at Leopardi’s use of desio and speme for “desire” and “hope,” rather than the more current desiderio and speranza. These words had passed me by as perfectly ordinary, because I knew them from Dante and Petrarch! But clearly Leopardi wanted his universalized “dead” to speak traditional, not colloquial, Italian.

Even in Leopardi’s classicist reflections, though, we are in for some surprises. What would the detractors of “confessional” poetry say to the following? “I will always maintain that great men become greater when they speak of themselves, and small men become something, this being a field where passions, interest, and deep understanding, etc., leave no room for affectation and sophistry.”

But most largely and chillingly, the Zibaldone assembles an argument for the necessary unhappiness of the human condition, at least in advanced cultures. This theme, as reflected in Leopardi’s published works, made him a great favorite with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In fact, the convictions that strengthened Leopardi as a poet increased his personal unhappiness. He was a man of few illusions. Though he acknowledged Catholicism as “our” religion, and even dated entries by saints’ days, he drew little consolation from it, and even felt, as Nietzsche would, that it was at war with natural vitality. And he had no patience with political or social meliorism. Like Nietzsche again, he had a great admiration for physical strength, but knew he did not possess it. Modern men like himself, he felt, spent most of their lives trying to escape noia (an Italian word whose meanings encompass both “boredom” and “depression”). Even his contemporaries’ enjoyment of public executions, he argued, need not indicate innate sadism; it’s simply that any more intense sensation breaks the tedium of the everyday. (Who among us, with our 24/7 media coverage of any disaster anywhere in the world, would dare to contradict him?)

Some of Leopardi’s arguments for the necessary unhappiness of modern man rest on assumptions about the “natural” or “primitive” state of humankind that are bound to seem naive to contemporary readers. They flow directly out of the philosophical thought of Locke and Rousseau; but the immense increase in anthropological knowledge about actual “primitive” peoples over the last two centuries (not to mention postmodernist relativism) has rendered them suspect. At other times, though, Leopardi’s social thought almost looks forward to the darkest pages of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Reflecting on why brutality toward enemies was considered a virtue in Homeric times, Leopardi argues that our self-love requires hatred toward some “other.” The fervent, self-sacrificing patriotism of ancient Greece and Rome depended on the dehumanization of rival cultures. Our own much-vaunted ideals of universal compassion, Leopardi argues, lead to a breakdown of social cohesiveness at home, an individualism that amounts to a war of all against all.

But the subtlest of Leopardi’s arguments for the necessity of human unhappiness have little to do with historical determinism. He argues, for instance, that we never truly feel pleasure in the present moment, because we have an idea of a more complete pleasure that has yet to arrive. Hence we are forever deferring true pleasure to our ideas of the future, or to a past that we have reshaped and idealized in our own minds. Here Leopardi seems closest, if anything, to classical Buddhist analyses of dukka, the suffering inherent in consciousness. Small wonder that Schopenhauer, who was fascinated with Buddhism, found him congenial.

The Zibaldone grows, if anything, sadder as it moves toward its close. More and more pages are devoted solely to philological notes. Though he chafed at the constraints of his father’s house, Leopardi confesses to a panicky sense of unsupportedness when he is on his own in Bologna. “Habitual unhappiness, and even just being habitually without pleasures and anything to flatter our self-esteem, extinguishes in the long run in the most sensitive soul all imagination, every property of feeling, all vitality, activity, and strength, and almost every faculty,” he writes in an entry dated “my birthday.”

Leopardi prepared an index for the Zibaldone, but he never thought of publishing it; it was found in a trunk years after his death. Yet Roberto Calasso writes, on the jacket of the book, “For years, whenever friends asked what work of Italian literature most urgently needed to be translated into English, I would respond without fail: Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.” Perhaps it’s the sheer range of the subjects Leopardi was curious about: philosophy, history, political science, lore about distant peoples and the small habits of his neighbors, as well as philology and literature. Perhaps it’s the subtlety of his logic, even when it seems most perverse. Most of all, probably, it’s his wish to offer his beloved Italy not only a poetry but a culture, a worldview.

When I first undertook to write on this 2,000-page book, I was told it would be available to me only as a PDF! Thanks to the personal generosity of Jonathan Galassi, this proved not to be the case, and the bound volume sits bulkily on my shelves. But it set me thinking about what Leopardi would have made of our world, where so much comes to us only in the form of electronic signals. I am afraid he would have seen it as an extension of something that troubled him in his own time: the widening gap between consciousness and the biological and material conditions of life. That was the sickness of “civilization,” from which the vicious circle of boredom and the search for stimulus inevitably arose. People, he felt, were less unhappy living more in their bodies, even if that meant not knowing where the next meal was coming from.


Alan Williamson teaches at UC Davis.