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.