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A System That Excludes All Systems

Giacomo Leopardi's «Zibaldone di pensieri»

Emanuela Cervato

For many decades Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri has been seen as a collection of temporary thoughts and impressions whose final expression is to be found in the published poems (the Canti) and satirical dialogues (the Operette morali). The conceptual consistency of the work was thereby denied, privileging Leopardi the poet over Leopardi the thinker.

This book shows that such a perceived lack of coherence is merely illusory. The Zibaldone is drawn together by an intricate web of references centring around topics such as the ambivalent concept of nature; the Heraclitean «union of opposites» (ancients and moderns, poetry and philosophy, reason and imagination); and the tension between the desire for happiness and the impossibility of its realization. Largely unknown to the English-speaking world until its translation in 2013, the Zibaldone is Leopardi’s intellectual diary, the place where dialogue with the ancient classical traditions evolves into modern encyclopaedism and what has been described as «thought in movement». It establishes Leopardi as one of the most original and radical thinkers of the nineteenth century.


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A Book of Philosophical Sketches?


Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone di pensieri is an extraordinary book – not just by virtue of its distinctive features (the difficulty of framing it within a specific literary genre; the broad spectrum of observations contained and subjects explored; the relevance and richness of its analyses and reflec- tions) but also because of the relationship it establishes with its readers. The fragmentary nature of its writing makes it challenging and laborious to extract an organic and coherent overview of its many meditations and requires readers to become active coordinators of its content by gathering passages on a specific topic separated by lengthy spatial (in the text) and chronological (in the writing) distances, assembling the many pathways linking Leopardi’s considerations and following their development. The legitimacy of such an operation is implicitly supported by Leopardi, who complements the Zibaldone with various indices whose main purpose is to catalogue the notebook’s content before channelling it towards a number of literary-philosophical projects, and who also occasionally indicates the links between specific themes (‘Malvagio. Vedi Innocente’ [Wicked. See Innocent]; ‘Sensibilità. Vedi Vitalità’ [Sensibility. See Vitality]). Readers’ central role is further attested by the private nature of the notebook, whose origin and existence are centred on Leopardi’s dual role of author and reader. The Zibaldone grows and evolves as a result of Leopardi’s constant and parallel processes of writing and reading, his returning to existing ideas in order to develop and expand them, his identifying, collecting and cataloguing them according to their hierarchical relationships and associa- tive...

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