John Gray has an incisive and learned comment on the occasion of the firstLeopardi 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!

Pew Report on American Jews: Kind of Like Everyone Else

The Pew Religion and Public Life Project released its most recent survey yesterday, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” It turns out that Jews, who make up a little less than two percent of the population, mirror larger trends in American religious life. For example:

  • The Rise of the Nones: More and more American Jews say they have no religion–that is, they view their identity as ethnic or cultural. According to Pew, 22% percent of American Jews now qualify as “Nones.” This percentage is close to the percentage of Nones in the general population (20%). As with the general population, religious disaffiliation is more pronounced among Millennials (ages 18-29). Here the numbers are exactly the same: 32% of Millennial Jews say they have no religion, the same percentage as among Millennials generally.
  • Increased Intermarriage: In their 2010 study, American Grace, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell estimate that something like half the marriages in America today are religiously mixed. For Jews, the rate of interfaith marriage is similarly very high. Indeed, according to Pew, the majority of Jews who marry today choose non-Jewish spouses.
  • Religious Politics: As many observers have noted, the key political divide in America today is not between religions–Catholics vs. Protestants–but between people who are religious, in any faith tradition, and people who are not. People who are religiously active tend to vote Republican, and people who are not religiously active tend to vote Democrat. A similar pattern holds true for American Jews. As a whole, Jews favor the Democratic Party by more than three to one. For Orthodox Jews, however, the trend is reversed: 57% of Orthodox Jews are Republican or lean Republican, while only 36% of Orthodox Jews are Democrat or lean Democrat.

You can read Pew’s summary of the survey here.

Esposito & Shahin (eds.), “The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics”

Next month, Oxford University press will publish The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, edited by John Esposito (Georgetown University) and Emad El-Din Shahin (American University in Cairo). The publisher’s description follows.Cover

Over the past three decades, scholars, government analysts and terrorism experts have examined the relationship between Islam and politics. But specialists have tended to limit their analysis to a specific country or focus. Few works have provided a geographically comprehensive, in-depth analysis. Since 9/11, another wave of literature on political Islam and global terrorism has appeared, much of it superficial and sensationalist. This situation underscores the need for a comprehensive, analytical, and in-depth examination of Islam and politics in the post-9/11 era and in an increasingly globalizing world. The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics, with contributions from prominent scholars and specialists, provides a comprehensive analysis of what we know and where we are in the study of political Islam. It enables scholars, students, and policymakers to understand the interaction of Islam and politics and the multiple and diverse roles of Islamic movements, as well as issues of authoritarianism and democratization, religious extremism and terrorism regionally and globally.

Cesari, “The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State”

Next month, Cambridge University Press will publish The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State by Jocelyne Cesari (Georgetown University). The publisher’s description follows. The Awakening of Muslim Democracy

Why and how did Islam become such a political force in so many Muslim-majority countries? In this book, Jocelyne Cesari investigates the relationship between modernization, politics, and Islam in Muslim-majority countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Tunisia, and Turkey – countries that were founded by secular rulers and have since undergone secularized politics. Cesari argues that nation-building processes in these states have not created liberal democracies in the Western mold, but have instead spurred the politicization of Islam by turning it into a modern national ideology. Looking closely at examples of Islamic dominance in political modernization – for example, nationalization of Islamic institutions and personnel under state ministries; reliance on Islamic references in political discourse, religiously motivated social unrest, or violence; and internationalization of Islam-aligned political movements or conflicts – this study provides a unique overview of the historical and political developments from the end of World War II to the Arab Spring that have made Islam the dominant force in the construction of the modern states, and discusses Islam’s impact on emerging democracies in the contemporary Middle East.