What is boredom?

From Dialogo di Torquato Tasso e del suo Genio familiare (Dialogue between Torquato Tasso and His Familiar Spirit) in Leopardi’s Operette Morali:

SPIRIT. What is boredom?

TASSO. Here I have plenty of experience to answer your question fully. I think that boredom is of the same nature as the air, which fills all the spaces between material things and all the voids inside each one of them; and wherever any one thing is removed without being replaced by another, air immediately occupies the empty space. Thus, in human life all intervals between pleasure and pain are occupied by boredom. Therefore, as in the material world – according to the opinion of the Peripatetics – there are no empty spaces, so in our life there is no empty space either, except when, for whatever cause, the mind’s ability to think is totally suspended. For all the rest of the time, our spirit, whether considered in itself or as separate from the body, contains some passion; for when it is free of all pleasure and of all pain, it becomes filled with boredom, which is also a passion, no less than pain and pleasure.

GENIO. Che cosa è la noia?

TASSO. Qui l’esperienza non mi manca, da soddisfare alla tua domanda. A me pare che la noia sia della natura dell’aria: la quale riempie tutti gli spazi interposti alle altre cose materiali, e tutti i vani contenuti in ciascuna di loro; e donde un corpo si parte, e altro non gli sottentra, quivi ella succede immediatamente. Cosí tutti gl’intervalli della vita umana frapposti ai piaceri e ai dispiaceri, sono occupati dalla noia. E però, come nel mondo materiale, secondo i peripatetici, non si dá vóto alcuno; cosí nella vita nostra non si dá vóto; se non quando la vita per qualsivoglia causa intermette l’uso del pensiero. Per tutto il resto del tempo, l’animo, considerato anche in sé proprio e come disgiunto dal corpo, si trova contenere qualche passione; come quello a cui l’essere vacuo da ogni piacere e dispiacere importa essere pieno di noia; la quale anco è passione, non altrimenti che il dolore e il diletto.

I’ve realized since reading Pessoa’s comments last month that I’d never be able to enjoy Leopardi if I started taking him seriously. My version – likely influenced by too much time with Roman Satire and the obsession its scholarship has with the ‘persona of the satirist’ – assumes a therapeutic performance.

“I am shy with women: therefore there is no God” is highly unconvincing metaphysics

From Fernando Pessoa’s The Education of the Stoic (pg 37-38) – spoken, it should be pointed out, in Pessoa’s heteronym persona of the Baron of Tieve. Minus the harsh phrasing I’ve found the same basic hurdle to appreciating parts of Leopardi and Vigny (de Quental I’ve not read).

There’s something vile – and all the more vile because ridiculous – in the tendency of feeble men to make universal tragedies out of the sad comedies of their private woes.

My recognition of this fact has always prevented me – unjust, I realize – from experiencing the full emotion of the great pessimistic poets. My disenchantment only increased when I read about their lives. The three great pessimistic poets of the last century – Leopardi, Vigny and Antero de Quental – became unbearable to me. The sexual basis of their pessimism, after I’d discerned it in their works and confirmed it in there life stories left a nauseous feeling in my mind.
How can I take Leopardi’s atheism seriously or react to it sympathetically, if I know it could have been cured by sexual intercourse? How can I sincerely respect and respond to Antero de Quental’s wistfulness, sadness and despair, if I realize that it all sprang directly from his forlorn heart, which never found its complement – physical or psychological, it matters little – in the real world? How can I be impressed by Vigny’s pessimism apropos women, by his exemplary and outrageous La Colere de Samson, if in the very outrage of the poem I recognize the “loved by few or loved poorly, and suffering cruelly on that account” of the critic Faguet, if I see it’s but the lofty expression of a cuckold’s ordinary torment.

How can anyone take seriously the argument “I’m shy with women, therefore God doesn’t exist,” which is at the heart of Leopardi’s work? How not reject Antero de Quental’s conclusion that “I’m sorry I don’t have a woman who loves me, therefore sorrow is a universal condition”? How can I accept, and not instinctively disdain Vigny’s attitude: “I’m not loved in the way I’d like, therefore women are vile, mean and despicable creatures, with none of the goodness and nobility of men”?

A later fragment repeats the Leopardi commentary (pg 50)

This is one of the cases in which we must all be Freuds. It is impossible to lean not to sexual explanation, because the social behaviors Leopardi erects of his own problem……

The worst of this sort of tragedy is that it is comic. It is not comic in the sense that Swinburne’s love poems are comic.

“I am shy with women: therefore there is no God” is highly unconvincing metaphysics.

Make me happy for a moment

An underwhelming Masters Sunday pick-me-up, from Giacomo Leopardi’s Operette Morali. The translation here is the Gutenberg Charles Edwards but I’d much recommend the bilingual edition from University Of California press.  The Italian text can be found here:


Malambruno. Spirits of the deep, Farfarello, Ciriatto, Raconero, Astarotte, Alichino, or whatever else you are called, I adjure you in the name of Beelzebub, and command you by virtue of my art, which can unhinge the moon, and nail the sun in the midst of the heavens, come one of you with your prince’s permission, to put all the powers of hell at my disposal.

Farfarello. Here I am.

Mal. Who are you?

Far. Farfarello, at thy service.

Mal. Have you the mandate of Beelzebub?

Far. I have; and can thus do for thee all that the king himself could do, and more than lies in the power of all other creatures together.

Mal. It is well. I wish to be satisfied in but one desire.

Far. Thou shalt be obeyed. What is it? Dost thou wish for majesty surpassing that of the Atrides?

Mal. No.

Far. More wealth than shall be found in El Dorado, when it is discovered? Mal. No.

Far. An empire as large as that of which Charles V. dreamt one night?

Mal. No.

Far. A mistress chaster than Penelope?

Mal. No: methinks the devil’s aid were superfluous for that.

Far. Honours and success, however wicked thou mayst be?

Mal. I should rather more need the devil, if I wished the contrary, under such circumstances.

Far. Then what dost thou want?

Mal. Make me happy for a moment.

Far. I cannot.

Mal. Why?

Far. I give you my word of honour—I cannot do it.

Mal. The word of honour of a good demon?

Far. Yes, to be sure. Thou shouldest know that there are good devils as well as good men.

Mal. And you must know that I will hang you by the tail to one of these beams if you do not instantly obey me without more words.

Far. It were easier for you to kill me, than for me to satisfy your demands.

Mal. Then return with my malediction, and let Beelzebub come himself.

Far. Beelzebub and the whole army of hell would be equally powerless to render you or any of your race happy.

Mal. Not even for a single moment?

Far. As impossible for a moment, half a moment, or the thousandth part of a moment, as for a lifetime.

Mal. Well, since you cannot make me happy in any way, at least free me from unhappiness.

Far. On condition that you no longer love yourself above everything else.

Mal. I shall only cease doing that when I die.

Far. But as long as you live you will be unable to do it. Your nature would tolerate anything rather than that.

Mal. So it is.

Far. Consequently, loving yourself above everything, you desire your own happiness more than anything. But because this is unattainable, you must necessarily be unhappy.

Mal. Even when engaged in pleasure; since no gratification can make me happy, or satisfy me.

Far. Truly none.

Mal. And because pleasure cannot satisfy my soul’s innate desire for happiness, it is not true pleasure, and during its continuance I shall still be unhappy.

Far. As you say: because in men and other living beings, the deprivation of happiness, even though pain and misfortune be wanting, implies express unhappiness. This, too, during the continuance of so-called pleasures.

Mal. So that from birth to death our unhappiness never ceases for an instant.

Far. Yes, it ceases whenever you sleep dreamlessly, or when, from one cause or another, you are deprived of your senses.

Mal. But never, so long as we are sensible that we live.

Far. Never.

Mal. So that in fact it were better not to live than to live.

Far. If the absence of unhappiness be better than unhappiness itself.

Mal. Then?

Far. Then if you would like to give me your soul before its time, I am ready to carry it away with me.

E il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare

Another Giacomo Leopardi poem, L’infinito.  Line distribution aside, I feel marginally better about my translation – though far from good.

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
silenzi, e profondissima quïete
io nel pensier mi fingo; ove per poco
il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
infinito silenzio a questa voce
vo comparando: e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni, e la presente
e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.

Always dear to me was this lonely hill,
and this hedge, which from so many sides
cuts off the view of the most distant horizon.
But sitting and wondering, I paint for myself in my thoughts
endless spaces beyond it, and more than human
silences, and most profound quiet. Where almost
my heart grows scared. And like the wind
I hear rustle among those trees, I keep
comparing the infinite silence to that voice.
And there comes to my mind eternity,
and the dead seasons, and the current
and living one, and its sound. So among this
immensity is drowned my thought.
And the shipwreck in this sea is sweet to me.

Ma sazietà di lingua il cor non sente

From Giacomo Leopardi’s notes to his own Canzoni.  I usually feel decent about my translations but this is straight trash.  The two issues are the import of sazietà – around which the whole poem revolves – and the choice for rendering lingua.  The dual sense of lingua/tongue as anatomy/language exists in English but the ‘tongue as language’ sense feels a forced archaism in modern speech little in keeping with Leopardi’s feel here.   For sazietà the straight sense of ‘satiety, fullness’ does not feel effective in English – ‘satiety with this but never with that’ – so I want to push it to ‘overfullness with this but never with that’.  But I don’t think that sense is allowed by the Italian so maybe my complaint is with the formulation of the thought itself.  Meh.

Il cor di tutte
Cose alfin sente sazietà, del sonno,
Della danza, del canto e dell’amore,
Piacer più cari che il parlar di lingua,
Ma sazietà di lingua il cor non sente.

The heart – with everything –
can feel sated, with sleep
dance, song, and love,
things more pleasing than the speech of the tongue,
but satiety of language the heart does not feel.

I still feel a very great satisfaction when I find myself alone in a street, without a tutor by my side

From Iris Origo’s Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (my page numbers are from the original printing, though there is a recent reprint by Pushkin Press).  Vignettes of Giacomo Leopardi’s father, whose own autobiography – surprisingly still in print, blessed be small Italian publishers – I’m now trying to obtain of a copy of.

…And a few days later Napoleon himself rode through [Recanati], on his way to Rome.  He rode hastily, Conte Monaldo related, surrounded by guards with their hands on the trigger of their muskets, and all the population turned out to see him. “But I”, wrote the Count, “refused to approach the window, thinking it too great an honour for such a villain, that an honest man should rise to see him pass.” (pg4)


…When barely eighteen, he assumed, as head of the family, the complete management of the whole property – yet he was still forbidden by his mother to go out of the house, unless accompanied by his preceptor.  This restriction, although not unusual in families such as his, was particularly galling to Monaldo. “To this day,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “although I am the father of twelve children (living and dead), a magistrate of the city, and forty-eight years of age, I still feel a very great satisfaction when I find myself alone in a street, without a tutor by my side.” (pg5)


Conte Monaldo himself, when he required a little pocket-money [from his wife, who controlled the purse strings], was forced to resort to subterfuge; he would plot with the bailiff, to sell a barrel of wine or a sack of wheat behind his wife’s back, or he would take to her two books from his own library, saying that he needed a few scudi to pay for them. “Thus,” he remarked, “I used to steal from myself.”

It must be added that often these subterfuges were practised by Conte Monaldo in the cause of charity: the cloister, for instance, of the monastery of the Minori Osservanti was built entirely at his expense, but, to avoid his wife’s vigilance, the building materials had to be carried there at night.  And the story is even told that on one winter’s evening, on being accosted by a half-naked beggar, the Count retired into the shadow of a doorway, took off his trousers, gave them to the wretched man – and thus, wrapping himself in his cloak, made his way home. (pg14-15)

I still feel a very great satisfaction when I find myself alone in a street

From Iris Origo’s Leopardi: A Study in Solitude (pg. 5)- recounting the life of the poet’s father.  I haven’t looked into whether the elder Leopardi’s Memoirs were ever published.

Two years later, when barely eighteen, he assumed, as head of the family, the complete management of the whole property – yet he was still forbidden by his mother to go out of the house, unless accompanied by his preceptor.  This restriction, although not unusual in families such as his, was particularly galling to Monaldo.  “To this day,” he wrote in his Memoirs, “although I am the father of twelve children (living and dead), a magistrate of the city, and forty-eight years of age, I still feel a very great satisfaction when I find myself alone in a street, without a tutor by my side.”