John Gray has an incisive and learned comment on the occasion of the first English translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone–partly a notebook of commentary and partly a diary from this brilliantly melancholy Romantic mind. Much of Gray’s commentary considers Leopardi’s relationship to Enlightenment rationalism, on the hand, and Christianity, on the other. For those with an interest in Leopardi’s political thought, may I also recommend Joshua Foa Dienstag’s superb discussion of Leopardi in his Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit.
Probably Leopardi’s poetry (his “Canti” especially) is the best known of his corpus, but my favorite of his work has always been Le Operette Morali or “Little Moral Tales.” These have been translated into English before, and for some years, I have set myself the project of doing a new translation. Let’s just say it’s in progress.
Here is a translation (Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs) of the opening passages from the first of the Operette Morali, “The Story of the Human Race”:
The story is told that all the men who first peopled the earth were created everywhere at the same time, and all as infants, and were nourished by bees, goats, and doves, as the poets describe in their fable about the nurture of Jove. They say, too, that the earth was much smaller than it is now, and all the land was flat, that the sky was starless, that there was no sea, and that there was much less variety and magnificence in the world than we see there now. But men, nevertheless, delighted in the pleasure they took in regarding and considering the earth and sky with great wonder, thinking them most beautiful, and not only vast but infinite in size, majesty, and loveliness; and they also nourished very joyous hopes, deriving an incredible delight from all their awareness of this life, and became most contented, so that they almost believed in happiness.
Having thus passed their childhood and early youth most sweetly and having reached a riper age, a change came over them. For their hopes, which they had postponed from day to day until then, had not yet been realized, so that they lost faith in them. And they did not feel that they could still be content with what they were then enjoying, without some promise of an increase of happiness, particularly as the appearance of nature and of every part of their daily life–whether because they had become accustomed to them, or because their spirits were no longer so lively as they had once been–no longer seemed as delightful and pleasing to them as in the beginning. They wandered about the earth visiting very distant regions–for they could do so easily, since the land was flat and not divided by seas or any other impediments–and after many years most of them became aware that the earth, even though it was large, had definite boundaries, instead of ones so vast that one could not define them; and that, but for a few very slight differences, all the places in the earth and all its inhabitants were just alike. And their discontent increased so much on this account that, though their youth was scarcely at an end, they were all overcome by a conscious distaste for their own nature. And in their manhood, and still more as their years declined, their satiety was converted into hatred, so that some of them came to be so despairing that they were no longer able to bear the light and the life they had at first loved so much, and thus of their own accord–some in one way, some in another–they brought their life to an end.
It seemed terrible to the gods that living creatures should prefer death to life, and that–without the compulsion of necessity–they should become the instruments of their own destruction….Therefore, Jove, having decided–since it seemed to be necessary–to improve the human condition and to help it to further the pursuit of happiness, reached the conclusion that the chief human complaint was that things were not as beautiful, various, and perfect as they had believed at first, but instead were very restricted, imperfect, and monotonous….
For Jove’s strategy to cure this state of depression and “noia” (ultimately unsuccessful, I’m afraid), get yourself a copy of Le Operette Morali!