Giacomo Leopardi: The Nothingness of Things


“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, even when they express the most terrible despair, nevertheless to a great soul that finds itself in a state of extreme dejection, disenchantment, nothingness, boredom, and discouragement about life, or in the most bitter and deathly misfortune (whether on account of lofty, powerful passions or something else), 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.

“And so, while that which is seen in the reality of things grieves and kills the soul, when seen in imitation or any other form in works of genius, it opens and revives the heart. In fact, just as the author who described and felt so powerfully the vanity of illusions, but still preserved a great fund of them and gave ample proof of this by conveying their vanity so accurately, in the same way, the reader, however disillusioned both about himself and about what he reads, is yet drawn by the author into the same deception and illusion that he experienced and that are hidden in the most intimate recesses of his spirit. And the recognition of the irredeemable vanity and falsity of all beauty and all greatness is itself a kind of beauty and greatness that fills the soul when it is conveyed by a work of genius. And the spectacle of nothingness is itself a thing in these works, and seems to enlarge the reader’s soul, to raise it up and to make it take satisfaction in itself and its despair. (A great thing, and sure mother of pleasure and enthusiasm, and magisterial effect of poetry when it succeeds in enhancing the reader’s concept of himself, and of his misfortunes, and of his own dejection and annihilation of spirit.) 

“In addition, the feeling of nothingness is the feeling of something dead and deathly. But when this feeling is vivid, as in the case I am describing, its vividness prevails in the reader’s mind over the nothingness of the thing that it makes him feel, and the soul receives life (if only fleetingly) from the very force with which it feels the perpetual death of things, and its own death. For no small effect of knowing the great nothing, and no less painful, is the indifference and insensibility that it very commonly inspires, and must naturally inspire, toward nothingness itself. This indifference and insensibility is removed by the reading or contemplation of a work of genius: it makes us sensible to the nothingness of things…1

  1. Leopardi, Giacomo (2013-07-16). Zibaldone (pp. 175-176). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

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