ADAM KIRSCH - Giacomo Leopardi's "Zibaldone," the Least Known Masterpiece of European Literature

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 ...

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