A Splash of Cold Water


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What if happiness is impossible? What if “men are always discontented because they are always unhappy?” What if, in their hearts, “they feel and they are well aware that they are unhappy, that they suffer, that they do not find enjoyment, and in that they are not wrong?” What if this unhappiness is increased by the fact that men “think they have the right to be happy, to enjoy life, not to suffer, and in that too they would not be wrong, if it were not for the fact that what they expect is, if nothing else, impossible?”

  • Zibaldone by Giacomo Leopardi. 2,592 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $75.

Hard thoughts, especially for those of us who live in a country that declared, in one of its founding documents, that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right.

These and other fairly depressing thoughts about happiness can be found in a new English translation of a book called Zibaldone. Zibaldone — which translates roughly as “mental hodge-podge” — is the life’s work of the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. The central thesis of Zibaldone is that life is miserable and there is nothing to be done about it. The work consists of interrelated notebook entries from throughout Leopardi’s life.  The recent English version runs to a little over 2,000 pages, in very small font size. Last year it was released to what one would have expected to be complete silence.

Unexpectedly, people liked it. The book was the surprise hit of 2013. It was reviewed by prominent intellectuals in the New York Times, the New Statesman, Harper’s Magazine, the New Republic, the Financial Times, the New York Review of Books, and even here in The Smart Set.

The best way to read Zibaldone is to skip around on a theme. There’s no way to read the book in linear fashion. A person who attempted to read Zibaldone cover to cover would more than likely go insane. Since the book may cause you to blow a gasket anyway, why not do it on your own terms? Flip to the editorial index, find a subject that interests you, then go to the relevant section in the body of the text. Sooner or later you’ll hit a footnote, which will refer you to another section of the book. You can proceed in this way more or less indefinitely, or until you decide to pick up a new thread.

I’m still working on ‘Happiness/Unhappiness,’ with its subsections ‘hope and despair,’ ‘illusions/truth,’ and ‘remedies for unhappiness.’ The subsection ‘remedies for unhappiness’ takes us to a section that discusses nature. Man, thinks Leopardi, may have been happy in his natural state. But there is no going back to such a state. Civilization is not reversible. And civilization is, in its essence, the condition of misery. Therefore, the best remedy for unhappiness is suicide. “Our true nature,” writes Leopardi “we who have nothing to do with the men of the time of Adam, allows, indeed requires, suicide.” There follows a footnote, which refers us to Z 223 (the original page numbers for the manuscript of Zibaldone).

At Z 223, we find the following thought:

The fact is that today it seems absurd to call men back to nature, and the real and constant aim of the wisest and most profound philosophers is to distance us ever more from it, though at times they believe the opposite, confusing nature with reason. But even without that confusion, they believe that man will be happy when he lives entirely in accordance with pure reason. And then he will kill himself by his own hand.

The entirety of Zibaldone is really a sustained riff on this thought, that civilization is a disaster, that reason takes us out of nature and into a state of unhappiness, that history is a long story of decline, that human beings have become progressively more boring and more bored, that suicide is the only noble act left to man, that the illusions men lived under in ancient times were, in fact, better. The thoughts in Zibaldone are the scholarly version (Leopardi read many languages, ancient and modern, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of classical literature) of the same sentiments Leopardi expressed in his poetry.

Here, for example, are a few passages from Leopardi’s poem, To Silvia:

What light thoughts
what hopes, what hearts. My Silvia!
What human life and fate
were to us then!
When I remember so much hope
I’m overcome,
bitter, inconsolable,
and rage against my own ill luck.
O Nature, Nature,
why don’t you deliver later
what you promised then? Why do you lead on
your children so?

You, before winter had withered the grass,
stricken then overcome by hidden sickness,
died, gentle girl. You didn’t see
your years come into flower.
Sweet flattery about your raven hair
or your beguiling, guarded glance
never melted your heart,
and on holidays you never talked
about love with your friends.

Before long, my sweet hope
died, too; the fates
denied me youth also.
Ah, how truly
past you are,
dear companion of my innocence,
my much-lamented hope!
Is this that world? Are these
the joys, love, deeds, experience
we spoke so often of?
Is this man’s fate?
When the truth dawned
you fell away, poor thing, and from afar
pointed out cold death
and a naked grave.

(translated by Jonathan Galassi and Tim Parks)

The contemporary mind is tempted to explain these thoughts away, to banish these gloomy feelings by describing Leopardi as morose, unlucky, depressive, unnecessarily pessimistic. Adam Kirsch, in his review of Zibaldone for the New Republic, writes that, “Leopardi accurately conveys the way depression presents itself not as a subjective affliction, but as a disclosure of the true nature of the world. In melancholy, the world is seen to be without meaning and life is void of purpose; and once this desolation has been experienced it can never be wholly set aside. Yet Leopardi was, if anything, too faithful to his desolation; he was not an analyst of melancholy but its partisan.”

Kirsch may be right. There is something intolerable, unbearable about Leopardi’s partisanship for melancholy. A poet like Coleridge is, even in his gloom, more tolerable, since an irrepressible sense of joy leaps from his writing, even at its darkest. Not so with Leopardi. His poem cycle, Canti, begins with a poem about the irreversible decline of Italy and ends with the thought that life is pointless and short:

But he’s a fool who doesn’t see
how swift the wings of youth are, and how near
the cradle lies to the grave.

(trans. Jonathan Galassi)

“The human mind is always deceived in its hopes and always deceivable,” wrote Leopardi in Zibaldone, “always disappointed by hope itself and always capable of being so, not only open to but possessed by hope in the very act of ultimate desperation, the very act of suicide (Z 2315).”

I’m not sure if there is a writer who held to this gloomy thought more consistently in everything he wrote. Zibaldone never strays from this idea, that we are tortured by the idea of hope but that hope is always and everywhere thwarted. And Leopardi’s poems beat the dirge just as relentlessly. It isn’t just melancholy; it is relentless melancholy. It is melancholy that reflects on itself over and over again. Science and reason have forced us, argues Leopardi, to give up our illusions. But when you take away those illusions, there is nothing left. We stare into the abyss. And the abyss of reason pulls every honest human being down into a vast swirl of unhappiness. Leopardi refused to step out of his melancholy, to allow himself any relief from the thought that we, collectively, are doomed and that he was, personally, doomed.

Why then has the publication of Zibaldone been met with such celebration? What is to be celebrated in the relentless melancholic thinking of a man who hounded himself to an early grave?

The seduction of Zibaldone is in reading the words of a man who hasn’t flinched from the hardest thoughts. Reading Zibaldone is like getting permission to go into a room that is usually locked. It is a chance to let the dark thoughts speak. It is a chance to look at the desolation without brushing it away. It is a chance to sit and soak in the melancholy. Right now, at this moment in history, soaking in the melancholy seems the right thing to do. We are surrounded, after all, by a civilization that seeks pleasure and distraction with a shrillness that makes Imperial Rome look reserved. The current mainstream discussion of human happiness and infinite progress is so coarse that it has been more or less abandoned to the technocrats. Reflective persons have nowhere to turn. And then a volume like Zibaldone turns up. Leopardi, in his infinite gloom, takes on the guise of a savior. This is what it must have been like to stumble across a volume of Pascal’s Pensées in the late 17th century. It is like plunging into a very cold, very fresh mountain stream after days of walking in the hot sun.

If you are lucky, you may see a peculiar sort of human being walking down the street in your neck of the woods. She will be weighed down, carrying the large tome by Leopardi, and carrying even heavier thoughts. She will be doing real work, thinking about what it means to be alive. The answers will not be easy. More troubling still, there may not be answers. But you may notice that the person carrying the volume of Zibaldone seems sensitive and alive, if downcast. Nod to the Zibaldonist as she passes. She will not return your nod, since she is thinking the following thought:

I disdain this prideful age,
which feeds itself on empty hopes,
in love with slogans, enemy of virtue,
this foolish age, which wants what’s useful
and so doesn’t see that life
is becoming constantly more useless.

(trans. Jonathan Galassi)

3 March 2014