Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Leopardi: Thoughts

Another little book from Hesperus Classics.

Quoting from the Introduction by Edoardo Albinati:
Both the limitations and the greatness of Leopardi's Thoughts are to be found precisely in this fact: that they are the moral maxims of a misfit - a brilliant outsider who was always set apart. They contrast with the rich moralistic tradition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a treasure of direct experience put into focus by accomplished men of the world (like La Rochefoucauld and Voltaire) situated at the very centre of the most highly developed society in Europe. The anathema which Leopardi pronounces on worldly institutions sounds above all like the defeat of illusions ardently nourished in solitude, or even worse, like a confirmation that the ancient cynical philosophers whom he committed to memory as a boy were right. And this anathema reverberates with all his sacrificial, private, obsessive torment, even though Leopardi makes every effort to translate his ethical condemnations into impersonal axioms, trusting to a cold and unbending manner which a true man of the world would never dream of adopting.

One after another, the values and customs of so-called civilised ways of living come under fire, as in the manual of an idealistic sly-boots. Good reputation, discretion, education…….. and finally the worldly cult of seduction, regarded simply as robbery of the weak by the strong - all come under attack. Nothing can be salvaged from the mass of deception and abuse that is society.

Albinati goes on to say: The Thoughts were intended to be the mature legacy of a man who had not reached his 40th year, but their splendour is not due to any special wisdom, but on the contrary to the romantic reverberations of inexperience, exactly what makes a character of Hoffmansthal, who dies without ever having known love, say "I have been in Egypt and I have not seen pyramids…." Leopardi had not seen them either.

So, you may be wondering by now, why do we want to read this book? Try this:

'We know for certain that the majority of those whom we appoint to educate our children have not themselves been educated. And we should be in no doubt that they cannot give what they have not received, and what cannot be acquired in any other way.'

Or this, which could be a Thought for Our Times:

'If I had Cervantes' talent, I would write a book to purge - as he purged Spain of the imitation of knights errant - to purge Italy, indeed the civilised world, of a vice which, considering the mildness of current manners, and perhaps even without that consideration, is no less cruel and barbarous than any remnant of mediaeval savagery castigated by Seventies is. I mean the vice of reading or performing one's own compositions in front of others. This is an ancient vice which was tolerable in previous centuries because it was rare, but which today, when everyone writes and it is very difficult to find someone who is not an author, has become a scourge, a public calamity, one further tribulation for human beings.'

The book ends with a translation of Leopardi’s last great desolate poem, one haunting in its sheer clarity, where a new society is announced, one in which human beings are allied against suffering because they are fully possessed by it- The Broom, the lowly flower which survives in the desert. (See separate post.)

It was, perhaps, unlucky to happen upon Leopardi’s Thoughts before having read any of his other works, particularly the poetry. After having read The Broom I feel inspired to seek out more of him.

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