Earthly Powersby Allen Guy Wilcox
Giacomo Leopardi (1798 – 1837)
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
In literary circles, Giacomo Leopardi is often cited as the first modern poet, and while, indeed, he is a marvelous poet, the scope of his literary accomplishments far exceeds his writing in verse. On welcoming a first complete English-language translation of Leopardi’s Zibaldone, a 2,500-page philological, philosophical, literary notebook, we find a writer whose intellectual life was among the most comprehensive and assiduously developed in all modern history, whose wide-ranging appetite for knowledge and self-understanding was matched only by his breathtaking perspicacity and his tireless devotion to study.
As a notebook, the Zibaldone is given to sudden epiphany, as well as long tracts of etymology and epistemology. It is the output of a sick man—Leopardi developed a severe hunchback in his teenaged years, an ailment compounded by periods of near-blindness—drawn up in his closet with a vast library of his father’s books at his beck. It is the product of reflection, rigorous study, and personal testimony. The language Leopardi employs, when not pedantic, is sonorous, as when he writes:
Patience is the most heroic of the virtues precisely because it has not the least appearance of heroism.
The civilization of nations consists in tempering nature with reason, where nature has the greater part.
In small towns there are factions, friendship does not exist.
The avidness for a good one-liner should not confuse the fact that we are in the hands of not merely a great aphorist, and not merely a major modern poet, but also an advanced linguistic technician, steeped in the richness of the major European languages. Concomitantly, the Zibaldone draws from the best work produced in those languages, including imaginative literature, political science, philosophy, and history. The text also serves to remind us that those genre distinctions did not always exist in such pure and rigid form as contemporary academia—a land of many cottage industries, where specialization may become a self-perpetuating praxis rather than an enterprise directly reactive to the texts—would seem to suggest.
Much of the work Leopardi read, from Martianus to Montesquieu, combined disciplines. To blend literature with history in no small part characterizes the work of Herodotus in The Histories. To combine genres in other ways, blending personal memoir with history, philosophy, and military strategy, was part and parcel of the works of Caesar and Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps the interdisciplinary bent in many of the great works of which Leopardi availed himself is reflected in, and serves in part as explanation for, the breathtaking reach of his intellectual appetite.
Raised with his siblings in the hill town of Recanati in what was, for the time, an ultra-conservative region of the Papal States, Leopardi’s home life might seem to resemble that of Cosimo, the protagonist in Italo Calvino’s whimsical novel, The Baron in the Trees: the Leopardi family was comically reckless, led by a financially and emotionally nostalgic father buttressed by an “iron-willed,” relentless mother. She was a force-of-nature type who shared with her husband the desperate desire to cling to an increasingly outmoded aristocratic lineage and raise Giacomo in the manner of a landed rentier, a gentleman of independent means.
It is fitting then, that the rot of time and inheritance would be a continuing theme for Leopardi, perhaps mirroring his ongoing physical decay, as well as his family’s decline in stature. In the poem “Bruto Minore” he invokes the putridi nepoti (“corrupt descendants”) who follow inevitably from some golden state of antiquity. As the wise editors to the Zibaldone write:
What Leopardi was now realizing [c.1822] 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.
That is to say, a golden age will only open for us, according to Leopardi, in fleeting moments where reason and artistry may reach sublime heights long enough to temporarily set nature’s vagaries at bay. Years later, this sentiment is echoed somewhat when Robert Frost writes that a poem is a “momentary stay against confusion.” But man’s true state is at the whim of nature’s ravages. Intellectual and artistic clarity may produce an illusory golden age in the mind of man; the golden age was never a historical event, but a way of seeing our present selves by contrast. We are all corrupt descendents, according to Leopardi, and ill as he was, he was all the more acutely attuned to the fact.
Leopardi’s physical ailments were so debilitating that the family decided to forego any further risks to the inheritance and passed the primogeniture on to Leopardi’s younger brother, Carlo. This was a tremendous blow, and yet it seemed to spur young Giacomo. The youth worked like a steam engine, tirelessly, with searing intensity, for marathon stretches that would have extinguished lesser minds. Most of the Zibaldone, an unstinting masterwork of research and insight, was composed during Leopardi’s 20s, a time when many a writer are still fishing around for clues that can lead them into the very first steps of a life and career.
Zibaldone itself, as the editors tell us, is a word “of uncertain etymology” and has been occasionally, perhaps unflatteringly, translated as Hodgepodge. Miscellany, as the editors also suggest, might be a more apt English description, lending the work a more befitting degree of grandeur. The seven principal translators, Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams, each worked on major swaths of the text, with specialist translators brought in to consult on certain esoteric passages. Lead by editors Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino, the translators opted to leave the book’s title in the original Italian, much in the way we leave Les Misérables in its language of origin. This suggests that the Zibaldone, with a new comprehensive translation, is finally entering the lexicon of popular literary imagination. But it may as well be called The Matrix, with all the high dynamism and breathlessness of the movie intact. For the tome is at once reticular, zoetropic, correspondent to myriad levels of linguistic and literary overlay, and it transpires in at least seven major languages, both ancient and modern, which Leopardi, as one might surmise, had mastered from the confines of his study. The book can be entered from any angle, pushed against from any vantage, and yet it still retains its shape.
Leopardi closes his massive document with the following line: “Man is stupefied to see in his own case that the general rule is shown to be true.” In this way, his cognitive and philological diary is squarely focused on the twined concepts of perception, stance, and ultimately, on ancient notions of virtue and habit in a civilization divorced from nature, cloaked in Christian dogma, and beat into listlessness by reason, which destroys the antique illusion that what one does matters in any way. As the editors point out:
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…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 the end of our trajectory.
Jonathan Galassi’s recent translation of Leopardi’s Canti (FSG, 2010), a poetry collection written in the final years of his life, reveals a writer whose sadness for the loss of Italian artistic and moral supremacy brings forth shattering moments, signal moments of reading. Witness the opening of his poem, “On the Marriage of His Sister Paolina”:
Now you’re abandoning the peace and quiet
of your parental nest, with its beloved
ghosts and the old illusion, heaven’s gift,
that makes this lonely place seem lovely to you,
destiny leads you to the dust and noise
of life. Learn the shame
that cruel heaven
ordained for us, sister:
that in lamentable times
you shall bear luckless children
for unlucky Italy.
Though these lines may rack the emotions, Leopardi’s chosen themes, as well as the electric economy of his words, stave off sentimentality, although they reveal a deep nostalgia. Leopardi sees mankind inhabiting a lapsarian context, though without any revealed footholds with which to climb out of the morass of unhappiness that constitutes existence. His complicated moral stance, unpersuaded by traditional virtues, gives Leopardi the appearance of an anti-idealist: his harkening, on the one hand, for an ephemeral golden age is broken by an aggressive wish to reinvent the world himself—by his own rules, for his own pleasure, and for his unique achievement as a human, prefiguring in key ways Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. His aesthetic impulses, borne out both in verse and in the Zibaldone, verge always towards the sublime, girded by an immoderate quest for glory.
The Zibaldone is in large measure a tract on what Leopardi considered the crucial poetics of his reading life. It is a construction zone, with hard hats required, in which Leopardi rebuilds an understanding of philological meaning out of the raw materials of language, thought, and the human mind. Pages and pages of the book are devoted to scrupulously annotated grammar reviews, often in Greek, but mostly in Latin and her sumptuous daughters: Italian, Spanish, and that obstreperous northern cousin, le Français. This pedantry, which pertains largely to the usage, derivation, declension, and dissemination of certain choice words, will find itself interrupted in the text, notebook-style, as it were, with reflections on small-town squabbles, on the one hand, or the nature of laughter and the ridiculous, on the other. It’s a motley wealth that’s found in Leopardi’s observations, ever circling the braided human realities of nature and reason: our paltry reason confronting nature, the wash of nature yet overpowering our sometimes godlike, sometimes frail, reasoning. Consider how the following quotations shed light on one another. Held together in the mind, these apparently contrasting sentiments help provoke a picture of their author.
As regards philosophy:
Since everything beautiful and good in this world is pure illusion, and virtue, justice, magnanimity, etc., are pure fantasies of products of the imagination, the science [i.e. philosophy] that seeks to reveal all those truths that nature has shrouded in such profound mystery, without putting revealed truths in their place, must of necessity conclude that the only choice in this world is to be completely egoistic and always do whatever profits or pleases us most.
As regards poetry:
The aim of the epic poet… must not then be to narrate, but to describe, to move, to arouse images and emotions, to lift the mind, to warm it, to correct habits, to incite to virtue, glory, love of one’s country, to praise, criticize, kindle emulation, to exalt the virtues of his nation, his forefathers, domestic heroes, etc.
A sick man, who like Hamlet suffers in part because, as Nietzsche would put it, he thinks not too much but “too well,” Leopardi used the Zibaldone to trace the origins of civilization and literature through language, and the triumph of reason in great artists of language. Though often verging on nihilism, Leopardi’s project seems in fact, concerned primarily with the clearing up of illusions. The very fact of the Zibaldone’s creation, the fact that such a monumental project was undertaken and completed, seems to be a strike against any conquering nihilism in its author.
Perfectly in line with the élan vital of the ancients, this long-buried work reflects the breadth and scope of nature from which we might only hope to derive all earthly powers, a bracing glimpse of which is laid forth in these pages. The value of the Zibaldone is that it is, in a very deep sense, what we now call outsider art. One of the most impressive works of erudition, creative insight, and cognitive power, having affected in its time Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and countless others, was assembled in secret, by an Italian hunchback in his early 20s, who was in no way tied to academic institutions or power centers—no Hollywood, no Washington, no Athens, and barely Rome entered his purview. The Zibaldone’s publication in English unearths a great mass of learning that shows us our ignorance as if it were a mirror held right up to our faces. So much the better for us as we move through a new year of receding ignorance on earth.
ContributorAllen Guy Wilcox
ALLEN GUY WILCOX was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., and grew up on his parents' farm in the Mohawk Valley. He has lived in Brooklyn since 2005