I’ve just discovered Giacomo Leopardi hiding in the shadows of my leisure time. I’m not sure why I didn’t see him till now -I’ve been down similar trails before. Perhaps I was too busy to look around me, too busy inside myself. Apparently he was as well, and so I felt we had a connection, however gossamer-thin.
I have to thank Tim Parks for my initial introduction to Leopardi in an essay he wrote for Aeon.co: https://aeon.co/essays/why-read-the-nihilistic-work-of-giacomo-leopardi-today Leopardi, was a philosopher and poet born in 1798 who came to realize that once obtained, knowledge didn’t really help him to live -in fact it was more of a millstone than a fire. ‘Boredom and inertia, Leopardi understood at once, would be the archenemy of a world freed, or bereft, of all illusions, all belief… How did the heroes of the past do what they did, he wondered? How did anyone find the will to achieve anything? Illusion. They were driven by beliefs that were demonstrably vain… [Leopardi’s] thinking began to revolve around this central paradox: one studied and educated oneself under an imperative to find the truth, yet to live a happy life, which necessarily meant a purposeful active life, one needed to be impelled by illusion, not truth – or certainly not ultimate, philosophical truths.’
But nowadays, schooled in the tenets of Scientific thinking, it is hard to accept that illusion could be anything but counterproductive -misguided, if not patently wrong. Certainly not a positive quality for which to search. And yet, in a poem he wrote sitting on a hill, he ‘rejoices in the fact that his view is mostly blocked by a hedge. Not seeing the landscape, he can imagine all kinds of things out there beyond the hedge, imagine the infinite.’ With no unambiguous information to steer him, he finds pleasure in the freedom.
Okay, freedom -not, well, truth, or anything. Anyway, I’m not advocating the abandonment of critical thinking, just the ability to go to the movies every once in a while, eh? I’m reminded of Alan Watts here- a philosopher whose thought was very much in keeping with the mood of my university days in the 60ies. He saw the magic in geese disappearing into fog as they flew away for parts unknown. And what intrigued me was that he was not so much interested in the route they took as in the mystery of their sounds disappearing into the mist. It’s a different way of looking at the departure -one not so dependent on facts, as emotion -the not-knowing… the wonder of it all. The poetry of it all.
I am also reminded of the lay concept of Magisteria -the authoritative but different interpretations of reality: Science, say, vs Religion- overlapping sometimes, yet accessing fundamentally different tenets. To assert that only one of them is correct, is to choose sides, not truths -heart, not head, perhaps. So, do we have to choose? And should we?
‘[I]n a diary Leopardi called his Zibaldone (meaning ‘hotchpotch’) was a vast psychological study of how man in the past, individually and collectively, had defended himself from existential emptiness, and at the same time an exploration of how in the present it might be possible both to know the truth about life, yet still to cultivate illusion and so find the impetus needed to live… The key to a positive state of mind, Leopardi soon decided, might lie in inducing a temporary forgetfulness. In a poem, he ‘watches a game of football, as it then was, and likens its impassioned players to the heroes of ancient times: ‘has human effort / Ever been but a game?’ he wonders. ‘Is truth any less / Empty than falsehood?’ In the absence of nobler beliefs, the absurd notion that it might be of supreme importance to win a game of football is offered as a solution, albeit temporary, to existential crisis.’
Remember Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, where, in my admittedly eccentric interpretation of the plot, the Master of the Glass Bead game (the Magister Ludi) who has spent his life becoming the Master of the game, at the end questions whether it has all been worth it -after all, a Glass Bead Game…? Really? Why should that matter? Leopardi would no doubt see it as a worthwhile diversion to get him through an otherwise empty life, and yet… And yet it seems as meaningless as the alternative…
But, despite the nihilistic repudiation of meaning, value and purpose, he turns the tables just as we despair of any reason in continuing to play. ‘Nobody more than Leopardi could look disaster in the face, never denying that it was disaster, yet at the same time turning unhappiness itself into a colour or fragrance that would help you through the day. For, as Leopardi wrote, ‘the recognition of the irredeemable vanity and falsity of all beauty and all greatness is itself a kind of beauty and greatness that fills the soul.’
I’ve come to the conclusion that you have to pick and choose from his writings, though. But I particularly liked his Copernicus -it is summarized in the Aeon essay: ‘In ‘Copernicus’, the Sun suddenly decides he is fed up of turning round the Earth, and asks the philosopher Copernicus to inform the planet that, if it wants to go on enjoying evenly distributed light and warmth, it will have to do the turning itself from now on. Copernicus is hesitant: the change might be possible, he says, but the fact is that, with Earth fixed and the other planets all orbiting around it, man, despite his misery, has been able to imagine himself the centre of the Universe and the acme of creation. Reduce the Earth to spinning around like any other planet, and man will lose his self-importance and be left just with his misery. Not to worry, the Sun tells Copernicus, if they don’t like the new situation, men will have no problem living in denial and imagining they are still the masters of the Universe anyway. Then, who cares what men think? So Leopardi satirises human delusions of grandeur, but simultaneously reminds us how attractive it was to think of the Sun being pulled across the sky by a chariot, and how uninspiring is our mechanistic knowledge of the Universe.’
It seems to me that Leopardi is melding both Science and -what?- Myth into a recipe we can all digest: Nihilism-lite, maybe…?
Of course, only in retirement would I even consider reading stuff like this, eh?