This is Michael Oakeshott in 1967 likening his Notebooks, 1922-86 (ed. Luke O’Sullivan, Imprint Academic, 2014) to Giacomo Leopardi’s prose masterwork, Zibaldone, published in its entirety in English for the first time last year. The Italian title is customarily translated “hodge-podge” or “miscellany,” though “grab bag” or “gallimaufry” might lend an appropriately vernacular touch to what is, after all, a vast gathering of fragments. Both books are collections of thoughts accumulated across time and unified only by the writer’s sensibility. It’s a form that encourages aphorism. Other works in the same formless form are Fernando Pessoa’s irresistibly rereadable The Book of Disquiet, Paul Valéry’s Cahiers/Notebooks and Don Colacho’s aphorisms.
Oakeshott (1901-1990) was an English political philosopher, not normally a calling I follow with much enthusiasm, but he was also a first-rate writer of prose, author of an essay that clarifies my thinking, “On Being Conservative” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962): “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” In other words, uncommon common sense. Oakeshott devotes much attention to such formal philosophers as Plato, Aristotle and Spinoza, but the notebooks include many entries devoted to his romantic life and his reading. He was a devoted reader of fiction, and among his favorite novelists were Cervantes, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Henry James and Conrad. Judging by his notebooks, Oakeshott wasn’t much of a gossip.
Thus far, I’ve only browsed the Notebooks, which is perhaps the most satisfactory way for a non-specialist, someone frightfully ignorant of political theory, to read them. This is a book to live with and grow slowly to know and depend on. Here’s a sample from a single page (519) late in the book, from notes Oakeshott made in 1967. The first passage echoes Oliver Edwards’ memorable remark to Dr. Johnson, as reported by Boswell: “I too have tried to be a philosopher, but happiness keeps breaking in.” And then this: “Love touched her, but found her without courage.” (Think of Anna Karenina.) Next, Oakeshott transcribes a quotation, possibly by Eugène Delacroix (according to O’Sullivan): “Only this morning when I got up I said to myself, where are the good old days when I was unhappy.” Oakeshott comments: “Ah, those dear vanished days when I was so unhappy.” (Oakeshott, we learn, had the driest of wits.) Next, Oakeshott visits pop culture: “When pop music provides anything half as good as Ronald Burge’s `Take a look at Ireland’ [unidentified by O’Sullivan]…The indescribable vulgarity of `Sergeant Pepper.’” Then a terse statement that might serve as Oakeshott’s apologia: “In everything he had his own way of doing it.” Oakeshott then quotes the first two lines of Henry Howard’s poem to Sir Thomas Wyatt, inscribed on Wyatt’s memorial in the Wykeham chapel of Sherborne Abbey:
“Wyat [sic] resteth here, that
Quick could never rest”
The most thoughtful and well-written review I have read of Leopardi’s Zibaldone was Adam Kirsch’s in the New Republic. Here’s how it begins, and the words apply with equal justice to Oakeshott’s Notebooks, the work of a political philosopher:
“Ours is an age of exposure and self-exposure. Only what happens in public, we tend to believe, is really real; and it becomes more real the more people see it happen. This way of thinking is, among other things, hostile to literature. For literary experience begins in privacy, in the mind of the writer, and it is consummated in privacy, in the mind of the reader. Books are printed and sold, and reviewed, only in order to facilitate this kind of invisible intimacy. It follows that it is always impossible to say with certainty just where the genuine literary and intellectual life of any period is taking place, at least until it is over. Only later, sometimes much later, do the hidden traces of that life begin to surface.”