In 1817 in the small central Italian town of Recanati, some six miles from the Adriatic coast, a nineteen-year-old hunchback began a notebook with the words “Palazzo Bello. Cane di notte dal casolare al passare del viandante.” (Dog in the night from the farmhouse, as the wayfarer goes by.) Palazzo Bello was the house of family friends, but the note proceeds with the translation (from Latin) of a stanza of Avianus, a fifth-century writer of fables, then goes on to tell the story of a wolf who ingenuously wastes his day hoping to eat a child whose mother has threatened to feed it to the wolves if it doesn’t stop crying. The child stops crying but the mother wouldn’t have fed it to the wolf anyway.
The page continues with a wry comment on a young man (the writer of the notebook?) whose poetry, full of archaic terms, remains largely incomprehensible to the elderly lady who asks to read it because “those were not words that were used in her day,” to which he replies that he’d thought they were used precisely because they were very old. In short, this is a world of misunderstandings, frustrations, and uncertain communication, of rapid shifts between familiar surroundings, drawing room anecdote, and antique literature, and above all of language that won’t stay still.
The next two entries, taking us into page two, offer first a potted history of literature from “nothing” through “truth” to “refinement,” the latter being rapidly equated with “corruption.” Unfortunately, “there is no example of a return from refinement to truth.” Fifteen years and four-and-a-half thousand pages later the notebook closes with five brief entries that include the following remarks:
Men approach life in the same way as Italian husbands do their wives: they need to believe they are faithful even though they know otherwise.
A conflicted psychological state is posited where one knows, but chooses not to know, because knowledge is neither helpful nor attractive. Given the ever-present danger of disillusionment, denial is the default:
Two truths that men will generally never believe: one, that we know nothing, the other, that we are nothing. Add the third, which depends a lot on the second: that there is nothing to hope for after death.
One might have thought this was knowledge enough, but the final entry, focused as ever on a tension between reality and belief that has now been plumbed and explored in every possible depth and nuance, explodes the last and most resistant bolt hole of all: the idea that, despite all one knows, one might nevertheless be an exception to the rule:
The most unexpected thing for someone who is entering social life, and very often for someone who has grown old there, is to find that the world is as it has been described to him, and as he already knows and believes it to be in theory. Man is stupefied to see in his own case that the general rule is shown to be true.
This rejection on the writer’s part of the idea that he might enjoy a privileged destiny shuts the book with a clunk. The 4,500-plus pages are stacked away in a trunk and passed on, at the hunchback’s early death in 1837, to a flamboyant friend, who in turn at his death leaves them together with other odds and ends to two housemaids. This was in 1888. Eventually in 1898, publication of what had come to be known as the Zibaldone (the word means hotchpotch or miscellany) began. Today it is considered the greatest intellectual diary of Italian literature, its breadth and depth of thought often compared to the work of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. The Zibaldone’s long-overdue translation into English in this handsome edition is warmly to be welcomed.
Giacomo Leopardi had not always been ready to accept that he was not an exception to the rule. With good reason. His youth was spent almost entirely in his father’s extraordinary library. A minor aristocrat with an unerring nose for bad business deals, Monaldo Leopardi had been banned by the authorities from handling money, a task taken over by his severe and parsimonious wife Adelaide. Consoling himself for this loss of power and prestige, Monaldo collected 25,000 books (in a part of world where books were hard to come by) and set his firstborn son to reading them. So many of the texts were in foreign languages, including works by the Greek philosophers, the Latin poets and rhetoricians, Madame de Staël, Goethe, Descartes, Montaigne, and Rousseau, that Giacomo was more or less obliged to become a prodigy. By age ten he had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and French. Hebrew and English would soon follow. Already his tutors confessed that they had nothing else to teach him. Nor was it merely bookish knowledge. In a fragment of autobiography written in the third person in his teens he says this of his younger self:
The most remarkable, perhaps unique thing about him was that while barely out of boyhood he already had confidence and niceness of discrimination with respect to those great truths that others only learn from experience, this together with an almost complete knowledge of the world and himself, so that he knew all his good and bad traits and the way his nature was developing and was always a step ahead of his own progress.
There was a price to pay for this precocity. Arch-conservative and papal loyalist, Monaldo had invested heavily in the idea of his son becoming a great Christian apologist. That was the purpose behind those interminable hours of study. Much of the library was made up of books bought from religious institutions Napoleon had closed. That was why Giacomo received the tonsure at twelve and for a while dressed in a cassock. He was to become a priest. Dutifully, through his teens, amid endless translations and ambitious projects to produce new, philologically accurate editions of various classical authors, he wrote an Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients, initially aimed at cataloging and demonstrating the falseness of early pagan beliefs.
But while on the one hand Giacomo began to find the ancients’ “errors” more attractive than the knowledge and Christian reason that exploded them, on the other, looking in the mirror, he saw a young man whose back, ruined by “seven years of mad and desperate study,” had developed a hunch. Obliged by frequent illness to pass his firstborn’s right to inherit to his younger brother, troubled by constant problems with his eyes, frail and almost grotesque, Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence. Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions as he came to call them, that give life meaning, shifting energy to the mental and rational and away from the physical and instinctive, where, in complicity with illusion, happiness lies.
In a later biography of his son, Monaldo would write of Giacomo in this period that “setting himself to thinking about how one breathes” he found he could no longer breathe, “thinking and ruminating on the act of urination” he was no longer able to urinate. “Thought,” Giacomo wrote in a letter in his early twenties, “can crucify and torment a person.”
This paradox of the brilliant scholar not only disillusioned with reason but determined to use reason to show the limits and perversity of reason would run through all Leopardi’s work. The one area that seemed capable of reconciling the destructively antithetical energies at work here, hence saving Giacomo from himself, was poetry. As a boy, he had despised it as nonrational. Later, it was precisely the instinctive quality of poetry, its arising from natural impulses, from sound and song rather than reasoning and research, that he prized:
Only poets inspire in me a burning desire to translate and take hold of what I read; and only nature and emotions inspire that violent, restless urge to compose….
But even poetry only offered a consolation of “a half-hour”; afterward Leopardi was back with the grim reality of poor health, poor eyesight, a father determined to keep him under his conservative thumb, a mother whose rigid Christianity and obsession with domestic finance stifled all natural affection, and a home remote from any center of culture or kindred spirit. It was in his late teens, as Leopardi became fully aware of this unhappy condition, that he began to write the Zibaldone. Remarkably, it is not primarily self-referential and never self-pitying. Rather it brings together his wide reading and remarkable powers of observation to focus on the question: How did man get to be what he now is, a confusion of vital animal instinct and mortifying reason, of nature and civilization? Here, for example, is how the very personal issue of his mother is drawn into an ongoing consideration of the fatal alliance between Christianity and reason:
The extent to which Christianity is contrary to nature, when it acts solely on simple, rigid reasoning and when this is taken as the sole norm for behavior, can be seen from the following example. I once knew very well the mother of a family who was not in the least superstitious, but devout and unswerving in her Christian faith and in the practice of her religion. She not only felt no sympathy for parents who lost their children in infancy but positively and sincerely envied them, because such infants had flown safe and sound straight to paradise, and had freed their parents from the inconvenience of supporting them. Finding herself more than once in danger of losing her own children at the same age, she did not ask God to let them die, because her religion forbade this, but she rejoiced with all her heart.
One says of the Zibaldone that it is a notebook, but it was begun as and for the most part continued as a bundle of loose pages. Leopardi had no idea how long it would be or what the principles of its organization. Again, one says that it was written over fifteen years, but Leopardi had already passed four thousand pages at the end of 1823, less than six years after beginning, and would add only another five hundred in the next nine. In 1820 he began to add a date to every entry, suggesting an awareness that his views were changing, and from 1821 to 1823, between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-five now, he wrote more than three thousand pages, two thirds of the whole.
What we are looking at then is the work of a young man widely read but entirely untraveled and socially inexperienced, who is seeking to throw off the shackles of his parents’ religion and aspirations for him but has nowhere to take his energies and investigations, nowhere to forge his identity, if not on the pages of this notebook; here he debates urgently with Rousseau and Vico, Plato and Aristotle, Machiavelli and Bruno, setting up a grill of oppositions (nature/culture, animal/human, ancient/modern, male/female, childhood/adulthood) in which all experience is tested and placed. He weighs up the irreversible nature of the civilizing process against notions of circularity, return, and repetition. Aware that the world of ideas is in constant flux, he explores the origins of words and grammatical structures in a dozen languages, tracking linguistic development against cultural refinement.
All these studies are then measured against personal experience, or alternatively an intense experience prompts him to look for help from his books. One of his key discoveries, for example, as early as 1819, arises not out of study, but intense boredom. For if beliefs and illusions foster activity and excitement, which are always a pleasure, the deconstruction of those beliefs leads to inertia and unhappiness. And if Christianity and reason together had swept away all the illusions that drove human activity in ancient times, one only needed to go a step further and dismiss the Christian God to be left with nothing at all. In a rare, brief, personal entry, Giacomo writes:
I was frightened to find myself in the midst of nothingness, a nothing myself. I felt as if I were suffocating, thinking and feeling that all is nothing, solid nothing.
In such circumstances
it could be said that there will never be heroic, generous, and sublime action, or high thoughts and feelings, that are anything other than real and genuine illusions, and whose price must fall as the empire of reason increases.
It is because Leopardi believes that such “genuine illusions” can be constructed only “in words” that the Zibaldone focuses so frequently on language, on etymology, on the relationship between languages and the processes by which each language changes, gradually shifting toward a more intellectual, uniform, codified vision of the world:
Everything…that modern travelers observe and describe as strange and unique in the customs and usages of civilized nations is nothing other than the remains of ancient institutions…. But they certainly won’t find anything unique or strange in the modern…. Apart from small differences arising from the climate and the character of the population, which, however, increasingly succumb to the modern trend for uniformity in everything, and certainly everywhere, especially among the cultured classes, people are anxious to distance themselves from anything that is strange or peculiar to their national customs, and not to distinguish themselves from others except through a greater resemblance to the rest of mankind. And in general, one can say that the spirit of modern times tends to reduce the whole world to one nation, and all nations to a single person…. Even language now is becoming one, thanks to the spread of French, which I don’t object to on the ground of usefulness, but certainly do on the ground of beauty.