reading notes from Zibaldone, Giacomo Leopardi.
But a much more decisive influence was probably that ancient rhetorical and philosophical outlook which aimed to integrate and direct the passions toward ethical and political goals rather than condemn and repress them. It is from this tradition that Leopardi acquires his style of empirical argumentation: his reflections do not take on a systematic form, but move through a process of continual inquiry in which the individual observation is subjected to assessment via the parameters of polarized interpretative categories: north/south, internal/external, action/inaction, but above all to those in which the pairings mirror each other: youth/old age and ancient/modern (cf., e.g., Z 266–67, 1648–49, 2107–10).
Leopardi lived and wrote in that shadow-land that lies between the impetuous fire-burst of the first Romantic generation (Hölderlin and Novalis, Coleridge and Wordsworth) and the generation that came after him, that of the founders of the modern lyric (Baudelaire in Europe, Whitman and Dickinson in America). The shadow-land was called, in post-Napoleonic Italy, the Restoration, an age of discontent, frustration, melancholy, eyes cast toward the past or the future, but a future beyond this world
A book that is unique, infinite, almost monstrous: the Zibaldone. A book that is not a book, a huge secret manuscript, which for a long time no one knew anything about (except, perhaps, for a few close friends), and which lay buried for years in a trunk, only for it eventually to come to light after its author had been dead for more than half a century (1898–1900). We are looking at one of the strange quirks of history
A reader who is capable of understanding the reticular structure of Leopardi’s thought, constantly in tension between “particulars” and “system,” going so far as to arrive at the paradox of a system “that consists in the exclusion of all systems” (Z 949)
There has been a great deal of discussion about the sources of the Zibaldone and its possible models (the word, of uncertain etymology, means “miscellany” or “notebook” or “collection of occasional thoughts and notes” or even, less grandly, “a hodgepodge”)
Unlike the Essais, in short, the Zibaldone is not a work, but has, in a certain sense, become one and continues to become one as the cultural conditions that it foresaw come into existence. It is continuous and linear, but is not directed in any teleological sense: each thought stands on its own, it always begins again, with a slight indentation at the beginning of the first line, and nearly always concludes with a date
The multifaceted and supple solution that he adopts, one that is perhaps unique, is a forerunner of so much fragmentary philosophical writing, with its intolerance of systematic philosophical forms, from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, from Benjamin to Valéry to Simone Weil
But perhaps the Zibaldone can best be defined as a hypertext, with the added dimension of time
under the two-dimensional surface of the page lies a reticular structure buried in time
As long as the Zibaldone loses its original function, it tends to become also a laboratory for other works
Between 1827 and 1829 some notes are preceded by a title that refers to entries in the index or to the “separate slips not referred to in the 1827 Index”: “Moral etiquette,” “Humanity of the ancients,” “Social Machiavellianism,” “Manual of practical philosophy.” As for other works, only titles remain, in the files preserved in Naples: “Encyclopedic dictionary of literature,” “Encyclopedia of chitchat,” “Encyclopedia of useless knowledge and things that aren’t known, or Supplement to all encyclopedias.”
This is an introspectiveness that has the curious property of looking outward, or, to avoid the senseless paradox, it is the concentrated effort of a mind that looks to the outside to examine itself and examines itself in order to measure what is without. Concentrated, inward-looking, patiently accumulating.
The progression of this mode of thought can be traced in the pages of the Zibaldone in the period of its most intensive composition, between 1821 and 1823. What Leopardi was now realizing was that there had never been a period in human history when nature was maternally benign and human beings had lived in harmony with it: nature was fundamentally hostile, or at best indifferent. The question that was left open, the tension traced in the canzoni, was whether, even so, all semblance of illusion, ideals, fiction should be abandoned in favor of “the truth,” or whether some remnant of it might still be held on to, particularly in the form of poetry.
On this basis of amicable intransigence Leopardi could hope to engage with his readers on such topics as the futility of the present, the unimportance of human beings in the natural order of things, the impossibility of achieving pleasure, the indifference or hostility of nature to all things human, the supremacy of death over life, the phenomenology of noia, the illusoriness of literary or any other kind of fame, and above all the right of the writer to say things that go against the grain of public opinion or common sense (but which are true). His hopes were not fulfilled
It is no accident that during these voided years Leopardi devoted himself to the translation of Greek prose writers, notably the Stoically inspired Handbook of Epictetus (1825).
A century and a half after the “querelle des anciens et des modernes,” Leopardi, like Rousseau, takes the side of the ancients and strongly repudiates the myth of progress. If the myth of “progress” is nothing but the secularization of Christian eschatology, as Karl Löwith teaches us in Meaning and History (1949)—that is, the expectation of a future perfection—Leopardi returns to the pagan and archaic idea that perfection is given at the beginning and not at the end of our trajectory
For him, as for Ernst Bloch later, contemporaneity is not uniform, but stratified. And it is above all this stratification that Leopardi investigates, never stopping at the surface level. Rather than being thought of as myths, antiquity and nature (and consequently the south and the Orient which coincide with this condition, see Z 625) constitute more properly speaking one polarity that Leopardi assimilates to the oppositional polarities of modern and ancient civilization, with the aim of creating fields of tension that are infinitely variable according to the discourse and the context. Thus the ancient can exist as an enclave within the modern (the “natives,” the wilderness of the Californias), but there can also be the ancient of the modern (as when one identifies a “Risorgimento,” or revival or rebirth); and a modernity of the ancient (for example Plato or Isocrates) as well as a southernism of the north (such as England, see Z 1850).
an anthropological and historical pattern of progression, according to which the human race, although oscillating between highs and lows in its successive alternations of historical periods, never returns again to the point of departure. In fact, mankind gradually distances itself from nature, and its development assumes a vertiginous acceleration so intense as to render the distance between ancient and modern civilization totally irreversible (Z 163, 4171–72)
The keystone of ancient cultures consists above all in the capacity to harbor illusions, and therefore the ability to act in the present. For the ancients (and so too for children and “native peoples”), everything turns on the naive belief in the identity between corporeality and the external world, in the efficacy of action, in the genuineness of expression, because they believed in the objective reality of things: sensations, images, institutions, rituals, and words are real for them, because these apprehensions and practices have not been submitted to the rule of Reason, “the true mother and cause of nothingness” (Z 2942), which destroys the basis of experience.
Polytheism allowed for a mode of thinking capable of adapting itself to circumstances, morally orienting natural drives rather than seeking to eradicate them, above all in regard to the inclination toward pleasure. The more peoples follow principles that they believe to be universal, the more ruthless and cruel they become (Z 710–11); thus the modern conception of evil, philosophically or ideologically grounded, is “entirely new and more terrible [than the ancient one]” (Z 81); and in the same way, the greater a practical morality, the less a theoretical one (Z 2492–93). The “practical philosophy” proposed by Leopardi, following the path of Epictetus, is based on a critique of ideologies that looks toward the future, that is, to the moral barbarization of the hypercivilized person
Leopardi exposes modern individualism as the egoism of a form of reason that places no limits on the “geometricization” of the world, thereby destroying its variety and individuality, reducing it to sameness and uniformity. In fact, pages 147–49 of the Zibaldone constitute perhaps one of the first discussions of the effects of globalization
And here we come to the point of greatest contradiction: Leopardi is aware that modernity requires a poetry radically different from that of the ancients, because the modern spirit cannot turn back (Z 2403, 4186–87), and yet he remains faithful to the notion that the “poetic”—that is, an imagination that does not devolve into abstractions, but remains, as in Homer, grounded in the horizon of things in themselves—is a form that belongs solely and inalienably to antiquity (Z 1174–75, 2944–46, 4497). For Leopardi, the modern age requires both the medium of prose—and not a poetic prose (Z 2171–72, 4497)—and a philosophy that has become by this time very distant from nature (Z 1359–60).
His discussion of “the humanity of the ancients” is illuminating (Z 441), especially when he speaks with admiration and nostalgia about the right of exile according to which everyone is guaranteed sanctuary at the hearth of every temple or private home; and the respect for wanderers, enemies, the elderly, the dead—that is, for the most fragile casualties of the human condition
Modern man is the fruit of an extraordinary development of “sensibility” and of thinking: a process of interiorization of his energies (“spiritualization”) which has as a presupposition inaction, the abandonment of bodily exertions and the superabundance of “refined” labors, that is, intellectual (Z 76, cf., e.g., Z 1597–602). In the interweaving pattern of the Zibaldone one can discern a model according to which, in the course of human history, “the organs of consciousness” (Onians) have shifted from the heart and lungs (thumos and phrenes) to the brain: this model, which also has aesthetic implications (see “Poetry, Voice, Music”), was formulated by Leopardi on the basis of his own experience, which brought him into personal contact with the effects of the excessive development of cerebral activity (frequent illnesses, curvature of the spine, the deterioration of his sight, the weakness of his nerves).
Leopardi dedicates a large part of the Zibaldone to the links between the body and what is called “animo” or “anima,” a word which has no single equivalent in English (and which is rendered by us variously as “spirit,” “soul,” or “mind”)
He begins with the supposition that ideas and feelings, modifications of thought and changes of state of mind, all depend on the body and are body (Z 1719, 2455, 3202–206)
In 1827 he will claim, in opposition to the spiritualism then prevalent, that “matter thinks” (Z 4288–89).
The two cardinal passions derived from love of self are fear, the most egoistical of the passions (Z 2630), which is in direct opposition to hope (over which fear always prevails, cf. Z 458, 1303), and above all hatred (see the extremely full entry in the 1827 Index under “Hatred toward our fellows”). It can be said that the modern world is born when the scapegoat mechanism (later illustrated by the studies of René Girard), through which hatred is directed against fate, the gods, or some other external force, meets an obstruction which turns that hatred back on the self (Z 503, 4070–71). The arrival of Christianity then is a watershed in the history of the passions, since, by substituting “the fairy tale of universal love” for “national love,” it has ushered in the era of “universal hatred” of everyone against everyone (Z 890), that is, a model of “egoistical society” where the pressures of love of self (but more generally of all the passions) are not channeled into action and symbolically sublimated, and therefore lead man to a new barbarism, to the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (Z 930)
It is significant that in a page of 1819 Leopardi defines as “innocent” not someone who does not sin, but someone who sins without remorse (Z 51), like the animal or primitive man (Z 249).
Experience, Autobiography, Memory
The Zibaldone is the product of a continuous tension between poles of opposition: abstraction and concrete data, systemization and individual experience, synchrony and diachrony. According to Leopardi, the philosopher is one who generalizes and collects individual facts primarily for the purpose of revealing the analogies, rules, and inescapable laws that connect them (Z 66, 947, 1650, 1870, 3649). The philosopher gazes at himself from a distance, as the Stoics taught us, and loses very quickly “the natural habit of excluding himself and his behavior from what he has learned in general about men and their behavior in the world” (Z 1870).
The Zibaldone concludes with this sentence: “Man is stupefied to see in his own case that the general rule is shown to be true” (Z 4525–26). Seeking relations between things, comparing, classifying, and generalizing—the very intellectual tools that Leopardi had inherited from the Enlightenment as proper to the faculty of reason—these processes are transformed into a nightmare in which reason becomes, as Leopardi had already written to his friend Pietro Giordani on 14 December 1818, the executioner of the human race.
Leopardi states that “good memory and discernment and attention” (Z 1766) are required in order to reconstruct the broken threads of a subjectivity that needs to be rediscovered with each and every encounter with the self and with others.
The year 1828 also marks the poet’s mature reflections on the birth of civilization, on oral culture, and on the poetry of Homer, by way of his study of Vico and the philologist Friedrich August Wolf: a return both to the origins of history and to the origins of the self. But by this date, Leopardi’s once fervent interest in the retrieval of the origins of knowledge exhausts itself; inevitably, the “system” begins to close in upon itself after Leopardi’s acceptance of a purely material world, without any meaning (see “Metaphysics, Theology, Philosophy”).
Leopardi’s most systematic account in the Zibaldone of the evolution of human societies, and the political structures that accompany them, runs over thirty-six dense pages (Z 543–79) penned in the space of a week (22–29 January 1821), followed by further reflections written in their immediate aftermath (29–31 January; Z 579–91).
But the conditions of society in itself, a construction not foreseen by nature that favors the spread of consciousness and thought to the detriment of virtue, illusion, and enthusiasm, and the increasing difficulty for society to choose the (almost) perfect prince in a system (that of society) that is itself imperfect, so that its head is now selected by the accident of heredity, transforms absolute monarchy from the ideal form of government of society at the outset into its degenerate opposites, tyranny and servitude.
sufficient nature to be susceptible, potentially and actually, to the virtue of heroism, to great illusions, to greatness of soul, and to good customs, was certainly the best of all” (Z 563). The republics of antiquity, Greek and Roman, remain Leopardi’s touchstone for the notion of liberty and democracy in ancient times,
(Z 882; for Machiavelli as “founder of a profound, modern politics,” see Z 1858).
the impossibility of maintaining the conditions of absolute equality necessary to true democracy, despite the best efforts of the lawgivers to curb individual greed and excess (Z 568), eventually opens the door to hierarchies, oligarchies, and ultimately a return of absolute monarchy, of the most degenerate kind
“We may almost take it therefore that all other political devices also have been discovered repeatedly, or rather an infinite number of times over, in the lapse of ages”: Z 3890, 18 November 1823.)
Leopardi does seem to glimpse the outline of a modern, emerging, “soft despotism,” anticipating Tocqueville by twenty years (Z 986, note 1, and cf. Z 163, note 2).
Leopardi is at one level fundamentally skeptical about all forms of social organization devised by man, each of them a greater or lesser departure from the natural state: they are all more or less imperfect and themselves the source of evil and unhappiness. But he also knows there is no going back to the natural state. Within history, there are choices to be made. Among all the wretched forms of government devised, “it is certain and obvious,” he argues, “that the free and democratic state, for so long as the people preserved
Human history is a succession of the unforeseen. Culture in all its aspects, from the apparently most essential materials of social life—fire, glass—are in large part the product of chance, of accident; as are the makers of culture themselves, the discoverers (Z 835–38; for glass, see Z 2602–607). And thus, alongside and within Leopardi’s master narrative of decline or, more radically, exclusion from “nature,” there are numerous interruptions and returns. Barbarism is one such, and has particular resonance in the political sphere
planned, and organized a society is, the more it is vulnerable to conquest by the barbarian. “What does it mean that the so-called barbarians, or peoples who have not yet attained to anything more than a modest or even inferior civilization, have always triumphed over civilized peoples, and over the world?” Leopardi asks rhetorically (Z 866; for modest, what Leopardi elsewhere calls “middling,” civilization, see Z 2332–33).
Nature and illusion trump science and civilization, but that is because civilization, as it progresses, is subject to creeping impotence. Action will always win out over thinking, but action will give way to thinking in its turn
Leopardi’s idea of history is in broad terms a cyclical one, like Vico’s, but it allows also for stops and starts, and particularly for what Leopardi calls risorgimenti, rebirths or resurgences.
The elasticity of Leopardi’s terminology, between “nature” and “civilization,” “civilization” and “barbarism,” and the intermediate variants of the latter terms, which is further explored in “Nature, society, culture,” is particularly visible in his treatment of social organization across time
For Leopardi, language is everything. The Zibaldone is an extraordinary linguistic and stylistic edifice, the forge of modern Italian prose, but also a laboratory of theoretical and practical analysis of the languages that he knew well: Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish (with an occasional late incursion into English).
Nothing human exists outside of language; and everything, as Leopardi reaffirms—ideas, literature, style, national history—is incarnated in and by language. “Ideas are enclosed and as if bound up in words, like gems in rings, in fact they are incarnated like the soul in the body” (Z 2584, see also 1657).
historical dictionaries: Du Cange (Greek and Latin), Forcellini (Latin), Scapula (Greek), Alberti (French), and naturally the Crusca (Italian).
Leopardi proposes, along the model of the Greeks (Z 2829–31), to graft modernity onto the trunk of tradition. Many of the metaphors he uses are borrowed from the vegetable kingdom; language is like a plant that must be cultivated but not denatured, it must grow by setting down its roots.
No other writer had sought and achieved a greater perfection of style; but this perfection, as Leopardi himself says, should not be perceived as conscious and artificial, or as recherché; it must appear spontaneous. Thus, by means of careful study, the writer should seek to return to a lost condition, one extremely close to the vitality and creativity of oral cultures, to a simple but also passionate style, free, irregular, full of both defects and exceptions (see, in the light of these qualities, Leopardi’s comparison between the myth of Homer, the “non-writer” poet, and Virgil, who, however beloved, represents the “literary” poet: Z 2977–79).
The paradoxical motto of Leopardi—this most learned, most grammatical writer, who almost never makes a mistake—is that beauty “is a slap at universal grammar,” and indeed, is an “infraction of its laws” (Z 2419). This leads us to the aesthetic of the ugly and the imperfect, the search for the strange and for contrasts, the reflections on the “je ne sais quoi” (from Montesquieu) or “sprezzatura” (from Castiglione), on the rapid style of Horace, and on the interrupted or intermittent style of the earliest prose writers (Herodotus) and in the ancient Hebrews.
For Leopardi, the most learned and grammatical of the great modern poets, style is dialogue, writing is action, language is the most beautiful of all human cults (Z 2916), and, crucially, the most powerful antidote to boredom.
The one tenet of the Christian vision that Leopardi initially saves is, in essence, the idea of the fall of man due to his insatiable desire for knowledge, according to the poet’s own personal rereading of Genesis (Z 393–429). Yet this idea was also part of the patrimony of the Greeks, which accounts for Leopardi’s interest in the myth of Psyche (Z 637–38, 2939–41). As a matter of fact, by hypothesizing a perfect world beyond this life, Christianity contributed to the rationalization of faith (Z 1059–60, 1065), thereby destroying what for the Greeks had been a natural tendency for self-illusion and the belief in happiness in this life. Indeed, Leopardi was one of the first to perceive in Christianity the cause of secularization (especially in views similar to those of the early nineteenth-century priest Hugues Felicité Robert de Lamennais). Only early Christianity remained a period of powerful illusions and intense passion. For Leopardi, science and religion were but two aspects of the same trajectory of mankind’s spiritualization.
two fundamental trains of thought that will permeate the entire system of the Zibaldone:
Leopardi’s thought is unquestionably oriented toward the second pole, that of anti-idealism and relativity, despite being accompanied by many ambiguities (above all in regard to the notion of the poetic function). It draws its inspiration from the Aristotelian–Theophrastian line of thought (for its ethical pragmatism and its tendency to observe data scientifically), and from eighteenth-century empiricism as derived from Locke (whom Leopardi reads in the light of ancient skepticism). “There is almost no other absolute truth, except that All is relative. This must be the basis for all metaphysics.” (Z 452)
All of Leopardi’s fundamental categories derive from this early discovery of relativism: unity vs. multiplicity, perfection vs. imperfection, uniformity vs. variety, stasis vs. movement (motion), rule vs. exception, writing vs. orality. The universe is conceived as a system in continuous motion, the site of infinite possibility and multiplicity of absolutes; nature is seen as variety; history as a succession of phases cannot be explained by any teleology, to be understood only as a series of different perspectives; education, as both exercise and habituation, is entirely dependent on circumstances.
He will call this law the fundamental “contradiction”—the law by which nature drives man to seek pleasure (see his “theory of pleasure,” Z 165–83) while at the same time prohibiting him from attaining it.
(“nature conceals itself as much as possible”: Z 446);
“Dialogue Between Nature and an Icelander” (1824), cancels out his humanism, thus bringing us to an absolutely inhuman world composed of deaf and blind materiality undergoing continuous transformation (see the notes on Strato, Z 4248).
Leopardi’s dominant perspective had always been historical, anthropological, psychological, and aesthetic at the same time, and thus was able to sustain the possibility of a mode of thinking at once discursive, propositional, and even narrative. But when this perspective ran up against the evidence of an absolute and immutable truth, the effect was devastating
Importantly, the solution can never consist in any type of hedonism because, for Leopardi, the unhappiest moment is precisely that of pleasure itself (Z 172, 2861). Another solution might be an increase in human activity to the vertiginous point of a total eclipse of all consciousness: a continual distraction (Z 4186–87).
It is characteristic of Leopardi never to be satisfied with any definitive solution, nor with the theorems and systems that he continues to construct: his hypotheses always serve to reopen the question
Among the virtual files under which Leopardi grouped the separate slips that were not included in his Index of 1827, the one entitled “On the nature of men and of things,” though not the most copious, is certainly one of the densest. This is due in part to the very complexity of the abstract notion of nature itself—a power, a force, a generating, life-giving principle that is both inextricably entwined with the life of each individual animal or thing and at the same time impersonal and out of the reach of sentient beings. Nature is first and foremost “the existence, the state of being, the life, sensory or not, of things […] [T]here can be no thing or purpose more natural, nor more naturally appealing and desirable and sought after, than existence and life, which is almost one and the same thing as nature itself, nor can there be a more natural nor naturally greater love than that of life” (Z 3814).
corruption, the degradation of man, is not in nature but in man. Apparently in agreement with the Christian narrative of the fall (Z 393–420, 1004), Leopardi will execute a delicate maneuver in November 1821 with his claim that “all these authorities” (such as the Church Fathers) “favor my system, with the difference that whereas they believed nature to be corrupt and corrupting I believe that reason is. […] And whereas they came to place man outside nature, where everything is perfect of its kind, I put him back inside, and say that he is outside only because he has abandoned his primitive being etc. etc.” (Z 2115–16).
Existing society travels in the opposite direction from nature, to which it can never return. If there ever was a perfect society, it was for only a brief and irrecoverable moment. Leopardi’s concept of the natural state took the form, not of an imaginary topography, but of an idea of what is left when all that is corrupt about modern society is stripped away, a fiction that starts, not from the remotest past, about which we know nothing, but from the world that we actually see and touch.
The primitive and the barbarous are different things. The barbarous is already spoiled, whereas the primitive is not yet mature” (Z 118). In other words, the primitive has not yet reached, or even aspired to, the rank of civilization; the barbarous is already a sign of the latter’s decline (cf. Z 22).
There is certainly nothing worse than a civilization either in its early stages or past maturity, degenerate, corrupt. Both are barbarous states, but neither is a savage state in the pure and strict sense of the word” (Z 4185).
Rousseau argues that inequality was established by a trick or a hoax, on the part of the individual or individuals who claimed private rights over common property, and who had the linguistic skills to say “This is mine.” Leopardi overleaps this phase, and is not much concerned with the origin of private property or of inequality. But the space between the very limited (if any) “loose-knit” society of natural man and the fearsomely constricted “tight-knit” society of civilized man is also difficult to negotiate.
And behind these dramatic interventions there stands the figure of a writer who has already understood that he will not resolve the mysteries of social life and man’s decline in time by immersing himself in purely social or historical questions. On the contrary, it is in solitude that he may devote himself to “speculation and knowledge about himself as himself; about men as part of the universe; about nature, the world, existence, things that for him (and actually) are much more serious than the deepest questions relating to society,” and turn in consequence from the “philosophy of society” to “metaphysics” (Z 4138–39; cf. “Metaphysics, Theology, Philosophy”), as if it were nature itself, and man in nature, not in society, that was the ultimate mystery, and perhaps monstrosity, to be confronted.
for Leopardi, the primitive condition of language is precisely the fact that it is both living and creative, and because of this, words, expressions, meanings, orthography, and sounds are mutable because they remain subject to use. Therefore it is erroneous to think of ancient languages as if they were dead, for they are still feeding into modern languages, not only by means of writing and literature, but also by means of “living speech” (viva favella, Z 1297). To retain the anomalies, to assimilate the exceptions, to recognize the accidental forms generated by the impact of orality upon writing (Z 308), would be to conserve language with its essential characteristics. If words are the bodies of ideas (Z 2584), then philology and philosophy, polar opposites of each other, need to interpenetrate and to interact so as to avoid sterility and to succeed in reanimating the primitive—and true—essence of language (Z 1134).
Books are the terrain of the excavation in which ancient culture lies buried in fragments; the library is the space in which it is possible to bring back to life the voices of silent interlocutors.
Reconstructed sound represents an incursion of the past into the present, the permeable border between that which has been and that which can continue to be, not just as memory, but also as action. Leopardi is interested in action, even in languages: the dynamics of diminutives; the theory of continuative verbs, which finds its point of maximum intensity in his reflections on the difference between actus and actio (Z 1160).
the first cornerstone of his poetic theory: the object of art is not the “beautiful,” but the “true or rather the imitation of nature” (Z 2). However, the term “true” refers here to what we can see, what we can perceive with the senses.
Refuting the classical aesthetic of “ideal beauty” (in fact, opening the door to an aesthetic of the “ugly,” see Z 2–3, 8, and passim), Leopardi points out that the true danger for art lies in intellectualism and “affectation,” both of which are marked by an excess of awareness and artificiality. As man develops his faculty of reason, he distances himself from nature, and in so doing loses the capacity to live, even to breathe
the absolute irradiating center of all of Leopardi’s aesthetic considerations in the entire Zibaldone, is Homer: the poet who sees the things of this world as they are, without altering them, without allowing the “effort” of the act of representation to become apparent. The artist should imitate nature “naturally” (Z 20–21), that is to say, without being aware of it, with non-reflection and “nonchalance” (Z 9–10, 3051), leaving room for chance (Z 25–26), for imperfection, for error (Z 9–10)
But what came easily to Homer (and to Xenophon, in prose) was no longer easily available to the moderns, who introduced the presence of the representing subject into representation itself (Byron being a prime example in the Zibaldone). The only solution left to the moderns, according to Leopardi (who claims this was already the case, in fact, from the time of Virgil) was “to conceal art,” making artifice play against itself.
Leopardi anticipates here the problem of the self-reflexivity of modern art, the issue at the very heart of the aesthetic theorizations of German and English Romanticism. But his knowledge of these writings and debates was limited to the few references that were transmitted by Italian journals, even if in his unpublished Discorso di un italiano intorno alla poesia romantica (“Discourse of an Italian on Romantic Poetry,” 1818) he accused the Romantics of having corrupted the material nature of poetry, turning art into an intellectual operation
“But while it is true that those who have not suffered understand nothing, it is certain that the melancholic imagination and sensibility, too, are powerless without some breath of well-being, and without a mental vigor that cannot exist if there is not a half light, a ray, a glimmer of gladness” (Z 136; cf. Z 259).
The poet’s view is doubled, split between reality and imagination (Z 4418), between present and past: “So that the present sensation does not derive directly from things, it is not an image of objects, but an image of the childhood image, a recollection, a repetition, a reechoing or reflection of the old image” (Z 515). Leopardi’s poetics of the “vague” or of the “indefinite”—which has so much in common with European Romantic theories, and which also anticipates later poetic theories—is born from this continuous oscillation, or vibration, in which the gaze of the poet (and of the reader as well) is unable to focus on or to encompass completely the object; yet the object, for this very reason, emanates a hidden and mysterious light.
The poetic is necessarily that which hides itself from sight (Z 171) or is constituted by a sound that derives from an invisible source (Z 1928).
This also explains Leopardi’s deep interest in music, an art whose path followed the same decline as that of poetry; indeed, originally these two were deeply identified but then later painfully separated (“… the disastrous separation of music from poetry, and of the figure of the musician from that of the poet,” Z 3229). What Leopardi valorized in music was primarily its purely material basis (see, e.g., Z 1721–23); but he also considered melody to be a genuine expression of the feelings and energies of the people. Melody was capable of directly inspiring the soul (Z 3208–33), in contrast with harmony, which presupposes custom and the intervention of the intellect (cf. Z 1871–78)
Of the prose writers that Leopardi collected together in a Crestomazia in 1827, he feels most sympathy for those writers “of things” (to use an expression dear to the great nineteenth-century critic Francesco De Sanctis). These would be the prose writers, especially the epistolographers, of an elegant familiar style (Caro, Della Casa) as well as historians, political theorists, treatise writers, and scientists (Z 3741), above all when they rise to the heights of precision, clarity, and simple elegance (Galileo, Bartoli: Z 1312–15). These are the models that inspire the prose of the Zibaldone.
Leopardi was searching for a radically new form of poetry, beyond a consideration of literary genres, one that as early as the first entries of the Zibaldone he would call a new poetry “that has no name at all” (Z 40).
In its very form, the Zibaldone can be read as a kind of “laboratory notebook,” and could have on its front page the motto of the Galilean Accademia del Cimento, Provando e riprovando (“Try and try again,” to which one might also link the “chief apophthegm of Periander”: “Everything is exercise,” Z 1717). To the despair of readers and interpreters, Leopardi returns again and again to the same questions, looking at them from different, often divergent, angles.
the sciences played a significant role in Leopardi’s education, and were at least as crucial in the defining of his poetic horizon as was his study of the classics.
the Zibaldone marks the passage—which is personal but also relates to the development of science in the late eighteenth century—from the idea of nature as a “fixed” and harmonious order that can be subjected to classification and mathematical description to an idea of nature that is run through with continual transformations, something that is living and historicized even while it works according to recognizable laws and is animated by recognizable forces
Beginning in 1824, and concurrently with the destruction of the principle of noncontradiction (Z 4099–101), chaos and chance become the rule of a natural world made up of a mass of facts that can no longer be either interpreted or controlled.
Leopardi’s view on the origin of the arts and sciences is a radical one, without any hint of triumphalism: discoveries nearly always come about by chance (Z 836), as is shown, for example, by the art of glassmaking (Z 2602–603), and by chemistry (Z 2605–606). His insistence too on the role and fruitfulness of error in the civil, religious, and imaginative life of man, if reread from the perspective of science, goes against the idea that the development of knowledge is linear and progressive
So true spiritual progress “has consisted up until now, not in learning but mainly in unlearning, in knowing more and more that we do not know, in realizing we know less and less, in diminishing the number of cognitions, in narrowing the breadth of human understanding” (Z 4190)
Error also defines a differentiation between branches of knowledge
Man is the animal in which conformability is greatest (Z 1568–69), and is therefore the only one to produce culture and civilization, but also “discontent” and unhappiness, as Leopardi says in two passages in which he reuses, and reverses, the traditional image of the scale of beings (Z 2899–900, 3380).
The insistence with which Leopardi returns to the theme of odors as stimuli to pleasure and illusion is significant: in pages that are relevant today, the control and civilizing of odors is in fact a sign of the languishing of human faculties (Z 1537–38, 1803–804, 1942). His wide-ranging thinking about the senses—smell, touch, sight—is the product of a reflection that is both scientific and poetic
As in so much philosophical tradition, of a moral no less than a philosophical bent, man is aware of his own smallness, of his being but a speck in comparison with all possible worlds (Z 2936–38, 3171–72). This notwithstanding, Leopardi makes it perfectly clear that believing the universe to be infinite is an optical illusion (Z 4292). The infinite is, however, present in the imagination; it is a reworking of the consternation experienced in the face of immensity (Z 4177–78) and coincides, in effect, with nothingness (Z 4174).
His initial doubts about a rigorous materialism, possibly a leftover from his religious education (Z 106–107), quickly give way to a vision (perhaps mediated by chemistry) in which matter becomes all-pervasive and never perishes: its perishing consists in fact in its decomposition into simple elements (Z 629–33): “Our mind is incapable not only of knowing but even of conceiving of anything beyond the bounds of matter. Beyond those bounds we cannot, try as we may, imagine a way of being, anything other than nothingness” (Z 601–602; cf. also Z 1636).
materiality of language (Z 4181).
The hypertextual nature of the Zibaldone consists in this very extensive system of internal referencing, forming a web in which Leopardi moves in all directions, establishing connections between different points of the immense text, with instructions that almost always take the same or similar form
Linguistically, the Zibaldone presents distinct features, and poses distinct challenges to the translator. At the macro level, this is an encyclopedic, voracious text, buzzing with energy and ambition, using every ounce of its rhetorical power to seize an idea, a concept, a proposition, to embrace and enfold an argument and make it the writer’s own. To this end, Leopardi does not hesitate to add, to accumulate, to pile up argument upon argument, clause upon clause, to expand the language of his thought with near-synonyms and variations of a word, to echo or reiterate syntactical structures, to stretch his discourse—at times almost to the breaking point in sentences that run for several hundred words—by the simple expedient of anaphora, to extend and refine his meaning, picking from Italian’s rich store of prefixes and suffixes, among them the omnipresent absolute superlative
But the diary is no product of a stream of consciousness, and there is nothing automatic about the writing. Against the potentially infinite expansion of the text, there is the countertension of constraint. The expanding Zibaldone is simultaneously an exercise in self-control and self-discipline
In literature, one passes from nothing to the middle and to truth, then to refinement. There is no example of a return from refinement to truth.
The object of the Fine Arts is not Beauty but Truth, that is to say the imitation of Nature in any form. If it were Beauty, the more pleasing would be that which was more beautiful, and that would be the road to metaphysical perfection, which is nauseating rather than pleasurable in the arts.