The supreme irony of a life extravagantly compounded of ironies is Leopardi’s industriousness. In his thirty-eight years, two things remained constant: pain and work. A hunchback, he suffered from scoliosis, rickets and asthma, and he seldom stopped writing and “communicat[ing] something of himself.” At 2,592 pages, the recent English translation of his prose miscellany, Zibaldone, is the heaviest book in my library not a dictionary. The passage above dates from July 1, 1827. In the previous entry from the same date, Leopardi proposes a rather sinister thought experiment:
“That everyone believes our life consists of more pain than pleasure, more ill than good, is demonstrated by this experiment. I asked many people whether they would be happy to relive their life over again, on condition that they relived it exactly as they had done before. I have often asked myself the same question. As for starting over again, I and everyone else would be very happy, but no one would do so on that condition; rather than agree to that, everyone answered (as I did to myself) that they would do without that return to their early years which, in and of itself, would be so welcome to everyone. In order to return to childhood, they would want to place themselves blindly in the hands of fortune in the way that their life was to be lived again, and not know how it would be, in the same way as we are unaware what will happen to us for the rest of our life. What does this mean? It means that in the life that we have lived, and which we know, all of us have certainly experienced more ill than good; and that if we are happy, and we still desire to live, this is only because we are ignorant about the future, and have an illusion of hope, without which illusion and ignorance we would no longer wish to live, as we would not wish to relive our life in the same way as we have already lived it.”
This sounds like the mad, obsessive logic of a Beckett narrator. In Proust (1931), Beckett approves of Leopardi’s “wisdom that consists not in the satisfaction but in the ablation of desire.” Beckett quotes two lines from “A se stesso” (“To himself”): “In noi di cari inganni, / Non che la speme, il desiderio e` spento.” (“Not only our hope / but our desire for dear illusions is gone.” Canti, trans. Jonathan Galassi, 2010). But Leopardi’s reasoning and deportment recall another physically and spiritually tormented writer, Dr. Johnson. The Rambler #134 begins with the familiar trope of a writer unable to write and incrementally broadens his vision:
“Those moments which he cannot resolve to make useful, by devoting them to the great business of his being, will still be usurped by powers that will not leave them to his disposal; remorse and vexation will seize upon them, and forbid him to enjoy what he is so desirous to appropriate.”
Giacomo Leopardi was born on this date, June 29, in 1798. The Rambler #134 was published on this date in 1751.