Frank Rosengarten. Giacomo Leopardi’s Search for a Common Life through Poetry

By Mark Zuss

(Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2012).

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is an enigmatic and emblematic figure in the history of letters. One of the most significant poets and thinkers of 19th century, he drew from the wells of Romanticism and Enlightenment thought and practice alike. In a short and turbulent life, he was to become a herald and critic of Enlightenment reason. Frank Rosengarten offers a compelling description and rationale for a rethinking of Leopardi’s influence, not only on literature but also on political thought, both in his own time and for subsequent generations, extending to the work of, among others, Nietzsche, Gramsci, Trentin, and Bertrand Russell.

Rosengarten’s deft textual analyses of Leopardi’s poetry allow us to appreciate its complex historical, political and biographical sources. Leopardi’s intimate personal life, especially his volatile and troubled erotic relations with men and women, is integrated with the dynamic of a nation beginning to take form out of its feudal shell. The first chapters deal with his birth within a cocoon of reactionary politics and culture, personified by his father’s activity as the editor of a leading right-wing printing house. The rigor of a humanist education and tutelage in the classical tradition, including Italy’s own literary masters, Dante, Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto, is emphasized. The humanist and classical, philological-centered education, including preparation for an ecclesiastical position, is set in contrast to the direction of the poet’s thematic, aesthetic and political choices. His rejection of privilege and his ambivalence toward the meaning and purpose of ‘nobility’, love between friends, and the place of a ‘common life’ not only set him apart from his family and tradition, but also alienate him from an emerging modernity.

Leopardi was an Enlightenment figure who championed the place of reason and science against the grain of his culture and time. In his most often cited poems, including the ‘Broom Plant’, Leopardi embodies, according to Rosengarten, “the tradition of enlightenment thought that placed experience, reason, observation and science at the forefront of the human enterprise.” An adherent if not an emulator of Lucretian materialism, and of Corpernicus, Leopardi worked to reorient the place of the human in a material universe. His ardent efforts to give expression to this secular materialism, of life without transcendence, telos, divinity or an afterlife, affect of much of his poetry, in which he gave voice to artisans, peasants and trades-people.  In this effort he drew on a key aspect of Romantic aesthetic practice seeking “forms of interiority and feeling that would restore man’s rightful place in the order of things” (88). He catalyzed the formation of a uniquely secular humanism, one that Russell would later recognize as “scientifically based realism” (89). He was also not averse to imposing a polemical thrust to his work. This element is evident in several of the odes and songs of his otherwise lyrical Canti. Rosengarten calls this “the tribute Leopardi paid to the intimate kinship he saw between poetry and philosophy,” a way of setting philosophy into an engagement “in the real sensuous world of experience” (24).

In this vein, Leopardi perceived poetry as a means of rekindling a new spirit of identity for an Italy fallen from its classical heritage into a moral and political impasse. Beyond celebrations of tradition and the glories of the classical age of literature and philosophical culture, Leopardi worked toward removing the ‘fatal gap’ he saw between writers and the people. He evinced an abiding “affection for and mastery of popular Italian modes of expression” and “fashioned a whole poetic universe out of materials that were humble, quotidian, and fleeting in nature” (106). His work sought to find the means, meter and measure of a ‘common life.’

Leopardi is portrayed here in his own terms, liberated from the interpretations of those who later drew on his work. Not unlike Nietzsche, Leopardi has been appropriated by all manner of ideologies, including by Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, but also dominated by a classical humanist consensus as provided by Croce, as well as by Trentin and Gramsci in the 1920s. For both Trentin and Gramsci, he became a prophet of resistance and an icon in the struggles against Fascism. Gramsci is quoted as finding expressed by Leopardi, in “an extremely dramatic form, the crisis of transition to modern man, the critical abandonment of all transcendental conceptions” (141).

Rosengarten’s recreates Leopardi’s intellectual and artistic development in vignettes with a nuanced sensitivity to some of the apparent psychodynamics of growing up in an aristocratic, deeply conservative Catholic family, which kept him relatively isolated from the world. Rosengarten describes in depth Leopardi’s complex relationships with his father Monaldo, who instilled in him a deep respect for classical culture; with his sister; and with several friends and lovers, including most importantly his partner, Antonio Ranieri. Leopardi led an intense and volatile emotional life; he was a man whose ambivalences and passions continually flared and faded.

Leopardi comes into sharp relief as an engaged poet-philosopher. In Rosengarten’s reading of his monumental notebooks, the Zibaldone, he appears at once as an exceptionally erudite philologist and scholar of classics, and as a philosophical thinker disposed to Stoic practice and the Roman moralist tradition. Rosengarten considers Leopardi committed to a “radically anti-telelogical and atheistic materialism” in that “he adhered closely to the Epicurean and Lucretian conception of pleasure as not something inherently desirable but rather as an absence of pain” (37). In several original chapters the author provides evidence of how Schopenhauer shared core premises with Leopardi, delineating their similar advocacy for a naturalistic materialism and pessimism toward the excesses of modernity’s claims to progress and rationality. Despite strains of a proto-positivism with regard to nature, Nietzsche too found resonances and a strong precursor in Leopardi’s essays and fusillades against mysticism, the overarching and repressive role of the clergy, and autocratic forms of control in modern European society. Leopardi assailed all notions of progress as professed in the bourgeois circles of his time. For him, “progress was an illusory notion that could only mislead and divide humanity, because, under its banner, ruling classes would always be able to rationalize their exploitation of the weak and powerless” (118). At the same time, this radical pessimism was tempered by adherence to forms of materialism and realism in what Rosengarten wishes to read as his usually concealed and self-protective commitment to fundamental, even revolutionary change. “If resistance against occupying armies and tyrannical domestic governments is not revolutionary,” Rosengarten states, “it would be difficult to say what else it might be” (124).

Leopardi found kindred company in various liberal nationalists seeking to unyoke Italy from its feudal chains to the Austrian empire. He railed against Italy’s “state of subjection,” coming to be known as “a vigorous exponent of Italian freedom, a new voice in a long history of Italian poetry, going back to the late Middle Ages, rooted in protest, lamentation and feelings of wounded patriotic pride” (99). Though he stood apart, a “party of one” who could not accept the programs advocated by liberal, nationalist and Catholic thinkers of the 1830s, in their affirmations of human perfectibility, he was “in sympathy with the ideals of constitutionalism, republicanism and democracy, and supportive of movements urging Italians to fight for their independence and national unity” (124). The inheritance of Dante and Petrarch was one not only of poetic brilliance but also of a “politically inspired poetry” (100), whose tropes and metaphors took shape again in this aristocratic scion from Recanti.

Rosengarten offers a generous and judicious critical appraisal of an elusive and theatrical life of letters and politics. He draws enticing, although all too brief, links between Leopardi and a wide spectrum of thinkers, including Pascal, Teilhard de Chardin, Antonio Negri, and Stephen Hawking. It would be intriguing if Rosengarten could have extended his extensive scholarship to include some of Leopardi’s other contemporaries on the continent in the wake of Kant, including the Athenaeum group, the Schlegel brothers, Schelling and Novalis. His work complements and encourages research on the relation between Leopardi and Romanticism, particularly in Germany at the same time, but also with French Romanticism, in Lamartine and Gerard de Nerval, both contemporaries, or the poet of modernity itself, Baudelaire.

With this critical tribute to a renowned ‘poet who thinks’ his time, and who agitated for a transformation of everyday life, Rosengarten gives us another exemplary text reflecting his own deep appreciation of the powers of literature, his superlative scholarship and lifelong radical commitments, and the inspiration he found in the lives of Italian partisans and freedom fighters.

Review by Mark Zuss
Graduate Center, City University of New York

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