David Foster Wallace on Argumentative Writing and Nonfiction

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

In December 2004, Bryan A. Garner, who had already struck up a friendship with David Foster Wallace, started interviewing state and federal judges as well as a few key writers. With over a hundred interviews under his belt by January 2006, he called David to suggest they do an interview. So on February 3, 2006 the two finally got together in Los Angeles for an extensive conversation on writing and life that offers a penetrating look into our collective psyche. Their conversation has been captured in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

Very few things get me more excited than reading one smart person interview another. I mean, we’re not talking TV puff pieces here, we’re talking outright depth with an incisive look at culture.

For context, Garner is the author of a book that, admittedly, I have a hard time not opening on a weekly basis: Garner’s Modern American Usage, which helps explain some of the insightful banter between the two.

When asked if, before writing a long nonfiction piece, he attempts to understand the structure of the whole before starting, Wallace simply responded “no.”

Elaborating on this he goes on to say:

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.

If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know— and people are always interested and want to know what you do— most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Were it me, I see doing it in the third or fourth draft as part of the “Oh my God, is what I’m saying making any sense at all? Can somebody who’s reading it, who can’t read my mind, fit it into some sort of schematic structure of argument?”

I think a more sane person would probably do that at the beginning. But I don’t know that anybody would be able to get away with . . . Put it this way: if you couldn’t do it, if you can’t put . . . If you’re writing an argumentative thing, which I think people in your discipline are, if you couldn’t, if forced, put it into an outline form, you’re in trouble.

Commenting on what constitutes a good opening in argumentative writing, Wallace offers:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

Garner, the interviewer, follows this up by asking “Do you think of most pieces as having this, in Aristotle’s terms, a beginning, a middle, and an end—those three parts?”

I think, like most things about writing, the answer lies on a continuum. I think the interesting question is, how much violence do you do to the piece if you reprise it in a three-act . . . a three-part structure.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other— and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument— and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

Why are transitions so important?

[pause] Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating. My own guess is that at just about the point where that amount— the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort— becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof. Right?

But one of the things I end up saying to the students is, “Realize your professors are human beings. They’re reading these things really fast, but you’re often being graded down for reasons that the professor isn’t consciously aware of because of an immense amount of reading and an immense amount of evaluation of the quality of a piece of writing, the qualities of the person producing it, occur below, just below, the level of consciousness, which is really the way you want it. And one of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it— the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

One of the things that makes a really good writer, according to Wallace, is they “can just kind of feel” when to make transitions and when not to.

Which doesn’t mean such creatures are born, but it does mean that’s why practicing and paying attention never stop being important. Right? It’s because we’re training the same part of us that knows how to swing a golf club or shift a standard transmission, things we want to be able to do automatically. So we have to pay attention and learn how to do them so we can quit thinking about them and just do them automatically.

In case you’re wondering, it was Tense Present, DFW’s review of Garner’s book that sparked their friendship. The full article, before Harper’s cuts, appears in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Quack This Way is an insightful interview by two terrific minds.

John Keats on the Quality That Formed a Man of Achievement: Negative Capability

John Keats coined the term negative capability to describe the willingness to embrace uncertainty, mysteries and doubts.

The first and only time Keats used the phrase was in a letter on 21 December 1817 to his brothers in reference to his disagreement with the English poet and philosopher Coleridge, who Keats believed “sought knowledge over beauty.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

From Wikipedia:

Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single, higher-order truth or solution to the mysteries of the natural world. He went on to find the same fault in Dilke and Wordsworth. All these poets, he claimed, lacked objectivity and universality in their view of the human condition and the natural world. In each case, Keats found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a “thoroughfare for all thoughts.” Lacking for Keats were the central and indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.

This concept of Negative Capability is precisely a rejection of set philosophies and preconceived systems of nature. He demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason, and to not seek absolute knowledge of every truth, mystery, or doubt.

The origin of the term is unknown, but some scholars have hypothesized that Keats was influenced in his studies of medicine and chemistry, and that it refers to the negative pole of an electric current which is passive and receptive. In the same way that the negative pole receives the current from the positive pole, the poet receives impulses from a world that is full of mystery and doubt, which cannot be explained but which the poet can translate into art.

Although this was the only time that Keats used the term, this view of aesthetics and rejection of a rationalizing tendency has influenced much commentary on Romanticism and the tenets of human experience.

For the twentieth-century British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, negative capability “was the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.”

If you’re still curious, I recommend reading this thesis on Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness.

My Life In Middlemarch


Rebecca Mead has written a book like no other I’ve come across. My Life In Middlemarch is an irresistibly creative story about how her favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, changed her and perhaps more importantly, changed as she read and re-read it over the years.

Commenting on how books were a part of her identity, Mead writes:

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. … Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch—with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling.

On her fascination with Middlemarch, looking back she writes:

I admired the little I knew of George Eliot’s life: her daunting, self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan preeminence, a good story to hear if one is an anxiously ambitious girl from a backwater town. I was intrigued by her adoption of a masculine pseudonym, by which she continued to be known throughout her life as a novelist, even after her identity was revealed early in her fiction-writing career. I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for who it was written.

Commenting on the value of re-reading, Mead says:

Middlemarch was one book I have never stopped reading, despite all the distractions of a busy working life. I went back to it as a student … I read it again in my twenties … In my thirties, trying to establish myself as a serious writer, I was struck with new, poignant force by the story of Lydgate—the ambitious would-be reformer who becomes, instead, a society doctor known for a treatise on gout, “a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side,” in Eliot’s pointed observation. The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it and by my early forties it had come to have yet another resonance. In a far from singular crisis, I had recently become consumed by a sense of doors closing behind me, alternative lives unlived: work I might have done, places I might have moved to, men I might have married, children I might have borne. In this light, a book that had once seemed to be all about the hopes and desires of youth now seemed to cover a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade.

Being a journalist for years had shaped Mead. Armed with a better sense of nuance and questions to ask, she once again took up the cause to look at something “familiar from an unfamiliar angle,” wondering what she would find.

Cloaked in this quasi-objective spirit of inquiry was another set of questions, these ones more personal, and pressing, and secret. What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? and what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things and surveyed where I had come from, and then thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?

The book is full of interesting stories. Like the one on how Charles Dickens suspected that George Eliot was, in fact, a man. When Eliot’s first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, was published, Dickens wrote to the publisher, noting, “If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman since the world began.” A short time after Adam Bede, her first book, was published her identity was revealed. Dickens commented, “‘Adam Bede’ has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.”

Commenting on the value of reading, Mead writes:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.

My Life In Middlemarch is part memoir, part mini-biography of the great Victorian writer George Eliot, who was born Mary Ann Evans, and part homage to great literature.

Stephen King On Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, Lovecraft & More

Stephen King speaks on a number of topics and takes questions from students, faculty and others in a “Master’s Class” at UMass Lowell.

I sometimes think that people don’t challenge themselves very hard to read stuff that’s a little bit more textured or nuanced. … And then sometimes I think that the people (who) are defenders of what they call literature, feel like a book has to be a ignored if it reaches more than 750 readers.

Mark Twain on New Year’s Resolutions

Mark Twain’s Letter to Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Jan. 1863

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.



I recently picked up Sophocles’s Antigone. Sophocles wrote more than 100 plays in his lifetime but only seven complete tragedies remain.

In Antigone, Polynices, son of Oedipus, went to war with his brother, Eteocles, the ruler of Thebes, for control of the city. These two kill each other and their uncle, Creon, assumes control of the city.

Creon regards Polynices as a traitor. Accordingly, he denies his body a decent burial. He warns that anyone ignoring this edict shall be put to death.

Creon’s position is understandable. He’s trying to establish order, punish a traitor, and gain political authority. Yet he proceeds in ignorance, in the sense that he does not see the possible outcomes that may arise from his edict.

Antigone is the sister of Polynices and Eteocles. She’s clearly upset with this and defies Creon’s order to give her brother a proper burial. Antigone is convinced that Creon is wrong. To her he’s defying the authority of the gods and overstepping.

Antigone is arrested and confesses. Creon orders her death by sealing her in a cave, entombed alive.

Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns Creon. “Think, thou dost walk on fortune’s razor-edge.” He predicts that if Creon doesn’t change his mind and permit the burial of Polynices, the gods will curse Thebes. Disaster, of course, will naturally follow.

Creon recognizes the error of his ways and realizes he made a mistake. He orders Antigone to be freed and Polynices a proper burial.

Alas, this wouldn’t quite be a tragedy if things worked out so neatly.

Antigone has already hung herself. Her fiancé, who also happens to be Creon’s son, blames his father for her death. He tries to kill his father but accidentally ends up killing himself. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hears of her son’s death and commits suicide.

So what exactly can we learn from all of this?

Creon is reluctant to change from the status quo. While he may not have foreseen Antigone’s reaction or its consequences as warned by the prophet, he refuses, until it is too late, to change his mind. He’s powerful. He’s the ruler. He needs to be seen as decisive and he likely views changing his mind as a loss of status rather than a gain of compassion. Yet it is more complicated than this.

“Should Creon change his stance and lose authority and influence,” he would have committed an error of commission, weighted more heavily, ceteris paribus, than doing nothing, and having bad things happen,” explain Devjani Roy and Richard Zeckhauser in their paper Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature.

If you’re curious, I’d recommend you give Antigone a read. It’s short, only 50 pages or so.

Two types of ignorance


This article builds on Decisions Under Uncertainty. In fact, consider this a continuation.

Think of how we make decisions in organizations — we often do what standard decision theory would ask of us.

We create a powerpoint that identifies the future desired state, identify what might happen, attach weighted probabilities to said outcomes, and make a choice. Perfectly rational. Right?

One of the problems with this approach is the risk charts and matrices that accompany this analysis. In my experience these charts are rarely discussed in detail and become more about checking the ‘I thought about risk’ box than anything else. We conveniently pin things into categories of low, medium, or high risk with a corresponding “impact” scale.

What gets most of the attention is high-risk, high-impact. Perhaps deservedly so. But you have to ask yourself how did we arrive at these arbitrary scales? Is one person’s look at risk the same as someone else’s? Are there hidden incentives to nudge risk one way or another? What biases come into play?

Often we can’t even identify everything. Rarely do people ever go back and look at what happened and how accurate those “risk” tables were. From the ones I’ve seen, the “low risk” stuff happens a lot more often than people imagined. And a lot of things happen that never even made the chart in the first place.

On the occasion when people do go back, and I’ve seen this firsthand, hindsight bias creeps in. “Oh, we discussed that but it didn’t make it in the document. But we knew about it.” Yes, of course you did.

Ignorant and unknowing.

We’re largely ignorant, that is, we operate in a state of the world where some possible outcomes are unknown. However, we’ve prepared for a world where outcomes and probabilities can be estimated. There is a mis-match between our training and reality. You can’t even hope to accurately estimate probabilities if the range of outcomes is unknown.

There are two types of ignorance.

The first category is when we do not know we are ignorant. This is primary ignorance. The second category is when we recognize our ignorance. This is called recognized ignorance.

Empty Suits
Empty Suits and Fragilistas are almost always ignorant and unknowing.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb writes:

[The Empty Suit/Fragilista] defaults to thinking that what he doesn’t see is not there, or what he does not understand does not exist. At the core, he tends to mistake the unknown for the nonexistent.

That my friends is primary ignorance. And it’s not limited to empty suits and fragilistas. Consider Anna Karenina:

Primary ignorance ruins the life of one of fiction’s most famous characters, Anna Karenina. Readers of Anna Karenina (1877/2004) know that, in this novel, a train bookends bad news. Anna alights from one train as the novel begins and throws herself under another one as it ends. As she enters the glittering world of pre-Revolutionary Saint Petersburg, Anna catches the eye of the aristocratic bachelor Count Vronsky and quickly falls under his spell. But there is a problem: she is married to the rising politician Karenin, the two have a son Seryozha, and society will not take kindly to the conspicuous adultery of a prominent citizen. Indulging in an extra-marital affair, especially when one’s husband is a respected member of society, promotes the likelihood of unpleasant (events). But her passion for Vronsky dulls Anna’s capacities for self-awareness. She becomes pregnant out of wedlock, a disastrous condition for a woman in nineteenth-century Russia. Anna consistently displays an unfortunate propensity to take action without recognizing that a terrible consequential outcome is possible. That is, she operates in primary ignorance.

Anna demonstrates all the characteristics of primary ignorance. She fails to consider all the possible scenarios that will occur from her impulsive decision making. She risks her marriage with Karenin, a kind if undemonstrative husband, who is willing to forgive and even offers to raise her illegitimate child as his own. Leaving Seryozha with Karenin, she and Vronsky escape to Italy and then to his Russian country estate. Ultimately, she finds that while Vronsky continues to be accepted socially, living his life exactly as he pleases, the door of society slams shut in her face. No one will associate with her and she is insulted as an adulterer wherever she goes. It is only when she is completely isolated socially and cut off from her beloved son that Anna recognizes the dangers of primary ignorance: she risked her family and her reputation for too little. … She realizes she was ignorant of the possible outcomes that jumping headlong into an illicit relationship would bring.

Ignorance, primary or recognized, is only important if the expected consequences are significant. Otherwise we can be ignorant without consequence.

While human irrationality factors into all decisions, it hits us most when we are unknowingly ignorant. Rational decision making becomes harder as we move along the continuum: outcomes are known —> risk —> uncertainty/ignorance.

If we can not consider all possible outcomes, preventing failure becomes nearly impossible. Further complicating matters, situations of ignorance often take years to play out. Joy and Zeckhauser write:

One could argue … that a rational decision maker should always consider the possibility of ignorance, thus ruling out primary ignorance. But that is a level of rationality that very few achieve.

If we could do this we’d always be in the space of recognized ignorance, better, at least, than primary ignorance.


“Fortunately,” write Joy and Zeckhauser, “there is a group of highly perceptive chroniclers of human decision-making who observe individuals and follow their paths, often over years or decades. They are the individuals who write fiction: plays, novels, and short stories describing imagined events and people (or fictional characters.)”

Joy and Zeckhouser argue these works have “deep insights” into the way we approach decisions, “both great and small.”

In the Poetics, a classical treatise on the principles of literary theory, Aristotle argues that art imitates life. We refer here to Aristotle’s ideas of mimesis, or imitation. Aristotle claims one of art’s functions is the representation of reality. “Art” here includes creative products of the human imagination and, therefore, any work of fiction. Indeed, a crevice, not a canyon, separates faction and fiction.

For centuries, authors have attempted to depict situations of ignorance. In Greek literature, Sophocle’s King Oedipus and Creon, and Homer’s Odysseus all seek forecasting skills of the blind prophet Tiresias who is doomed by Zeus to “speak the truth no man may believe.”

For its status as one of literature’s most enduring love stories, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice begins rather unpromisingly: the hero and the heroine cannot stand each another. The arrogant Mr. Darcy claims Elizabeth Bennet is “not handsome enough to tempt me”; Elizabeth offers the equally withering riposte that she “may safely promise … never to dance with him.” Were we to encounter them after these early skirmishes, we (like Elizabeth and Darcy themselves) would be ignorant of the possibility of an ultimate romance.

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856/2004), Charles Bovary is a stolid rural doctor who is ignorant of the true character of the woman he is marrying. Dazzled by her youth and beauty, he ends up with an adulterous wife who plunges him into debt. His wife Emma, the titular “Madame Bovary,” is equally ignorant of the true character of her husband. Her head filled with romantic fantasies, she yearns for a sophisticated partner and the glamor of city life, but finds herself trapped in a somnolent marriage with a rustic man.

K., the land surveyor and protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, attempts, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to gain access to the mysterious authorities of a castle but is frustrated by an authoritarian bureaucracy and by ambiguous responses that defy rational interpretation. He begins and ends the novel (as does the reader) in ignorance.

Joy and Zeckhouser use stories to study ignorance, which makes sense.

Stories offer “simulations of the social world,” according to Psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley, through abstraction, simplification, and compression. Stories afford us a kind of flight simulator. We can test run new things and observe and learn, with little economic or social cost. Joy and Zeckhouser believe “that characters in great works of literature reproduce the behavioral propensities of real-life individuals.”

While we’ll likely never uncover situations as fascinating as we find in stories, this doesn’t mean they are not a useful tool for learning about choice and consequence.

“In a sense,” Joy and Zeckhauser write, “this is why great literature will never get dated: these stories observe the details of human behavior, and present such behavior awash with all the anguish and the splendor that is the lot of the human predicament.

As Steven Pinker notes in How The Mind Works:

Characters in a fictitious world do exactly what our intelligence allows us to do in the real world. We watch what happens to them and mentally take notes on the outcomes of the strategies and tactics they use in pursuing their goals.

If we assume we live in a world where we are, to some extent, ignorant then the best course is “thoughtful action or prudent information gathering.” Yet, when you look at the stories, “we frequently act in ways that violate such advice.”

So reading fiction can help us adapt and deal with the world of uncertainty.

Read part three of this series: Avoiding Ignorance.

References: Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature (Joy and Zeckhauser).



I picked up a copy of the first complete English edition of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone.

Giacomo Leopardi is the most radical and channelling of nineteenth-century poets and thinkers, yet the recognition of his genius outside his native Italy has been sporadic, at times enthusiastic and engaged, at others distracted.

Herman Melville turned him into a character in Clarel (a skeptic “stoned by Grief”). Nietzsche, “in the second of his Unfashionable Observations,” was describing Leopardi as the model of the modern philologist and the greatest prose writer of the century.”

According to editor Franco D’Intino, one of the reasons around Leopardi’s “waxing and waning” reputation was because he “lived and wrote in that shadow-land that lies between the impetuous fire-bust of the first Romantic generation and the generation that came after him, that of the founders of the modern lyric. The shadowland was called, in post-Napoleonic Italy, the Restoration, and age of discontent, frustration,melancholy, eyes cast toward the past or the future, but a future beyond this world.”


He became a philosopher without knowing Kant, he became a poet without knowing Goethe—except for what he could learn of either from mme de Staël, his poor Baedeker guide to modern philosophy—because in himself he was able to find the strength to reach beyond the confines of his age, and, with comparable acuity, to see forward and backward in time.

Nature and the ancients were his salvation and his true teachers. … [H]is ability to go beyond disciplinary boundaries and codified languages, his extreme intellectual flexibility and freedom, open up new roads before him, along which, for example, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Benjamin will travel, and many post-structuralist thinkers after them.

Far from a book this is more like a monstrously wonderful manuscript, which for a long time no one knew anything about. It only came to light posthumously, more than half a century after Leopardi passed. “The book,” writes I’Dintino, “was, with few exceptions, confined to specialists in Italian literature, who had no interest in the ways in which Leopardi had reflected on man, society, and nature, or in the implacable originality with which he had set about interrogating all the fields of knowledge.”

At over two thousand pages, the odds of me reading it anytime soon are pretty low. Recently, however, I’ve taken to pulling it off the shelf, selecting a random page, and reading a few passages.


To give you a quick idea of the sort of thinker and writer Leopardi was, I flipped to a random page and found this passage on boredom.

Let us observe the animals. They often do very little or stay in their lairs, etc. etc. etc., without doing anything. Man does much more. The activity of the most inert man surpasses that of the most active animal (whether internal or external activity). And yet animals don’t know what boredom is, nor do they desire greater activity, etc. Man is bored and feels his nothingness at every moment. But he does and thinks things that are not intended by nature. With animals it’s the opposite.

Or this on imitating.

The difficulty of imitating: easier to do more than the thing itself: how difficult it is to be equal: how rare prefect equality is in nature: hence the wonder born of imitation and the delight born of wonder.

And one more, on the effectiveness of expressions.

The effectiveness of expressions is very often the same as their novelty. It frequently happens that the much-used expression is more robust, truer, more energetic, and yet its being much used enervates it and takes away its strength.

I’ve found something awesome on nearly every page I’ve looked at.

Leopardi’s “comments about religion, philosophy, language,
history, anthropology, 
astronomy, literature, poetry, and love
are unprecedented in their brilliance and suggestiveness.”

I highly recommend you pick up a copy. If the book is too much for you, it makes great gift for a smarter friend.