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Zibaldone – Critic’s corner

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A note on what we know we don’t know about Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone

by Stefano Versace (University of Birmingham)

On the contrary! (…T)rue answers  to why-questions should be prized!

S. Bromberger

Giacomo Leopardi is one of those impossible authors to say something original about. This statement sounds even more appropriate if applied to the specific case of the Zibaldone. A lot has been already written about the Zibaldone; what could one aim to say about its texts or contexts? This is true, of course, if we understand knowledge both in its cumulative sense (typically characterizing natural sciences) and in its non-cumulative sense that, on the other hand, characterizes literary scholarship[1]. Nonetheless, no one would eagerly commit to saying that it is conceptually impossible to produce an original statement about an author in general, let alone an important author such as Leopardi. Still, if the same person is asked for a definition of the predicate ‘new’ in the field of literary studies, it is slightly less evident what gaining new knowledge concerning an author’s work means.

Here I would like to explore an aspect that may instead require an original development in the ways we understand the Zibaldone – and, indeed, texts in general. I came across this while finalizing my MA dissertation, dedicated to Leopardi’s concept of analogy. An analogy is a rhetorical figure that may be explicit or implied in a text[2]. I was looking at a specific set of passages in the Zibaldone, mostly scattered along the years 1819-1821, in which Leopardi reflects on the content and nature of ideas (Zib. 601-606; 1025-1026; 1262; 1388-1390; 1658-1659; 2584; 3341). In subsequent steps, he argues that they are material rather than spiritual; and the material nature of ideas is evidenced by their linguistic form: without language – a material thing – we wouldn’t be able to conceptualize abstract ideas. Why then should we assume such an ontologically costly entity such as the spiritual substance of ideas? This is likely to be nothing but a perceptual illusion.

Now, what is interesting about this set of reflections is that they show a clear evolution: at some point in 1821 they stop (1658-1659). They are taken up again only once to repeat the same conclusion, in the same form. I have suggested that it is precisely that form to cause the end of the reflection, by an effect which I called ‘satisfaction by form’. In Zib. 1658-1659, the same thought receives the form of an analogy. There seems to be a causal relationship between this form and the end of a proactive reflection on that topic. I tend to believe that this is by no means an idiosyncratic effect, and that it may be holding of several other thoughts in the Zibaldone. But we just cannot know, until further investigation is pursued. And we also don’t know why a specific form may have this effect on a text, as much as we don’t know what other form-induced effects are possible. This may open up promising lines of investigation, which may be of general relevance, and in particular for an aesthetic theory of language. The present approach may also suggest different ways of interpreting the prose of the Zibaldone. So, we could further ask: what influence do (rhetorical, argumentative, narrative etc.) forms have on Leopardi’s thinking? How do these micro-forms interact with the macro-form of a ‘formless’ text, such as the Zibaldone? And why?

This is just one possible thread that could bring us to a challenging conclusion about a text: we do not know (much about) why thoughts end in the Zibaldone. Still, we know relatively little about, e.g., how this text works (how and why does the Zibaldone end?); or how it can provide access to the mind of its author (is every of its words truthful?). We simply don’t know, until we develop new ways of asking questions about it.

Let me conclude by quoting the book that inspires this reflection:

A science, at any moment of its history, consists of a set of accepted (or at least seriously entertained) propositions, a set of unanswered questions to which these propositions give rise, and a set of principles or devices for establishing the answers to such questions. The evolution of a science is a sequence of related changes among these components. In particular, when new propositions are admitted, new questions must be allowed; when propositions are discarded, so are the questions to which they give rise; when questions are deemed answered, new propositions are automatically established; and, when questions are rejected as unanswerable, propositions also go[3].

Why wouldn’t we try and understand the ‘Science of Literature’ as a science proper? Reluctant as it may be, the discipline could only benefit from shaking its propositions up from the ground. There is, however, no shortcut to do this. To start bridging the gap between Science and Literature, we could start by questioning ideas that have never been questioned. I have suggested here one candidate for this role, based on my previous experience analyzing the Zibaldone. More in general, though, we need to start asking questions about the ontology of literary studies, and the models it builds. I have suggested here that this approach might be particularly exciting in the case of the Zibaldone. So, what do we know that we don’t know about this text? It is worth asking; the only thing we might lose is old claims, certainly not its beauty nor complexity.


[1] See Brinton Crane, ‘Cumulative and Noncumulative Knowledge’, Journal of Aesthetic Education 18, no. 4 (1984), pp. 78-83.

[2]For a detailed explanation of how an analogy should be characterized see S. Versace, ‘What it means to lose a thought. Leopardi and the experiential effects of form’, Appunti leopardiani 2 (2012).

[3] Sylvain Bromberger, On What We Know We Don’t Know. Explanation, Theory, Linguistics, and How Questions Shape Them, (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago & London, 1992), p. 101.

Stefano Versace is a Honorary Research Fellow of the Leopardi Centre at Birmingham. His main interest lies in understanding the nature of poetry, from a multiplicity of points of view. His work focused so far on linguistic metrics, and on rhetorical analysis (of the Zibaldone). Stefano is also convinced that Leopardi has a lot more to tell us then we imagine, particularly so on the above-mentioned matters.

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This entry was posted on September 25, 2013 by in Critic's corner.
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