Nietzsche in Untimely Meditations once described Leopardi as the perfect model of the modern philologist and the greatest prose writer of the century. But who in our age even knows of this 19th Century Italian Master anymore? His works which in English come few and far between in spurious translations at best do him no justice. If I meditate on his newly published English translation of the notebooks, Zibaldone (editors Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino), it is not because I any longer agree with this monstrous poet of the solitudes. No. It is because I so mercilessly despise him yet know him for that monstrous part of my own self, a model of the destructive pessimism and melancholy, that has to be slayed over and over again. This man wracked by pessimism and melancholia all his life, this hunchback creature of solitary ways, who lived an endless ennui staving off the effects of that dark disease with and endless series of words, a slayer of that darkness within.
As a young man I was too busy getting my palms greased under the hood of old Chevys and Fords to worry about such matters, spending my time down at the race tracks running dirt rallies in old beaters, oblivious to both the world of culture and its formidable conclaves of learning. The truth be told I never cracked a book unless I was forced too, and even then most of what I read was neither comprehended nor worth the effort. I read to pass tests and that was about all. I wonder sometimes just what brought my life to the point of awakening, what finally lit the match and sparked my mind to begin seeking knowledge and wisdom in books to begin with? All that would come later after Viet Nam and my own deep disillusionment with life, country, and religion.
I came upon Leopardi’s works in High School (not even sure what translation) and for the first time felt that odd sensation of someone who understood me, who held the key to some strange inner knowledge of life that I did not know existed. At the time this disturbed me and rather than pursuing it I ran from it, tried to hide in my grease monkey suit laughing and joking with the gang knowing full well that something had happened, something strange had entered my being and left its mark and that I would never again be quite the same. It was during these years of mindlessness that I would begin questioning things around me, wondering about life and art, philosophy and religion. But this would all come later, much later.
Why do I read Leopardi? What does he offer us that a thousand and one other writers, poets, philosophers, etc. could not do better? Why do we even read such authors to begin with? Reading is a guilty pleasure, its the most solitary act you’ll do in life. Reading is not some group activity even if one is sitting with others reading out loud in a park, or listening to someone else reading: this is not reading, this is listening to the otherness of voicing rather than the inner voice of one’s own incessant chattering mind. There is a subtle difference, and this is something that the aficionados of deconstructive theory have iterated to the nth degree. If there is a difference that makes a difference it is the one between the reader and the otherness of literature. Coming on something that is not one’s self, encountering the strangeness of an other is both frightening and exhilarating. Most never experience this strangeness. When your professors speak of the greatness of Shakespeare it is in those strange moments in his plays when an interlocutor suddenly for the first time awakens to the strangeness of their own otherness, when in moments of clarity they overhear their own thoughts coming back to them as other, as difference itself – an encounter that changes one forever.
Leopardi is a monster. Shocking, but true. All true solitaires are monstrous for they have taken the way from humanity to find their inner strangeness and difference. One does not need to rehearse the litanies of his bare life to know that this melancholic sought the way from man not to him, and that society – if such a world still exists – had nothing to offer him. No. He agreed with Rousseau that there may have been a pristine almost pure society in the past, but that today such a return was impossible, an ideal that was both spurious and an illusion to repeal rather than exalt. What was needed was more breaking of the vessels, the illusions that held humans in their ill-fated prisons. Humanity was enslaved by their human systems of social myth making and would not be free till they could shake off and de-naturalize the time honored worlds they’d build over eons of tradition.
One enters the Zibaldone as into a giant omnibus, a series of notes of an ongoing project, a mind endlessly pursuing something both tangible and intangible. “In literature, one passes from nothing to the middle and to truth, then to refinement. There is no example of a return from refinement to truth. The Greeks. Italians writing in Latin. Fine taste among the generality of men of letters can exist only while it is still uncorrupted.”1 Yet, we are all corrupted now. Therefore literature no longer exists. We instead have something else, something of the bitter excess of our age. If we choose the apocalyptic and chaotic over the refinements of the uncorrupted it is because this is all that is left to us.
We are all monsters now, we seek to strengthen the self rather than to slay it, we forage the arsenal of ancient books seeking weapons to help us survive in this time of madness and mayhem. Yet, we no longer have the luxury of a Leopardi, there is no solace in a private world of solitude. We belong to each other now, we roam the zombie lands of the post-apocalyptic age of conspiracy mongers and carnival barkers who would gainsay at our expense and lead us down the path of destruction in a Hall of Mirrors without outlet. “To avoid the vices and corruption of writing, we now need endless study and intense imitation of the Classics to a much much greater extent than the ancient writers needed . If one does not have these things, one cannot be an eminent writer, and if one does, it is not possible to become as great as the great models (Kindle Locations 2177-2179).” We have all become corrupted by writing, the Classics hold nothing for us any longer, and eminence is the last thing we would seek for ourselves at this point in time: no more great models, we have destroyed the models and the makers. What is left to us?
Can we build something out of the ruins of this pile of corruption? Is there still strength in these filthy hands to build a life? Maybe the only way out of corruption is the way in, to dig deeper into this pit of hellishness, seek the nugget in the dark depths, rather than spin airy nothings out of the dead past? “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 (Kindle Locations 58153-58154).” Maybe this knowledge is our only salvation. But who of us really believes in salvation anymore?
1. Leopardi, Giacomo (2013-07-16). Zibaldone. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.