Giacomo Leopardi, 1798-1837, a little-known Italian philosopher but world-renowned poet, composed most of this collection of prose between 1823 and 18...moreGiacomo Leopardi, 1798-1837, a little-known Italian philosopher but world-renowned poet, composed most of this collection of prose between 1823 and 1828. The resulting magnum opus, Operette morali ("Small Moral Works"), ties together 24 dialogues and fictional essays. Its translation, plus the biographical sketch on Leopardi that precedes it, are both by Charles Edwardes, a stiff English chap writing in 1882. Stilted sometimes, even mean-spirited, but such a departure for all involved.
The actual material -- silly dialogues, essays, just fleeting corners of rhetoric, sharp in a mannered antiquity -- are sometimes long-winded but usually pretty nicely balanced.
Before I discuss the bulk, let me just pick out two that I feel perfectly encapsulate Leopardi. Both of these come in the middle of the book. The 12th, "Dialogue between Nature & an Icelander," takes its time setting up its premise but soon enough delivers a nicely droll end. The 19th, "Dialogue between Timandro & Eleandro," has Timandro inquiring politically and nicely (on behalf of optimism?) and Eleandro brashly and dismissively (on behalf of pessimism?); suitable, I think! ;-)
The rest, whether dialogue or essay, rest pretty clearly in a few subjects. One is probably scornful mythology… I don't know mean scorning the mythology that exists (at least not always), but maybe inventing new mythology one of whose express purposes is to be scorned. The 1st essay in the book, "History of the Human Race," is thick and repurposes all of anthropology. The 4th, "Prize Competition of the Academy of Sillographs," asks if could machines could ever be social.
The 9th, "The Wager of Prometheus" does poke at actual mythology but in a chummy way. After a contest among the gods about which of their inventions is best (Bacchus's wine, Minerva's oil, or Vulcan's cooking pot), Prometheus wagers with Momus that humanity is. Some doubting ensues!
There are other dialogues that bluntly revise common misunderstandings: the 3rd one, "Dialogue Between Fashion & Death," asks which is more permanent, more impermanent. The 5th one, "Dialogue Between a Goblin & a Gnome," asks would the apocalypse, after it happens, be parochial. Smart and silly, but tied a little too tightly to earthly particularly.
Others (better, I think) subtly direct their questions to the cosmos. The 6th, "Dialogue between Malambruno & Farfarello," weighs happiness and vice. The 7th, "Dialogue between Nature & a Soul," examines happiness as a human raison d'être. The 10th, "Dialogue between a Natural Philosopher & a Metaphysician," looks at prolonging human life: more years _and_ better years, or more years _or_ better years?
And gradually those cosmos-directed questions can turn more and more to mortality. The 16th, "Dialogue between Columbus & Gutierrez," asks if soldiers'/sailors' risks, versus the relative safety of ordinary people, mean they enjoy their lives more or less. The 21st, "Dialogue between an Almanac Seller & a Passer-by," is a tiny dialogue examining the popular attitude that the past is bad but worth reliving.
And at the very end, Leopardi's writing crashes head-on into mortality. Three in a row, offering an interesting summary of the subject. In the 22nd piece, "Dialogue between Plotinus & Porphyrius," self-destruction is the topic (Plotinus curtly but successfully anti-, Porphyrius pro-), along a rich philosophical vein, Reason vs Nature, but then settling on egotism.
The next, "Comparison of the Last Words of Marcus Brutus & Theophrastus," examines it in a more nonfictional, historical sense. And the next again, "Dialogue between Tristano & a Friend," examines it again: the friend unsuccessfully -anti, Tristano -pro.
Leopardi also reviews other authors in these pages. His 13th, "Parini on Glory," seems to deal just in assumptions and cruel/crude audacity. Greatness, he quotes agreeably, "owes more to men of common powers than to those who are exceptionally endowed," and sneers on at intellectuality ungratefully. His 15th, "Remarkable Sayings of Philip Ottonieri," is a bit disagreeable and trite, and too dense and inscrutable by far. It's only very occasionally relatable or interesting.
So on the basis of those two alone, I think it's safe to say Leopardi isn't a great writer when he isn't creative. And the mere flights of fancy in the book -- 14. "Dialogue between Frederic Ruysch & His Mummies"; 17. "Panegyric of Birds"; 18. "The Song of the Wild Cock" -- are appropriately some of the funniest and most exciting pieces.(less)
What use could you possibly have for this? For hundreds of pages, you're bored as hell; nothing's happening; some insular dumbass is cataloging artist...moreWhat use could you possibly have for this? For hundreds of pages, you're bored as hell; nothing's happening; some insular dumbass is cataloging artists and other notable figures. David Markson spins his own experimental story -- capturing stiff, prickly stream-of-consciousness messages, in a bunch of loping single-sentence paragraphs, about some woman's preoccupations and scattered remembrances -- in a book that was barely published almost 25 years ago: "What do any of us truly know, however?" Yeah right.
Apparently, the world has ended or something, and one woman named Kate is eking out a solitary post-apocalyptic life in empty museums around the world. Just a stunningly empty world with stunningly empty allusions, in a fancy-pants solipsist's shell. "in my head... Like a bloody museum, sometimes... As if I have been appointed the curator of all the world" (227).
Oh, and by the way -- even amid the references to da Vinci drawing a perfect circle freehand or to Andrea del Sarto's nickname "Andrea senza errori" -- 'Wittgenstein's Mistress' is flatly rife with errors. One writer said such-and such, then he was from here, then he said something else, then he was from this other place. Also, to widen the definition of "wrong" a bit, her family is given scant mention at all: some son Lucien, possibly another son Simon, a husband Adam... each only given brief and scattered references. What kind of family is that?
Kate muses on topics as diverse and shifting as art, Rauschenberg, da Vinci, architecture, the Trojan War, music in random tape decks, books she'd found around one of her houses. For most of these, she uses a defeatist and combative pseudo-familiarity to extricate herself from any deeper commitment: "Well, I knew a great deal about many painters [on pg #:22] for the same reason that Achilles must surely have known a great deal about Hector, say. [or, on pg #123] for the same reason that Menelaus must surely have known a great deal about Paris, say." Is she a warrior to things, a practitioner only of opposition?
She lights on the epistemology of changing perspectives after finding a painting of a house inside that very house. Is a thing the same as a representation of a thing? Markson steps back, corrects himself, or at least his character does; the result is frequently stifling and go-nowhere. "Obviously no action of my own, such as that, changes anything in the painting." Well, yeah, right. Repeatedly, sentences begin with "doubtless" or "obviously" or "certainly," when Kate hasn't decided to bring up the uselessness of "equidistant" from some kind of instructions manual ("Make sure speakers are equidistant" / OK, but how could they be any other way?) or a remembrance of her signing a mirror with lipstick underneath her face (or, if someone else were looking, their face), which could have taken place in either a Louvre restroom or a bathroom at home with her mother long ago.
Is a book she'd found called 'A Life of Brahms' or 'The Life of Brahms' or 'Brahms'? Is it an actual biography or is it just an episode she'd glanced at in a children's picture book? What's 'Baseball When The Grass Was Real' about exactly? Actual baseball, or some kind of obscurely deep question about baseball? Her philosophy covers Kierkegaard, Heidegger (who was said to have thought so much you could actually see him thinking), and Wittgenstein (who said, "Anxiety is the fundamental mood of existence"). Diversions from her studies include re-remembering a ketch she supposedly saw when she was rowing in the Aegean, an unmanned London taxi suddenly rolling down a hill toward her, and a cat she might have seen in the Coliseum.
She returns to the Trojan War as topic, this time connecting numerous parts to the Odyssey, etc., etc., with apologias like "Again, however, I am by no means implying that there is any significance in such connections." and extenuations like "God, the things women used to do." or "God, the things men used to do." (less)
Were music to ever not be ridiculous and disposable, we should have to make it so to save us some work in disposing of it.
Reliability remains today so...moreWere music to ever not be ridiculous and disposable, we should have to make it so to save us some work in disposing of it.
Reliability remains today so unreliable, as if relying on something is even itself subject to circumstance. "I can rely on him" spits out the word "rely" as something redoubtably foreign as opposed to "I can"'s and "him"'s natural bases in verifiable experience.
If I were Wittgenstein, I would have zombied up out of the ground in 1977, when G.H. von Wright was about to publish Vermischte Bemerkungen, and snatched the manuscript right out of his hands, croaking (can zombies croak?) "Miscellany is meant to stay miscellaneous!", and scattering all the pages everywhere. (But this would be terribly avoidable, seeing as a virus of sufficient strength to awaken the corpse didn't exist in that year exactly.) But I'm not Wittgenstein, seeing as I speak barely more than a basic snatch of German, and am not a great philosopher, though I should certainly have a "sense of purpose" to be him. Enough to capitalize on all of it? For purposes of very foolish imitation and mockery?
Almost like senses of purpose can utterly replace all other senses, like of smell. Zombies might smell very unpleasant, and be rudely snatching and scattering pages always.
One of Mendelssohn's 1837 piano concertos (2 in d Op. 40) has always struck me as one of his finest.(less)
A very enlightening, well-written excavation of irony and philosophy, in all senses. It's a book that challenges as much as clarifies, and, at least t...moreA very enlightening, well-written excavation of irony and philosophy, in all senses. It's a book that challenges as much as clarifies, and, at least to my mind, it's an intellectual godsend.
Still, a bit frustrating. For instance, in the beginning, Colebrook repeatedly references another philosopher named Rorty, to whom the reader hasn't been introduced (expect perhaps in the reams of back-matter, into which a philistine/philosophy-civilian like me wouldn't be welcome). The dialogue she begins/departs from/returns to with this Rorty is an intriguing one -- puzzling out "irony" as purely literary, literary and philosophical, or some combination thereof, and how; questioning assumptions about irony's metaphysical, metatextual, and existential identity; etc.--but, after that enormously dense little splash, she then steers into an attempt to define the very literal essence of irony.
Certainly not a piece of cake, that question, but not very hard either, comparatively. It threw me off because it's so much simpler and easier than the preceding exegesis: not that this easier, more literal material is inherently bad, just that it maybe would have made more sense coming first. And Colebrook continues to dip in and out of other aestheticians' works, with material that can be complex and mind-bending one moment and simplistic the next. There are sections on the history of irony in philosophy (Socratic, Kantian, modern); the notion of irony vis-a-vis ethics, linguistics, etc.; and the repeated idea of irony's paradoxical representation/destruction/re-creation of the outside world.
All in all, this monograph seems like a compelling, substantial investment in meta-intellectual life. It defends irony's legitimate place in the world, which has always struck me as a commonly (and profoundly) misunderstood textual/rhetorical/mental idea. It isn't some sick, insincere, misbegotten booby trap, some bullshit contraption whipped out inside language to justify assholitude; it's actually a real, vital engagement with words, ideas, and the world that must be embraced and defended.(less)