Giacomo Leopardi, ‘Zibaldone’, Kerouac and Jackson Pollock


Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone

My copy

My copy

One of the 19C’s most radical and challenging thinkers and poets (his Canti and moral works influenced Walter Benjamin and Beckett), Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) for most of his writing career kept adding entries to an immense notebook, whose Italian title translates as ‘hodgepodge’, miscellany or commonplace book – in previous posts I’ve considered similar ‘Florilegia’ and Chrestomathies (by the likes of Chamfort). Here he recorded his thoughts, impressions, philosophical musings and aphoristic responses to his reading (not just in Italian, but Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other European languages) initially in his isolated house in a village in the Marche, and subsequently elsewhere in Italy. There’s an excellent Introduction by the editors, which provides an illuminating account of his life and work, and the social-political-cultural world in which he operated. It’s also placed in the context of the ars excerpendi: the 16-17C techniques of ‘filing and rationally organising knowledge in catalogues and indexes.’ The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin, with its ‘convolutes’, is a similar enterprise.

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.  Penguin Books, hardback (2013)

1900 Florence edition

In this Introduction there’s a fascinating account of how the MS, hidden away until the turn of the 19-20C, came to light and began to appear in Italian editions, but failed to make much of an impression, so extraordinary and original was its content, so wide-ranging in subject-matter – which tended towards a rejection of high-Romantic idealism and optimism in favour of a more nihilistic world view.

Filling more than 4,500 pp in MS, and 2,502 in this handsome Penguin edition (it’s printed on ultra-thin paper), its focus is the 16-year period 1817-1832, although much of it was completed by 1823, when Leopardi was just 25. It’s the product of his egregious erudition and polymath mind, which was enabled to develop in his aristocratic father’s extensive library, and later in the literary-philosophical Italy of his day.

It would be virtually impossible to ‘review’ this enormous repository of random allusions and dialogues with other texts. Here I shall mention just one entry that recently took my fancy. It’s a book to be dipped into, rather than read in a linear way. One could imagine it lending itself to bibliomancy. I may well revisit it in this way another time (and perhaps the Benjamin text, too, another favourite of mine).

The section that caught my attention appears on p. 88 of this edition, numbered 94-95 by the editors. Here Leopardi is discussing the advantages of being polyglot: it ‘affords some greater facility and clarity on the way we formulate our thoughts, for it is through language that we think’:

Now, perhaps no language has enough words and phrases to correspond to and express all the infinite subtleties of thought. The knowledge of several languages and the ability, therefore, to express in one language what cannot be said in another…makes it easier for us to articulate our thoughts and to understand ourselves, and to apply the word to the idea, which, without that application, would remain confused in our mind.

This is a sentiment of profound good sense, though many would disagree. He goes on to say he has experienced this phenomenon frequently:

…and it can be seen in these same thoughts, written with the flow of the pen, where I have fixed my ideas with Greek, French, Latin words, according to how for me they responded more precisely to the thing, and came most quickly to mind.

Leopardi,_Giacomo_(1798-1837)_-_ritr._A_Ferrazzi,_Recanati,_casa_LeopardiThe editors’ note to this section (the emphasis is mine) points out that Leopardi makes clear here that he writes his diary a penna corrente – ‘with the flow of the pen’, or senza studio. I find these expressions particularly felicitous – and perfect examples of what he said earlier about the ability of one language to fix an idea more concisely and expressively than another: ‘a penne corrente’ is so much more satisfying a concept than the prosaic English translation ‘quickly’; ‘senza studio’ more mellifluous than ‘unreflectingly’.

It is in this spirit that I’ve written some of my blog posts, including this one (and the previous post on Fred Titmus and Liz Taylor), whereas I usually draft them – though it probably doesn’t seem that way to readers – with great care.

I recently attended an academic conference at Birkbeck College, University of London, on the subject of ‘action writing’: the improvised free-form style favoured by Jack Kerouac and others of his generation, pioneered in music by the jazz musicians of the preceding years, and by Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’. How intriguing to find in the Zibaldone an advocate of this Zen attitude to artistic creation…

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi, edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino. Translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon et al.

Penguin Books, hardback (2013)


8 thoughts on “Giacomo Leopardi, ‘Zibaldone’, Kerouac and Jackson Pollock

  1. Looking forward to an in-depth reading; love the juxtaposition (correct word? haven’t had enough caffeine yet in EST) of Leopardi, Kerouac, Pollock, and jazz!

    BTW, we have an avant-garde “Jazz Elder” working in office services in our very own building (at another law firm). See below from Washington DC’s “City Paper” (2014). Check out “OOO Trio” on YouTube, also an album that came out about a year ago called “Days To Be Told.”

    Best Overlooked Jazz Elder – Aaron Martin

    Martin remains a leading light of “outside” jazz in D.C. He’s one third of OOO Trio, with bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Sam Lohman (their album Days to Be Told comes out in the spring); has worked with avant-garde stalwarts like Anthony Braxton and Roy Campbell; and continues to be a student of the music….the alto saxophonist arises early in the morning to practice before work (at a downtown law firm…!!!) in his loft space at New York Avenue NE’s Union Arts, then comes back in the evening to practice some more. Sometimes he even sleeps there.”

    It’s paid off, allowing Martin to develop a clear but flexible and expressive tone that phrases in short bursts, into each of which he packs many melodic ideas. And it’s made him a font of musical and creative wisdom to which musicians and in-the-know listeners hang on with close attention. Though Martin is lesser-known than many of his peers, he’s genuinely welcoming of open-eared and -minded audiences, and remains optimistic about the music’s future. “The avant-garde lives in D.C.,” he says. “It ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Certainly not as long as it’s got Martin.

    —Michael J. West

  2. All respect to anyone reading – or opening – this monster.

    I see why it is an issue for Leopardi, but my thoughts are not infinitely subtle, so one language is more than adequate. Plenty of room in English for my “thoughts.”

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  4. Pingback: Leopardi on life: Zibaldone revisited - Tredynas Days

  5. Thank you for an insightful post about this book. I’m about to buy this book from an online site, may I ask you about the quality of the paper. As far as I know, this book has two edition, US and UK (which is yours), and the Penguin Hardback Classics often uses cheap papers which quickly turn brown (or yellow). I’m considering buying the Kindle edition if that’s the case.

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