In an age when so many people are at a loss to give life meaning and direction, Giacomo Leopardi is essential reading
Imagine you spend your childhood almost entirely in a library, your father’s library. There are thousands upon thousands of volumes, most of them old, many in foreign languages. Your native language is Italian, but by age 10 you are reading in Latin, Greek, German and French. English and Hebrew are next on the list.
Why are you doing this? Your father is ambitious for his firstborn son. He wants you to be a priest. At 12, you receive the tonsure, meaning your hair is cut like a monk’s to dedicate you to God. You are dressed in a cassock. More than a priest, or even a bishop, your father wants you to be a champion of Christianity, a theologian; you will use your learning to refute false doctrines, liberalism, atheism.
Your progress is astonishing. At 14, your tutors tell you they have nothing more to teach you. Left to your own devices, you limber up with translations from the classics, philological commentaries, philosophical dissertations, tragedies, epigrams, History of Astronomy and a Life of Plotinus, until, at age 17, you embark on your first major work: an Essay on the Popular Errors of the Ancients. ‘The world is full of errors,’ you write in the opening line, ‘and man’s first task must be to know the truth.’ Your father is delighted. But the truth, as time slips by among the ‘sweat-stained pages’ in the book-lined rooms, is that the more you write about gods and ghosts and mythical monsters, the more attractive these stories begin to seem, especially when compared with the Christian rationality that was supposed to sweep them away.
A crisis is approaching. At some point you look in a mirror and discover your back is crooked. Your youth has been wasted in ‘seven years of mad and desperate study’. Your eyesight is weak, you have asthma, you are constipated. So unlikely are you ever to marry or have children that your younger brother is declared heir to the family estate. You have lost your birthright. But most of all, you think too much. ‘Thinking about how one breathes,’ you find you can hardly breathe; ‘thinking and ruminating on the act of urination,’ you find you can’t urinate. ‘Thought,’ you later reflect, ‘can crucify … a person.’
How can you know that it is precisely this insight into the dangers of compulsive thinking, the psychosomatic nature of your ills and the hubris of grand philosophical systems that will make you so important to readers 200 years hence?
In any event, you don’t want arid erudition anymore; you want poetry. So you translate the Odyssey and the Aeneid and even start to write poems yourself. You will call this your literary conversion. It is followed at 18 by your political conversion. Suddenly you turn against your father’s support of Papal power and absolutist monarchies, and become a patriot and a liberal. You want Italy to be united and free. You want revolution. And you start writing patriotic hymns. Your father is appalled. But the real bombshell arrives at 21, your philosophical conversion. All at once, it’s obvious to you that Christianity is as much an ‘error’ as believing in Zeus or Apollo. Because the world is ‘a solid nothing’. It has no meaning and no direction.
So what on Earth are you going to do now?
The ‘you’ of this story, as any Italian schoolchild would immediately recognise, is the poet and thinker Giacomo Leopardi. The place is Recanati, a small town near the Adriatic coast south of Ancona, then part of the Papal State. The time is the early 19th century; Leopardi was born in 1798 and completed his three ‘conversions’ in 1819. So in one of the most neglected areas of perhaps the most backward and reactionary state in Europe, a young man arrived at the conclusions that were then driving the early writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and would later underlie the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, of 20th-century Existentialism and absurdism, of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, Thomas Bernhard and Emil Cioran… [+]