Leopardi’s notebooks and his “ongoing conversation with the dead.”


Robert Harrison as DJ (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is too little known in the U.S., so I read with pleasure about the Farrar, Straus & Giroux publication of Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, the 2,600-page edition of his complete notebooks.   It will be some time before I can get around to the work itself, so I have to content myself with Robert Pogue Harrison‘s review over at the Financial Times here.  We’ve written about Robert, the radio host for Entitled Opinions, here and here, among other places.  He’s one of the most interesting writers at Stanford.

In his words, Zibaldone “is as important as the Notebooks of Coleridge, the Journals of Emerson, the Diaries of Kierkegaard, and the posthumous notes of Friedrich Nietzsche, first made available to the public under the title The Will to Power.”  It’s not hard to see why.  He continues:

“Almost all of the 4,500 handwritten pages that make up the Zibaldone were scribbled in Recanati, a small hill town in the provincial Papal state of Le Marche, far from the intellectual centres of Italy and Europe. Here Giacomo – the prodigiously gifted but sickly son of Count Monaldo Leopardi – spent his youth and early adulthood poring over books in many languages, ancient and modern, in his father’s immense library, one of the largest private libraries in Europe. Friendless, starved for affection, forbidden to leave the family castle without his tutor, Giacomo developed a large hunch in his back and by 21 gave up any hope of personal happiness. (He finally managed to leave home in his late twenties, eventually moving to Naples, where he died during a cholera epidemic at age 38.)

In his darkest and most desolate years in Recanati, above all between 1819 and 1823, Leopardi held on to his sanity by filling his notebooks with carefully considered entries on a wide range of topics. The Zibaldone is not a personal diary. One does not find in its pages a howling heart, nor an outpouring of pain, grief and despair (Leopardi reserved that for his poetry). One finds instead a lucid mind thinking aloud by way of an ongoing conversation with the dead, above all the many ancient authors who stacked the family library.”


Not a happy camper.

One quarrel I’d pick with both Leopardi and Robert: “Except for moments of childhood wonder, a modern person does not possess the ancients’ natural sentiments, their capacity to believe in deities, their embrace of illusions, or their devotion to heroic ideals. Leopardi considered the triumph of reason in the modern age something of a disaster, not because he was a Romantic who exalted spontaneity, intuition and passion, but because he believed that ‘man can only live by religion or by illusions’, which reason makes it difficult, if not impossible, to believe in. If science and reason ‘force us to give up all our illusions’, he writes, ‘and have constantly before our eyes, with no escape, the pure, naked truth, there will be nothing left of the human race but the bones.’”  Well, maybe.  But it seems to me science brings in a lot of illusions of its own – the first being that science can and will provide us with all the answers. I’ve seen as many people superstitious about science (the phobia about germs, for example) as any medieval villager, and as trusting of the expertise of fallible scientists as an aborigine with local shamans.

Robert writes, “He believed furthermore that the modern age, despite its self-deception on this score, has only one veritable religion, namely the pursuit of truth at all costs, regardless of the consequences. The consequences are grave indeed, for the pursuit of truth dispels our life-enhancing illusions and destroys every higher ‘value’ that makes life worth living. The will-to-truth ends up casting humankind into a universe with no overseeing God, no ultimate purpose, and no concern whatsoever for the unspeakable suffering to which it condemns its inhabitants, ‘not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds’, as Leopardi puts it in one of his entries.” But this is rather loading the dice.  It presupposes what the end of “truth” will be, and that it will confirm our fashionable nihilism.  I’ll throw my money on the opposite bet.  I’ll vote with old Thomas Aquinas who wrote that “All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”

Leopardi wrote, “What is certain and no laughing matter is that existence is an evil for all the parts which make up the universe.”  But evil as defined by … what?  From what vantage point or intelligence?

Robert returns to a theme he articulated at a 2010 conference at Stanford when he writes, “Thinking may be a solitary activity, yet as Hannah Arendt claimed, it begins with the dialogue I hold with myself, inside my own head. If I cannot dialogue with myself, I will not be able to engage thoughtfully with others, either in speech or in writing. The reader of the Zibaldone often gets a sense that Leopardi is addressing him or her directly, yet in truth, when a thinker is in dialogue with himself, he is in dialogue with the world at large.”

flyHere’s what he said at the conference on the German-Jewish thinker, from my article at the time:

Stanford professor Robert Harrison, chair of the Department of French and Italian, made the conference’s most spirited address in a talk on “passionate thinking.” He considered Arendt’s notion of friendship and thought as rooted in solitude and the ability to commune with oneself – that “plurality begins with the individual.”

The “overwhelming question” in the humanities, he said, is “How do we negotiate the necessity of solitude as a precondition for thought?”

“What do we do to foster the regeneration of thinking? Nothing. At least not institutionally,” he said. “Not only in the university, but in society at large, everything conspires to invade the solitude of thought. It has as much to do with technology as it does with ideology. There is a not a place we go where we are not connected to the collective.

“Every place of silence is invaded by noise. Everywhere we see the ravages of this on our thinking. The ability for sustained, coherent, consistent thought is becoming rare” in the “thoughtlessness of the age.”

Well, you can read the rest of that here.

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