Giacomo Leopardi - The greatest intellectual diary of Italian literature, its breadth and depth of thought often compared to the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.




Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino, translated from the Italian by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela WilliamsFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. 2,592 pages

A groundbreaking translation of the epic work of one of the great minds of the nineteenth century
Giacomo Leopardi was the greatest Italian poet of the nineteenth century and was recognized by readers from Nietzsche to Beckett as one of the towering literary figures in Italian history. To many, he is the finest Italian poet after Dante. (Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Leopardi’s Canti was published by FSG in 2010.)
     He was also a prodigious scholar of classical literature and philosophy, and a voracious reader in numerous ancient and modern languages. For most of his writing career, he kept an immense notebook, known as the Zibaldone, or “hodge-podge,” as Harold Bloom has called it, in which Leopardi put down his original, wide-ranging, radically modern responses to his reading. His comments about religion, philosophy, language, history, anthropology, astronomy, literature, poetry, and love are unprecedented in their brilliance and suggestiveness, and the Zibaldone, which was only published at the turn of the twentieth century, has been recognized as one of the foundational books of modern culture. Its 4,500-plus pages have never been fully translated into English until now, when a team under the auspices of Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino of the Leopardi Centre in Birmingham, England, have spent years producing a lively, accurate version. This essential book will change our understanding of nineteenth-century culture. This is an extraordinary, epochal publication.
“The Zibaldone is surprisingly fun to dip into, a nightstand book rather than a doorstopper, and something to think about as you head to the beach this weekend—if you can fit it into your bag.” —Daniel Berchenko, Publishers Weekly

“There are several titans of world literature whose complete works still languish in their native language . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . There are moments of great beauty, aphorisms of penetrating insight . . . Leopardi’s diary is undeniably the record of a great mind divesting itself of illusions . . . 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.” —Brian Patrick Eha, The American Reader
 
“It is only now, almost two hundred years after Leopardi wrote, that the Zibaldone has been translated in its entirety into English. To get a sense of the sheer scope of Leopardi’s intellect, the range of subjects that engaged him and the bodies of knowledge he mastered, consider how many scholars it took to translate and annotate this enormous book. In addition to the Zibaldone’s two editors, Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino, there are seven credited translators, an editorial board of seven people, and a list of ‘specialist consultants’ in subjects ranging from Chinese, Hebrew, and Sanskrit to musicology, law, and the history of science . . . This complete Zibaldone gives us . . . an unfolding sense of the excitement and variety of Leopardi’s inner life—the feeling that we are making his discoveries along with him . . . At some of the most powerful and revealing moments in the Zibaldone, we are able to see how Leopardi’s theory of despair was born from the experience of despair . . . Perhaps this book is most significant as a vast objective correlative—bringing us as close as we can come, or want to come, to the brilliant bleakness of his inner life.” —Adam Kirsh, The New Republic 
 
“The Zibaldone is surprisingly fun to dip into, a nightstand book rather than a doorstopper, and something to think about as you head to the beach this weekend—if you can fit it into your bag.” —Daniel Berchenko, Publishers Weekly



Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.
With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.
Even in his native country, Leopardi has not received the recognition he deserves as a thinker. Though a selection of his aphorisms appeared not long after he died in 1837, during a cholera epidemic in Naples, the Zibaldone – a “hotchpotch of thoughts” – was not published in full in Italian until 1898, the centenary of his birth. Composed in secret and meant as a series of memos to himself, the notebook has something in common with Pascal’s Pensées and Kierkegaard’s diaries but the voice – refined, detached and betraying a reticent intellectual passion – is Leopardi’s alone. Beautifully rendered into English by seven translators, superbly edited and annotated by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino under the auspices of the Leopardi Centre at the University of Birmingham, with its more than 2,500 pages elegantly printed on thin, Bible-like paper, this is not just a triumph of scholarship but a work of art of which its author could have been justly proud.
The first full English version of the Zibaldone is a major event in the history of ideas. With its publication, Leopardi will be ranked among the supreme interrogators of the modern condition. Originally comprising some 4,500 handwritten pages, this huge text is a methodical dissection of the ruling myths of the new world that was emerging around the solitary young man. Much of it was written when he was in his early twenties, in his family home in the small hill town of Recanati, in one of the most old-fashioned papal states, where his bookish father dressed in black and still wore the sword that symbolised his princely caste. Developing a hunchback from spending his days crouched in his father’s library, where he devoured ancient texts and taught himself Greek and Hebrew, Leopardi spent most of his life thinking, reading and writing. Unfortunate in his relations with women and forming few enduring attachments aside from a difficult three-year involvement with a married Florentine beauty, suffering several spells of poverty along the way, he spent his last years living in the house of a close male friend in Naples.
The frail and sickly poet was also a thinker of intrepid bravery who produced one of the most unsparing critiques of modern ideals. Crucially, this was the work of a quintessentially modern mind – one that looked to the bottom of modern civilisation and found there nothing but conceit and illusion. An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”
His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.
Christianity was a reaction against corrosive doubt, a condition that took hold partly as a result of the habit of sceptical inquiry inculcated by philosophy: “What was destroying the world was the lack of illusions. Christianity saved it, not because it was the truth but because it was a new source of illusion.” This new illusion came in the form of a claim to truth that all the world had to accept: an inordinate demand that with the rise of the Enlightenment shifted to science, which has become a project aiming to dissolve the dreams in which humanity has hitherto lived. The result is modern nihilism – the perception that human beings are an insignificant accident in a scheme of things that cares nothing for them or their values – and a host of rackety creeds promising some kind of secular salvation.
Leopardi’s account of the paradoxical process whereby a Christian will to truth gave birth to nihilism has much in common with Nietzsche’s – an affinity that the fiery German thinker recognised. Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche was following a path opened up by Schopenhauer, who wrote that it was a tragedy that the world’s three great pessimists – “Byron, Leopardi and myself” –were in Italy at the same time but never met. (I’m not sure that a meeting between Leopardi and Schopenhauer would have been a success. Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter.)
What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.
Unlike philosophers today, Leopardi aims to do more than provide a comforting justification for the intuitions of well-meaning liberals. Just as much as Nietzsche, though much more soberly, he is a critic of modern ethics. Leopardi found the unthinking moral certainty of secular thinkers highly questionable, not least because of their hidden debts to Christianity. In an irony of which he was undoubtedly aware, this opponent of the Enlightenment ideal of reason was in many ways a child of the Enlightenment, not least because he shared the Enlightenment suspicion of Christianity.
Yet Leopardi’s resistance to Christianity was not simply, or even mainly, an intellectual objection to its theological claims. It was a moral objection, which applied equally to the secular successors of Christianity. He criticised Christianity not because he believed it to be untrue (he accepted that human beings cannot live without illusions) but because he saw the militant assertion of its truth as being harmful to civilisation. The universalism of which Christianity and its humanist offshoots are so proud was, for Leopardi, an openended licence for savagery and oppression.
Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.
Assessing the impact of Christianity on the ancient world, Leopardi notes that the more that universal principles are accepted as the basis of action, “the worse peoples and centuries prove to be”. The crimes that Christians in the Middle Ages committed were “quite different, more horrible and more barbarous than those of antiquity”. Long before the atrocities of the modern era,he perceived that such crimes, like those of the medieval Christians, emanated from belief, not passion. From late-19th-century imperialism to communism and the incessant wars launched in our time under the gaudy banner of democracy and human rights, the most barbarous kinds of violence have been promoted as rational means to achieving a higher civilisation. Even the Nazis believed their crimes were based in reason: genocide and “scientific breeding” would lead to a type of human being superior to any that had existed before. The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.
Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”
Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.
Yet it is hard to think of Leopardi being disconsolate because of this. Quietly dictating the closing lines of one of his most exquisite poems, “The Setting of the Moon”, as he lay dying in Naples, he seems to have seen his short life as being complete in itself. On the evidence of this magnificent volume, he was not mistaken. - John Gray

I’m starting a translation, my first for many years, and at once I’m faced with the fatal, all-determining decision: What voice do I translate this in?
Usually one would say: the same voice as the original’s, as you hear it in the Italian and imagine it in English. This would be along the line of Dryden’s famous injunction to translators to write as the author would write if he were English—a rather comical idea since we are interested in the author largely because he comes from elsewhere and does not write like an Englishman. In any event, this text is a special case.
I’m translating a selection of entries from Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone. This is a book all Italians know from school and almost nobody has read in its entirety. The word zibaldone comes from the same root as zabaione and originally had the disparaging sense of a hotchpotch of food, or any mixture of heterogeneous elements, then a random collection of notes, a sort of diary, but of disconnected thoughts and reflections rather than accounts of events. Leopardi, born in 1798 and chiefly remembered for his lyric poetry, kept his Zibaldone from 1817 to 1832, putting together a total of 4,526 handwritten pages. Printed editions come in at something over 2000, before the notes, which are usually many. There is general agreement that the Zibaldone is one of the richest mines of reflection on the modern human condition ever written. Schopenhauer in particular referred to Leopardi as “my spiritual brother” and saw much of his own thinking foreshadowed in Leopardi’s writings. The selection I’m translating, put together by an Italian publisher, is made up of all the entries that Leopardi himself had flagged as having to do with emotions.
Immediately two problems arise as far as establishing a voice for translation is concerned. First, the book is almost two hundred years old; second, even if Leopardi might have imagined its being published it was certainly not written or prepared for publication and is full of elisions, abbreviations, notes to himself, rewrites, and cross-references. In fact, on his death in 1837 the huge wad of pages was dumped in a trunk by his friend Antonio Ranieri and was not published in its entirety until 1900. So, do I write in modern prose, or in an early nineteenth-century pastiche? Do I tidy up the very personal and unedited aspect of the text, or do preserve those qualities, if I can?
The first question would be more tormented if I felt I had any ability to write a pastiche of early nineteenth-century English. I do not. So that’s that. But I’m also suspicious of the very idea of such time parallels. English and Italian were in very different phases of development in the 1830s. Official English usage had largely been standardized in the previous century and novelists like Dickens were preparing to launch a full-scale assault on that standardization. Not to mention the fact that American English already had a very different feel than British English. Meantime, Italian hardly existed as a national language. Only around 5 percent of Italians were actually speaking and reading Italian when the country achieved political unification in 1861. The literary language, dating back to Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio, was Tuscan and this is the language Leopardi writes in, but without ever having been to Tuscany, at least when he began the Zibaldone. For him, it’s a very mental, cerebral language, learned above all from books. Does it make any sense to move from this to the language of Shelley and Byron, or Emerson and Hawthorne?
Even given these circumstances, Leopardi was special to the point of idiosyncrasy. Brought up in a provincial town in the Papal State of central Italy, then one of the most backward territories in Europe, son of an eccentric aristocrat fallen upon hard times, Leopardi was a prodigy who seems to have spent his whole childhood in his father’s remarkable library. By age ten he had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and French. Hebrew and English would soon follow. The Zibaldone is peppered with quotations from these languages and they can be heard, particularly the Latin, here and there in his prose. Thinking aloud, as he seeks to turn intuition and reflection into both a history of the human psyche and a coherent but very private philosophy of nihilism (with his own shorthand terms, that sometimes don’t quite mean what standard usage would suppose them to mean), he latches on to any syntax that comes his way to keep the argument moving forward. Some sentences are monstrously long and bizarrely assembled, shifting from formal structures to the most flexible use of apposition, juxtaposition, inference, and implication. The one other translation of an “old” text I have done, Machiavelli’s The Prince, was a picnic by comparison.
Do I keep the long sentences, then, or break them up? Do I make the book more comprehensible for English readers than it is for present-day Italian readers (for whom footnotes giving a modern Italian paraphrase are often provided)? Above all, do I allow all those Latinisms to come through in the English, which would inevitably give the text a more formal, austere feel, or do I go for Anglo-Saxon monosyllables and modern phrasal verbs to get across the curiously excited intimacy of the text, like someone building up very complex, often provocative ideas as he goes along, with no one at hand to ask for explanations or homogeneity or any sort of order?
Here, for example, is a brief and by Leopardi’s standards very simple entry on hope and suicide.
La speranza non abbandona mai l’uomo in quanto alla natura. Bensì in quanto alla ragione. Perciò parlano stoltamente quelli che dicono (gli autori della Morale universelle t.3.) che il suicidio non possa seguire senza una specie di pazzia, essendo impossibile senza questa il rinunziare alla speranza ec. Anzi tolti i sentimenti religiosi, è una felice e naturale, ma vera e continua pazzia, il seguitar sempre a sperare, e a vivere, ed è contrarissimo alla ragione, la quale ci mostra troppo chiaro che non v’è speranza nessuna per noi. [23. Luglio 1820.]
Do I write:
Hope never abandons man in relation to his nature, but in relation to his reason. So people (the authors of La morale universelle, vol. 3) are stupid when they say suicide can’t be committed without a kind of madness, it being impossible to renounce all hope without it. Actually, having set aside religious sentiments, always to go on hoping is a felicitous and natural, though true and continuous, madness and totally contrary to reason which shows too clearly that there is no hope for any of us. [July 23, 1820]
Or alternatively:
Men never lose hope in response to nature, but in response to reason. So people (the authors of the Morale universelle, vol. 3) who say no one can kill themselves without first sinking into madness, since in your right mind you never lose hope, have got it all wrong. Actually, leaving religious beliefs out of the equation, our going on hoping and living is a happy, natural, but also real and constant madness, anyway quite contrary to reason which all too clearly shows that there is no hope for any of us. [July 23, 1820]
Or some mixture of the two? The fact is that while I find it hard to imagine translating Dante’s famous Lasciate ogni speranza… any other way than “Abandon all hope” (curiously introducing this rather heavy verb where in the Italian we have a simple lasciare, to leave) here I just can’t imagine any reason for not reorganizing La speranza non abbandona mai l’uomo, into Man never never loses hope.
And if I leave dangling modifiers like “having set aside religious sentiments,” am I going to find an editor intervening as if I’d simply made a mistake. If I warn the editor that there will be dangling modifiers because Leopardi doesn’t worry about them, does that mean that I can then introduce them myself where Leopardi doesn’t?
All these decisions are further complicated by the fact that just as I begin my translation of just two-hundred pages of extracts, a team of seven translators, and two specialist editors, based in Birmingham, England and largely sponsored by, of all people, Silvio Berlusconi, has completed the first unabridged and fully annotated English edition of the Zibaldone, a simply enormous task. Their version will not be published until July (by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States) but I have a proof copy. Do I look at it? Before I start? Or only after I finish, to check that at least semantically we have understood the same thing?
Well, certainly the latter and with due acknowledgement of course; there is absolutely no point in my publishing a version with mistakes that could have been avoided by checking my attempt against theirs, as quite possibly they will have been checking theirs against the recent French version. On the other hand there is equally no point in my producing a translation that is merely an echo of theirs. I’d be wasting my time. This kind of translation just doesn’t pay enough for you not to need some other incentive: the crumb of glory that might accrue from producing a memorable Leopardi.
I decide to look at the Translator’s Note in the new edition, and perhaps a few parts of the translation that don’t correspond to the extracts I’m supposed to be translating, just to get a sense of how they’ve dealt with the various issues of style. Immediately I realize that these translators faced an even greater dilemma than I do. Seven translators and two editors will all have heard Leopardi’s highly idiosyncratic voice and responded to his singular project, his particular brand of despair, in their own ways; but one can’t publish a text with seven (or nine) different voices. Strategies must have been agreed and a single editor must ultimately have gone through all 2,000-plus pages to even things out. This means establishing a standard voice that all the translators can write towards and making certain decisions across the board, particularly with respect to key words, the overall register, lexical fields, and so on. In any event, after reading a few paragraphs of the translation itself I’m reassured that my work will not merely be a duplication of theirs, because I hear the text quite differently.
Here the reader will want me to characterize this difference, perhaps with a couple of quotations. And the temptation would be for me to show something I could criticize and to draw the reader onto my side to support some supposedly more attractive approach. But I don’t want to do that. I’m frankly in awe of the hugeness of this team’s accomplishment and aware that they have done things the only way things could have been done to offer a complete translation of the whole text.
What I’d rather like to stress is my intense awareness, as I read their translation, of the uniqueness of each reading response, which is the inevitable result, I suppose, of the individual background we bring to a book, all the reading and writing and listening and talking we’ve done in the past, our particular interests, beliefs, obsessions. I hear Leopardi in an English that has a completely different tone and feel than the one my colleagues have used. I just hear a different man speaking to me—a different voice—though what I hear is no more valid than what they hear.

And I realize that, beyond the duty of semantic accuracy, all I have to do (all!) is to sit down, for a few hundred hours, and perform this Leopardi—in whatever way seems most right, most authentically close to the tone and the feel of it, at the moment of writing (since every complex translation would be somewhat different if we had done it a month before, or a month later, or even an hour); yes, just hear the text and experience it absolutely as intensely as I can, allowing myself to fall into its way of thinking about things, then say it in English, perform it in English, my English, as he performed it, sitting at his desk, writing in Italian, his very peculiar and special Italian. Of course there will be interminable revisions, much polishing up, and an editor will have his or her say. But essentially this is the way it is with translation, whether it be me and Leopardi, or some other translator and the latest Chinese Nobel Laureate, or some Russian translator and De Lillo or Franzen: the book is fed through a hopefully receptive mind, which inevitably leaves its indelible stamp on the translation. Let the academics argue the issues back and forth; what I have to do now is read honestly, and pray for inspiration.  -Tim Parks 

Schopenhauer referred to him as his "spiritual brother"; Italians consider him one of their greatest ever intellects, and his thoughts have been said to "go beyond those of every other European man of letters, from Goethe to Paul Valéry".
Yet, despite these many accolades, the 19th-century poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi remains unknown in the mainstream anglophone world.
"If today I say to a non-Italian scholar that the Canti are no less beautiful than the poems of Hölderlin or Goethe or [Baudelaire's] Fleurs du Mal, and I insist that the prose of [Leopardi's] Zibaldone is no less unsettling than that of Nietzsche, no one believes me," wrote the writer and critic Pietro Citati recently. "And yet that is exactly how things are."
After seven years of toil involving a team of translators in three different countries, however, that may be about to change with the publication in Britain on Thursday of the first complete English translation of Leopardi's famous notebook, the Zibaldone di pensieri.
A collection of the writer's ideas, observations and analyses over 15 years, the Zibaldone, or Hodge-Podge, as it is affectionately known by some, was published in Italy at the turn of the 20th century – more than 60 years after its author's premature death – and until now only parts had been put into English.
The new edition, produced under the auspices of the Leopardi Centre at Birmingham University, is the full, unexpurgated classic, and stretches to more than 2,500 pages.
"It has been very, very challenging because it's a very long text – huge, full of quotations in Greek Latin, French, Spanish, English," said co-editor Franco D'Intino, professor of modern Italian literature at La Sapienza University in Rome.
"One cannot master all that Leopardi mastered – that's the point. There is so much that he could understand that you cannot because you are not an encyclopaedic man of the 18th or 19th century. He was a genius, and I am not!"
Born in 1798 in a small town in what was then the Papal States, Leopardi is considered by many to be one of Italy's finest lyric poets, second only to Dante. D'Intino considers him "the Dante of modern times – the thinking poet, the moral and the metaphysical poet".
Despite his secluded upbringing, his writings, even those in his early years, posed questions deemed radical for his time. They showed an influence by the enlightenment and in many ways herald the nihilism of Nietszche.
Leopardi was a precocious talent, devouring languages both ancient and modern as a young man, and writing his first Canti by the age of 20. However his life came to be blighted by ill-health and he died, aged 38, in 1837. He wrote his last lyric poem, The Waning of the Moon, shortly before his death.
Published by Penguin in the UK, the edition was also released on 9 July in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, whose president and publisher Jonathan Galassi translated Leopardi's Canti to wide critical acclaim in 2010.
Michael Caesar, emeritus professor of Italian Studies at Birmingham and the Zibaldone translation's other co-editor, said he hoped the book would elicit the curiosity of anglophone readers and introduce them to one of the lesser-known European greats.
"Leopardi is surprisingly modern, in the way in which he reasons, in his alertness to what is going on in the world around him, but also in the way in which he's in many ways implicitly or explicitly predicting how things will go in the future," said Caesar. "He has an idea of a human society that is almost entirely divorced from its origins or indeed from its environment … So he is definitely one of the moderns, even if he is a modern who is absolutely steeped in classical and early scientific thinking."
Writing in the Corriere della Sera, Citati, a biographer of Leopardi, said the Italian was an "essential figure" who was largely missing in other cultures. Of the translated Zibaldone, he added: "I hope the work has great success, and that it leads to the publication of all Leopardi's works in every language." - 

The Hottentots generally have a fatty growth below the coccyx. The sexual parts of their women are of a singular construction. Are we to believe that these singularities strike them as ugly? On the contrary, would not someone without such attributes seem ugly to them?
The great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi was born on June 29, 1798 to Count Monaldo Leopardi and his wife, the Marchioness Adelaide Antici. Leopardi was thus the oldest son of two well-established aristocratic families in the town of Recanati in Ancona in southwest Italy. The old count was a spendthrift but something of a rough-around-the-edges humanist, and so Giacomo and his siblings (brother Carlo, sister Paolina) were brought up with little extravagance but given extensive Jesuit schooling in the ten thousand-volume library of Palazzo Leopardi. Giacomo was a terrifyingly hard worker and something of a prodigy; by the time he was 18, he’d already begun teaching himself Greek and Hebrew, mastering the intricacies of philology, and beginning to try his hand at poetry. His essays, translations, and poems were published frequently in the Lo Spettatore in Milan, and his fledgling work was taken seriously by the literary men of his day, including the great man of letters Pietro Giordani.
The learning had come at a price, as such freakish learning often does: by the time he reached age 20, Leopardi’s health was already precarious—his eyesight was deteriorating, he complained of limb-pain, and he was developing a hunched back that his family believed was caused by all those hours crouched over manuscripts in the family library.
And yet he haunted that library in his youth, almost to the exclusion of all other locations. By the time he visited his mother’s brother Carlo Antici in Rome for six months in 1822-23, his passion for poetry had begun to bloom. In these years before he began work on his Operette morali in early 1824, he was experimenting with classically influenced verse forms, the idilli and canzoni patriottiche, that would evolve into his signature immortal works. He spent time in Pisa and Florence, watching his career broaden and returning frequently to the peace and security of Recanati. His claimed infatuation for Fanny Targioni Tozzetti in Florence in the early 1830s was infamous (she was the alleged inspiration for his wrenching “Aspasia” cycle of poems), and he lived in Naples from the fall of 1833 until his death in 1837, working on his poetry and fashioning his masterpiece, the Canti, a work that would secure his place in the poetry pantheon.
When joined with passive participles the verb to go among the Spanish has almost the function of an auxiliary verb and the role of to be, as with us the verb venire (venire, ucciso, etc. for essere ucciso [to be killed], and it can also be found in Ariosto; and see the Crusca), but the former normally signifies a more continuous and lasting state of being acted upon. I do not know if one would say fulano ando muerto or matado [so-and-so was killed] for fue matado.
But for a great deal of that same time—while he was writing book reviews and editorials and some of the greatest Italian verse in two centuries—Leopardi was also working on something else. For a period of roughly sixteen years, from 1817 to 1832, he was intermittently generating a diary, a commonplace book, a reading journal—but a reading journal of such horrifying proportions that it exploded any semblance of normality. This was his Zibaldone, which roughly translates to “miscellany” or “notebook” or “hodgepodge.” It’s a literary account book, which Leopardi took everywhere and in which he noted, described, transcribed, and annotated everything he read, remembered having read, or intended to read. By end of 1823, when he had lived but a quarter-century, Leopardi had already aggregated this thing to some 4,000 pages, 3,197 of which were written in just the years 1821 and 1823. Between 1819 and 1823, he wrote four-fifths of the eventual total of 4,526 pages (the whole process petering out in 1832). For that immensely concentrated, short stretch, he must have literally never stopped writing, at least while he was awake—day after day, night after night, in what becomes appallingly clear was a compulsion far, far beyond the mere manias of sex or ambition. Even to call it by its obvious clinical name, graphorrhea, is to slander the sheer unimaginable scope of it all. It was a personal obsession that—from 1819 to roughly the beginning of 1824—briefly transformed into nothing short of madness.
Barbio [barbel], barbo (Alberti)—barbeau. Tatonner [to grope about], etc., bourdonner [to buzz]. Brontolare [to grumble], etc.
It was madness to write; it was madness to cart around Italy in an enormous wooden chest; it was madness to preserve after its creator died; it was madness to publish; it would be madness to read, and there is no word but madness for the utterly staggering task editors Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino (and a small cadre of seven translators who, if they divided their labors equally, would each have been responsible for a chunk of text equal in length to Anna Karenina) have performed in a new book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (whose funding of it was also madness): they have given to the world the first complete, fully indexed, and fully annotated English-language translation of the Zibaldone ever done.
It was Nietzsche (an admirer of the Zibaldone, along with Sainte-Beuve, Herman Melville, Walter Benjamin, and Samuel Beckett) who once wrote that if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares into you, and the equivalent here has happened with stark inevitability: the editors have partaken in full measure of their author’s madness. Under ordinary circumstances, it might be mordantly funny to hear Caesar and D’Intino claim, of a 4,526-page jottings-book collected over sixteen years, that it’s “not directed in any teleological sense,” but such amusement dries up quick when confronted with the aggravated tone of unshared obsession:
even after publication, there was no impact on anthropologists, historians, linguists, psychologists, philosophers, political scientists, aestheticians, musicologists, and scientists, who would yet have found treasure there, anticipations and astonishing intuitions. Such obtuseness, inexplicable in itself, damaged the poet too, in the long run, if it is true that the fame of some of the great exemplars of the European canon (suffice it to mention Novalis, Coleridge, Baudelaire) rests also upon solid theoretical and philosophical writings.
Readers who might feel tempted to take this guilting at face value must be strenuously reminded: this is madness. It implies an equivalence that isn’t even close to being real. Yes, the European canon values the prose work of Novalis, Coleridge, and Baudelaire, but there’s nothing like that to value in the case of Leopardi. There’s no “solid theoretical and philosophical writings”; there’s only the compulsive, sometimes 30-pages-a-day jottings of a gifted poet in the grip of madness. When Caesar and D’Intino tell us that Leopardi started to view the Zibaldone as “merely a gigantic storehouse of memories that recall other memories,” going on to claim that, ”in this sense, the diary functions precisely like poetry itself,” they are merely in error about the nature of poetry. But when, after assuring their readers that the Zibaldone was “a private document, not intended for public consumption,” they then assert that “it is now impossible for any serious reader of Leopardi to do without it,” they’re indulging in a mania that requires explicit contradiction: it is very, very much possible for a serious reader of Leopardi to do without the Zibaldone. It is very, very much possible to form a serious appreciation—even love—for the man’s poetry without even glancing at his helplessly manic notebooking, let alone crawling through 4,526 pages of it.
La simplicite grammaticale est un des grands avantages des langues modernes: cette simplicite, foneed sur des principes de logique communs a toutes les nations, rend tres facile de s’entendre; une etude tres-legere suffit pour apprende l’italien et l’anglaise; mais c’est une science que l’allemand.
Caesar and D’Intino have studied their ungainly text to the point of exhaustion and beyond. They’re undoubtedly correct when they maintain that “the library of the house where Leopardi grew up was therefore the birthplace—and also the deathbed—of the Zibaldone: the only place where the fragile organism could grow.” Reading these endless pages, most of which were written in that gorgeous old library, it’s easy to picture the stooped and squinting author transcribing feverishly while the sunlight faded and servants trimmed the lamps. Due to ill health, Giacomo had surrendered his primogeniture to Carlo, so the running of the estate was never a scholar’s distraction—indeed, there were no distractions at all, nor could there be in that storm of words. The pages of the Zibaldone became a sanctuary far more welcoming and reliable even than the library itself, as our editors rightly point out: “Over the years, the manuscript became a secret place where Leopardi could summon authors at will and question them”—although it should be added that such interrogations are rare, and they form no patterns, and they’re so recondite that they reward no examinations. All those anthropologists, musicologists, and political scientists, were they insane enough to inquire, would find only the most paltry scraps of incunabula here to liven up flagging dinner party conversation, and aestheticians will go wholly a-begging, since a thing that has no organization can have no aesthetic. (When Caesar and D’Intino compare this mammoth mess to, for instance, The Education of Henry Adams, they commit a little sacrilege on the idea of literature itself—they’d better hope Henry Adams never finds out about it.)
Linguists will find an undifferentiated hoard of factual nuggets; languages fascinated Leopardi, and a great many of his notes deal with linguistic curiosities encountered—and then maniacally chased to ground—in his voluminous reading. But there are only a few hundred pages of semi-organized linguistic discussion, and they’re scattered sometimes hundreds of pages apart, with nothing that could even generously be characterized as a framework to unify them.
Caesar and D’Intino also invoke psychologists, and those psychologists, alone, might find nearly unlimited treasures in the Zibaldone. But even in that case, the actual yield is minimal; Leopardi could rattle off the descendants of Decaulion to the tenth generation, but to judge from these pages, he had no flesh-and-blood friends—it’s hard to see how he could have had them even if he’d wanted them, since friends are precisely the people you have to turn away if you’re going to write ten, twenty-five, thirty pages every single day.
But the Zibaldone offers no sense of loneliness either, tragic or otherwise. Instead, the unavoidable impression yielded by this unending stream of obscure pedantry is that its author was fundamentally incomplete, a myopic, hidebound boor whose company would be lethally dull. We know that after 1832, after the Zibaldone released him, he was indeed good company and inspired close friendships—but the creature who produced these pages can have done very little else but produce these pages.
Opra syncope of opera can be found in Ennius (in Forcellini, see opera, end), as in our poets opra and oprare and adoprare, etc. Tan like Spanish for tam in the very ancient codex of Cicero, De re publica, bk. 1, ch. 9, p. 26, Rome 1822, where see Mai’s note.
The translation itself is a wonder of clarity—hardly an easy thing to achieve when working with the accumulated tangle of inferences, allusions, and cross-references that comprise the Zibaldone. Speaking on behalf of their no doubt exhausted team, Caesar and D’Intino sound fairly exhausted themselves:
To translate a text of this sort is to make a translation of a translation, since every mind, that of the author like that of every reader, behaves in the manner of a camera obscura, inside which, as Leopardi says of translations, external objects are reproduced in different ways. It is pointless, therefore, to pretend to oneself that one is being faithful to Leopardi. The important thing, as he has taught us, is to battle strenuously against the limit, oblivion, nothingness.
But this is just a bit of false modesty; the English this team produces often varies quite a bit, but the rushing, vastly erudite, constantly cross-checking voice of Leopardi comes through loud and clear. If anything, the stylistic imprint happens in the opposite direction; only prolonged exposure to Leopardi’s prose could induce to 21st century editors to permit a sentence like this one:
In the summer of 1819, the cruel ineluctability of his condition, the feelings of guilt that it aroused, the sense of isolation that the correspondence and friendship with Giordani had both assuaged and exacerbated, the failure of his work to receive the unstinting praise that he had hoped for and at some level expected, the retrospective horror of “seven years of mad and desperate study” of which he had written to Giordani in March 1818, the grim uncertainty about what the future might hold, all combined to plunge Leopardi into one of the blackest of the more or less extended episodes of melancholia from which he suffered throughout his life.
Those “episodes of melancholia” hint at the ultimate origins of the Zibaldone, of course—which, again, might interest any psychologist who picks up this cinder block of a book, but which will leave everybody else gasping for mercy.
On the diminutive ginocchio [knee] which has come down to us, see elsewhere. Genou is the positive form genu. But angenouiller [to kneel] comes from the diminutive genuculum or, etc., no differently to inginocchiare. The Glossary also has precisely ginochium.
The Zibaldone, Caesar and D’Intino remind us, was written almost entirely on location in Recanati. The hundreds and hundreds of entries are almost all dated with extreme precision, as their author worked his way through library volumes, borrowed books, treatises, and periodicals, constantly scratching. In 1832, almost overnight, the gushing stops. Leopardi, we’re told, “keeps it by him, for the rest of his life, and it will remain in the possession of his companion Antonio Ranieri until the latter’s death in 1888. Strangely, the reader of Leopardi suddenly feels bereft.”

Suddenly bereft, after 4,526 pages. Madness. - Steve Donoghue

Now superseded by blogs, their virtual cousin, commonplace books are so rarely kept these days, let alone published, that it is easy to forget how ubiquitous they once were. As sought-after as Bibles from the Renaissance to the 18th century, they were still in such high demand in the 19th that Mark Twain's sole profitable invention was his "self-pasting scrapbook", whose pages were lined with adhesive strips to avoid any gluey mishaps.

Nevertheless, the genre had mostly died by the second half of the 20th century, despite the odd releases by statesmen and poets in their dotages, like the UN leader Dag Hammarskjöld's Markings (1964) or WH Auden's A Certain World (1970). Yet unlike the majority of his predecessors or successors, the Romantic poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) compiled his Zibaldone – Italian for mishmash – during his twenties and thirties, not that this was unusual considering his precocious education.
Aged 11, Leopardi had already taught himself Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, French and English. He spent most of his adolescence ensconced in his father's impressive library, from which he emerged crippled by scoliosis, his health wrecked for life. Beginning his Zibaldone at 19, Leopardi had produced roughly 3,000 of its 4,526 pages by 26 – and when he put the finishing touches on it in 1832, five years prior to his death, the book stood at just under a million words.
Coincidentally, Leopardi put the Zibaldone aside just as Goethe finished the second part of his Faust, and the two share a fascination with the notion that humanity had sold its soul to the devil for progress, thereby losing the very instincts that made us human in the first place. As Leopardi puts it: "As man moves away from nature and toward society, the methods that nature hasprovided for attaining those ends are changed or replaced by other methods… as man loses his natural happiness… so, too, he loses his actual power of instinct, and those inborn methods for achieving this happiness."
In these notes, Leopardi attempts to dismantle our naive picture of the world and wrestle with the nihilism that resulted from the collapse of our anthropocentric vision of the universe. He was among the first to contest the concept of eternal space and eternal time: "Nothing in nature actually announces infinity, the existence of anything infinite. Infinity is a product of our imagination, and at the same time of our smallness and our pride."
Although Leopardi is chiefly remembered for the long lyric poems that encapsulated the spirit of the Italian Risorgimento – most recently translated by Jonathan Galassi, whose superb Canti (Penguin) is an essential companion – the Zibaldone can firmly establish his role as one of the 19th-century's greatest thinkers. Even though it's hard to imagine Nietzsche without him, Leopardi has always been too private a voice to claim any strong hold on the public imagination. Thanks to this translation, we now have a window on his workshop and can delight in his readable and thought-provoking reflections on politics, philosophy, literature, philology – even a bit of phrenology – and a wealth of tastefully selected quotes.
Finally available in English thanks to a monumental effort by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino – who shepherded a team of seven principal translators – the Zibaldone marks the end of nearly a decade of work at the University of Birmingham's Leopardi Centre. There is something heroic about such a project; commonplace books have rarely elicited much attention, especially while their authors were still alive. Paul Valéry's Cahiers were published 30 years following his death; Milton's mouldy manuscript was discovered two centuries after his passing.
Congratulations are due to everyone involved in this landmark publication. Leopardi's Zibaldone is quite simply a work of genius – and what better way to end than with his own words: "It is a property of works of genius that, even when they represent vividly the nothingness of things, even when they clearly show and make you feel the inevitable unhappiness of life… such works always bring consolation, and rekindle enthusiasm, and, though they treat and represent nothing but death, they restore, albeit momentarily, the life that it had lost." - André Naffis-Sahely

During his lifetime the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) published a brilliant collection of dialogues known as the Operette morali, whose pessimistic worldview inspired Schopenhauer to call him his “spiritual brother”. Yet little in the Operette or the Canti – the verse on which Leopardi’s literary fame largely rests – suggests the rich philological and philosophical humus from which those two works sprouted like rare flowers. It was only with the publication of his massive notebooks in 1898-1900, six decades after his death, that some scholars began to realise that, in addition to being one of Italy’s greatest poets, Leopardi was also one of the most original and radical thinkers of the 19th century.
Now that Leopardi’s complete notebooks, or Zibaldone di pensieri, as they are known in Italian, are finally available in English – splendidly edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino of the Leopardi Centre at Birmingham university, and superbly translated by a team of seven scholars in three different countries – anglophone readers may discover for themselves why, in the annals of intellectual history, the Zibaldone di pensieri (which means a “hodgepodge of thoughts”) 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.
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.
Apart from the thoughts that make up what Leopardi calls his “system” – by which he means his philosophy of life, history, nature and the human psyche – the Zibaldone is filled with philologically oriented notes that will bewilder contemporary readers who know nothing of the more obscure works he was in dialogue with. Yet even its most recondite entries vibrate with a distinctly modern voice. It is the voice of quick, free-ranging, syncopated thinking. No matter how eloquent it becomes at times – and no one in the history of Italian prose was more eloquent than Leopardi when he put his mind to it – the style never grandstands, nor does the tone ever turn shrill, as it often does in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, or, for that matter, Emerson.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. The Zibaldone is first and foremost the record of Leopardi’s spirited thinking in the cavernous silence of a library where he held converse with a host of interlocutors, most of them from the past but some of them also from the future, such as the “young man of the 20th century” whom he at one point invokes.
Leopardi engaged ancient authors as if they were in his presence. His formal conversations with them put him and his thinking beyond period labels such as Enlightenment, Romanticism or post-Romanticism. If anything, he appears to us in these pages as one of those “philosophers of the future” that Nietzsche spoke of, referring primarily to himself. In his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche wrote: “When the past speaks it always speaks as an oracle: only if you are an architect of the future and know the present will you understand it.” Leopardi was more sober-minded than Nietzsche and may have found this formulation heavy-handed, yet there is no doubt that his precocious and “untimely” modernity comes from his sustained confrontation with, and interrogation of, the ancients.
The ancients gave Leopardi a keen sense that “modern civilization”, as he called it, is immensely more removed from nature than they were. 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”.
Leopardi never mystified nature in the Romantic mode. Although he initially wanted to believe, along with Rousseau, that nature is marked by harmony, benevolence and wisdom, over the course of writing the Zibaldone he became convinced that nature always was and always will remain humanity’s implacable enemy, if only because it instils in us a desire for happiness that it dooms to frustration. Yet Franco D’Intino, one of the two editors of the English Zibaldone, is surely right when he claims that there is far more to Leopardi’s thinking about nature and humanity than enmity. “When human beings forget or deny that they are part of nature,” D’Intino told me in an interview in Rome, “they aggravate the enmity and create the conditions for their own self-destruction.”
For Leopardi, nature may be our enemy, yet it is the only sponsor we have: “It is no more possible for man to live completely cut off from nature, which we are constantly drawing farther away from, than it is for a tree cut off at the root to bear flowers and fruit.” He wonders, in the same passage, whether humankind will soon face extinction as a result of its detachment not only from the natural world itself but also from those fundamental familial, communal and social ways of being human that Leopardi considered “natural”.
Leopardi believed that the modern detachment from nature is due to our aggressive and excessive reliance on reason. 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.
Though he lived in an age that considered reason the agent of progress, Leopardi held that an excess of reason can lead to forms of barbarism unknown in the ancient world. “Reason is often the source of barbarism (indeed is barbarous in itself) and an excess of reason always is.” Not only can reason be used to justify immoral actions, its abstract notions of the good will often incubate the most monstrous means to bring about ideological ends. “In the end nothing is barbarous apart from what is contrary to nature,” writes Leopardi, for “nature and barbarism are opposites, and nature cannot be barbarous”, whereas reason often is.
In such remarks we catch fore-glimpses of the catastrophes that would incinerate much of 20th-century history. I mean those genocides brought on by the ideologies of totalitarian regimes which were as “rational” as they were barbarous in their murderous logic. Barbarism in our age is never “natural” but is always underpinned or justified by the abstractions of ideology.
A profound contradiction, of which he was well aware, informs Leopardi’s philosophy. Although he saw in the will-to-truth the primary cause of the nihilism that he believed was drawing modern civilisation into its vortex, Leopardi fully embraced reason, logic, science and this will-to-truth. He followed the truth wherever it led him, refusing to shy away from its conclusions or to seek refuge in mystifications and self-deceiving consolations.
Leopardi’s open-eyed, disabused thinking led him ultimately to a monistic view of reality. All that exists is matter, he concluded, and whatever the tradition calls mind, soul or spirit is only in effect matter. Yet Leopardi’s concept of matter was so original, heterogeneous and self-expansive as to have little in common with the inert matter of the dualists who believe that mind is one thing, matter another. Late in the Zibaldone he declares that everything points to the conclusion “that matter can think, that matter thinks and feels”. Like many of the other thoughts that make the Zibaldone an ongoing conversation with the future, Leopardi’s inspirited concept of matter is one that calls on us to take it up and give it new life in our own time. - Robert Pogue Harrison 

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.


Extract from Leopardi’s ‘Zibaldone’: Massacre of the flowerets

What is certain and no laughing matter is that existence is an evil for all the parts which make up the universe ... 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.

Go into a garden of plants, grass, flowers. No matter how lovely it seems. Even in the mildest season of the year. You will not be able to look anywhere and not find suffering. That whole family of vegetation is in a state of souffrance, each in its own way. Here a rose is attacked by the sun, which has given it life; it withers, languishes, wilts. There a lily is sucked cruelly by a bee, in its most sensitive, most life-giving parts. Sweet honey is not produced by industrious, patient, good, virtuous bees without unspeakable torment for those most delicate fibers, without the pitiless massacre of flowerets. That tree is infested by an ant colony, that other one by caterpillars, flies, snails, mosquitoes ... The spectacle of such abundance of life when you first go into this garden lifts your spirits, and that is why you think it is a joyful place. But in truth this life is wretched and unhappy, every garden is like a vast hospital (a place much more deplorable than a cemetery), and if these beings feel, or rather, were to feel, surely not being would be better for them than being.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

across & beyond - a transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions

Daïchi Saito proposes a personal reflection on language and the image, a meditation that does not strive to theorize practice, but to recount it.

Thor Garcia - By turns defiant, paranoid, brooding, absurd and knock-down funny. Like Hunter S. Thompson meets Russ Meyer’s Under the Valley of the Supervixens meets Daft Punk – wearing a press pass and a smiley badge to a San Francisco gangbang