Giacomo Leopardi's Ultrafilosofia

by Daniela Bini
Giacomo Leopardi's Ultrafilosofia
Daniela Bini
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Giacomo Leopardi's Ultrafilosofia

uesto "libro di sogni poetici, d'invenzioni e di capricci malinconici" (Poesie e prose I 1026), as Tristano-Leopardi calls his Operette morali, was very dear to its author. He could not accept the fragmented publication of separate dialogues-as his publisher Stella advised for reasons of censorship-and would thus choose no publication at all rather than what he perceived as a mutilation.' There is no doubt that Leopardi saw his Operette morali as a whole, and as such he wanted it to be read; as a book of "poetical dreams" presenting philosophical truths in order to expose the limitations of modern philosophy (Lettere 686). The years preceding the composition of the bulk of the Operette, in 1824, were years of profound philosophical reflection for Leopardi, that found an outlet in the hundreds of pages of his Zibaldone. Here Leopardi debates ad nauseam the issue of philosophy, its limits and the means of overcoming them. Modern man, he wrote, must strive for an ultrafilosofia that, having recognized the limitations of analytical reason (the reason, that is, that analyzes, separating elements from the chaotic bundle of which reality consists), weaves it together with the synthetic power of imagination.

The only recorded instance of the word ultrafilosofia, however, is dated June 7, 1820. At this point, Leopardi still thought of it as an intellectual tool that could help man return closer to nature. The dichotomy between nature and reason was, at this date, a fundamental feature of Leopardi's philosophy still in its Rousseauistic phase-the phase that attributes to reason the cause of man's alienation from nature, thus, of man's unhappiness. The return to nature, therefore, was seen as possible only through the rejection of reason. After having stated that the safeguard of people's freedom is neither philosophy, nor reason, but virtues, illusions, enthusiasm, "insomma la natura," Leopardi, in fact, concludes: "percio la nostra rigenerazione dipende da una, per COS! dire, ultrafilosofia che, conoscendo l'intiero e l'intimo delle cose, ci ravvicini alla natura" (Zibaldone 115). This is not, however, the ultrafilosofia that Leopardi will pursue; or better yet, the task of this new discipline, or activity-however we prefer to call it-will not be that of bringing man closer to nature.?

The ultrafilosofia that Leopardi is slowly elaborating is not a philosophical system, but it stems from the realization of the insufficiency of philosophical systems. The ultrafilosofia can succeed only insofar as

ITALICA Volume 74 Number 1 (1997)

it transforms itself into a creative, fictional activity that will enact the poetical renunciation of nature and of memory. When reality is known as a senseless, meaningless void, when the philosophical mind finds before itself the nothingness of existence, the only resort left to man is to create his own meanings, that is, to know and understand through his creative faculty.f After all, man alone knows the world subjectively. The pretense of objective knowledge is an illusion, for nobody can ever cease to be at once both the knowing subject and the object of one's own analysis. Man has therefore always created his own meanings. He is the poet-philosopher, author of his own reality. This ultrafilosofia, therefore, is nothing but Leopardi's arrival at the conscious statement of a state of affair that has always existed. In his theoretical development it will correspond to his last poetical project-a project that is born out of nihilism, or better yet, out of an "ontology of nothingness."4 In this phase, in fact, nature and remembrances-the sources of Leopardi's early poetry-will lose their power. Leopardi's unmasking of man's anthropocentric deceptions about nature will arrive with"A se stesso" at the creation of a type of poetry that finds inspiration and nourishment precisely in the negation of those elements that had constituted his early poetry.

Contemporary criticism of Leopardi has pointed out the modernity of his intuitions, placing them in line with the thought of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Musil, and even anticipating some of the "new dialogue of man with nature undertaken by modern physicists."> The philosopher Emanuele Severino identifies the acme and the end of Western thought with Leopardi. Nature is only becoming, thus a coming from nothing and a return to nothing. So is man. Nothing eternal exists. In order to survive the horror of nothingness, man needs illusion, especially that of poetry. Before Nietzsche, Severino concludes, Leopardi realized the necessity of fiction (Severino 343).6 But Leopardi went even further. His later poetical production, in fact, is no longer a poetry of illusion, but a poetry of nothingness-a poetry that finds its inspiring source and poetical voice in the very abyss and silence that philosophy has discovered. Poetry in this phase no longer stands in opposition to Leopardi's nihilistic philosophy, but, as creator of appearances, it repeats the very activity of nature.

Among the most recent fervent admirers of Leopardi was Italo Calvino. His Lezioni americane: sei proposte per il prossimo millennio are filled with citations from Leopardi, clearly present in the very conception of his last work. In Leopardi, Calvino admires his contrasting qualities of exactitude and vagueness, his need for order and attraction to chaos, his rigorous logic and his powerful imagination, that Leopardi considered an integral part of the human mind in its attempt to comprehend and function in the world.

If Lezioni americane is Calvino's theoretical work where the teacher explains the principle governing his original creations (from II visconte dimezzato to Le ciita invisibili and Palomar), the Zibaldone is Leopardi's theoretical laboratory-not intended for publication-where he undertakes a similar, though much more laborious task. As Calvino wishes to offer some guidelines, or "memos," as he called them, for the "next millennium," so Leopardi, too, leaves his reader a spiritual testament that presents some striking similarities to Calvino's "memos." If, in fact, "Esattezza" and "Visibilita," titles of two of Calvino's Lezioni americane, are principles to be followed in all intellectual endeavors, as the lesson of French rationalism had taught both of them, "Leggerezza," "Rapidita," and "Molteplicita" are the counterbalancing qualities that allow the philosopher, or better yet "il poetafilosofo," as Calvino calls him, "[di sollevarsi] sulla pesantezza del mondo" (Lezioni americane 13) and grasp, through the synthetic power of imagination, what Leopardi called "i misteri piu nascosti, gli abissi piu cupi della natura, i rapporti piu lontani 0 segreti, le cagioni piu inaspettate e remote, le astrazioni le piu sublimi" (Zibaldone 1856).

Very early in his life Leopardi realized the limits of analytical reason. Although man must isolate the elements of a compound in order to arrive at the knowledge of its composition, Leopardi soon understood that in so doing, one loses the significance of the element to the whole and of the interrelations among the elements. What the element in isolation can tell us differs necessarily from what it tells us in context. Hence, man is caught in a theoretical impasse:

Non si conoscono mai perfettamente ... tutte Ie ragioni di nessuna verita, infatti nessuna verita si conosce mai perfettamente, se non si conoscono perfettamente tutti i rapporti che ha essa verita con Ie aItree...Cheecomedire,che nessuna(ancorchemenoma,ancorcheevidentissima e chiarissima ...) verita, estata mai ne sara mai perfettamente ed interamente e da ogni parte conosciuta. (Zibaldone 1090-91)

It is perfectly pointless, hints Leopardi, to brood over this pessimistic conclusion, which is essential to man's finitude. "In thinking [logical thinking], all things become solitary and slow," said Heidegger in his essay-poem "The thinker as a poet" (9). We must move further using the means man possesses and create the only possible, though approximate, tentative, hypothetical knowledge we can by means of our unique faculty: imagination. We must, therefore, take a leap into the realm of the fictional, and supply our analytical knowledge with that which can never be found through analysis: a fictional system, an artificial order that, as Guglielmo says at the end of II nome della rosa, is useful, even if meaningless.

In many pages of the Zibaldone, Leopardi returns to the necessity of combining reason and imagination in philosophical and scientific endeavors. In a very famous and long passage written in 1823, he develops what he had said two years earlier:

Chiunque esamina la natura delle cose colla pura ragione, senz'aiutarsi dell'immaginazione ne del sentimento ... potra ben quello che suona il vocabolo analizzare, cioe risolvere e disfar la natura, ma e' non potra mai ricomporla, voglio dire e' non potra mai dalle sue osservazioni e dalla sua analisi tirare una grande e generale conseguenza. . . . 10 voglio anche supporre ch'egli arrivino colla loro analisi fino a scomporre e risolvere la natura ne' suoi menomi ed ultimi elementi, e ch'egli ottengano di conoscere ciascuna da se tutte le parti della natura. Ma il tutto di essa, il fine e il rapporto scambievole di esse parti tra loro ... 10 scopo di questo tutto ... la cagione finale del suo essere e del suo essere tale, il perche ella abbia COS! disposto e COS! formato le sue parti, nella cognizione delle quali dee consistere 10 scopo del filosofo ... queste cose, dico, eimpossibile il ritrovarle e l'intenderle a chiunque colla sola ragione analizza ed esamina la natura. (Zibaldone 3237-39)

The style and the language of this passage, drastically cut here, mil rors the complexity of its content. Analysis alone will not help in th complexity of the world. Imagination is needed to make once again leap into the world of fiction. "La natura," .Leopardi continues,

econformata e ordinata ad un effetto poetico, 0 vogliamo dire disposta e ... ordinata a produrre un effetto poetico.... Nulla di poetico si scorge nelle sue parti, separandole l'una dall'altra, ed esaminandole a una a una col semplice lume della ragione esatta e geometrica. (3242)7

Imagination and sentiment can accomplish this task, though as Leopardi openly admits, they will accomplish it "imperfectly" and approximately. Nature, in fact, is a continuum, a bundle of infinite elements, of infinite qualities that, once separated, will yield a knowledge that perforce will be different from that bundle, that continuum we call nature. Likewise, Leopardi tells us, man too is a continuum, a becoming, a mixture of various elements, faculties that can only be separated in the abstract.

There is an enlightening passage in the Zibaldone written as early as November 1821, where Leopardi clearly explains the impossibility of absolute knowledge in the traditional sense. Immediately after having stated that it is from the same "facolta inventiva" that Homer's poems, as well as Newton's mathematical principles, are derived, he writes: "L'immaginazione pertanto e la sorgente della ragione, come del sentimento, delle passioni, della poesia." Our need to explain, divide, and clarify leads us to believe that reason, for example, is a separate faculty, We give therefore a different name to a particular type of intellectual operation. Then, we forget that we have invented such a name, such a label, and go around talking about the existence of a real independent, distinctive faculty called reason, whereas what we have is only a name. Instead, Leopardi continues, the faculty that we call in this case reason,

o non esiste, 0 non eche una cosa stessa, una stessa disposizione con cento altre che noi ne distinguiamo assolutamente, e con quella stessa che si chiama riflessione ... con quella che si chiama intelletto ecc. Immaginazione e intelletto etutt' uno. (2132-34)

Before Nietzsche and Pirandello, Leopardi already knew the danger of language, and in his Zibaldone he tried to warn us against the risk of hypostatization, that is, of ontologyzing linguistic signs. It is not by chance, in fact, Leopardi comments, that the greatest philosophers were those who distinguished themselves also as great poets; first of all Plato, in Leopardi's words, "il piu profondo, piu vasto, piu sublime filosofo di tutti essi antichi-che ardi concepire un sistemail quale abbracciasse tutta I'esistenza, e rendesse ragione di tutta la natura"


With Plato in mind, and not Aristotle or Descartes, Leopardi writes his myth of the history of the human race, introducing himself as the modern poet-philosopher, the same character Calvino later salutes as inaugural symbol for the advent of the next millennium, the poetphilosopher "che si solleva sulla pesantezza del mondo, dimostrando che la sua gravita contiene il segreto della leggerezza" (Lezioni 13), or, to adapt Leopardi's felicitous expression, the "ultrafilosofo."

Much has been written on the first operetta morale, "Storia del genere umano," rightly considered the prelude (Cecchetti 19) or opening symphony of the whole work, containing in nuce all the themes developed in the others.f My concern here, more specifically, is with the center of the collection, where Leopardi strategically places a very important operetta, "II Parini ovvero della gloria," thus signaling a change in the architecture of the text. All the operette of the first half of the work, in fact, are dialogues, with the exception of the first and the fourth, "Proposta di premi fatta dall'Accademia dei SillografL" The dialogue, as Emilio Mattioli noted, echoing Calzolari's remarks about the seventeenth-century use of it, is a form of philosophical discourse that undermines authority and challenges the belief in absolute truths and fixed answers. With its antidogmatic charge, says Mattioli, the dialogue shows the potential for disorder (Hegel, in fact, did not admit the dialogue in philosophical discourse) ("Leopardi e Luciano" 96). If Socrates is the legitimate source for the dialogical form-Plato's Socrates, of course-Leopardi wants us to think also of Xenophon' sand Aristophanes' Socrates, a philosopher in search of a truth, but a philosopher who himself is the product of a fiction, the creation of poets. But it is not only of Socrates' dialegestai (art of dialoguing) that we think when we read the Operette. Lucian's dialogues are Leopardi's main source of inspiration. And Lucian of Samosata was the iconoclast, the author of ridicule, writer of a time of crisis whose laughter did not spare the most sacred institutions and creeds, least of all philosophy. Lucian's Icaromenippus is a ferocious attack against philosophers, their pompous vacuity and their absurd fables. The Operette morali, too, are conceived with this purpose in mind: to expose the work of philosophers, scientists, mathematicians-in short, all those who pretend to rule man and the world by scientific discourse alone.

Most of the operette that precede "11 Parini" were written as dialogues focusing on human presumption, nullity, and suffering. Even after Copernicus has shown man his small place in the universe, his presumption still fills him with pride and arrogance. One of an infinite number of creatures on one of an infinite number of worlds, common man still reads his life and his world anthropocentrically, incapable of releasing his pivotal position. The Moon in the dialogue with the Earth, in fact, reproaches her for her Ptolemaic fallacy, for her inability to think or speak in terms other than human. The Moon, instead knows nothing of beasts and humans, and cannot follow the Earth in her discussion. Only when the Earth speaks of unhappiness and suffering does the Moon begin to understand, since these are characteristics common to the whole universe. It is the issue of pain and sorrow that reveals to Leopardi the absurdity of existence and the indifference of Nature. To the optimistic Physicist, boastful of his discovery of a manual that will help prolong life, the Metaphysician replies that until the art of living happily is discovered, the manual is much better off locked up in a drawer and the key buried somewhere. This operetta openly ridicules science's discoveries and the simple minded belief that happiness can be gained through them. This was also the theme of the "Proposta di premi fatta dall'Accademia dei Sillografi," where machines have supplanted men entirely; in fact, they have even become more trustworthy friends and sincere lovers.

Unhappiness for Leopardi is man's destiny. In the "Dialogo della Natura e di un Islandese," Nature can give neither reason nor explanation to the pressing questions of the Icelander who addresses Nature from his anthropocentric place. Senseless is the universe for the Icelander, but Nature herself states that she has no meaning; she is only

un perpetuo circuito di produzione e distruzione, collegate ambedue tra se in maniera, che ciascheduna serve continuamente all'altra, ed alla conservazione del mondo: il quale sempre che cessasse l'una 0 l'altra di lora, verrebbe parimente in dissoluzione. (Poesie e prose I 888)

Man, however, cannot cease to ask questions, as he cannot accept the void, the lack of meaning in a universe that is "souffrant." His asking is interrupted in the end only by Nature's final answer, no longer expressed through words, but deeds: the destruction of the questioner himself, the Icelander. If Nature is silent, if science and philosophy are inadequate to answer man's endless questioning, if the truth discovered by them is finite and only causes suffering, it is from the poet's imagination that solace will come.

In the dialogue that chronologically follows, the Familiar Spirit that comes to visit a solitary and melancholic Torquato Tasso, confined in the prison of S. Anna, teaches him not to regret the freedom that would allow him to see his beloved Eleonora. Reality is meager and disappointing. Tasso must realize, instead, that the limits imposed on him by the secluding walls can act, like in the poem "L'infinito," as the dialectical means to set flight to the imagination. Tasso will dream of Eleonora, and the image thus created will surpass infinitely that of the real woman. After the Familiar Spirit has concluded his praise of dreams, he returns to hide in "qualche liquore generoso" (Poesie e prose I 881). The fantastic dialogue is over, and Leopardi introduces a trustworthy spokesman: Giuseppe Parini.

Why Parini? And for what purpose? Leopardi was not particularly fond of his poetry, although he had been canonized as an example of integrity and civility. Ugo Foscolo had introduced him in one of his Letters of Iacopo Ortis, as a critic of contemporary society. Parini's fame, therefore, would guarantee Leopardi the attention of his audience. Yet there was something more involved in the choice of Parini, the same something that played a major role in Leopardi's choice of Tasso for the "Dialogo di Torquato Tasso e del suo Genio familiare": the literary and fictional medium. Leopardi's Parini, like his Tasso, is already a fictional character, the invention of a poet's imagination. Thus he can speak with the highest authority, the one that derives from the infinite power of fiction. It is this Parini who takes the floor, and he will speak of glory, or better, of the impossibility for great spirits to achieve glory during their life time. But, more importantly, he will act as the connecting link between poetry and philosophy-a task only a poet can perform.

In the first six chapters Parini speaks of poets, and in the last six of philosophers. In chapter seven, in fact, Leopardi clearly states that "Ie lettere amene" depend totally on philosophy, thus synthesizing in his fictional text, the laborious philosophical reflections of the Zibaldone, that had established the necessary link between philosophy and poetry. The two seem by now to nurture each other in order to live and progress. It is the last chapter, however, that sparks our interest. Having by now muddled the boundary between poetry and philosophy, Leopardi returns to the theme of fame and glory, unachievable to great original spirits, since mediocre mankind praises only what is known and familiar: "Gli scrittori grandi ... hanno per destino di condurre una vita simile alla morte, e vivere, se pur l'ottengono, dopo sepolti" (Poesie e prose I 921; emphasis added). Fame for the great ones-the creators, the visionaries-can come only after death, or better said, from death. Leopardi was aware of the negative essence of pleasure, that can never exist in actuality, only in potency. Glory, too, one of the praised "fantasmi" sent down to men by Zeus in the "Storia del genere umano," is of the same kind: a fabrication, a fiction, and as such it is alive and strong only as an idea. Glory, therefore, cannot be experienced by those who deserve it; it is never present, existing only in the future, as wish, or in the past, as memory of those who are no more, experienced by those who did not achieve it. This point of death and burial constitutes the core of the Operette.

From the tombs of the great a voice is born, and it will sing one of the most dramatic poetical songs Leopardi wrote. The poem "II coro di morti nello studio di Frederick Ruysch," which opens the next operetta without explanation or narrative introduction, is the voice of the poet born from the ashes of the philosopher. Or, better yet, after having uncovered the vanity of existence, our philosopher has fallen silent, his tools are unable to perform any further task. Philosophy's accomplishments, as Leopardi had repeated incessantly in the Zibaldone, have been only the removal of past errors; philosophy is by definition a destructive force, it cannot build or create anything. After centuries of hard work it has left man with a wasteland. There is nothing more to be destroyed or to be removed; man stands alone and desolate in front of nothingness. "S'ingannano grandemente quelli che dicono e predicano che la perfezione dell'uomo consiste nella conoscenza del vero," Leopardi will have Eleandro say in the "Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro." In short, philosophy that starts out by hoping and promising to cure our ills "in ultimo si riduce a desiderare invano di rimediare a se stessa" (Poesie e prose I 986). The philosopher must put down his now useless tools and learn to speak with the voice of the poet in order to fill the wasteland with dreams and songs. His first song will be precisely this: a song of death sung by the dead.

The poem consists of a few "endecasillabi," the verse privileged by Leopardi for its ample flow, and many "settenari," short, fragmented verses, that create a monotonous, repetitive rhythm to underline the sameness of every being's destiny, a common end in death. Death, in fact, opens and closes the poem. Death is not only the common destiny of "every created thing" ("ogni creata cosa"), death is also placed on the same ontological level as life, which is therefore, by a complementary process, reduced to the consistency of non-being. In the middle of the poem, enclosed between two "passati remoti" Leopardi places life:

Vivemmo: equal di paurosa larva,

E di sudato sogno,

A lattante fanciullo erra nell' alma

Confusa ricordanza:

Tal memoria n'avanza

Del vivere nostro: rna da tema elunge

II rimembrar. Che fummo? (922;emphasis added)

The two verbs are located strategically in the exact middle of the poem, framing in perfect balance the seven verses that speak of life, or, rather, that stutter of life. The rhythm created by the shorter and longer verses and by the recurring punctuation, in fact, renders the sound halting and fragmented. "Vivemmo" and "fummo" are the only verbs in the whole poem that denote life: but by using them in passato remota, the tense that expresses finality, completion, irrevocability, loss, Leopardi deconstructs that very image of life in his making of it. It is a life that is no more. Moreover, the image left by life in the "immaginario poetico" of the poet resembles "the confused memory of a frightening ghost and of a sweating dream ... in the souls of infants" (Cecchetti 271). This is all that is left of life-a negative image, a confused memory, absence, as even memory has lost its evocative power.? No pleasure is born from it. The centrality in the poem of the once most poetical word: ricordanza, placed in chiastic position with its sibiling word: memoria, underlines the end of its creative power. On a meta-literary level Leopardi is thus sanctioning the end of the creative and poetical power of memory and recollection. What follows are questions that cannot be answered but through self referral. Using once again one of his beloved rhetorical figures, that of the chiasmus-a self-contained figure that has its meaning within itself-and therefore, perfectly suited for this purpose, Leopardi affirms the identity of human life and death, each nothing but an infinitesimal point in the life of the universe:

Cosa arcana e stupenda

Oggiela vita al pensier nostro, e tale

Qual de' vivi al pensiero

L'ignota morteappar. Come da morte

Vivendo rifuggia, COS! rifugge

Dalla fiamma vitale

Nostra ingnuda natura. (922;emphasis added)

The chiasmus life/death is rendered with two enjambements that create a centripetal force, from which a vicious circle is generated that underscores the equality of life and death-the dead-lock of existence, the dead-lock of the poem.!? It is thus significant that the chiasmus life/death has taken the place of remembrance and memory as poetical force, and that the central figure and propelling force of the poem is now death. As in the idyll "L'infinito," the poet has succeeded in placing himself in the fictional space created by his imagination. This time, however, the fictional place is death. From this dimension, situated beyond time and space, he can with equal impassivity sing of being and nothingness.

It is at this point necessary to take a step back in time and examine, briefly, the most famous stanza of "La vita solitaria." It is a poem in itself which has, in fact, been often considered out of context of the composition as a whole. If it is true that Leopardi's poetry finds its inspiration and moving force in the presence of the negative, of the limit, of constriction, then this stanza finds its life precisely from absence or non-being. It is Nature here that is silent. Nature, which in the preceding stanza had abandoned the poet and shown its true face as a cruel stepmother, falls silent. If man is abandoned by Nature, if he is alone in a senseless world, if the philosopher stands desperate before a silent universe, it is from the poet that redemption comes, a poet born out of the labor pains of philosophy. Leopardi the poet here triumphs over the nothingness that surrounds him, and makes of this nothingness the object of his poetry. A new god, he now creates beauty, sounds, and meaning out of nothing.

The moment is that of high noon in which every living creature is still.

Ed erba 0 foglia non si crolla al vento,

E non onda incresparsi, e non cicala

Strider, nebatterpenna augello in ramo,

Ne farfalla ronzar, nevoce 0 motoda presso neda lungi odinevedi. (Poesie

e prose I 53; emphasis added)

Every word expressing sound is preceded by a negation. The object of this poetry is negativity, silence, as the repetition of "ne" emphasizes; the poet sings of absence of motion and, more importantly, of absence of sound. The mechanism at work here is the opposite of the one employed in "L'infinito," where the infinite silence and the infinity, that is, the absence, are made present, called to life by the fictional power of the poet by virtue of the contrast with the present concrete voice of the wind and with the concrete presence of the edge.II The "quiete" that was "profondissima" in "L'infinito" becomes in "La vita solitaria" "altissima" and in the end "antica." The poet no longer needs the cooperation of nature in order to create his images. If Nature with her familiar presence (the hill, the edge) and sounds (the wind) functioned in "L'infinito" as the concrete means to poetry, in "La vita solitaria" poetry is born out of Nature's silence and absence. The poet can overcome Nature, once her voice is extinguished, by singing.

It is not by chance that Leopardi favored the word "quiete"-often modified by qualifiers that magnify its value and are mostly used in the superlative degree ("altissima," "profondissima"). "Quiete" is absence of motion, but first of all it is absence of sound. It is the silence of the senseless language of nature and of man as a being of nature.12 It is the silence that confronts the philosopher at the end of his search; but it is also the silence that makes possible the redemption of the poet. The stanza ends with the annihilation of the physical part of the poetical persona:

e gia mi par che sciolte giaccian Ie membra mie, ne spirto 0 senso pill Ie commova, e lor quiete antica co' silenzi del loco si confonda. (Poesie e prose I 54)

Nature here is characterized by absence: it is this void that the poet fills with his word. In "La vita solitaria," however, nature's silence is still circumscribed within a specific moment of day and season: the stillness of a summer afternoon; in "II coro dei morti" the silence widens to embrace all human beings. It is only in the "Cantico del gallo silvestre" that the silence becomes cosmic and the song of the poet reaches its lyrical climax. All the past images are present:

Se il sonno dei mortaIi fosse perpetuo, ed una cosa medesima colla vita; se sotto l'astro diurno, Ianguendo per Ia terra in profondissima quiete tutti i viventi, non apparisse opera alcuna; non muggito di buoi per Ii prati, nestrepito di fiere per Ie foreste, necanto di uccelli per l'aria, ne sussurro d'api 0 di farfalle scorresse per Ia campagnia; non voce, non motaalcuno ... certo I'universo sarebbe inutile. (Poesie e prose I 968; emphasis added) GIACOMO LEOPARDI'S ULTRAFILOSOFIA

What in "La vita solitaria" was a brief phase becomes here an hypothesis for eternity, and in the end of the operetta the reality of doomsday. "Tempo verra che esso universo e la natura medesima, sara spento"; nothing of man's vestiges will remain,

rna un silenzio nudo, e una quiete altissima, empieranno 10 spazio immenso. COS! questa arcana mirabile e spaventoso dell'esistenza universale, innanzi di essere dichiarato ne inteso, si dileguera e perderassi. (Poesie e prose 1970-71; emphasis added)

It will disappear and be lost before being comprehended and understood, but not before being sung. The impossibility of comprehending the universe, the acknowledged limit of human reason, or, to put it differently, the universe's lack of meaning, acts as the edge of "L'infinito."13 It is the very means that makes the poetical word possible. What Carrera says for "L'infinito" can also be said for "II cantico del gallo silvestre": "Solo la finzione, la potenza immaginativa, e chiamata ad aprire la porta dell'abisso e a rendere possibile, se non la sua misurazione, almeno la sensazione della sua smisuratezza." When Nature becomes silent, when she fails to create meanings, when God is dead, the poets will continue their work. His work, however, as Carrera concludes, is not, "portare la cosa alIa presenza, rna chiamarla" ("Prossimita e infinito" 10). It is, therefore, the very impossibility of experiencing the infinite that constitutes the condition for poetry.

If Saint Francis's Cantico was sung by all the creatures created by God to celebrate his greatness, the Wild Rooster sings here a metaphysical song in a dimension in which no living creature exists any longer. If the world was created by the Word, silence is here necessary to emphasize the voice of the Rooster, metaphor of the poet, symbol of light and rebirth, capable of calling absence into being, of making present and heard that which is absent and silent. With his head in the sky and his feet on the earth, the Wild Rooster is a mediator between the material and the immaterial, now singing a song of death and doom; a "posthumous" poetry, to use Margaret Brose's felicitous expression.l-t The philosopher like a chrysalides, has metamorphosed into the butterfly, into the "ultrafilosofo," who, to paraphrase Calvino once more, rises over the weight of the world and makes lightness out of gravity.


University of Texas-Austin


1To Stella he wrote: "0 potro pubblicarle altrove, 0 preferisco il tenerle sempre inedite al dispiacer di vedere un' opera che mi costa fatiche infinite, pubblicata a brani in un Giomale, come le opere di un momento e fatte per durare un momento" (Lettere 681).

2In two successive essays Carlo Ferrucci has called attention to the expression ultrafilosofia overlooked by the critics. He sees it as an intellectual activity that must push beyond the limits of analytical reason in order to open up to emotions and feelings that should be considered as equally valid means of understanding. Although I tend to agree with a similar later concept of ultrafilosofia, Leopardi at this point still seems to be thinking of the possibility of a return to nature ("Due estetiche ultrafilosofiche: Leopardi e Pirandello" 149-59 and "Leopardi e I' esperienza estetica della verita" 199-213). In the last fifteen years there have been a good number of studies emphasizing the interdependence of philosophy and poetry in Leopardi, beginning with Antonio Prete's II pensiero poetante and Daniela Bini's A Fragrance From the Desert: Poetry and Philosophy in Giacomo Leopardi, to Alessandro Carrera's "Prossimita e infinito. Leopardi alIa luce dell'ermeneutica di Heidegger" e Sergio Givone's "Uno sguardo dal nulla."

3This activity of knowing and understanding through the creative faculty of poetry is, I believe, what Antonio Prete had defined as "pensiero poetante"-the title of his well-known 1980 study.

41 am indebted to Alessandro Carrera for his precious suggestions on this point and for bringing to my attention the recent essay by Sergio Givone: "Uno sguardo dal nulla." The expression "ontologia del nulla" is in Givone (29, 34). The scholar considers the "ontology of nothingness" as somewhat different from nihilism (of which Emanuele Severino speaks). It is, he argues, the extreme development of nihilism that holds onto the opposition between "mondo vero e mondo falso ... mondo dell'illusione vitale e mondo della verita mortifera." The "ontologia del nulla," instead, shows that the two are interconnected and mutually dependent: "La verita non si oppone all'illusione, rna al contrario nell'illusione e addirittura nella menzogna consapevole [come arte] ha luogo" (42). Both nature and poetry create fleeting forms, images, appearances in a world where everything is becoming, out of nothing and back into nothing.

5See for example Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers in their volume Order out of Chaos. It was Carlo Ferrucci who pointed out these similarities in his Leopardi filosofo e le ragioni della poesia. It is interesting to note that Italo Calvino's endorsement appears on the cover of Prigogine's and Stenger's book.

6For Massimo Riva, Leopardi's poetry "annuncia il naufragio di ogni metafisica come theorein ... I' estremo naufragio dello spirito occidentale" (41). Riva, too, underlines Nietzsche's debt to Leopardi. On Nietzsche and Leopardi, see also Alessandro Carrera's "Nietzsche e Leopardi. Per una critica della modernita" and Angelo Sabatini's "Nietzsche e Leopardi."

7What Giuseppe Mazzotta says of Dante in his recent book Dante's Vision and the Circle ofKnowledge can be well applied to Leopardi: "[He] connected the partial relative view points of philosophers and theologians by uncovering the poetic foundation of both philosophical and theological knowledge. And as he did this he showed the necessity of poetry in all forms of knowledge" (13). I would like to thank my colleague Guy Raffa for bringing Mazzotta's study to my attention and for sharing with me the original ideas he has developed in his recent essay "Eco and Calvino Reading Dante." In his critical edition of the Operette morali, Cesare Galimberti lists all the passages in the Zibaldone where Leopardi reflects on the relationship between poetry and philosophy (209-10).

8Giovanni Cecchetti had already noted the poetical aspects of the Operette morali in several essays published between 1957-1964, now collected in his Sulle Operette morali.

9Commenting on "A se stesso," Margaret Brose points to the absence of memory's recuperative power in Leopardi' s last poems-a feature already apparent in these poems and operetta (170).

10Brose underlines a similar use of the enjambement in "A se stesso." She rightly argues that this poem "is to be read against 'L'infinito'" where the use of the enjambement creates, instead, a centrifugal force that opens up the poem into the infinite (178, 175). There are other similarities between "11 coro dei morti" e "A se stesso": the use of the verb "posare" with the connotation of finality and rest in death ("or poserai per sempre, stanco mio cor," 1.1; "posa per sempre," 1.6 in "A se stesso": "in te morte si posa" in "Coro dei morti," 1.3), the mixture of endecasillabi and settenari, and, above all, the recurrent use of the preterite juxtaposed to to the present tense, while the imperfect-the tense of memory-has disappeared from both poems. The force of the couple life-death was to inspire C. Michelstaedter's "Canto delle crisalidi."

11For an original and thorough analysis of "L'infinito," see Alessandro Carrera's "Prossimita e infinito" (Note 2). In the same line are the pages Giorgio Agamben devoted to this poem in Illinguaggio e la morte (93-102).

12The importance of key words like "quiete," "silenzio," "altissima," "profondissima," had already been pointed out by Cesare Galimberti in Linguaggio del vero in Leopardi and by Giovanni Cecchetti in Sulle Operette morali.

13"La vittoria poetica non puo prescindere dalla sconfitta esistenziale.... 11 vero ela sconfitta senza la Quale il poeta non saprebbe vivere" (Valentini 15).

14Brose uses the expression for the poetry written after 1830, and in particular "A se stesso." Such poetry, however, is clearly prepared by the philosophical-poetical transition of the Operette morali. The relationship between sound and absence is examined by Carrera in the challenging essay mentioned above. Using Heidegger's hermeneutics, he tries "to read in "L'infinito" an interrogation on the essence of language." The poetical voice, he argues, is neither mere sound nor carrier of meaning; it is pure enunciation (13, 14).


Agamben, Giorgio. Illinguaggio e la morte. Torino: Einaudi, 1982. 93-102.

Bini, Daniela. A Fragrance From the Desert: Poetry and Philosophy in Giacomo Leopardi. Stanford French and Italian Studies. Saratoga, CA: Anma Libri, 1983.

Brose, Margaret. "Posthumous Poetics: Leopardi' s 'A se stesso. '" Stanford Italian Revue 7.1-2 (1987): 161-89.

Calvino, Italo. Lezioni americane. Milano: Garzanti, 1988.

Carrera, Alessandro. "Nietzsche e Leopardi. Per una critica della rnodernita." Giacomo Leopardi. Estetica e poesia. Ed. Emilio Speciale. Ravenna: Longo, 1992. 11-36.

_. "Prossimita e infinito. Leopardi alIa luce dell' ermeneutica di Heidegger." L' anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature 2.1 (Spring 1990): 5-28.

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Convegno Internazionale di Studi Leopardiani. Ed. Centro Nazionale di Studi Leopardiani. Firenze: Olschki, 1982.75-98. Mazzotta, Giuseppe. Dante's Vision and the Circle of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993. Prete, Antonio. II pensiero poetante. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1980. Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. Order Out ofChaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam, 1984. Raffa, Guy. "Eco and Calvino Reading Dante." Italica 73.3 (1996): 388-409. Riva, Massimo. "Leopardi e la poetic a della malinconia." Gradiva ns 8-9 (19901991): 29-46. Sabatini, Angelo G. "Nietzsche e Leopardi." Leopardi e il pensiero moderno. Ed. Carlo Ferrucci. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1989. 173-81. Salinari, Carlo. Miti e coscienza del decadentismo italiano. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1973. Severino, Emanuele. II nulla e la poesia. Alia fine dell' eta della tecnica: Leopardi. Milano: Rizzoli, 1990. Valentini, Alvaro. L'io poetante. Roma: Bulzoni, 1983.

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