About Giacomo Leopardi

About Giacomo Leopardi

“I don’t see you anymore…”

According to his friend and biographer Ranieri, in front of whom he was dying in Naples, these were the last words of the poet from Recanati. A tremendous sentence, full of astonished pain, full of lostness.

As if to indicate that not even death is to be experienced alone, but with the hope of keeping a beloved face in view.

An experience facing this dominant “you” that absents itself. As it was always during his hard life and his violently beautiful poetry.

How many of his poems begin with “to see” and are based on “to gaze” or “to contemplate.” The gaze is the threshold on which the I and the other meet.

And don’t touch.

Ever since he first felt, at a very young age, “the empire of beauty,” Leopardi understood that his life would be dominated by its allure.

I don’t see you anymore… even these last words are a grandiose, impossible gesture of love.

It is the heartache of an end that leaves traces of every possible beginning. What is life, after all, if it is not seeing you, my love?

It’s important not to fall into an overly biographical reading of Leopardi. He himself worried that his philosophy and his poetry would be read in the light of his life (letter to De Simmel)

A different description of him appears in each of his three passports: “Short with black hair,” “average height,” “average height, brown hair.” The border-guards of literature often have the same problems as customs agents; when they try to say who we are, they end up seeing things. Even with the suffocating mass of study and analysis of his life and those of his loved ones, his poetry continues to illuminate our biographies more than his own.

In fact, instead of explaining or illustrating the life of the one who wrote it, poetry actually disturbs the life of the one who reads it. While in 1938 Riccardo Dusi worked to amass the list of women loved by Leopardi, counting 17 of all different types in the manner of a kind of soccer team, De Benedetti’s warning about the beloved years later was “look for her whoever she is, but you won’t find her.” It is not only the names with literary origins (Nerina, Aspasia) taken from the ancients or from Tasso that are signs of a generalization that surpasses any biographical limit. As Savoca has shown recently, the same poem dedicated to one of the eternal feminine figures, Silvia, conceals in reality one of the most important poetic problems of the late 1920’s.

Leopardi’s realm is that of the principle of non-contradiction

His thought and his poetry diverge constantly from the fixed possibilities of Aristotle and any mechanistic philosophy. His works don’t trust progress.

The question isn’t fought between to be or not to be; it lives in being and non-being. It remains in the contradiction that motivates the “double gaze” of poetry, that causes the inevitable search for impossible happiness.

It is this contradictory movement that implies the same conception of man and of his discovery of his life.

Leopardi is the man of almost nothing

But what is “almost nothing?” Man at the summit of his cognitive process could be “mistaken, almost, for nothing.” It is an epistemological problem tied up with an ontological problem. Even the verb “to mistake[1]” indicates an action (like drowning) in which knowledge and ontology merge.

In 1923 Leopardi jots down in his “Zibaldone” some thoughts on the lostness man feels in front of the multitude of stellar worlds when they appear to him at night in the universe: “No thing demonstrates more clearly the greatness and power of the human intellect, or man’s nobility than the power man has to understand, fully comprehend, and forcefully feel his smallness. When he considers the plurality of worlds, he feels himself to be an infinitesimal part of a globe which is a minimal part of one of the infinite systems that make up the world. And in this consideration, astonished by his smallness, feeling it profoundly and examining it intently, man almost mistakes himself for nothing. He almost loses himself in the thought of the immensity of things and he feels as if he has disappeared in the incomprehensible vastness of existence. It is with this act and this thought that he gives the highest proof of his nobility, of the force and immense capacity of his mind. This mind, closed as it is in his small, maimed being, is able to reach toward understanding things far superior to his nature. It can embrace and contain with thought the very immensity of the existence of all things.”

This is a very acute consideration: “man ends up almost mistaking himself for nothing.” In this feeling of being almost nothing, man disappears. Yet at the same time he understands that he is the sole point in the universe that has knowledge of everything that exists.

In order to be persuaded of what he captures with his mind, Leopardi’s man must also observe it and feel it intensely. To see a theorem clearly is not truth. Truth is not the discovery of an idea. To be persuaded by truth one must feel it. He indicates this clearly in one of his notebook-like meditations which implicates that without a sense of truth (a sense that, like the sense of beauty, can remain unrefined) one of man’s natural capacities dries up and loses influence in his life.

The font of every “sense,” of every felt attachment, of every movement of a human being, is traced, by Leopardi to self-love. Self-love for Leopardi in not the egotism of the vainglorious, but the continuous carrying of one’s own “I.”

A few years ago my friend Valentino Fossati and I compiled a curious and perhaps not altogether forgettable anthology of Leopardi’s writings on love. (Leopardi, l’amore, Garzanti).

What burns all through Leopardian thought is the problem of love, understood especially as love for oneself. From this whirling, dramatic center comes all the movement – the feverish, trembling, cultivated and risky movement – of Leopardi’s poetic thought.

The whole contradictory system of his poetic thought roots itself here, and stretches all the way out to the far reaches of his beliefs about history and society (which he sees as realms of unhappiness and injustice).

When he “gazes at” or “contemplates” himself in the blue suit given to him by his sister Paolina, what could he have been thinking of “the eternal mystery of our being?”

But away, enough of biography. For each one us the experience of being ourselves is the reason for love or scandal. Not the experience of “ourselves” as a given fact, an entity that we observe from some lost place inside of us feeling ourselves, analyzing ourselves, tormenting ourselves, spoiling ourselves… but ourselves understood as “destiny.”

The lucid and contradictory thought about the desire for an impossible happiness returns, perfects itself, becomes obscure, dives deep, and re-emerges throughout the whole corpus of Leopardi’s poetry.

His first experience of love is brought on by the visit of his cousin Gestrude Cassi. It causes him (as is duly noted by Riccardo Bacchelli) to examine over the course of a week every possible nuance of the experience of love. Already at the time, the event is understood by Leopardi to come from the empire of beauty. Not from that of love. And if beauty reigns but not love, life fills with wounds. With abysses. Poets know this, they live it, like everyone else.

In Leopardi from the beginning there is no certainty that a you exists which corresponds with the experience of love. An empire, not an embrace. “An unattainable carnality” (as a Leopardian like Pasolini describes the origin of his same poetic experience) is sung in the hymn “To His Lady.” (Alla Sua Donna) In the days of the cousin it was already like this: the empire of beauty, not a “you” to correspond with. The poem “To His Lady” is held, by critics and avid readers alike, both as a culmination and as a unique moment in Leopardi’s work. It is one of the most intense moments – both in terms of engagement and clarification – of Leopardi’s poetic imagination. It was conceived right at the same time that Leopardi wanted to begin the Operette, those ironic and bitter meditations against positivists and progressives of every type. It was not by accident that the Academy of Crusca did not award a prize to Leopardi’s Operette in 1931, but gave it instead to “The History of Italy” by Carlo Botta. The vanity of literary prizes…

In the poem “To His Lady” a wonderful and harrowing short circuit is constructed. It is a hymn from an “unknown lover” to a woman whose face, whose “dear beauty” remain unknown and unattainable. Like a voice calling from the dark into the dark. But from whom to whom? The whole poem – the very possibility of poetic speech – finds here one of its most spectacular settings and one of its most marvelous disasters. The text contains many of Leopardi’s typical motifs – antiplatonic thought, a defense of the body as central, and an anti-spiritualism. But it puts into effect an unusual falling of the voice into the dark. But then, no, the voice doesn’t fall. Or in falling it remains. A voice outside the principle of contradiction. What hymn can possibly move from an unknown lover to an unknown beloved? Is such a hymn, impossible and yet present, not a contradiction? A marvelous love poem that however is not love. Here is summoned such a potency of pain, lostness, and amorous tension that it becomes an absolute disaster. But out of that disaster shines poetry and its inevitable strength. It is not medicine -- as such it would be small and useless – it is anti-being. The poem is anti-being existing in nothingness. It happens here.

In an earlier version of the poem, Leopardi began with “Divine beauty…” Then he substituted the more emotional and therefore more hopeless “Dear.” As if to increase the destruction. He isn’t addressing a divinity. He’s addressing someone dear, someone worthy of his heart, of his affection. But it is an unattainable carnality. It is the same experience of love that burns in the elegies of Rilke. His lovers touch each other – and how— but they feel at that very same moment caught between a promise of eternity and a disappearing instant. The swirling movement of each presence. They drink each other, Rilke’s lovers, they overcome one another with their desire for each other. They appear to achieve carnality but after that “feeling” there is only disappearance, the “quiet of us.” It is the scandal and the greatness of being human.  To stand on the threshold of this “almost” nothing into which we merge as we gaze on the infinite, the stars, and loving, too, embracing one’s woman, one’s children… Everything – even God – seems impossible and unattainable if it doesn’t have a face. Just a few years later, in fact there was another young poet who felt the bitterness of an imperious, disembodied beauty… Arthur Rimbaud gave his brilliant and sarcastic shout: “Through the mind we go to God – what a crippling misfortune!”

But God, on the other hand, that beauty of the abyss, came to us through flesh… Leopardi (and Rimbaud) had no experience of this. Their Christianity, or what they gave that name, was a system of thoughts and norms distant from daily life. Theirs was a system of beliefs and precepts. Notwithstanding some delicate expressions of infantile devotion, Leopardi fixed the name of Christ with the rhyme “sad.”[2] But he was never anti-Christian, our Giacomo. Instead he was a ferocious and bitter antispiritualist, the enemy of every evangelism that bowed to optimism.

That same rhyme, “Christo/tristo” vibrates inside a polemic against those “who to Christ were enemies until today,” and who yet feel offended by his “talking” because “their life I call arid and sad.”

In “To His Lady,” Leopardi accomplishes an antiplatonic polemic in the most platonic of his texts. He negates the existence of the desired object while continuing to destroy himself for it. Whoever reads a poet like a philosopher and holds that the text of a poem can be read as a step to be surpassed by the next thought (and in Leopardi’s case towards a desolate negation of every trace of life if not for the extreme, ephemeral flower in a desert of lava) doesn’t recognize the substantial difference between the truth of poetry and the truth of philosophy. Philosophy, which by nature seeks its object in thought, proceeds by outstripping itself, swerving, then correcting itself. Poetry, by contrast, leaves gestures, leaves them by way of its texts. They are not the stages of a discourse, but unique pieces of truth that remain behind. As if each separate, disastrous step a poet takes is nothing if not the putting oneself by means of the text (as affirms the young Pascoli, admirer of Leopardi or Montale in his “Lemons”) “in the middle of a truth.”

As in “To Silvia,” in the poem “To His Lady” one finds not only a great homage to a figure (there fleeing, here absent), but the imprinting of those figures for posterity, with a shiver of light or shadow, on our imaginations. Something else is happening as well.  “To Silvia” comes five years after “To His Lady” at the end of an intense reflection on poetry and on its forms and origins. As the Professor Savoca has demonstrated “song”[3] returns in “To Silvia” as a presence and a voice coincident with the life that is being lost. Whereas it is in “To His Lady that that song understands itself to be impossible.

A hymn in contradiction. A song from unknown to unknown. A song in nothing. But can nothing therefore take form in a song? Can it sound out and be nothing? Or is something being presented that surpasses our imagination on every side?

The much worked-over manuscript and its connection, during the same period, with the Operette, make a premise out of the Leopardian hymn-non-hymn. Or rather, a paradoxical condition is created in which the song “To Silvia” can exist as well as that supreme demonstration of contradiction, the Wandering Shepherd. In this last the sublime construction of rhythmic prosody (and not quantitative as he desired following the path of a tradition that was expressly and with various swerves rebuilt from Dante to Homer to the ancients) raises his extreme song, his impossible psalm. It achieves this by means of volatile, extreme and contradictory rhymes ending in “ale” -- death/birth (mortale/natale). It is another hymn to an unknown lover. In this song full of questioning and precipices a rhetorical figure occurs which I will call “the verdict of maybe.”

But what’s it about?

The Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd of Asia (Canto Notturno di un Pastore Errante dell’Asia) was composed in 1830. It is a kind of miracle, like all the great poems.

It is the psalm of modernity.

The inspiration came to the poet from reading in a magazine what we might call a reportage of a traveler in what is now known as Afghanistan. The story told of certain wandering shepherds who circulated in the infinitely far off territories of central Asia, singing doleful chants.

Leopardi imagined one of these shepherds as the example of man in his natural state. Into his voice he placed his own voice of a cultivated man of the 1800’s. And somehow he creates an immediate synthesis in order to express this judgment: I, the most cultivated man in the world, and the shepherd, the least cultivated, have at our core the same questions.

This is not indebted to Rousseau’s thought. The shepherd is not the noble savage. It can’t even be said that he is “good.” He doesn’t necessarily stand outside the corruption that Leopardi saw to be the constant of human history. He is instead universal man. His song is Ungaretti’s “unanimous cry.”

In 1924, Leopardi recorded that he had written few poems, and these short. This came six years later but it too was born from the same kind of “inspiration (or mania) during which I formed in two minutes the whole design and distribution of the thing. Having done this, I have to wait for it to come back to me at another time and when it does return (which usually doesn’t happen until several months later) I focus on composing, but so slowly that it isn’t possible to finish a poem, even a very short one, in less than two or three weeks.”

The composition method of Night Song is similar. But the nature of song in Leopardi – who used the term as the title of his collection, Songs – is both clarified and obscured by what happens in “To His Lady” and “To Silvia.” A song-non-song. A hymn of almost nothing. What are these songs in nothing?

It begins like this: “What are you doing, moon, up in the sky; /what are you doing, tell me, silent moon? /You rise at night and go, /observing the deserts. Then you set. /

Aren't you ever tired / of plying the eternal byways?/ Don't you get bored?”[4] -- You have desires, you moon like a person even if nothing yet is described in an anthropomorphic way, but desire yes – “Do you still want to look down on these valleys?/

The shepherd's life/ is like your life./ He rises at first light,/ moves his flock across the fields, and sees/ sheep, springs, and grass,/ then, weary, rests at evening,/ and hopes for nothing more./

Tell me, moon, what good/ is the shepherd's life to him/ or yours to you? Tell me: where is it heading,/my brief wandering,/ your immortal journey?”

The first verse establishes the general rhythm. The question is not only a question, but a repeated question. There’s a repetition throughout the song, like the return of a wave. For excess, for the lump in the throat, for urgency…

There’s that vocative “tell me” that indicates a repetitive movement.

Everywhere in the text we find this doubling movement, whether it be in the sense of growth and increase or in the sense of contradiction. It is not linear, even in its stupendous “musaic”[5] pathway. It’s a wave, almost an ellipse, like the very movement of life in the DNA or in the waves of the ocean.

We find therefore, in this beginning, the comparison between the short cycle of the shepherd’s day and the long cycle of the moon.

In the second stanza a metaphor appears which is borrowed from Petrarch’s “L” of the Canzoniere; Leopardi knew how to copy, like all the great authors:

“Little old white-haired man,/ weak, half-naked, barefoot,/ with an enormous burden on his back,/ up mountain and down valley,/ over sharp rocks, across deep sands and bracken,/ through wind and storm,/ when it's hot and later when it freezes,/ runs on, running till he's out of breath,/ fords rivers, wades through swamps,/ falls and rises and rushes on/ faster and faster, no rest or relief,/ battered, bloodied;” It is the metaphor of a man grown old, a man who has covered a lot of ground with a very heavy pack on his pack through mountains (sour moments) and valleys (sweet moments). This man lives a varied life, our own; there are beautiful moments, moments of hot and cold, sweet moments, sharp moments. First he asked the moon, where is it going, all this movement of yours? What is the point of doing your homework, getting a degree, studying abroad, falling in love, having children, spending money? What is the point of these various moments? He concludes with a terrible answer: “till at last he comes/ to where his way/ and all his effort led him:/ terrible, immense abyss/ into which he falls, forgetting everything.” Where does it lead, all this tiring movement? To a terrible abyss. All this effort, in the end, is for nothing. The horizon we are moving toward is, in the end, nothing.

And with great acumen he adds not only “nothing,” because the worst that can happen is not, as we know, “nothing.” The worst is forgetting – oblivion.

The one thing that is worse than the experience of nothing you have when, for example, your girlfriend leaves you is being forgotten by her. What man truly cannot bear is being forgotten. Oblivion is like nothing multiplied. Oblivion is nothing attacking something or someone. It is when nothing organizes itself in order to raze someone entirely, even in memory.

And then the verdict that ends the stanza: “This, o virgin moon,/ is human life.” I remember that one of the last times I read this poem in public – I’ve done it various times – I was in Palermo, and as I read these verses I stopped and I thought to myself “terrible, immense abyss; what else is there? How could anything possibly be added?” And yet he begins again. There is a movement in this poem that is like the movement of life: Leopardi acts like he wants to end the poem and then he stays there and keeps talking to you. You know those people who say goodbye and then stay right where they are? “Bye, see ya.” And then they stand there. As if to say the parting is not the last word. And, in fact, he begins again and says: “Man is born by labor,/and birth itself means risking death.” To be born, we know, was especially risky at that time. “The first thing that he feels/is pain and torment, and from the outset/mother and father/seek to comfort him for being born.” Okay, here I don’t agree with Leopardi. When one reads an author, one has to interpret him by comparing him with one’s own experience. For example, I have four fairly young children, and I know very well that the first thing a parent does is not to console the baby for being born. It’s not true. The first thing – here it’s clear that Leopardi didn’t have children, that his intellect took precedence over his experience – the first thing you do in front of your new-born child is be astonished. You don’t know what to say. You think “what is this thing?” Besides, I don’t know if it’s happened to you, but to witness a birth is one of the most extraordinary experiences possible. It is both absolutely natural and absolutely exceptional; it’s the pinnacle of the ordinary and the pinnacle of the exceptional at the same time. It’s like being in a fierce current, to use a metaphor. Which is why I’m sure that it isn’t true: no parent ever, when a child is born, consoles the baby for being born. The first thing you do is say “who are you? Where do you come from?” Leopardi, a genius, every now and then allows his philosophical thought – a sort of philosophical pessimism – to take precedence over experience. “As he grows,/they nurture him,/and constantly by word and deed/seek to instill courage,/consoling him for being human./Parents can do no more loving thing/ for their offspring./But why bring to light,/why educate/someone we'll console for living later on? That is, why bring a child into the world if you then must console it? The lack of response to this question is the reason Italy’s birthrate is at zero. The fact that my compatriots have ceased having children is exactly why, faced with Leopardi’s acute observation, they remain speechless and don’t know what to say. Or, hiding a kind of selfishness they say “I don’t want to bring a child into the world to make him suffer.” In any case youlive in the world and often enough it’s a hoot. So there’s an element of masked egotism, and that’s never nice. And then: “If life is misery,/why do we tolerate it?” Here the poet is entering into the real question, that is the fact that man inhabits a great contradiction. This is Leopardi’s point; like all artists, he puts it nakedly. Man is a problem that can’t solve itself and the final element of the problem is this: why be born if then you think life is a misfortune? Why bring a child into the world if you believe you must console it? Why this contradiction? He says: “This, unblemished moon,/is mortal nature.”, whereas before he said: “This, o virgin moon,/ is human life.” and he concludes by saying: “But you're not mortal,/and what I say may matter little to you.”-- it doesn’t interest you much. So the relationship with the moon changes and the antithesis between man’s mortality and the moon’s immortality continues.

The next stanza is the longest and most moving: “Yet you, eternal solitary wanderer,/ you who are so pensive, it may be/ you understand this life on earth,/ what our suffering and sighing is,/ what this death is, this final/ paling of the face,/ and leaving earth behind, abandoning/ all familiar, loving company.” The poet lingers, pauses, on the theme of pain – our being born – and of death, but he is not satisfied by the word death. In order to speak of death, one has to have the face of the beloved in mind as it loses its color… otherwise it’s just a bit of philosophical chat.

Then he continues and writes “And certainly you comprehend/the why of things, and see the usefulness/of morning, evening,/and the silent, endless pace of time./Certainly you know for whose sweet love/spring smiles,/who enjoys the heat,/and what winter and its ice are for./You know and understand a thousand things/that are hidden to a simple shepherd.” Note the growing insistence of the verses: “it may be you understand” “And certainly you comprehend” – “Certainly you know” – “You know and understand a thousand things”….  It means that reason is not satisfied with the closing expressed by the earlier verses. What follows is that beautiful expression “Certainly you know for whose sweet love/spring smiles,” because in the spring we see things smile – the flowers, nature, it all seems to smile. And we know Leopardi lets himself be struck by things because he said so at the beginning. So he asks himself, but this smile of nature, is it a stupid smile? The smile of an idiot? A smile for nothing? Or do you know, moon, the love that causes the spring to laugh? I don’t know what makes nature laugh, but maybe you do. “Often, when I watch you / standing so still above the empty plain / whose last horizon closes with the sky, / or follow, step by step, / as I wander with my flock, / and when I see the stars burn up in heaven, / I ask myself: / Why all these lights?

What does the endless air do, and that deep/eternal blue? What does this enormous/solitude portend? And what am I?

I remember going to the mountains one time with my oldest son, Bartolomeo. He was quite young at the time and at a certain point he asked me that question asked by all children: “Dad, what’s that?” “It’s a mountain, Bartolomeo!” He replied “What does the mountain do?” “Well” I said “The mountain is being a mountain, what do you think it’s doing?” And it’s the same as Leopardi’s question “What is the infinite air doing?” So the most erudite of poets is the same as a child who is just beginning to use reason because they are each open to reality. That is to say, they let themselves be struck by things and then they ask “But what does the air do?” The first question is not “What is it?” or “What is it made of?” It doesn’t aim to take apart reality by means of scientific analysis. A child and a truly thinking man ask themselves what reality does, what is the action, the movement, the scope – we could say – of reality, or of the mountain. What does the mountain do? What does the beauty of a woman do? What does the light do? What does the air do? What does my life do? What does this pain being born in me do? The love that is being born in me, what does it do? That is, to what end? What movement does it have? This is what the child asks, or the artist, or at any rate the truly open man, because he lets himself be struck by things. When man ceases to ask himself anything at this level, reality becomes at most something to pick at, to nibble at until you get bored, because a reality that’s only picked at becomes boring. The real problem is to understand the movement that there is in things, to understand where they go.

This I ask myself: about this boundless,/ splendid space/ and its numberless inhabitants,/and all these works and all this movement/ of all heavenly and earthly things,/revolving without rest,/only to return to where they started./Any purpose, any usefulness/I cannot see.” I don’t know the answer, but I’m proposing the question. And then he says: “But surely you,/ immortal maiden, understand it all./ This is what I know and feel:/ that from the eternal motions,/ from my fragile being,/ others may derive/ some good or gladness; life for me is wrong..” It’s so irreducible, reason’s desire for the infinite, its desire to understand the nature of things. One ends up saying that if he himself can’t figure it out, someone else must be able to.

Then there’s a part where Leopardi draws comparisons between himself and the herd, himself and an animal. Thus he introduces the great theme of boredom and tedium. We think of this theme as typically modern – a preoccupation of the 1900’s, but actually Baudelaire and other poets of the 1800s were already touching on it. Leopardi asks himself why the sheep lying down in the shade is calm and satisfied while the shepherd, even in that moment of rest, feels himself invaded by a sense of annoyance that almost stings him.  Why is man made of this strange anxiety and can never be content? Why this tedium?  What is this boredom? Boredom is simply the most extreme indication that what you have can’t be enough, that you aren’t made for what you have, that all the images – as Montale would say – have written on them “further away, further away” Another great poet, Rebora, says the same thing: when you take hold of something, it’s like hearing a cry inside you that says “It’s not for this that you live, not for this.” So one has a career, graduates with honors, but all the while none of it is adequate to the size of his heart. “Enough” is not “sufficient.” In any case as an ancient book affirms (the bible) it’s true that man is “abyssus abyssum invocans” that is “man is an abyss that invokes an abyss.” He is made of something enormous, and he wants something as enormous.

At the end of Night Song Leopardi also intuits one of the greatest temptations of our time.

In a few verses, that is, in a few seconds, he vaporizes one of the greatest idolatries of modernity: a blind belief in science. Not a belief in real science, but that ideology that presumes that man can resolve his own contradiction, thanks to the conquests of science and technology. A great poet like Auden speaks of it in his poem “The Age of Anxiety,” where he says that today a certain attitude has become widespread. This attitude dictates that thanks to the advances of science and technology, the problem of man’s contradiction has been reduced simply to a problem of time; in a little while we’ll understand how to resolve this question of what we are. This can be found in certain representatives of science, though more often among its idealogues: let us work in peace, don’t think about what it costs in dignity or in life, let us take care of it, we’re right here to find the solution to everything bad.

But Leopardi (like Auden and all the great poets) understands that this utopia is not real and, with an extraordinary image, ends the poem like this: “Maybe if I had wings/ to fly above the clouds/ and count the stars out, one by one,/ or, like thunder, graze from peak to peak,/ I'd be happier, my gentle flock,/ happier, bright moon./ Or maybe my mind's straying from the truth/ imagining the fate of others.”  Even if now we do quickly fly from one place to another, and we’ve counted each one of the stars, that is, we’ve made discoveries that Leopardi prefigured as absurd and unimaginable, we know very well that these aren’t really the answer to the questions we have about happiness, about liberty, or about beauty. It is not the acquisition of technologies and scientific advances that resolves our life for us – we’ve learned this right? Positivism was a grand illusion, and Leopardi already intuited that boredom is not resolved by technology.

In the last verses the negative option returns: “Maybe” – this wonderful “maybe”! “in whatever form or state,/whether in stall or cradle,/ the day we're born is cause for mourning.” And this is the pessimism of Leopardi, his pessimistic vision of life. It appears even in the percussive sound of the rhyme in “ale” in which throughout the text “natale” and “mortale” ring together.[6]

I’m struck, in Canto Notturno’s conclusion, by this “maybe” repeated all of three separate times. Like a verdict that doubts itself in the very moment it emerges. Like a hook on which is hung, as in certain Bacon paintings, the definitive break-down of existence, its empty mortal carcass… But what definitive thing can be expressed by such a grave sentence if it’s hanging on the hook of a maybe? What tragedy gets annulled in the very moment in which its sentence is pronounced. The “maybe doesn’t eliminate the weight, the gravity of the pessimistic abandonment of all hope. But at the same time, it is thrown into doubt in the exact moment in which it falls upon us. It is not simply a case, as some insist, that the beauty of the text and of poetry in general is to negate nothingness. It is not only that strange, supreme, violent test of strength between beauty and nihilism. It’s also, inside that same exhausted and final deposition of any hope, the presence of a hook, a maybe, the taking hold (or re-taking hold) of something that obligates us to keep our mouths and eyes open, and our heart. The poet is not a philosopher. The “maybe” doesn’t negate “nothing.” But it hooks it. It makes it tremble in front of our eyes in all of its vast fatality. But it also offers us this hook, like the “almost” in the thoughts of the “Zibaldone.”

A verdict of maybe, a single movement with an echoing question. And with that expression from 1923: what does it mean that the man amazed with the plurality and vastness of worlds, observing the starry sky can almost be mistaken for nothing? Try saying to a girl “you’re almost pretty!” She’ll get angry because when it comes down to it, you’re either pretty or you’re almost pretty. Being almost beautiful – in literature it would be an oxymoron – is a contradiction, because either something is beautiful or it almost is. In the same way we have “maybe it’s cause for mourning”: either it’s cause for morning, or it’s maybe. Why? It isn’t that Leopardi is playing with words, it’s that Leopardi understands – and here lies his greatness and that of other authors already cited (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Eliot and many other contemporaries) – that human nature is structured in an unresolvable manner, with an inherent contradiction. A thing that cannot solve itself by itself, a thing that can’t find its destiny. An oxymoron is a phrase in which elements contradict each other, but they don’t eliminate one another. To say almost nothing certainly indicates the presence of nothing, but that same presence is almost cancelled. Leopardi returns continually to this problem which is a reason for scandal in the mentality of all times, both his own epoch and our own. He shows us that man’s presumption that he can solve himself is always destined to end in a kind of impasse, a tragic play. He re-proposes this scandal for the consideration of our poets with his “Canti.” Not with the petty ease of discourse or prose poetry, but with his wandering, marvelous songs. He brings that almost nothing into the very aching nature of man’s song. It’s gorgeous: almost perfect.

[1] The Italian verb used here is “confondersi”

[2] In Italian the word for sad, “tristo,” rhymes with “Christo”, or Christ.

[3] Il “canto”

[4] Translation by Jonathan Galassi

[5] Italian “musaic” – the word Dante used to denote the “musical art” of poetry

[6] “natale” means birth, beginning, native, “mortale” means mortal, fatal, deadly.

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