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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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Chapter 1: From Poet to Philosopher


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From Poet to Philosopher

Ever since its publication the Zibaldone has been the object of intense scrutiny and debate concerning its character and role vis-à-vis Leopardi’s oeuvre. Its first edition in 1898, published under the title Pensieri di varia filosofia e di bella letteratura [Thoughts on Assorted Philosophy and Belles-lettres], is an important turning point in the exegesis of Leopardi’s thought, albeit it would be necessary to wait until the post-war years for the value and impact of this text to be fully appreciated.1 The enormous amount of ← 1 | 2 → material it contains offers new and fruitful ground for investigation, while its fragmentary nature weighs heavily on how readers approach and critics evaluate it, hindering any consideration of the notebook as a whole, autonomous text vis-à-vis the literary writings. The Zibaldone’s ancillary role means that it is explored primarily as a heterogeneous and extemporaneous collection of ideas, thoughts and fragments whose definitive expression, both in terms of style and content, is sought in the poems and dialogues.

The hierarchical separation between the Canti and Operette morali on the one hand, and the notebook on the other, is reflected in the distinction between Leopardi the poet and Leopardi the philosopher, the latter undervalued – at least initially – because of the profoundly pessimistic tone of his poems and dialogues, but also because the Zibaldone’s fragmentary character is deemed incompatible with a solid philosophical practice.2 The accreditation of philosophical substance to...

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