Ours is an age of exposure and self-exposure. Only what happens in public, we tend to believe, is really real; and it becomes more real the more people see it happen. This way of thinking is, among other things, hostile to literature. For literary experience begins in privacy, in the mind of the writer, and it is consummated in privacy, in the mind of the reader. Books are printed and sold, and reviewed, only in order to facilitate this kind of invisible intimacy. It follows that it is always impossible to say with certainty just where the genuine literary and intellectual life of any period is taking place, at least until it is over. Only later, sometimes much later, do the hidden traces of that life begin to surface.
In the early 1820s, if you had asked the best-informed observers where the intellectual life of Europe was at its most intense, they might have given a range of answers—Paris, Weimar—but none would have named Recanati, a small provincial town in the Papal States of Italy. Yet Giacomo Leopardi—not yet known as the greatest modern Italian poet—was living in Recanati, undergoing what must count as one of the supreme intellectual passions of the nineteenth century. As he read his way voraciously through ancient and modern literature, Leopardi developed a philosophical understanding of human life and civilization that ranks as one of the most profound, and profoundly disquieting, of modern times.
If, as a poet, Leopardi is a master, occupying a rank in Italian literature similar to that of Keats in English literature, then as a thinker he is only a little less powerful; he belongs in the history of thought as a follower of Rousseau and a forerunner of Nietzsche. To combine these two forms of intellectual achievement is surpassingly rare, as Leopardi himself knew. “Truly remarkable and lofty minds that scoff at precepts and warnings and scarcely care about the impossible,” he wrote, “can overcome any obstacle and be supreme modern philosophers able to write perfect poetry. But because this phenomenon borders on the impossible, it cannot help but be very rare and singular.”
Leopardi was born in Recanati in 1798, to a decayed aristocratic family, and despite his hatred of the place, he spent much of his adult life there. He emerged as a scholarly prodigy in his teens, when he began to publish original philological works that won him a considerable reputation. But the laboratory of Leopardi’s mature thought was the notebook he began to keep in 1817, when he was nineteen years old. Over the next six years—the same years in which he was writing some of his greatest poems—he filled more than four thousand pages, ranging from brief notes to long draft essays. By the end of 1823, the notebook was mostly complete, and Leopardi returned to it only occasionally; the last entry is dated 1832, and he died in 1837. Yet even those dates do not fully convey how much Leopardi wrote and in how brief a span of time. Two thirds of the whole notebook, more than three thousand manuscript pages, were written in just two years, 1821 and 1823. In these years, living in his parents’ home and with no profession of his own, Leopardi returned to his notebook many times a day, barely able to keep up with the rush of his own insights.
The reading and the thinking that Leopardi did in these years prepared him to write the magnificently desolate poems for which he became famous in Italy and around the world (though to a lesser extent in the English-speaking world). Those poems testify that Leopardi’s deepest convictions are the impossibility of human happiness, the nullity and futility of human life, the empty indifference of the universe. These are the themes of his late poem “La Ginestra,” translated by Jonathan Galassi as “Broom”:
The noble nature is the one
who dares to lift his mortal eyes
to confront our common destiny
and, with honest words
that subtract nothing from the truth,
admits the pain that is our destiny,
and our poor and feeble state ...
But the notebook itself remained unpublished until 1898, when it appeared in Italian under the name Zibaldone—that is, “miscellany” or “hodgepodge.” And 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.
All this intermediation suggests that the Zibaldone is not exactly reader-friendly. Its sheer size is formidable: more than two thousand closely printed pages in English translation, with another five hundred or so pages of apparatus, it fits between two covers only thanks to the onionskin paper (which remains surprisingly readable). And the editors have made a principled decision not to engage in the kind of posthumous reshaping that turned Nietzsche’s fragments, for instance, into the tendentiously structured The Will to Power. Instead they give us just what Leopardi wrote as he wrote it. When Leopardi himself refers back to an earlier entry, they print his reference (the original page numbers are included in the text), but they do not suture entries together or group them thematically. Perhaps a future edition of selections from the Zibaldone will produce a more accessible and navigable text.
But a book of selections could not give us what this complete Zibaldone gives us, which is an unfolding sense of the excitement and variety of Leopardi’s inner life—the feeling that we are making his discoveries along with him. Take, more or less at random, the pages written on July 21 and 22, 1821 (starting in 1820, Leopardi took care to date all his entries). Over these two days, the subjects that Leopardi addressed include the similarity of the Greek and French idioms meaning “nothing at all”; the difference between ancient and modern patriotism; the totalizing nature of ancient wars; the difference among French, Italian, and Latin pronunciation of certain consonants; the use of Greek inscriptions on Roman monuments; the imitative faculty in human intelligence and the importance of habituation to learning; the definition of grace, as distinguished from beauty; the relation of Dante to Italian literature, compared with the relation of Homer to Greek literature; the range of men’s tastes in female beauty; the relative nature of all judgments of purity and impurity (“nothing is therefore in itself and absolutely either pure or impure”); and the insensibility to art of the ignorant person.
A “hodgepodge,” indeed. But as the reader acclimates to the Zibaldone, it becomes clear that Leopardi’s concerns are far less miscellaneous than they might first appear. The poet and the philosopher, Leopardi writes elsewhere in the notebook, are not as different as we think they are; both types of genius depend on the ability to see connections between unlike things. “In different circumstances,” he insists, “the great poet could have been a great philosopher.... All faculties of a great poet [are] contained in and deriving from the ability to discover relations between things, even the most minimal, and distant, even between things that appear the least analogous, etc. Now this is the philosopher through and through: the faculty of discovering and recognizing relations, of binding particulars together, and of generalizing.”
What, then, are the relations that bind together the many particulars treated in this vast composition? First, as the above list makes clear, Leopardi is devoted to linguistics and etymology—ancient Greek and Latin and their relations to modern French, Italian, and Spanish. Leopardi knew all these languages very thoroughly, and some of the most frequently quoted books in the Zibaldone are lexicons and dictionaries. In fact, somewhere between a third and a half of the Zibaldone is devoted to philological speculations, many of them extremely detailed.
These are the parts of the Zibaldone that the lay reader will be most tempted to skip. It would take a professional classicist to evaluate the merits of many of Leopardi’s claims about particular words and phrases; and of course the kind of classical curriculum that was standard for educated young men in Leopardi’s day is now a closed book to all but a handful of experts. But it would be a mistake to ignore this material, because it is essentially related to the other two great subjects of the Zibaldone: Leopardi’s psychology, which is a psychology of unhappiness, and his theory of history, which is a theory of decline. In both these areas, he draws deeply on his training in the classics.
One of Leopardi’s favorite linguistic hypotheses, to which he returns regularly, is that the modern Romance languages did not descend directly from the Latin we know from surviving Latin literature. Instead, he argues, French, Italian, and Spanish derive from “Vulgar Latin”—the spoken dialect of the Roman empire, which deviated in some of its rules and vocabulary from the pure Latin of the textbooks. Leopardi is never more enthusiastic than when he can add another piece of evidence for this theory. “Did the Latin people perhaps call the head testam ... and did the Italian word testa perhaps come from this and the French tête?” he asks early on in the book.
This is at the same time a technical linguistic speculation and a more general question about the nature of the connection between past and present. It gives rise naturally to certain problems that will ramify throughout the Zibaldone. How does the language of literature relate to spoken language? If they are different, does this mean that the kinds of experience we know from literature are not to be found in actual human lives? Is there a deep continuity between the classical and modern worlds, or a rupture? Can a modern language, or a modern mind, achieve the same heights as the ancients? To that last question, at least, Leopardi offers an unequivocal answer. Modern man can never be as great, productive, or happy as the ancients were. To have been born in the nineteenth century is to have been born too late. “The best generations are not those to come but those gone by,” he insists, nullifying at one stroke the Enlightenment faith in progress.
Belatedness was one of the favorite tropes of the Romantic poets, from Hölderlin’s hymns to the Greek gods to Wordsworth’s rueful wish to have been “a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.” But no other writer put the matter on the same kind of remorselessly syllogistic basis as Leopardi. Early in the Zibaldone, when he was still a teenager, Leopardi came to an understanding from which he never wavered. Modernity is worse than antiquity, he concluded, because modernity knows more, is more governed by reason; and reason and knowledge are death to human happiness. “Reason is the enemy of all greatness: reason is the enemy of nature: nature is great, reason is small. I mean that it will be more or less difficult for a man to be great the more he is governed by reason, that few can be great (and in art and poetry perhaps no one) unless they are governed by illusions.”
Here, again, Leopardi in his solitude had found his way to an idea that troubled all the major Romantic poets and thinkers. What sets him apart is that, while most Romantics saw the disenchantment and alienation of the modern world as a problem to be solved (M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism is the classic account of the attempted solutions), Leopardi saw it as a fate to be endured. Scientific reason, to Leopardi, was a curse not because it falsified the world but precisely because it showed the world truly: a place devoid of purpose, meaning, and providence. “Reason ... recognizes how unimportant all things are,” he remarks. Where Wordsworth taught his readers to cultivate joy and trust in nature, Leopardi told his, in “Broom,” that nature, “the truly guilty,” is man’s wicked stepmother, responsible for all our unhappiness.
If reason tells us an unbearable truth, then our only salvation is ignorance: “There is no other remedy for the ills of modern philosophy than forgetting.” Yet Leopardi does not really believe that forgetting is possible. Ignorance, like paradise, cannot be regained once it is lost, and the man who knows the truth has no recourse but to envy those who do not know—such as children, whose instincts remain strong because they live in a world full of nourishing illusions. “Children find everything in nothing, men find nothing in everything,” as he puts it at one of the rare moments when the flow of his thoughts condenses into aphorism.
Along with children, Leopardi envies the ancients, who were history’s children. The young Leopardi, who had seen little of life and did not at all like what he saw, took the Greek epics and the Latin orations as evidence that there was once a time when men lived heroically and single-mindedly. The cruelty of the ancients, as we see it in the Iliad, was not for Leopardi a reason to prefer the moderns. On the contrary, the belligerence of antiquity was a sign of its greater authenticity and capacity for faith. At moments Leopardi suggests that the xenophobic patriotism of the ancient Greeks, their capacity for utterly dehumanizing and exterminating their foes, was a technique of thought that the moderns would do well to cultivate: “Society cannot subsist without love of the homeland, and hatred of foreigners.”
Here Leopardi strikes a note that would become familiar from Nietzsche, and later from fascism: the belief that the modern world must re-barbarize itself. Yet this is Leopardi’s view only at rare moments, when he seems carried away by his own speculations. Temperamentally he is anything but violent, and far from being contemptuous of the mind, he is in his own way absolutely pious toward it—in just the way that Nietzsche would observe that the nihilist remains pious toward one thing, which is the truth. And the truth, for Leopardi as for Nietzsche, is that there is no truth. This is the revolutionary insight that enlightened thought has brought us, overturning in the process two thousand years of Christian and Platonic thought about the nature of the good. “The truth about good and evil, that one thing is good and the other is bad, is believed to be naturally absolute, when in fact it is only relative.... There is almost no other absolute truth, except that All is relative. This must be the basis for all metaphysics.”
The death of the absolute has obvious implications for ethics, but these do not interest Leopardi nearly as much as the implications for aesthetics and psychology. Beauty, he insists over and over again, is always relative, a matter of what we are accustomed to seeing as beautiful. This is true of music, which explains why the common people can take no pleasure in a fugue, and why Chinese music sounds bizarre to European ears. If there are things that do appear universally appealing—pure tones, bright colors, certain physiques—these should be chalked up to biological reactions, which have nothing to do with beauty, strictly speaking.
Along with fixed standards of beauty, Leopardi banishes any idea of fixed or innate human character. One of his favorite principles is that “everything in man is habituation.” Even if innate differences in disposition and capacity exist—something Leopardi admits only with reluctance—they matter far less than the training and education that habituate us to different ways of being. “Each man is like a soft dough, susceptible to every possible shape, impression, etc.,” he writes. “It hardens over time, and at first it is difficult, and finally it is impossible to give it a new shape.” Intelligence itself is simply the habit of becoming easily habituated, and differences in intelligence between people are wholly superficial and accidental: “with stubborn application the dullest intelligence can become one of the foremost mathematicians in the world.”
Yet there is one absolute truth about human beings that Leopardi insists on. It is that we are doomed to be unhappy—not ultimately, or on balance, but constantly and at every moment of our lives. Leopardi arrives at this controlling idea near the beginning of the Zibaldone and returns to it hundreds of times over the following years. Thus on page forty of the manuscript, he writes, “all the ... sources of unhappiness make us inevitably and essentially wretched because our nature makes it so, and cannot change”; and on page 3,622 he writes, “Given that man never properly experiences true pleasure, it follows that he never feels he is alive for any length of time without experiencing displeasure or boredom. And as boredom itself is pain and displeasure, it follows that for as long as man feels life, he also feels displeasure and pain.”
The chain of reasoning behind what Leopardi calls his “theory of pleasure,” though it is really a theory of pain, is seductively simple. Every person, he posits, indeed every living thing, is endowed by nature with infinite self-love: to exist is the same thing as to love oneself. This is why every creature naturally seeks its own good, which is nothing more or less than pleasure. In all our actions, including those that appear selfless, we are in search of some kind of pleasure, even if it is only the pleasure of self-esteem. But while our desire for pleasure is infinite, our mental and physical organs are capable only of limited and temporary pleasures; and this mismatch between desire and capacity dooms us to perpetual dissatisfaction. There is no pleasure big or total enough to quench, even momentarily, our thirst for pleasure. But since the absence of pleasure is pain, it follows that we are always in pain, even when we might believe otherwise. And if life is nothing but an unbroken experience of pain, it would be better for every human being never to have been born.
One of the main sources of intellectual tension in the Zibaldone comes from the way this account of human unhappiness—which sees it as inevitable and, as it were, biological—conflicts with a second account, which Leopardi develops simultaneously, and which sees our misery as contingent and historical. This second account centers on civilization, especially modern civilization, as the enemy of contentment. In the state of nature, Leopardi holds, men lived like animals in small, loose-knit groups; with the advent of society, they became packed together, forced to confront one another at all times. But because, as he has already postulated, the first principle of human nature is self-love, individuals necessarily hate one another, since each threatens the other’s amour propre: “it is as true that man naturally feels hatred to man as it is that the hawk feels hatred toward the sparrow.” As a result, society, which purports to exist in order to increase the sum of human happiness, is actually detrimental to happiness: “The idea of society is a contradiction in terms.”
Where Leopardi departs from other state-of-nature theorists is not so much in his disapproval of the transition from primitivism to society—in which he follows Rousseau—as in his conviction that this transition was not inevitable, but a catastrophic error. Leopardi’s understanding of nature is Aristotelian, as we would expect from one whose education was wholly classical and literary, and he sees nature as a giver of ends and norms. “Nor is any species or created being capable of more than one prescribed happiness and perfection, which only exists and can only have form in its natural state,” he insists. When we survey the universe, however, we find that there is one species that does not live in accordance with its nature, that has perverted its telos, and that is mankind.
Leopardi does not have a good explanation for why humanity alone should live outside of nature—why it is our nature not to live according to nature. That is because, for him, this escape from nature was not natural or inevitable, any more than the movement from primitivism to civilization was destined. Rather, these changes were world-historical mistakes. Utterly anti-Hegelian (he refers disparagingly to contemporary German philosophy, though he seems not to have read much of it), he sees history not as the unfolding of spirit but as the accidental creation of the sorcerer’s apprentice. That is why, though he is a flat-out materialist, Leopardi declares himself sympathetic to the Christian doctrine of original sin. It is a perfect allegory for his own sense that mankind once, long ago, made a disastrous grasp for knowledge, and is still paying the price.
Leopardi’s theory of civilization as a mistake connects in interesting ways with his understanding of language. At several moments in the Zibaldone, he argues forcefully that it is impossible to understand modern technological society as the inevitable product and reflection of human nature. In the most concrete sense, rather, the inventions and the discoveries upon which society and science depend can only be considered accidents. Fire, for instance: Leopardi is convinced that mankind was not destined to master fire, as we might assume. Rather, the first people to control fire and understand its uses just got incredibly lucky (or, he would say, unlucky).
So, too, with the alphabet. One of Leopardi’s pet theories is that the alphabet is such an unlikely and unnatural invention, so contrary to the way we ordinarily use and conceptualize language, that it could only have been invented by accident, once, in the whole history of humanity. It follows, then, that all existing alphabets are descended from one ur-alphabet (not counting pictographic writing systems such as Chinese). This belief connects with Leopardi’s insight that innovation in language comes about in part when a new language imports its alphabet from outside, and then is forced to adapt pre-existing signs to the different sound-values of its own speech. And this idea informs, in turn, another of Leopardi’s hobbyhorses, which is his monotonous and at times almost crazed hostility to the French language, whose counterintuitive spelling he sees as just one facet of its general defectiveness. (Here, too, Leopardi seems to have found a solitary path to a common principle of English and German Romanticism—the distrust of French literature.)
Leopardi’s pessimism, then, turns out in the Zibaldone to be seriously over-determined. We are unhappy because we are adults and not children; because we are moderns and not ancients; because of our self-love; because of our endless desire for pleasure; because we live in society; because history took a wrong turn. There is no necessary contradiction here—these things could all be true—but the reader inevitably begins to feel that human misery is not Leopardi’s conclusion so much as it is his premise. And 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.
The Zibaldone is emphatically not a diary; it tells us nothing about the writer’s daily life or, except indirectly, about his inner emotional weather. But once in a while Leopardi describes, usually abstractly and in the third person, the mood out of which his intellectual discoveries grow:
Suffering or despair that arises ... from any misfortune in life is not comparable to the drowning feeling that results from the certainty and vivid sense of the nothingness of all things, and the impossibility of happiness in this world, and from the immense void you feel in your soul.... The death produced directly by misfortunes is a more living thing, whereas this death is more sepulchral, without action, without movement, without warmth, almost without pain, but with a boundless oppression and distress like that provoked by the fear of ghosts in childhood or by the idea of hell.
This is the experience of spiritual devastation that can be glimpsed in so many of Leopardi’s poems. And the central question that the Zibaldone raises is the same one that has always been raised in response to Leopardi, starting in his own lifetime. Is the absolute darkness of his vision a true image of the world, or is it a kind of blindness, an inability to see much of what life includes? Is it really the case that we never feel actual pleasure in our lives? Is it true that people—and for Leopardi this includes “loved ones”—always hate one another and resent one another’s presence? Does the permanence of desire lead only to misery, or can it also be a source of energy?
Finally, there is the question that presents itself to any reader who has ever shared Leopardi’s “oppression and distress”: is depression to be embraced as a source of lucidity, or shunned as a mental and physical disease? The Zibaldone is absolutely committed to the principle that the unhappier the world appears, the more accurately we are perceiving it. “Both the cheerful and the melancholic ... are very sure that they are seeing the truth, and have convincing reasons for their belief,” Leopardi acknowledges. “It’s unfortunately true that, abstractly speaking, the friend of truth, the light that reveals it, and is least subject to error, is melancholy.”
Here Leopardi accurately conveys the way depression presents itself not as a subjective affliction, but as a disclosure of the true nature of the world. In melancholy, the world is seen to be without meaning and life is void of purpose; and once this desolation has been experienced it can never be wholly set aside. Yet Leopardi was, if anything, too faithful to his desolation; he was not an analyst of melancholy but its partisan. This distinguishes him from that other unhappy philosopher-poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge knew all about misery, but because he had also known joy, he did not conceive of misery as an immutable truth about the world. It was, rather, a condition of the soul, which makes the world as much as it is made by it: “O Lady! we receive but what we give, / And in our life alone does Nature live,” he writes in “Dejection: An Ode.”
But there is nothing in all the thousands of pages of the Zibaldone to suggest that the world ever presented itself to Leopardi under the aspect of joy. What he had instead was the ambiguous pleasure of understanding—the power of reasoning out, in flashes of grim exaltation, why the unhappy world had no choice but to be unhappy. Everyone, perhaps, sees only as much of the world as his nature allows him to see. But for Leopardi, the connection between inner and outer reality was especially immediate, in a way that is characteristic of poetry, not philosophy. Even in the Zibaldone, then, he remains a poet; and 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 Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Why Trilling Matters (Yale).