On the appeal of Giacomo Leopardi’s “Zibaldone”

Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_ZIBAL_AP_001What if happiness is impossible? What if “men are always discontented because they are always unhappy?” What if, in their hearts, “they feel and they are well aware that they are unhappy, that they suffer, that they do not find enjoyment, and in that they are not wrong?” What if this unhappiness is increased by the fact that men “think they have the right to be happy, to enjoy life, not to suffer, and in that too they would not be wrong, if it were not for the fact that what they expect is, if nothing else, impossible?”

Hard thoughts, especially for those of us who live in a country that declared, in one of its founding documents, that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right.

These and other fairly depressing thoughts about happiness can be found in a new English translation of a book called Zibaldone. Zibaldone — which translates roughly as “mental hodge-podge” — is the life’s work of the 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. The central thesis of Zibaldone is that life is miserable and there is nothing to be done about it. The work consists of interrelated notebook entries from throughout Leopardi’s life. The recent English version runs to a little over 2,000 pages, in very small font size. Last year it was released to what one would have expected to be complete silence.

Unexpectedly, people liked it. The book was the surprise hit of 2013. It was reviewed by prominent intellectuals in the New York Times, the New Statesman, Harper’s Magazine, the New Republic, the Financial Times, the New York Review of Books, and even here inThe Smart Set.

The best way to read Zibaldone is to skip around on a theme. There’s no way to read the book in linear fashion. A person who attempted to read Zibaldone cover to cover would more than likely go insane. Since the book may cause you to blow a gasket anyway, why not do it on your own terms? Flip to the editorial index, find a subject that interests you, then go to the relevant section in the body of the text. Sooner or later you’ll hit a footnote, which will refer you to another section of the book. You can proceed in this way more or less indefinitely, or until you decide to pick up a new thread.

More here.