Sunday, October 6, 2013

Leopardi's Zibaldone, Again

I reported some time ago that I had bought the English translation of Leopardi's Zibaldone. I have read many pages, but have come to the conclusion that it does not live up to its reputation. Most of the stuff in it is about philological details that might be of interest to a few specialists and historical details of interest to no one I know. He does have his moments. But many of those can be found in the shorter selection from the Zibaldone published by a friend from a selection of materials made by Leopardi himself. It whetted my appetite.

But he has his moments. Thus he finds:
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."[1]
I am sad to say that this book contributes to my unhappiness — not because of pronouncements like this, but because they are rare pearls of wisdom (or whatever they may be). You have to go through a lot of dross like this: "Can odoratus, which means sweet-smelling and is an adjective in usage, be anything but a participle in origin?" (976).

In short, I do not recommend the book any longer. A longish selection would have been much better. The Introduction is not very helpful either. So we are told that Joseph Anton Vogel, "one of Leopardi's teachers ... embodied the tradition of the ars excerpendi, that is the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century techniques of filing and rationally organizing knowledge in catalogues and indexes" influenced Leopardi, but we are not told how precisely. Instead, we hear that the Zibaldone as "a work of absolute writerliness" (xvii), of "the limitless materials of the Zibaldone" (xxi), and of "horizontal tensions, between contiguous thoughts" (xix).

1. This is quoted in a recent review of the book published here. The review is not without hype either, claiming the Zibaldone is "inexhaustible and worthy of endless meditation." This echos the Introduction which also finds it to be "endless," "limitless," absolute," "infinite," etc., etc. Less would have been more—at least more serious!

The sentiment itself reminds of the Buddhist conception of "dukkha" or the idea that all existence is necessarily unsatisfactory.

1 comment:

sms27 said...

I'm sorry that you are disappointed with the Zibaldone. It does contain a portion of philological material, which is often omitted in paperback Italian editions. I think that it is difficult to render Leopardi in English - a lot of the beauty of the text is following upon various strands of arguments he develops in different context, where the connotations of key words may change. This may be easily missed in English. The best parts for me are his reflections on the arts and language and his psychological observations. Leopardi was well ahead of reader reception theory.