Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone
On the first full translation of a masterwork by Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
On the first full translation of a masterwork by Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)
So here it is, the Zibaldone, one of the greatest blogs of the nineteenth century, of any century, for that matter — and what matter it is! 2,584 pages! Translated, edited, printed, bound, shipped, and received from the tattooed hands of my Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday UPS guy, Phil — a process that required seven years and the efforts of seven translators, two editors, more than two dozen “specialist consultants,” in German, French, Hebrew, Mongolian/Tibetan, philosophy, the history of science, etc., a partridge, a pear tree, and Phil, not to mention Il Cavaliere himself, Silvio Berlusconi, who took a break from his women and media companies and the media company that is Italy to arrange partial funding and take a tax break on art. Then there were also the daily emails and phone calls from Important Editors to get Farrar, Straus and Giroux to send the galleys to me. Unpacking the paperback stack, I understood FSG’s hesitation. Sending out copies, even review copies, of Leopardi’s masterwork must get expensive — sort of like sending out review models of the Roman Coliseum — but still, why invest what must’ve been hundreds of thousands of strong euros or weak dollars to prepare a book for publication only to stint on crucial freebies? Why work so intensely to put together a diary so intensely of and about the page, and then try to placate a critic — who, in order to read the entirety and write anything even remotely coherent by deadline, will have to put off all other paying assignments, sex assignations, sleep, and laundry — with an e-book version? These, rather similar concerns about human folly, are Leopardi’s subjects.
Online time is comprised of all the times of all the texts we click. Each session, then, is a history of sessions, a temporality salad, a chronological Zibaldone, which is apparently a slang term for a meal or dish slapped together out of available ingredients. I’m downtown, at a café featuring B&W photos of Naples on the walls and accordion renditions of ’O Sole Mio on the stereo and a menu that insists on the proper adjective, “Italian,” before every section heading — Italian Appetizers, Italian Sandwiches, Italian Coffee — the list of Italian Desserts lacking for nothing but zabaglione, that concoction of egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine, intended to be scooped or sipped, or both.
The time of print is different — if I have to continue the metaphor, print is best read like a recipe: one line, then another, unidirectionally, in order. Reading backward is like using flour as garnish.
Online reading becomes writing with interactivity: blogs and feeds compel constant update and continuous response. Leopardi was faithful to his journals, but he was never their slave. He wrote only when he had something to write about (no deadlines!), and only for himself (no editors!). As for me, I’m trying to remember — since I don’t have a smartphone, just a stupidphone, I still have to remember — which author it was who once claimed that, regardless of how blasphemous a book might appear, all books were essentially moral, because while reading and writing you’re not doing anything active, like looting, or bombmaking. When I first read that sentiment I was impressed, but now — in this break from a dead poet’s prose in the middle of a Wednesday — I’m not. Passivity has its morality too: while reading and writing I’m not, for example, calling my uncle in the hospital, or my sister in L.A., both of which I have to do before the weekend. Leopardi, who was an ugly hunchback, lived at his family’s estate in Recanati for much of his life, and hardly ever left its library, which was stocked with anthologies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and manuscripts in every major and a few minor and even defunct languages, many of which he mastered. The first page of the Zibaldone bears the nondate “July or August 1817,” which captures his spirit exactly, especially because, according to the editors’ introduction, it was appended to the work in 1820. The last entries arrive in 1832, written in Rome, and Florence, to which Leopardi, age thirty-four, had fled to experience the world unprinted. He died at thirty-eight, of cholera, in Naples.
The tables all around me are full of laptops, which should be called “I’m a freelancer with a studio apartment and don’t have anywhere else to work but heretops.” The marble is fake, but in the context of that fakeness the veins might be “real.” I should’ve gone to the library. The line to order ends where the line for the bathroom begins.
Zibaldone #3: “A plant or animal seen in real life should give us more delight than when it is painted or imitated in some other way, because it is impossible for an imitation not to leave something to be desired. But the contrary is clearly true: from which it appears that the source of delight in the arts is not beauty but imitation.”
I’m not sure — though maybe this only applies to plants and animals. What about literature — the differences between an original and a translation? What about experience? Because if I had the choice between another day in this café or going on an all-expenses trip to Italy, I’d take the ticket, no question.
#29: “Everything is or can be happy, except man, which goes to show that his existence is not limited to this world, as is that of other things.”
Another grumble. I can imagine inverting, or negating, that statement: “Everything is or can be happy, except man, which goes to show that his existence IS limited to this world, UNLIKE that of other things.” Which is to say, I’m fairly convinced it’s our consciousness (of death) that prevents our happiness. But what’s especially troubling about that statement is “everything” — “other things.” What does Leopardi mean? What else does he regard as not just being capable of happiness, but actually seriously happy? Animals? Can animals be happy? Maybe. But, come on, plants? How can a brainless root be called “happy,” as opposed to just “alive”? Maybe Leopardi’s point is that for some things, for some dimidiate things, “happiness” is plain “living”? What then to make of this cheap ceramic cup and saucer and this cheap metal spoon I can twist and bend without it shrieking? Leopardi must’ve been insane, not least because he expected a next life, and expected it to be glad. I’d settle for a $4 latte.
“Boredom.” Leopardi uses the word a lot — noia, apparently — which doesn’t seem bored in italics. Baudelaire has his ennui (1857); Durkheim, his anomie (1893); but before them both, Leopardi — who has the concern for the individuality of spirit of a Baudelaire, and the concern for the social body of a Durkheim — is predisposed to noia, “the passion most contrary to and farthest from nature,” “the feeling of nothingness, and of the nullity of what exists, and of the very one who conceives and feels it, and in whom it subsists” (Leopardi’s italics). Nonetheless the translators of this volume have decided to keep noia out of the text, and rely, instead, on “boredom.”
The repetitions. Again.
#2: “Passions, deaths, storms, etc., give us great pleasure in spite of their ugliness for the simple reason that they are well imitated, and if what Parini says in his Oration on poetry is true, this is because man hates nothing more than he does boredom, and therefore he enjoys seeing something new, however ugly.”
#s 89-90: “Rather, I would say that the unknown gives us more pain than the known and, since that object frightens us or saddens us or makes us shudder, we do not know how to leave it alone. And even if it disgusts us, we still find a certain desire to put it into some perspective so that we can understand it better. Perhaps also, and so I believe, it comes from a love of the extraordinary, and the natural hatred of monotony and boredom that is innate in all men, and if an object presents itself that breaks this monotony and steps out of the common run of things, however much more burdensome it seems to us than boredom (but perhaps, at that moment, we do not notice or think about this), we still find a certain pleasure in the shock and agitation that the fleeting glimpse of that object produces in us.”
#239: “Hatred of boredom is the only reason that today we see gatherings of people eager to watch bloody spectacles, such as public executions and the like, which have nothing pleasurable in themselves (unlike the contest, display, etc., of gladiators and wild animals in the circus) but only insofar as they provide a vivid contrast with the monotony of living. The same is true of anything that appeals simply by being extraordinary, even though, far from being pleasurable, it is in itself deeply unpleasurable.”
#s 345–346: “When a person proposes purpose to himself either for action or indeed for inaction, he will find delight in things that are not delightful, even in things that are unpleasant, almost indeed in boredom itself.”
Leopardi, official interpreter of Leopardi.
So, experiencing the emptiness of the world (noia) leads us to seek the nearest salvation, which is, expectedly, the ugliest. What are we to do? What salvation should we seek? Not the easiest, but the simplest, the apt. We should become a bit like a child. Or like “the ancients,” who had “negligence, certainty, carelessness, and I would even say ignorant confidence.” What happened to us that we’re so careful now? What defeat made us this timid, and witting? Naturalness — an “illusion” last sustainable during the reign of Augustus — crumbled when the Imperium crumbled, into barbarity, modernity. We were left to the void, and denatured by noia. Unable to return to our illusion, we engineered “reason,” and followed its dictates to corruption. Philosophies, religions — artificialities perpetrated by system.
Leopardi regards paganism’s lapses as purer than Christianity’s because at least pagans who act unethically are acting naturally, not contradictorily. At least the Greek and Roman gods were humane, he maintains, in that they felt human passions, even to the point of meddling in our affairs; they patronized, and were influenced by, our art. If you died as a Greek or Roman you took your memories and emotions with you into a sort of exile. This was infinitely preferable to the Christian heaven, which cast life on earth as the exile, from which redemption was a calculation, or a transaction. In the Roman Catholic rite Hell became avoidable via a formalized penance, the sacrament of confession. Each dead person’s soul, however, had to be judged for assignation — this suggested a Purgatory: an amorphous transitional state, until the Medieval Church deemed it a locatable space or place because the fate of dead unbaptized newborns required the accommodation of a Limbo, located adjacent. The next logical provision was time, and though each sin earned its sinner a designated wait, the popes offered swifter passage for a price: indulgences. To Leopardi, each innovation merely distanced humanity farther from the true religion, which wasn’t the one Constantine adopted, or the one Jesus bled for, or even Olympus’s — but “certainty,” “negligence,” unicity.
Leopardi’s lifetime was marked by a great Europe-wide cyclicity; a return to Vico and his Scienza Nuova: the idea of history as recurrent. Political history organized into a cycle, from an age of myth to an age of epic heroes or iconic rule, to an age of egalitarian populism destroying itself into myth again. Later, biogenetics — via Lamarck, Haeckel — would conform: embryos matured into adulthood through a recapitulation of the evolutionary progressions of their ancestors. Both ideas were clever — writerly clever — but wrong. Leopardi was never wrong. He couldn’t be; not with a talent that transmuted every theme to literature. The ultimate in circuitousness: addressing the world as a way of addressing style.
Culture’s martyrdom was congruent with religion’s, but later — coinciding with Spanish–Habsburg rule (1559–1713). The Seicento (as Italy would call the 1600s) wasn’t quite the Quattrocento, but still: the piano, invented in Florence, the violin, perfected in Cremona; Monteverdi, Vivaldi; Caravaggio, Tiepolo, Bernini, Borromini. Not to mention Galileo. What about its literature? Gabriello Chiabrera, anyone? Fulvio Testi, yes/no? Manfredi? Zappi? Filicaia? Guidi? Leopardi praises their originality, only to qualify that originality as “small in scale”; he allies them and groups them into schools, then assails them as imitators of Dante and Petrarch; Guidi can never be called “inconsistent,” because his every poem demonstrates a “formal mediocrity and frigidity.” “Most of Chiabrera’s finest canzoni are no more than very beautiful sketches.” Boccaccio wouldn’t have written any better about this lot: sentimentalists, hyperbolists, academicians peddling sham erudition. Their refinements were technicalities: Latin and Greek borrowings, compoundwords, confounding puns; resulting in a verse that read like zealous Bible commentaries not to circulate outside the cloister; an abstruse fanatic math. Leopardi’s just recording what he’s seen and heard, of course, which is his inheritance of a tradition that’s forgotten how to see and hear for itself. Italy’s near past fashioned poems out of its far past, but its future will source them from feeling directly. The only way to share a feeling is to share how it was evoked (the sight and sound): the lesson Leopardi found in Homer. This can still be done, if not “effortlessly,” then with “concealment”: the lesson Leopardi found in Virgil. His emotions will be his senses. His self will be his nature.
Homer and Virgil both practiced prosopopoeia: inventing voices for objects and landscapes; But Leopardi provides “his own” voice. To skies, celestial bodies, Italy, friends, above all “to himself.” With it, he addresses a you, singular, plural, specific, ambiguous, everything, nothing. Personality, the birth of fallacies.
Leopardi’s prose personifies nature, though it does so chiefly by personifying its indifference.
What is a rhyme? The illusion of reason. What is an image? “A part of the world oppressed by fog / and sullen Jupiter.”
Happy/sad birthday to me. One year younger than Leopardi was when he’d finish with this book. When he’d leave it unfinished. Completion, being the hope, being impossible. To Leopardi, the struggle is to keep proportional, balanced. Another issue of translation. The translators admit that “translating noia by ‘boredom’ is a kind of reverse anachronism,” but claim that “the concept is addressed continuously in the Zibaldone, and to avoid confusion can only be translated by a single word, even if noia and ‘boredom’ are not exactly the same thing.” They go on to note the challenge they faced with convenienza and its adjective conveniente: “There is a sense of convenienza that has to do with wholeness, or the perceived relation between the whole and the parts, or the parts with each other (proportion, harmony, agreement), and another that has to do with belonging (appropriateness, fitness, rightness, suitability, becomingness, and so on). In the end, the English ‘propriety” and “proper’ seem to fit both semantic areas best, as well as having a certain gravitas about them, and in spite of their linkage to ‘proper behavior,’ which is not usually the issue in the Zibaldone.”
I hate the word gravitas. It reminds me of testicles — it’s a term for “balls,” which has “no balls” — I’m aware that recording this isn’t proper behavior. But I’d like to imagine that the ancients, whoever they are, would’ve mentioned it. Only because to refrain from doing so would’ve felt, meaning “been,” unnatural. This is my problem. This is our problem, today. To restrain, or not to restrain — we’re not sure what feels unnatural; I’m not even sure what “is.”
#1307: “If I may be permitted an observation regarding a trifling matter that might seem ridiculous to spell out, and hardly deserving of being written down. There are some really minute parts of the human body that man is only able to observe with difficulty, very rarely, and only by chance, in others, and which he is only used to observing in himself.”
But is convenienza naturally derived? Or just our own artificial construction? I thought about this, then realized I wouldn’t be able to think about it. We/I believe in wholes, but live in parts. Not even in parts (fragments, shards), but in the nullities between them, the cracks that comprise our shattering.
Proportion, harmony — to be relevated, or yearned for. Who doesn’t want repletion, completion — Concinnity Now? But who wants the culture that is its complement?
Total Leopardian roundedness of character requires total consciousness: of self-frustration, self-sabotage, perversion. Leopardi wants me to be aware of my failings; I want that too, but I also want to hang onto my cigs, my rye, my humor.
For Leopardi, “weakness” evokes a “compassion,” which he calls “the only human quality or passion that has nothing to do with self-love. The only one because even self-sacrifice for heroism, patriotism, virtue, or a beloved […] always comes about because on that occasion the sacrifice is more satisfying to our mind than anything we might gain.” The implication being that “weakness” can’t be assuaged, or changed into strength; it can only be made mutual. I just wish that Leopardi would be more explicit about the form of pity he preferred: an eye, an ear, a word, a heart, a sack of scudi; an insomniac reader nearly two hundred years after his death. He died a virgin (according to his friend and unrequited gay crush, the writer and statesman Antonio Ranieri).
#1979: “There’s nothing to be said. Man’s present condition, in obliging him to live and think and act according to reason, and in forbidding him to kill himself, is contradictory. Either suicide is not against morality, though it is against nature, or our life, being against nature, is against morality. Since the latter is not so, neither is the former.”
I’ve been skipping the philology. But I stop at #2053: “The vast has to be distinguished from the vague or indefinite. They please the mind for the same reasons, or for reasons of the same type. But the vast is not necessarily vague, and the vague is not necessarily vast. Nonetheless, these qualities are always similar in terms of the effect they have on the mind.”
It’s back again, the we-like-that-which-destroys-us thing, #2118: “It is pleasurable to be the spectator of vigorous, etc. etc., actions of any sort, not only those relative to man. Thunder, storm, hail, a strong wind, seen or heard, and its effects, etc. Every keen sensation in man brings with it a vein of pleasure, however unpleasurable it is in itself, however terrible, or painful, etc. I heard a farmer whose land was often severely damaged by a nearby river say that nonetheless the sight of the flood was a pleasure as it advanced, rushing swiftly toward his fields, with a thunderous noise, and carrying with it a great mass of rocks, mud, etc. And such images, while ugly in themselves, always turn out to be beautiful in poetry, in painting, in eloquence, etc.”
Entries on politics (nations evolve along with their citizens), and on the politics of language: all contemporaries of Hegel were Hegelian, it seems, whether they liked it or not (Leopardi didn’t). He criticizes German — for lack of rigor? and criticizes French — for being incapable of the sublime? Languages evolve too, I guess. Which means there’s still a chance for the Italian novel.
From #2136: “What is the derivation of the verb aptare [to adapt], from which our attare, adattare, and the French, etc.? From aptus. And what do we think this is? A participle of the very old verb apere. And what is the original meaning of aptare? That of the verb apere, that is, to bind.”
As poets to meter, mortals to death. And prosateurs to pretension.
On a bus to Atlantic City, to my family — unflushable shit in the chemical toilet, piss in the aisle, expired buffet vouchers wedged between seats. Leopardi says that every living being loves itself equally, because it loves itself infinitely. Regard is comparable only in degree, and only in infinity. Absolute. I Heart New York. Jersey Strong. I want to copy down another quotation about “boredom,” but then I want to copy down so much, so many contradictions: #4175. “Not only individual men, but the whole human race was and always will be necessarily unhappy. Not only the human race but the whole animal world. Not only animals but all other beings in their way. Not only individuals, but species, genera, realms, spheres, systems, worlds. Go into a garden of plants, grass, flowers. No matter how lovely it seems. Even in the mildest season of the year. You will not be able to look anywhere and not find suffering.”
Changing trains, for home, at Trenton. Leopardi in accidental palinode-mode: bestowing the unhappiness he’d already ordained for humanity on the rest of the biota. But not just that: he’s also asserting that each weed and seed and class of beast feels its own despair, as if despair were the substance of diversity. What about #29, though, “Everything is or can be happy”? What’s become of the diarist who damned himself, and yet remained sanguine about the prospects for joy among “other things”? The world’s suddenly suffering, “evil.” Leopardi is, in our lexicon, “depressed.” This is because of a frustrated love (for Ranieri? for his cousin Geltrude Cassi?), or infirmity: biography.
A purposeful contradiction is not a contradiction. It’s change. An accidental contradiction is not a contradiction. It’s growth. Still. There is such a thing as a contradiction.
“Perversato for perverso”: Leopardi notes the substitution of “raging,” or “fury,” for “perverse,” or “depraved” — a word must have a body, a motion, emotion, intelligence. The world’s monstrous incoherence demands a victim but will get a witness.
“These are things that we do not know, nor can we know; that none of those that we do know make even likely, still less do they authorize us to believe them. Let us therefore admire this order, this universe. I admire it more than anyone. I admire it for its perversity and deformity, which seem to me extreme. But before praising it, let us at least wait until we know with certainty that it is not the worst of all possible worlds.”
Tu dormi: lo questo ciel, che sì benigno
Yes, you sleep, while I come to my window
appare in vista, a salutary m’affaccio,
to salute this sky that seems so kind,
e l’antica natura onnipossente,
and eternal, all-commanding nature
che mi fece all’affanno.
who created me for suffering.
More from Joshua Cohen:
Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:
Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.
An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.”