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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.