The Book of Twenty Million Pages: Leopardi and the "Zibaldone"

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On the fifteenth of February, 1828, the last Friday of Carnival in Pisa, while others were making merry, the twenty-nine-year-old Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi was thinking about old age. Already his youthful passions and aspirations were at a low ebb. Nevertheless he hoped, as he wrote in his diary, to be able in his dotage to savor their distilled essence in his poetry and thereby derive some comfort from his unfulfilled desires. Old before his time, he desired in maturity “no other satisfaction than that of having made something beautiful in this world, whether or not it is recognized as such by others.”

Leopardi would never see old age, though his youth and early middle age were autumnal enough. He died in Naples just shy of his thirty-ninth birthday, still largely unknown. Recognizing the loss, posterity has been grateful. Every nation loves its dead poets, and he is by common consent Italy’s greatest poet after Dante. But he is more than a great poet, as Italians have long known. There are several titans of world literature whose complete works still languish in their native language. We have as yet no complete and unabridged English edition of Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks, though a group of scholars have so far produced seven volumes of a projected eleven-volume set through Princeton University Press. Anglophone readers are poorer for the lack of Victor Hugo’s complete poems—some 158,000 lines—though we have E. H. and A. M. Blackmore to thank for a wonderful bilingual Selected Poems (which, however, represents only about four percent of Hugo’s poetic output). To the ranks of heroes who tackle such enormities we must now add the seven translators who have given us Leopardi’s Zibaldone at long last, after seven years’ labor, a confluence of biblically significant numbers we would scarcely believe in fiction.

Written between the years 1817 and 1832, the Zibaldone, or “hodgepodge,” is a monstrous diary, the diary of a polyglot genius whose Italian is interlarded with Greek, Latin, Spanish and French. The range of his interests is enormous. One minute he is teasing out the meaning of a Greek word or Latin phrase, the next he is off on the relationship between greatness and perfection. An autodidact who ate books, and who read them by turns reverently and combatively, he brings the full weight of his extraordinary intellect to bear in reflections on Greek and Roman civilization, the underpinnings of global trade, Italian nationalism, romantic love, nature as abundant gift, the odes of Anacreon, relations between the sexes, heroism, the state of contemporary poetry, happiness, the interplay of hope and desire, nature as unmasterable chaos, the passage of time, the pleasures of memory, matters of decorum, and the way men resemble horses. He brings also deep feeling and a kind of playfulness, and an acute sensitivity whose rich wine sours into vinegar as time goes on.

And then, there is something miraculous, too, about the text itself, as Franco D’Intino, one of the editors of this edition, makes us realize. The manuscript lay buried for years in a trunk, unknown to the world. Not until sixty years after Leopardi’s death was the Zibaldone first published. Here, suddenly, was Leopardi the thinker and philosopher, whereas Italy before had known only the doomed Romantic poet. So it has been for us. Only now are we seeing Leopardi whole. His poetry had made him the peer in world literature of Whitman and Wordsworth, but the 4,526-page Zibaldone places him in a different realm entirely.

When he began writing the manuscript that became the Zibaldone, the nineteen-year-old poet had little idea what he had embarked upon. His first entry is a piece of scene-setting reminiscent of Thoreau’s journals: “Palazzo Bello. Dog in the night from the farmhouse, as the wayfarer goes by.” From this point on, however, he rarely records scenes of daily life, preferring instead to chart the progress of his thought. He writes a penna corrente, quickly, as the pen flows and as inspiration dictates. The searching, questioning nature of the diary, never resting in easy solutions, derives from Leopardi’s dissatisfaction with the received wisdom of his day, and his determination to think everything through again for himself, starting at the beginning, which is to say, with the ancient Greeks. He was trying to teach himself how to live. And not only how, but why. For Leopardi, life in itself, mere biological existence, is of no importance. What matters is living well and happily, or at least not living badly and unhappily. Philosophers, academics and other experts “should teach people first how to make life happy, and then how to prolong it.”

Leopardi was born the eldest son of a provincial aristocratic family in Recanati, a small town in the March of Ancona, which belonged to the Papal States. He knew only too well the contours of an unhappy life. His father had squandered the family fortune, and by the time Leopardi was born, his mother had assumed control of the estate so as to prevent further wastefulness. To these reduced circumstances in which Leopardi grew up was added his mother’s intense religiosity and despotic control over her children. His father, Count Monaldo, was a political reactionary. Having suffered through the French occupation of Recanati, he was not about to subscribe to any revolutionary ideas such as the unification of Italy.

Leopardi did, however, have the run of his father’s library, and he attacked its thousands of volumes with the fervor of a prodigy who has little else to occupy him. He revealed a talent for scholarship, became fluent in Hebrew and Greek, translated Homer, and began to write poems. Then his health began to fail. He developed a hunchback; his eyesight weakened severely. Leopardi and his family were convinced that his studies were to blame—all those hours spent poring over books. The poet himself felt tremendous guilt. He became painfully self-conscious. W. G. Sebald, a writer almost as melancholy as Leopardi, once wrote, “There seems to be no remedy for the vice of literature; those afflicted persist in the habit despite the fact that there is no longer any pleasure to be derived from it.” So it was with Leopardi; even as he suffered and learned to abhor the loss of his youth he remained terribly open to literature, forever drawing into himself parts of the world—facts, quotations, scholarship, experiences at secondhand—as a trapper would lure small animals, and dissecting them for the sake of knowledge.

Heroism does not always bring happiness to its practitioners. In one of many self-wounding passages, Leopardi reflects on the futility of his bibliomania:

             To a young man who, in love with his studies, said that you learn
             a hundred pages a day about how to live, and the practical know-
             ledge of men, so-and-so answered “but the book” (but this book)
             “has 15 or 20 million pages.”

The passage is central to the Zibaldone, and Leopardi’s interpolation—”(but this book)”—is crucial to understanding it. The anecdote reminds us that it is impossible ever to read widely or deeply enough; your time is limited, and while you are learning about life, life itself is passing you by. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The poet has missed out on the very things about which he possesses intellectual knowledge. And yet that quiet interpolation, a supreme humblebrag, signals his achievement. In the midst of mocking his project, he cannot resist comparing the Zibaldone to life itself in its immensity, opposing life with a counter-life of his own design, self-created, a little cosmos won from chaos.

Tracing the full extent of Leopardi’s intellectual legacy would make for a fascinating, if exhausting, project. His influence in continental Europe and beyond is such that we read him without knowing it. Schopenhauer acknowledged his debt to the Italian poet. One of Nietzsche’s essential insights, that we should esteem ourselves less than we do, should disdain our illusions, hate our smallness, derives from Leopardi. Beckett was conversant with him, as indeed seems only natural. And there is this, more than a century before Stevens: “To give delight is the natural office of poetry.” (Stevens was among the figures once proposed by Leopardi translator Eamon Grennan for an imaginary dream team of translators for the poet-philosopher; the others were Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Arnold, James Thomson, and Samuel Beckett.)

During Leopardi’s short life, revolutionary ideas were coursing through Europe. Even in Recanati he could not be entirely unaware of current events. As a young man he retains some hope of progress in human affairs, though with qualifications: “From Homer onward everything got better, except poetry.” Note the mordant wit, the implicit dig at himself. These shadows lengthen as evening comes on:

             The fact is that, without even thinking about it, the world recognizes
             and admits every day that things are getting worse….  Yet it has no
             desire to turn back, and regards always moving forward as the only
             honorable option, and, in the usual contradictory fashion, is convin-
             ced that by going forward it will improve, and that it can improve on-
             ly by going forward, and would think it was lost if it went backward.

Leopardi, timelessly modern, could be speaking here of our attitude toward climate change, or Internet privacy, or gender relations, or a hundred other things. His own life worsened; his one real attempt at a love affair ended bitterly when it became clear that the object of his affections was involved with his friend Antonio Ranieri, a young Neopolitan who would become his first biographer. (We can’t help hearing tragic overtones in Ranieri’s claim that the poet died a virgin.) Leopardi idealized women, and his romantic failures added to his darkening view of human affairs. This is evident in a poem written during this period, “To Himself,” whose jagged lines stand in for the broken monuments of his great desires. I give here the version by John Heath-Stubbs:

          Now be for ever still,
          Weary my heart. For the last cheat is dead,
          I thought eternal. Dead. For us, I know
          Not only the dear hope
          Of being deluded gone, but the desire.
          Rest still for ever. You
          Have beaten long enough. And to no purpose
          Were all your stirrings; earth not worth your sighs.
          For spleen and bitterness
          Is life; and the rest, nothing; the world is dirt.
          Lie quiet now. Despair
          For the last time. Fate granted to our kind
          Only the dying. Now you may despise
          Yourself, nature, the brute
          Power which, hidden, ordains the common doom,
          And all the immeasurable emptiness of things.

The crucial lines have a devastating economy, and a perfection of rhyme irreproducible in English: “Amaro e noia / La vita, altro mai nulla; e fango è il mondo.” In many of his poems, and perhaps most powerfully in his long poetic testament “The Broom,” Leopardi displays a kind of thinking in verse, married to a philosophical despair, that prefigure the late poems of Luis Cernuda.

His poetry distills in lyric form, and with compressed potency, ideas set forth in the Zibaldone. At the age of twenty-seven, several years before writing “To Himself,” as a kind of thought experiment, he advances the proposition that everything is evil. The only good is nonbeing, what is nonexistent, “things that are not things,” he tells his diary, for “all things are bad.” Each being suffers in its own way—even flowers are torn by wind, dismembered by maidens, grass is crushed underfoot—and it seems impossible that out of individual suffering on a mass scale there can ever come a universal good.

Here Leopardi knowingly sets himself against Enlightment ideals, Leibniz’s best of all possible worlds, the belief in a comprehensible moral universe. But he also refuses to take the view of absolute pessimism, that the universe is the worst of all possible universes. For, as he says, “Who can know the limits of possibility?” After nearly two centuries, the sarcasm retains its bite. He seems to be trying to have it both ways, espousing pessimism while shunning the label. But no. Pessimism is too easy a consolation, leading as it does to a resigned idleness. Not pessimism but tragic consciousness determines Leopardi’s interior landscape. He was concerned with the natural unhappiness of man, a condition that no social program can alleviate, that no amount of material progress can cure. He can be read fruitfully beside the darker Emerson of The Conduct of Life, author of the essays “Illusion,” “Fate,” and “Power.” But Emerson is constitutionally incapable of the total bleakness Leopardi attains:

             Not only individual men, but the whole human race was and always
             will be necessarily unhappy. Not only the human race but the whole
             animal world. Not only animals but all other beings in their way. Not
             only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds.

The Zibaldone is paradoxical, as might be expected given its size, its long period of composition, and the fact that Leopardi never intended it for public consumption. I have tried to suggest the incredible diversity of topics. The exhaustive, multi-part introduction to this English edition goes much further in this regard. If the reader often finds herself wading through swamps of philology—signs of Leopardi’s brilliance and curiosity, no doubt, but ones the general reader is unlikely to find engaging—she will be rewarded with discourses on music, ancient Greek literature, and more. There are moments of great beauty, aphorisms of penetrating insight. The Zibaldone is not all darkness. Far from it.

But Leopardi’s diary is undeniably the record of a great mind divesting itself of illusions. As a young man in 1820, Leopardi is already acutely conscious and scornful of “our customary delusion, that in life and the world there must always be an exception in our favor.” In his final entry, on December 4, 1832, he is still marveling at the ability of human beings to deceive themselves until the last possible moment, incidentally glossing Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich fifty years ahead of time: “Man is stupefied to see in his own case that the general rule is shown to be true.”

In his case, the general rule proved true all too soon. But we should not forget that for all his melancholy he never surrendered either to noia or to nulla, to the enervating force of tedium or to the inactivity nothingness provokes. Even on his death-bed he was dictating poetry. “The great desire of man, the great motivation for his deeds, his words, his judgments,” Leopardi wrote, “is to inspire, to communicate something of himself to his audience or listeners.” His writing, which repudiates existence, enriches our own; his diary in English represents an almost embarrassing increase in our accounts. The book of twenty million pages is life, and is also the Zibaldone, inexhaustible and worthy of endless meditation.