Leopardi, bon ton and lively criticism

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Text by Michele Felice

The critic is an echo, of course. But isn't it perhaps also the voice of the mountain, of nature, to which the poet's voice is directed? Isn't the critic in front of his poet like the poet in front of the calls of his own heart? For this reason, at the moment of talking about it, he must have already completely undergone it: returning it not as a simple mirror but as an echo: charged and imbued with all that path travelled, in nature, by one and the other voice.
(Cristina Campo, Fairy tale and mystery)

Cristina Campo wrote that Leopardi was the last critic and gave a memorable definition: the critic has within himself the high faculty of «examining a page properly, in the manner of a paleographer, on five or six levels together » and «everything that does not lend itself to one multiple reading, he ignores it" (The flute and the carpet, 1971). It should then be considered that criticism, deep down, still responds to its etymological root, κρίνω: to separate, distinguish, but also to judge, prefer, examine or question. It is a fan-idea of the precious irreducibility of the concept, which blows away the fatuous belief that merges and confuses the sense of criticism with the seriousness of excavation and analysis; the latter is necessary, of course, since we say that makes it work criticism; but it must not be confused with what moves the criticism making it Viva, that is, feeling, choice, brotherhood and recognition. Here lies the difference between the dissection of a literary corpse - having an infinite technical arsenal at our disposal and wrongly believing it to be sufficient - and the sovereign dialogue, intimate and rigorous, with a writer, a text, a living word that we have chosen and that - we like to fantasize – he chose us in turn, by irreducible correspondence.

I believe Rolando Damiani's written and oral criticism is devoted to this essential idea, and he has also made such devotion the intimate substance of his teaching. We find it perfectly exemplified in his latest book, entitled Barbarism and civilization in Leopardi's conception (Mimesis, 2023). On «the greatest figure that the history of Italian thought presents», as Giuseppe Rensi defined him, Damiani has written and published a lot in recent decades: from the curatorship of Zibaldone for Meridiani Mondadori, to the biography entitled When the truth appears. However, the one that has just been released is the latest in a small sequence of monographic publications, including Leopardi and the principle of uselessness (Longo, 2000) e The order of fate and other topics of Leopardi's "religion". (Longo, 2014). But let's not make quantity a chain, since it deafens the ear and spoils the heart, if considered just a little more than a sign of faithfulness and persistence of critical work.

This last book is a small itinerary through some critical points in the work of our greatest poet-philosopher. It is important to underline here that he can and must be defined poet and philosopher, and better to say I quote Damiani's well-calibrated words on the first strip, for which Leopardi, «with the grace of a lyricist capable of metaphysical inspirations, equal in him to a piercing critical acumen, knew how to be in politicis and in the evaluation of the never extinct "popular errors" a proud polemicist and a "misthinker" by self-definition". A lucid consideration of the continuous and often virtuously reiterative and circular unity in Leopardi's work, which dominates the variety of forms and the chronology of life, is found in a few other privileged rooms of written and oral criticism, which on the other hand is fin too often spoiled by dismembering practices and dissection, if not downright ideological obtuseness. The absence of Attention, the concern to please a regime of flawed cultural democracy - the effective reign of quantity and a sign of the times, to reuse René Guénon's successful and versatile formula - dominate, with precious exceptions, over the virtuous ambitions of the few partisans of good taste and good sense, of which Damiani is certainly an example. In this book, I was saying, we are accompanied through some critical places of Leopardi's thought, starting from his considerations on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, whose failures of reason and religion can be recognized throughout history as eternal returns of barbarizing credulity. Damiani starts the discussion with unavoidable words:

After almost half a century of familiarity with Leopardi, I sense something personal, an unconscious force, in his accusation of medieval "villainy" persisting in modern times, as if a symbiosis with barbarism were now ineradicable from civilization. He thought about this perennial Middle Ages, whose magnificent and progressive destiny the credulous, Christians or atheists, do not want to know about, and indeed implied by writing to Sinner on 22 December 1836 after the interruption due to seizure of the Starita edition: «My philosophy is displeasing to priests, who both here and throughout the world, under one name or another, still can and will eternally be able to do everything." The priests at the time were Catholic and many of them, but the fulcrum of the sentence, valid for all times and for the present, is contained in the memorable engraving often overlooked by interpreters, on priests destined for omnipotence everywhere in the world, under one name or another, therefore despite any overt secularism, or even as ministers of the secularist "cult".

After looking at the New believers and on the Palinody, we enter into the considerations regarding the French Revolution, an event on which above all the considerations on civilization and barbarism are calibrated and put to the test:

With a criterion opposite to that of progressive simplification, widespread in his century and beyond, Leopardi sees in the Revolution an event that attenuates and does not increase civilization, a bloody bloodletting of the energetic excesses of civilization or even an extreme step backwards in front of the abyss to which a complete civilization has led society. The predatory and primitive barbarism of the revolutionaries re-established, albeit in ideological distortions, the lost contact with the "natural". 

Ritratto di Giacomo Leopardi, olio su tela di Ferrazzi

A. Ferrazzi, Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi, circa 1820, oil on canvas, Recanati, Palazzo Leopardi (Wikipedia)

It is a precious viaticum on Leopardi's theorization of the balance between Reason and Nature, of the need for one half philosophy which reconciles the two, in opposition to a «"perfect philosophy" which in total disenchantment before the True rationally examined, it annihilates life and ends up taking refuge in corrupt ideological credulity." Damiani then talks to us about the importance of first to know for the young poet intent on writing his History of astronomy, in which he establishes a «correlation between literary or poetic knowledge and knowledge drawn from investigation or discovery in nature, which will forever remain a cornerstone of his theory of knowledge». After a rich chapter on the question of language, we come to the heart of the religious conception of the poet-philosopher, to investigate the supreme value of the imagination, a faculty inseparable from the possibilities of profound knowledge, and yet almost lost along the road that separates us from the ancients. We then enter the heart of Leopardi's conception of heroic uselessness of poetry, and we would say ultimately, also, heroic uselessness of literature: it is an arrow shot from the origin of the times, which here we see flash before the eyes of the Recanati person to continue along history, touching the lives of those who have truly perceived something essential about art in this world. The last essay is entitled Civilization of bon ton, and it is an unequivocal proactive solution to the oppositional combination of barbarism and civilisation: it is not a solution because it announces a unilateral stance, but because Leopardi, in the manner of a true critic, undermines schematic habits, evading on the one hand the barbarism produced by errors and on the other, the distorted progressive civilisation, which sees nothing other than rational utility. A virtuous resurgence, a virtuous civil construction, for Leopardi are given in the rapprochement with the ancient structure of life of the average Greek and Roman civilization, where reason and imagination were balanced; since reason alone is destructive in itself if the connection with nature is missing. But «the main natural quality […] is the vigor relative to each kind of being» (Zib. 1602): a phrase that might sound strange in front of the privileged portrait of a pessimistic and sick Leopardi, a portrait on the basis of which, he writes Damiani, 

we end up neglecting his continuous valorization of corporeity, of physical vigor, of the superior strength of action compared to that of reflection, for which Alfieri deserved applause, as Madame de Stäel had already declared, as a man born for action and not for writing.

Is in the Discourse on the present state of Italian customs that Leopardi theorizes the civilization of good tone, the possibility of a mimesis of good manners which is then closely linked to lightness. Lightness and uselessness which he also claimed in Preamble to the “Spettatore Fiorentino”, a newspaper «of no use» written not to «benefit the world, but to delight those few who will read»: a government ban arrived which prevented the realization of the project. Damiani reminds us that Leopardi made himself an example of good tone who theorized, lingering according to Ranieri even in recent times, bowed down by illness, on holiday locations to be admired in the supreme gratuitousness that makes of good tone an unassailable aesthetic and moral virtue, sister of that other supreme virtue called disdain: "in theorizing the good tone as the ethical value of a civilization at the highest level, where through rational disenchantment morality is destroyed or entrusted to vague credulities, he applied the principles and the lesson of Renaissance disdain", later perfectly redefined by Cristina Campo as "lively, gentle impenetrability to the violence and baseness of others, an impassive acceptance - which to unwary eyes may appear calloused - of unchangeable situations which it calmly "establishes as non-existent"", and again, "a moral rhythm, the music of an interior grace; and the time, I would like to say, in which the complete freedom of a destiny is manifested, inflexibly measured, however, on a covered asceticism" (The flute and the carpet, 1971). We recognize this interior grace, Damiani underlines, even in the «nice way to overlook, as the collapse approaches, the truth of the state of health" (italics mine) shortly before death.

Leopardi inhabits places of intelligence foreign to his own time, «he reveals himself to be one of those retardataires of which Nietzsche speaks, who take a few steps back to catch up and leap beyond their era." And from his time he does not leap into an isolated place, he does not land on a static throne with a golden plate to indicate that there he is a literary classic. He rises to what we define with Roberto Calasso absolute literature, in the sense that it aims at the absolute and is also free from social, political and economic constraints: that is, ultimately, disinterested. It is no coincidence that Damiani's previous book, a collection of essays written over many years, freed from chronology and occasions, is entitled From Leopardi to Artaud. A constellation of absolute literature (Longo, 2021), where alongside Leopardi, to whom the first pages are dedicated, we meet D'Annunzio, Tolstoj, Baudelaire, Némirovsky, Comisso, Daumal, Cioran, Hillesum, Roditi, Weil, Parise, Ceronetti, Calasso, Bazlen, Artaud. And we remember that too New worlds, new stars (Guerini and Associati, 1987) now almost unobtainable, where, in around sixty short essays, these and many other stars of literature swirl around that unchanged profound sense of criticism as a disposition towards recognition, as an intimate stylistic pulsation even before, naturally necessary, rigorous work: and whoever is lucky enough to browse through it will find the Calasso de The ruin of Kasch, the Ceronetti of A trip to Italy, again Bazlen, of course Leopardi, but also the great writers of the German language, Nietzsche, Trakl, Benn, Benjamin, Kafka, Musil, then Canetti and before that Campanella, Galileo, Casanova, Mozart and many others, up to, in closing , to Artaud and Daumal; and speaking of closures, here is also an extensive essay on Italo Calvino, whose American lessons they were the topic of the last course held by Damiani at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice. 

Despite the programmatic and structural difference from the two just mentioned, in this last, entirely Leopardian book we recognize an unchanged critical spirit and we find, still cited and recalled, north stars, writers and thinkers whose presence could be said to be unnecessary for the economy of a Leopardi monograph, including Nietzsche, Artaud, Calasso and Campo. And precisely by virtue of this lack of necessity, of this gratuitousness, their presence becomes necessary on another level, which in a place makes near and remote coincide, depth and surface, which is essentially, precisely, the place of absolute literature, space illuminated by a constellation of writers not present by customary invitation, but chosen, recognized, for the definitive implementation of that profound sense of the concept of criticism which I mentioned at the beginning. 

I didn't mention this other book by Damiani, From Leopardi to Artaud, just to give notice. A leap of mind took me from lightness, from the interior grace that recognizing in Leopardi means both having understood him and having chosen him among the masters, from this Leopardi grace to that particular form of grace which has the name, in the Japanese tradition, iki, and which Damiani writes about in an essay contained in his 2021 book, in reference to Goffredo Parise's trip to Japan in the form of a reportage, then published as Elegance is frigid. It is essentially a book on the intuition of aesthetic grace and its radiating energy that can conquer everything around us, even starting from the simple gesture, kneeling with ink and brush in hand, of copying ideograms of which we do not know the meaning, where, however, it is the gesture itself, which approaches the most sublime silence, that instills meaning in those who perform it, that opens up the recognition of that special condition of grace; or even by gestures of a daily nature that secretly belong to the order of universal prayer, which in reiteration cover the surrounding with a supreme lightness, an added grace that elevates the spirit. A precious thread ties the good tone Leopardian - theorized as "almost a religious principle or a cultural precept" where gesture, intonation, word, ultimately everything that is choice, become fraternal virtues - to that essay on Parise's experience in Japan whose Archimedean point is precisely the concept of iki, which ultimately is the supreme, impossible for us to fully understand, art of good tone oriental, which embraces all of life, even that peak of life which is giving oneself death, or taking it by the hand when it reaches us. And here also comes to mind that perfect, well-crafted essay by Giorgio Manganelli - also dear to Damiani - which presents itself to us as the sixteenth chapter of the Speech about the shadow and the coat of arms, where the East «never manages to fade only because of the assistance that comes to it from its inexhaustible ability to chat when it has nothing to say, and to remain silent to say the essential», and where chatter is a «supreme , a summary literary genre that includes sacred hymns, mischievous novellas, heartfelt autobiographies [...], the confessions of murderers, [...] the memoirs of statesmen, tragedies in verse, comic-pastoral-tragic-heroic". Thus, in a dense multiplicity, precious threads bind the stars of a constellation that Damiani, sensitive and rigorous, brings together without exhausting it, for an essentially sentimental push, for reasons of intimate connection.

To anyone who wants to read this new book, it will be clear that Damiani does not simply speak here Of Leopardi, that the horizon is different. The dense quotations are not functional to inform, the threads are not pulled to keep some strips of thought of the poet-philosopher sewn together: instead they are testimonies of a dialogue, they are listened to, recognized and chosen as living words of a living interlocutor. A I live Leopardi, through the Viva Damiani's criticism, he appears to us as a travel companion, teacher and interlocutor at the same time, due to that mysterious critical alchemy that originates from recognition, from intimate correspondence. 

Cover image

Giacomo leopardi, Manuscripts, 1825-31 (Visso, Museum of Leopardi manuscripts), 02 sonnets, 1826 (Wikimedia Commons)

Michele Felice he is a doctoral student in Italian studies at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice.
He is mainly studying the work of Guido Ceronetti and is dealing with some other Italian writers of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Roberto Calasso, Elémire Zolla, Cristina Campo and Giorgio Manganelli.