Giacomo Leopardi: Passions, reviewed

Giacomo Leopardi’s Passions is a new volume in Yale’s critically acclaimed Margellos World Republic of Letters series. This ever-growing collection of books aims to bring to the English-speaking world works of literary importance from all around the globe, whether new translations of canonical works, or little-known writings that deserve greater attention and recognition. By publishing these works of literature in English translation, Yale strives to share the literature and thought of other cultures with a wider readershipThis commitment has been vindicated, with Margellos author Patrick Modiano being awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.

So why Giacomo Leopardi? Leopardi is a great figure in Italian literature, yet remains relatively unknown outside Italy, especially compared with other Italian writers he is often ranked amongst: Dante, Petrarch or Boccaccio. In order to provide the perfect introduction to Leopardi and his work, Yale chose novelist and critic Tim Parks to translate selected entries from Leopardi’s acclaimed intellectual diary (Zibaldone). The resulting translation shines new light on Leopardi’s frequently disdainful musings on the human passions – illustrating how his work anticipates later thinkers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Beckett.

This appreciation of Passions by Lauren Atherton elegantly introduces Leopardi’s work, providing entry points into his philosophy and grounding him within European literature.

Leopardi’s Passions: Reviewed by Lauren Atherton

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is a towering figure of European literature; his Zibaldone considered one of the great intellectual works of the 19th century. In Italy he is deemed one of their best poets, second only to Dante, and yet inexplicably he remains relatively unknown in English-speaking countries. As Yale University Press come to publish Passions, a selection of 164 entries taken from Leopardi’s 4,500 page Zibaldone and beautifully translated by Tim Parks, the acclaimed novelist, translator and critic, it is a prescient moment for English-speakers to be introduced to the work of this prodigious talent, one of the 19th century’s most radical and original thinkers.

Leopardi’s Zibaldone was composed during his most desolate early years, between 1819 and 1823, in the remote region of Recanati, then a cultural backwater hill town. Withdrawing into his father’s vast library, Leopardi dedicated himself to intense study, developing a hunchback from his solitary years spent devouring ancient texts. Deprived of friends, affection or the freedom to leave the family estate without his tutor, the notebooks became a way for Leopardi to escape the sterility of a lonely upbringing and by reference to the ancients, to teach himself how to live.

His notebooks reveal a lucid mind thinking aloud, weaving together classical philosophy and philology into his own spirited enquiry into the full breadth of the human psyche. Leopardi’s voice is never loud or shrieking but is gentle, his thinking careful and considered. He converses with the ancients as with old friends, seamlessly moving between Aristotle, Plato and Machiavelli, and engaging them in lively debate from the solitude of his father’s library.

Estranged from the present and engaged thus in the past, time appears an almost obsolete notion for Leopardi. In his Zibaldone, a vast and colourful patchwork of quotation, Leopardi’s voice is but one in an echo chamber of thinkers and philosophers returned from antiquity. The elasticity of time for Leopardi is matched by the variety and mobility of his inspiration and themes: Leopardi’s subject matter is anything and everything, amassing from the minutia of his daily encounters an instructive on how to live and on what it means to be alive. Selecting as if at random from the spectrum of his experience Leopardi writes like a painter at work: closely scrutinising his subject in its every aspect, painstakingly asking of it how and why, and distilling its essence into a new form of utterance that merges poetry and philosophy. His Zibaldone is affectionately known as a ‘hotchpotch of thoughts’ and this captures well the discursive tumble of his inspiration, deriving from ‘the elasticity of the soul’s springs and resources.’ The pen moves restlessly onward as Leopardi attempts to understand the meaning of the fleeting present, a present that is ‘only an instant, and beyond that time [which] is all and always either past or future’.

The experience of reading Leopardi is a profoundly uncanny one, his voice curiously modern and resonant with us in our here and now. Perhaps it is due to the deftness and familiarity with which he writes, owing to the Zibaldone’s origin as a notebook and its unfinished, unplanned method as we see Leopardi working through his ideas over a period of some fifteen years. But more than this, Leopardi’s writing captures something of the modern condition, articulating the disillusions and detachment of our secular age.

For Leopardi the ancients represented the best of humanity in their closeness to nature: their embracing of illusions, worshipping of deities and pursuit of heroic ideals. Leopardi felt that the modern condition is cut off from nature in its pursuit of knowledge and reason, the possibility of experiencing passion stymied by a cold rationality directing all natural feelings and emotions inward. For Leopardi, the modern exaltation of truth displaces the life-enhancing illusions needed to make life worth living, casting humankind into a universe without a God, an ultimate purpose, or concern for the suffering of its fellow inhabitants. Deprived of the illusions necessary to human happiness, truth is the only possible religion of the modern age.

Foreshadowing the atrocities of the twentieth century, Leopardi foresaw in the excess of reason the capacity for its perversion, how barbarous actions could be justified to bring about ideological ends. Rather than redeeming the hopes of the Enlightenment and fulfilling its promise of emancipation and social progress, reason and knowledge become reduced to the question of how it can be used to dominate and exploit humankind. Furthermore Leopardi exposes such models of truth to be merely relative and the product of a particular age, noting that ‘really very few truths are absolute and inherent in the system of things.’

It is here that we see prefigured in Leopardi the likes of Beckett and Bernhard whose work is bound up with the fallen nature of modern man and who diagnosed anxiety, futility, and impotence as the fate of the modern condition. As articulated in the Beckettian dilemma – ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ – Leopardi’s writing betrays a man ensnared within a paradox of his creation, as he pursued knowledge and reason to expose its own perversity and limitation. Convinced of the ‘meaninglessness of everything’ and the inertia that inaction and reflection induces, I would suggest that Leopardi resists inertia in his active and restless excavation of the human psyche. Indeed the writing of his Zibaldone represents the ultimate act of salvation. By turning his disillusion into a powerful source of inspiration, Leopardi’s writing is an act of self-preservation, a need to communicate, and desire to leave something behind.

To quote Leopardi:

It is sad indeed when a man reaches the moment when he feels he can no longer inspire anyone else. Man’s great desire, the great drive behind his actions, words, looks, and bearing right up to old age is his desire to inspire, to communicate something to his spectators and audience’.

Lauren Atherton

Passions is available now from Yale University Press.
passions cover

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