Giacomo Leopardi, 1798-1837, a little-known Italian philosopher but world-renowned poet, composed most of this collection of prose between 1823 and 18Giacomo 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....more