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Compassion in Giacomo Leopardi: a Levinasian reading of "La ginestra, o il fiore del deserto".

Abstract: Giacomo Leopardi's notion of compassion, crucial to the final poem "La ginestra, o il fiore del deserto," is here read through Emmanuel Levinas's philosophical exposition on the desire of the other, the latter paving the way for Levinasian compassion as professed in the early, phenomenological-cum-ethical work Totality and Infinity. Of particular interest in this Levinasian reading of "La ginestra" is the famous 'solidarity stanza,' which has been the focus of critical debate since the studies by Walter Binni and Cesare Luporini, both published in 1947. While the 'solidarity stanza' has attracted readings primarily in a social and political context, I here adopt a reading inspired by Levinas's phenomenological approach to ethics. I concentrate on the foundational power of the ethical relation in this poem established in the act of forging community.

Keywords: Leopardi, Levinas, compassion, ethical relation, community, solidarity.


Giacomo Leopardi's notion of compassion, crucial to the final poem "La ginestra, o il fiore del deserto", could offer new insight by being read through Emmanuel Levinas's philosophical exposition on the desire of the other, the latter conceived as the neighbour-as-stranger who needs to be addressed--the Other. (1) I argue that Leopardi's notion of compassion paves the way for Levinas's explication of the same theme in his early, mostly phenomenological and ethically-concerned work Totality and Infinity (1961). Levinas further expounds his theory of compassion in Otherwise than Being (1974), where he extends his analysis of the I-Other relation into the socio-political domain. Of particular interest in this Levinasian reading of "La ginestra" is the famous 'solidarity stanza', which has been the focus of critical debate since Walter Binni's and Cesare Luporini's influential studies, both published in 1947. (2) While the 'solidarity stanza' has attracted readings primarily in a strictly social and political context (which mostly adopt ideas proposed by the Frankfurt School theorists), (3) my reading is inspired by Levinas's phenomenological approach to ethics.

I emphasize the foundational power of the ethical relation in Leopardi's poem, established in the act of forging community. (4) Following a Levinasian line of thought, I argue that in "La ginestra" the poetic voice is, through the presence of the bruising strangeness of the neighbour-as-stranger, confronted with the finite while being surrounded by an infinitely sublime universe as an overwhelming force. (5) In "La ginestra" this universe is described from the perspective of earthly existence as "tutte in uno,/ Del numero infinite e della mole,/ Con Laureo sole insiem, le nostre stelle/ O sono ignote, o cosi paion come/ Essi alia terra, un punto/ Di luce nebulosa" (fines 178-83).

I read the attempt to form a social chain in order to counter a sublime universe in "La ginestra" as proximate to the alliance with the other created by the Levinasian irruption of the ethical on recognizing the impossible-to-achieve 'Infinite.' This relation entails a being-for-the-Other in suffering which requires one's subjectivity in order to register as such. The Levinasian agonizing company is potentially negotiable through language, offering, as I argue below, a kind of justice. However, while the Levinasian Infinite has clear metaphysical implications, it is important to underscore from the outset that the infinitely sublime surroundings in Leopardi's ultimus cantus--which oppose the notion of the infinite proposed in the 1819 idillio "L'infinito"--refer to a universe of physical matter that is primarily malign. (6)

Furthermore, the poetic voice in "La ginestra" foreshadows the voice of the subjected being that would come to dominate twentiethcentury poetry. The individual presented in Leopardi's last poem is already something other than res cogitans. In Leopardi's late poetry, the supremacy of the intentional "I" starts to be displaced and thought is not mastered but suffered. As the poetic voice projects itself, it also exposes itself to subjection by the other--I'altro, il prossimo--the same subjection that is, paradoxically, the source of an ethical relation. (7)

As early as his post-war Existence and Existents (1947), Levinas propounds that there is a "profound need" to leave the "climate" of Martin Heidegger's Being understood as anxiety, in order to investigate the anxiety over Being which he terms "horror" (20). Levinas also rejects Heidegger's notion of subjectivity as a function of Being. In Otherwise than Being he clearly states: "subjectivity, consciousness, the ego presuppose Dasein, which belongs to essence" (17). Levinas insists on the beyond 'essence,' the "otherwise than being" (18), expressed as infinity. There is no refuge in suffering, continues Levinas, which means that our attitude to fife is the opposite of the one suggested by a Heideggerian being-toward-Death. The relationship with the Other is not based, via death, on antagonism; rather, in Levinas, the Other retains its alterity. The extraordinary everydayness of one's responsibility for other persons is also the being without regard for death. The conclusion in Existence and Existents already spells out Levinas's central preoccupation: "the meaning of the very fact that in Being there are beings" (101).

My argument, in spite of making various meanderings, reaches a conclusion with clear resonances of the Levinasian ethic. This vanishing sense of the particularity of the being, I argue along Levinasian terms, may continue to be one of the most dangerous features of Western culture that persists in the twenty-first century with the current replacement of the suffering human body with statistics. Levinas had already intuited the pathway Western society would take and, by the beginning of the second half of the twentieth-century, he was proposing that only the ethical relation permits us to overcome the isolation and solitariness of Being. (8) Through his claim of ethics as first philosophy, Levinas wanted to consolidate a far-reaching critique of the Western Judeo-Christian philosophical tradition.

Leopardi, notably, had been among the first to launch a similar attack on Western tradition. This contestation is made clear in the Zibaldone: "Non bisogna estinguer la passione colla ragione, ma convertir la ragione in passione" (293,1; 22 ottobre 1820). It is also evident in Leopardi's insistence that faith should not be put entirely in rationality because, as he says in "Dialogo di Timandro e di Eleandro", "la filosofia, sperando e promettendo a principio di medicare i nostri mali, in ultimo si reduce a desiderare invano di rimediare a se stessa" (1982: 412-13). (9) Philosophy according to Levinas--but again this was already the case with Leopardi's attack in the Zibaldone on the "ragionevolezza di questo secolo" (1816, 2; 1 ottobre 1821)--is not simply the Greek Sophia, the love of wisdom, but rather, "the wisdom of love at the service of love" (Levinas 1998: 162).

The wisdom of love opens a path to Levinas's notion of substitution constituted as the foundation of subjectivity, which I construe as partially foreshadowed by Leopardi's conception of compassion as pietas. (10) In the Zibaldone Leopardi states: "la debolezza in quanto tale comporta la compassione, che puo trasformarsi dalla pietas in amore" (211, 1; no date). In Della natura degli uomini e delle cose, one of six volumes of the Donzelli edition of the Zibaldone di pensieri, (11) Leopardi proposes that compassion for the other person wells up in the morally strong at the sight of the weak. The latter, however, are projected in the Zibaldone as intrinsically insufferable: "la compassionevolezza [e] natural ai forti, e la natural immisericordia e durezza [e] dei deboli" (3271, 1; 27 agosto 1823). (12) Compassion in the Zibaldone entails that the strong subject is morally obliged to shoulder responsibility for the morally weak other: "II soffrire con pazienza e magnanimita, e indizio sicuro di coraggio e d'anima sublime; e l'abusare della propria forza e segno di codarda ferocia" (940, 2; 13 aprile 1821). In Trattato delle passioni and Manuale di filosofia pratica Leopardi specifically focuses on the other person as a feeble subject who is "compassionevolissimo, a cagione di quell' impotenza ch'esprime" (281, 1; no date), and thus argues that compassion "nasce nell'ammo nostro alia vista di uno che soffre ... in quel punto ci fa provare un sentimento affatto indipendente dal nostro vantaggio o piacere, e tutto relativo agli altri" (108, 1; no date). Compassion ruptures the inner essence: "mette l'anima in una certa azione, e le comunica una certa attivita interiore, la rompe ec. l'esercita da lontano ec. e par ch'ella ne ritorni piu forte, ed esercitata ec.". (2017, 3; 30 ottobre 1821).

In the Levinasian notion of substitution, the one-for-the-other is prior to any sense of the self, and in this approach the Other holds one responsible. Levinas goes a step further in proposing that the Other holds one hostage and, above all, the Other accuses. The encounter with the Other is governed by the "traumatism of astonishment" (Levinas 1969: 73) insofar as this encounter poses a threat to one's "being at home with oneself" (1969: 39).

In both Leopardian and Levinasian ethics the opening towards the Other begins with discomfort, which transforms itself into attention and finally a mental predisposition towards compassion. Although an internal sensation of lack might initiate this mechanism, absence does not characterize Levinas's desire of the Other. (13) Similarly, in "La ginestra" the poetic voice undercuts the attempt to isolate, negate or repress desire. (14) As much as desire is for Leopardi, as Alberto Folin insists, "ontologicamente vano in quanto esso non e mai realizzabile" (102), desire for the other person in "La ginestra" could be construed, as Levinas defines it, desire for that which transcends the T: "desire [that] does not coincide with an unsatisfied need; it is situated beyond satisfaction and non-satisfaction" (1969: 179).

In Totality and Infinity, expressing oneself through what Levinas terms the 'Saying,' (15) where language is in itself an a priori, anarchical compensation, is a way of serving the Other, otherness itself. Language becomes the medium through which the ethical and the 'Saying' for the Other occurs. The Leopardian other is no less characterized by his otherness, and indeed for Leopardi, for whom Thomas Hobbes' theory of the rivalry intrinsic to human relations is crucial in the Zibaldone (3773-3810; ottobre 1823), social relations are a source of unwarranted suffering. (16) Leopardi's definition of human nature in the Zibaldone entry of 6 December 1823 clearly states his position: "il loro stato naturale e lo stato della guerra, ed amano piu di combatiere che di stare in pace e posarsi, e piu la vita inquieta che la tranquilla" (3942). With respect to this aspect, Leopardi prefigures Sigmund Freud in that both thinkers perceive sorrow to be caused by the other as a "gratuitous addition" (77). (17) The relations with other human beings will be for Freud, as they had been for Leopardi, a source of uncalled-for pain; Leopardi also explicitly states this understanding in "La ginestra," with reference to "gli odii e l'ire/ Fraterne, ancor piu gravi d'ogni altro danno" (lines 119-21). Social relations in Leopardi's Zibaldone are at the mercy of the dictates of civilization: "Ne inferirai che dunque l'uomo e fatto per vivere in societa. Ma io dico anzi che questa inclinazione o desiderio, benche paia naturale, e un effetto della societa" (230,1; 4 settembre 1820). Hence, compassion for the other person, theorized in several entries in Trattato delle passioni and Manuale di filosofia pratica (both part of the Zibaldone), is anything but governed by ease and comfort: "Quindi e che anche nei tempi moderni e civili la compassione non e propria se non degli animi colti e dei naturalmente delicati e sensibili, cioe fini e vivi" (3117,1; no date). As the poet-philosopher from Recanati states in yet another entry:

dopo che Teroismo e sparito dal mondo, e invece v'e entrato Tuniversale egoismo, amicizia vera e capace di far sacrificare Tuno amico all'altro, in persone che abbiano interessi e desideri, e ben difficilissima. (Zibaldone 104, 1; 20 gennaio 1820).

The aspired-for relation with the Other in "La ginestra" is as thorny as it is projected in several entries in the Zibaldone, and it complicates the idea that is often construed as central to "La ginestra"--that of sharing in other people's suffering. It is, however, in its Latin etymological roots cum (with) and pati (suffer or bear)--that Leopardi presents compassion in this poem. The notion of compassion in "La ginestra" implies, as Levinas's does, transference geared towards the suffering subject: "il mal che ci fu dato in sorte/ E il basso stato e frale/ Quella che grande e forte/ Mostra se nel soffrir" (lines 116-19).

The individual is specifically invited to address the Other through the formation of a society of citizens in the "conversar cittadino" (line 152). However, as in the Levinasian 'Saying,' language is the medium for consolidating an a priori ethical relation. (18) The emphasis in "La ginestra" is on "L'umana compagnia/ [che] Tutti fra se confederati estima" (lines 129-130). The presence of the other person binds the self before it can enter into any contractual system of language and exchange: "tutti abbraccia/ Con vero amor, porgendo/ Valida e pronta ed aspettando aita" (lines 131-33). As in Levinasian 'Saying,' in "La ginestra" the formation of a society of citizens through the "conversar cittadino" entails pain in the discursive reciprocity with the Other and could be perceived as, in the words of Levinas, "suffering in the offering of oneself" (1998: 54). The poetic voice in "La ginestra" indeed aims at alleviating and attenuating the Other's agony by shouldering it, rather than accusing the Other for one's own miseries: "gli odii e Lire/ Fraterne, ancor piu gravi/ D'ogni altro danno, accresce/ Alie miserie sue, l'uomo incolpando/ Del suo dolor" (lines 119-23).

Against a sublime universe, individuals who would otherwise be strangers if not enemies to each other ("inimici" line 141), are obliged to forge a community and to find solidarity in this relation: "contro l'empia natura/ Strinse i mortali in social catena" (lines 148-49). This attempt at forging a social chain is Leopardi's ultra-filosofia, a social alliance also manifested in "Dialogo di Plotino e Porfirio", where the two characters finally agree to forge an apolitical, almost purely ontological alliance which prefigures the "social catena" in "La ginestra" (19). This "social catena" could represent an attempt at resisting the burden of human existence through addressing and shouldering responsibility for the Other in that "speech is a teaching" that "founds community by giving" (Levinas 1969: 98). Human beings are, according to this special conception of relational responsibility in both Levinas and Leopardi, called out of their solitariness in order to address, and find their strength in, the Other. As Levinas puts it, "[Addressing the Other] is not a species of consciousness whose ray emanates from the I; it puts the I in question" (1969: 195).

Levinasian discourse is manifested "as the presence of the face" (213), resonating as justice: "language is justice" (1969: 213) and "Justice is a right to speak" (1969: 298). Justice in Levinas is thus an unavoidably ethical issue not just because of any juridical resonances, but because it is indissolubly tied to being in the Other's pain. If justice is then the agonized encounter with the Other, justice in Levinas is ontological, an argument that could be equally applicable to the role of justice in "La ginestra". The ethical dimension of the "conversar cittadino" and the centrality of justice in the formation of a society of citizens ("E giustizia e pietade") could be read as having a similar function to the Levinasian moulding of the T by exposing it to the Other, escaping from the threat of dissolution into anonymity, or, in Levinasian terms, into the Neuter. (20) Leopardi expressed this concept earlier on in "Dialogo di Tristano e di un amico", when he speaks about the individual's threat of disappearing within the masses. Tristano's memorable phrase eloquently conveys this message: "gl'individui sono spariti dinanzi alie masse" (1982: 496-97). Leopardi thus foreshadows Levinas in his rebuke not simply of the excessive concentration on rationality in the Western philosophical tradition, but also in the manner in which he heaps scorn on the urge to, as Levinas puts it, 'totalize' the Other. Leopardi would define this urge as an attempt to achieve mass happiness, epitomized in nineteenth-century (the "secol superbo e sciocco" [line 53]) positivism. (21) He attacks both the attempts to achieve mass happiness based on individual unhappiness and individual happiness stemming from mass exploitation. While the use of the Biblical epigraph in "La ginestra" "E gli uomini vollero piuttosto le tenebre che la luce" (22)--might refer to a life without reference to anything that goes beyond the rational and tangible, largely made possible during the Enlightenment and its aftermath, the predominantly materialist world-view that dominates the Leopardian central phase is, in itself, concerned with the human being's well-being and happiness.

Levinasian notions of 'totality' pitted against 'infinity,' which question the freedom of the exercise of ontology through the ethical encounter of the face-to-face, (23) could represent a return to that which is ultimately crucial to Leopardian ethics, namely an emphasis on the weak, needy, afflicted human being that calls out for compassion as a remedy to its otherwise hapless state. The Leopardian ethical message could be read in the nearly doomed desire for life poignantly expressed by the ginestra's humble act of bending down: "piegherai/ Sotto il fascio mortal non renitente/ il tuo capo innocente" (lines 304-06). The desire compellingly conveyed by the ginestra is rerouted towards an exposure to the other's suffering: "O fior gentile, e quasi/1 danni altrui commiserando" (lines 34-5). "La ginestra" extends Leopardi's aim in his translation of Manuale di Epitteto (1825) into a social context. The emphasis in "La ginestra" is on the capacity to feel pain, and the focus is shifted from the desire not to suffer in Epictetus's Manuale onto the desire towards assuming responsibility for the other's suffering.

The lyrical T in "La ginestra" could be construed as aspiring after the demanding Levinasian desire, which refrains from: "alie offese/ Dell'uomo armar la destra" (lines 135-36). The challenging task of forming a common pact, or reviving the fear that brought human mortals together: "quell'orror che primo ... fia ricondotto in parte/ Da verace saper" (lines 147; 150-51) here takes place within the proud acknowledgment of not being deceived, whereby one "con franca lingua, / Nulla al ver detraendo,/ Confessa il mal che ci fu dato in sorte" (lines 114-116). (24)

Subjected by the Other, the poetic voice in "La ginestra" thus becomes both the breaking point and the binding place of an ethical relation. The self becomes a compassionate subject in acknowledging that that same human attention proves to be impossibly feeble when it attempts to fathom an immensely powerful universe and, as in Levinas, it is confronted by the common fate, "comun fato" (line 114), of fellow human beings. Faced by the latter it is, as Levinas would succinctly put it, "unable to shirk: this is the T" (1969: 245).

Compassion in "La ginestra" could thus be read as Levinasian in the magnanimous act of the poetic T shouldering the suffering of "inimici." Both the Leopardian and the Levinasian Other is a neighbour-as-stranger in being the poor one who presents him or herself as an equal. (25) As in the Levinasian Other, in "La ginestra" the presence of the other saddles the poetic 'I' with unfamiliarity and even alienation but concomitantly binds it with commitment. Leopardi's poem thus posits this commitment in its appeal to form a "social catena" against the far too powerful overwhelming universe. Here I read the concept of universe as interrelated with the concept of nature.

The alleged evolution in time and eventual contradictoriness of Leopardi's ideas on nature are the topics of a long-standing debate in Leopardian criticism. The well-documented change of emphasis from a benign to an evil and hostile nature owes to the various dualities already inherent in the initial expostulations of the concept of nature in Leopardi. Daniela Bini points out that eighteenth-century sensationalists and materialists like J.-O. La Mettrie, Denis Diderot and P-.J.-G. Cabanis, have long been recognized by criticism to have been influential on Leopardi, also with relation to the conceptual structure and historical formulation of the development of the Leopardian concept of nature. Bini claims that Leopardi's materialism "a la Mettrie," however, developed into something closer to the Marquis de Sade's pessimistic conception of destructive nature (87-88). Leopardi affirmed the changelessness of nature in 1818, in Discorso intorno alia poesia romantica, and in 1832, in Frammento sul suicidio, where Nature is represented as a changeless natura naturata as opposed to a natura naturans that is ever changeable and variable. Very often, however, the two notions of nature, one ideal and metaphysical and the other historical and resulting in humanity changing nature itself, co-exist. Leopardi both praises ancient times--when the human being was nearer to his natural state--and insists that nature can be rediscovered by the civilized human being only in civilization. The strictly chronological development insisted on by some critics is defied by noting that as early as 1820, in "La sera del di di festa", Leopardi speaks about the hostility between nature and the individual. Conversely, as late as a Zibaldone entry of February 1829, Leopardi denied that the designs of nature were necessarily evil (4461-62).

The universe, however, is not only the limited work of nature but is also conceptually limitless because, as Leopardi states in another famous entry in the Zibaldone: "Chi puo conoscere i limiti della possibilita?" (4174,1; 22 aprile 1826). (26) Vesuvius, the haunting sky and the apple that falls and crushes the ants beneath represent the infinitely Sublime power that is the universe in this poem. The brave endurance of the "lenta ginestra" is the only thing that survives on the desolate slopes of the "sterminator Vesevo" (line 3). The broom flower--which is "Di tristi/ Lochi e dal mondo abbandonati amante,/ E d'afflitte fortune ognor compagna" (lines 14-16)--contemplates the immense power of the Vesuvius, which suscitates reflection about the futility of human endeavour: "A queste piagge/ Venga colui che d'esaltar con lode/ II nostro stato ha in uso, e vegga quanto/ E il gener nostro in cura/ All'amante natura" (lines 37-41).

In this ultimus cantus, the human being has thus unveiled nature through the power of reason and nature now appears in her immense sublime form. Facing up to this superior, potentially infinite force (lines 97-110), paradoxically discovered through, but also pitted against geometric reason, (27) is only possible by admitting the futility of human striving, and redirecting the latter towards mutual compassion: "porgendo/ Valida e pronta ed aspettando aita/ Negli alterni perigli e nelle angosce/ Della guerra comune" (lines 132-35). Compassion has a similar end in Leopardi as in Levinas: in "La ginestra," the human awe in the presence of an infinitely Sublime Universe is directed through compassion towards the other person. Nonetheless, while in Levinas compassion is ultimately indicative of the human inability to directly achieve the Infinite and has an overt metaphysical implication to it, in Leopardi the focus is on the admission of the insignificance of earthly striving ("mortal prole infelice" [line 199]). (41) The coming together of individuals in Leopardi's last poem is thus grounded in the recognition that the infinitely omnipotent universe is, and here the distinction from the Levinasian emphasis on metaphysics is striking, the common enemy to all humanity: "madre e di parto e di voler matrigna" (line 125). The dread of this infinitely powerful force is still palpably felt in the peasant who works the ashy earth on the "arida schiena/ Del formidabil monte" (lines 1-2) and the Pompeii ruins standing "come sepolto/ scheletro" (lines 271-72). Human beings need to be compassionate towards one another because, as in Levinas, the necessarily painful human condition is forced to face "Dell'aspra sorte e del depresso loco/ Che natura ci die'" (lines 79-80). (28)

The Leopardian ethics in this poem could be construed as prefiguring the Levinasian one in that the poem emphasizes respect for the moral worth of individuals based on their capacity to suffer. Leopardi in this last poem is past his stubborn emphasis on the materiality of things, and he cracks opens the problematic issue of an ethical ontology. This issue is also the dark heart of Levinasian ethics: responsibility in addressing the Other, an Other who remains a threat in being out of reach.

I read solidarity and justice as crucial in the face of the Other's suffering ("E giustizia e pietade, altra radiee/ Avranno allor che non superbe foie" [lines 151-54]) and essential to the possibility of compassion. The word "pietade" reveals the need for compassion as pietas, derived from the recognition of the enduring human suffering, which refutes any confutation of beliefs in human perfectibility. As in Levinas, the suffering and responsibility of the Other is the suffering and responsibility of the T. The individual is essentially a solitary enduring being and while "pain cannot be redeemed" (91), it is possible to place a new emphasis on social relationships (Levinas 2001: 94). Desiring, and standing in relation to, the good-of-the-other, can make resistance to the sense of human impotence possible.

The contradiction between the ideology of perfectibility and progress and the wretchedness it actually generated, highlighted by Leopardi in "La ginestra," is thus not dissimilar to the contradiction that Levinas construes in the Heideggerian emphasis on Being, interlaced with the authenticity it professed to bring about, and the wholesale butchery it ultimately associated itself with. In both cases the two authors emphasize the paltriness of the human being who presumptuously rationalizes grand schemes that fail to confront the individual directly, and so ignore the suffering that defines us all. Once more, for both Leopardi and Levinas the remedy to these failures of rationalism is to address one's brother/ sister and work to heal divisiveness and exploitation in communal life. In both authors a de-situated 'I,' in an unrequited relationship with the Other--which underscores a fundamental pluralism (others exist before me)--is necessary to real justice. Through an awareness of the precariousness of the human position, one can seek solace in (and offer solidarity to) the other, thereby gaining essential insight into the intellectual power and moral dignity of human suffering.

Roberta Cauchi-Santoro

University of Guelph


(1) The term "Other" was widely used in France by the 1950s. The influence of G.W.F Hegel had made the term a cliche. The other is conceived in Levinasian terms as otherness itself, as seen in the face-to-face encounter, in the reality of death as the ultimate other. The Other, on the other hand, is formed in the subject's subjection to the order of language.

(2) In Leopardian criticism, Benedetto Croce started a tradition that pitted Leopardi's poetry against his philosophy. This criticism, which also sees Leopardi's so-called pessimistic philosophy as the consequence of his personal unhappiness, forms part of the neo-positivistic school of thought which flourished at the end of the nineteenth-century. Following Croce's dismissal of the importance in Leopardi of the relationship between philosophy and poetry, it was Walter Binni and Cesare Luporini, together with Natalino Sapegno and Sebastiano Timpanaro, who revived the interest in Leopardi's philosophical thought and pursued it in a critical fashion. Luporini also attempted to react to the anti-progressive and spiritualistic bent of, among others, Adriano Tilgher's criticism. Luporini emphasized that the "progressive" aspect of Leopardi's poetry lies in his materialism, a key aspect in Leopardi's philosophy. It was Binni, on the other hand, who first underscored the poetical value of Leopardi's late poetry. Indeed, if the content of Leopardi's early poetry is the ideal ('idilli'), the content of the late poetry is seen by Binni to be devoid of the ideal. Binni called this way of writing poetry "la tendenza antidillica" which was to find its apotheosis in "La ginestra" (163). Binni construes a moral and heroic commitment and a social message in this specific poem. Luporini goes a step further than Binni in that he reads in this poem a concretely progressive attitude which he interprets as developing out of Leopardi's materialism. Luporini cites several passages where Leopardi praises activity and he concludes--perhaps overstating his case--that this activity is of a social and political nature and can aid in weakening the selfishness of the individual. This type of sociallyinformed criticism has been very popular with scholars of a Marxist stamp.

(3) See in particular Nino Borsellino, II Socialismo della "Ginestra". Poesia e poetiche leopardiane. Poggibonsi: Lalli, 1990; Sebastiano Timpanaro, Classicismo e Illuminismo nell'Ottocento italiano. 2nd ed. Pisa: Nistri Lischi, 1969; Alfredo Bonadeo, "Dalle Operette Morali alia 'Ginestra': desiderio, felicita e morte." Rivista di studi italiani 10:2 (1992) 1-21.

(4) 'Politics' was an important word for Leopardi and he attributed to it at least two different meanings: the ruling class policies often supported by the ignorant and the acknowledgment that the human being is a social animal and should plan and organize his life accordingly. As was the case with his polemical canzoni "All'Italia" and "Sopra il monumento di Dante che si preparava in Firenze," Leopardi's last works showed renewed political commitment and this was not only the case with "La ginestra" but also "Paralipomeni della Batracomiomachia," "Palinodia al Marchese Gino Capponi," and "I nuovi credenti." My reading of "La ginestra," however, in its development of a Levinasian philosophical underpinning, focuses less on the political than the ethical relation. In doing so, I do not ignore that for both Leopardi and Levinas morality, though in theory more important, in practice is often subservient to politics and that the proper ethical relation cannot come about without the proper political intervention.

(5) In the Zibaldone, Leopardi repeatedly pondered the centrality of the idea of relativity: "non v'e quasi altra verita assoluta se non che tutto e relativo" stating that "il bene e il male, si credono naturalmente assoluti, e non sono altro che relativi" (452; 22 December 1820). In this spirit he came to oppose Platonic Ideas: "Supporre il bello e il buono assoluto, e tornare alie idee di Platone, e risuscitare le idee innate dopo averie distrutte, giacche tolte queste, non v'e altra possibile ragione per cui le cose debbano assolutamente e astrattamente e necessariamente essere cosi o cosi" (1339-41; 17 July 1821). The development of Leopardi's philosophy could be divided into three phases: the Scholastic, Dogmatic and Metaphysical phases (particularly prevalent in the Dissertazioni of 1811-12); the Empirical phase where the poet's recherche is also ethicopsychological (1819-29); the Existential phase, following "Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell'Asia." The year 1824 marks a shift in Leopardi's thought with the trilogy "Dialogo della natura e di un'anima", "Dialogo di un fisico e di un metafisico", and "Dialogo della natura e di un islandese".This change is immediately reflected in the pages of the Zibaldone (4079-81, 23 April 1824; 4092, 21 May 1824; 4099-101, 2 June 1824). The Frammento Apocrifo di Stratone da Lampsaco of 1825 consolidates this new materialist phase in Leopardian philosophy. In the famous entry of the Zibaldone dated 19-22 April 1826, Leopardi affirms "tutto e male." He soon backtracked, specifically on 21 March 1827, when in the Zibaldone he states: "almen tanti mali, quanti beni". Up to 1823, Leopardi indeed seemed to be convinced of the freedom of the human being. Nonetheless, once he adopts the system based on the necessity of being, influenced by Strato of Lampsacus and Baruch Spinoza, the whole Leopardian philosophical scaffolding changes completely.

(6) The infinite in "L'infinito" (1819) is an oceanic feeling of dissolution but it has none of the malignity of the infinitely powerful and sublime surroundings in "La ginestra", where the universe is of physical matter. The infinite in "La ginestra" is only relatively infinite. At the height of his materialist phase, in April 1826, Leopardi would write in the Zibaldone: "tutti i mondi che esistono, per quanti e quanto grandi che essi sieno, non essendo pero certamente infiniti ne di numero ne di grandezza, sono per conseguenza infinitamente piccoli a paragone di cio che l'universo potrebbe essere se fosse infinito; e il tutto esistente e infinitamente piccolo a paragone della infinite vera, per dir cosi, del non esistente, del nulla" (4174,1).

(7) This concept is different from the one dealing with an involvement in a purely political and social context, and the ethics in the desire of the other is to be distinguished from a strictly social preoccupation. Leopardi's focus on materialism, particularly in the decade that spans 1820 to 1830, ultimately springs from an ethics of pessimism. The sensationalistic methodology which he strictly followed led him to a materialistic world-view, and notably materialism in Leopardi appears as the complementary aspect of sensationalism. Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Denis Diderot and Jean George Cabanis, whom Leopardi followed, were all sensationalists and materialists. Agreeing with John Locke and the Ideologues, Leopardi argued against innatism. Unlike the Ideologues, however, who after rejecting innatism and abolishing metaphysics turned to deal with the social aspect of the human being, for Leopardi, the attempt to abolish metaphysics per se did not imply a direct involvement in social problems. The main focus of his enquiry remains the individual's unfolding psyche in relation to his surroundings, including the people around him. The latter focus starts to explain why Levinas' preoccupation with the ethics of the desire of the other could be, in part, compared to Leopardi's ethical concerns.

(8) Jacques Derrida has noted that the history of Western philosophy, especially the Heideggerean philosophy Levinas is criticizing here, has not understood existence in this relational way. Instead, "being is nothing outside the existent, does not precede it; and therefore we simply cannot speak, as Levinas does, of 'subordination' because it is not a 'foreign power' or 'hostile neutral force"' (Writing and Difference 136).

(9) The binary opposition between passion (and imagination) and rationality interweaves Leopardi's discussion about poetry and philosophy. In bringing together poetry and philosophy, Leopardi had as mentors both Madame de Stael and Francesco Maria Zanotti. In "II Parini, ovvero della gloria", Leopardi states: "a far progressi notabili nella filosofia, non bastano sottilita d'ingegno, e facolta grande di ragionare, ma si ricerca molta forza immaginativa; e che il Descartes, Galileo, il Leibniz, il Newton, il Vico, in quanto all'innata disposizione dei loro ingegni, sarebbero potuti essere sommi poeti; e per lo contrario Omero, Dante, lo Shakespeare, sommi filosofi" (1982: 238).

(10) Levinas clearly states that his notion of substitution goes beyond the layman's notion of compassion. Substitution in Levinas focuses on 'here I am' and gives voice, despite oneself, to the Infinite. The Levinasian substitution is prefigured by Arthur Schopenhauer's notion of compassion as expressed in the first volume of World as Will and Representation where, despite the fact that the latter is discovered when desire is stilled, the initiative is towards the other: "for the relationship between... egoism and compassion to emerge in any given person, it is not enough for that person to possess wealth and see others in need; he must also know what wealth can do both for himself and for others; the suffering of others must not only present itself, he must also know what suffering is" (321). In Levinas, "The non-indifference of responsibility to the point of substitution for the neighbour is the source of all compassion. It is responsibility for the very outrage that the other, who qua other excludes me, inflicts on me, for the persecution with which, before any intention, he persecutes me" (1998:166).

(11) Trattato delle passioni can be located in-between Manuale di filosofia pratica and Memorie della mia vita. These are three of six volumes belonging to an edition of the Zibaldone, published posthumously by Fabiana Cacciapuoti and Antonio Prete. In this edition entries were grouped in volumes according to the indexing of the Zibaldone di pensieri done by Leopardi himself in 1827.

(12) Society for Leopardi is characterized by its Machiavellism. In the Zibaldone he states: "Veramente e perfettamente compassionevoli, non si possono trovare fra gli uomini" (4287,1; 23 July 1827).

(13) Desire is the initial and final concern of Leopardi's philosophical speculation. Desire is connatural to the human being and as such is described in the Zibaldone as not "estirpabile" (3441; 15 settembre 1823) and not exhaustible (387; 7 dicembre 1820). Desire of pleasure as of knowledge (and thus the search for happiness) is "una pena, e una specie di travaglio abituale per l'anima" (172,1; no date) and only those who have perpetually suffered can recognize its essence. Leopardi says, "... coll'intensita della vita cresce quella dell'amor proprio, e l'amor proprio e desiderio della propria felicita, e la felicita e piacere" (3835,1; no date). Desire is crucial to Leopardi's "teoria del piacere," which is not simply about the infinite desire of pleasure but also the infinite desire to think and to conceive ideas. In the Zibaldone entry 3842,2 (6 novembre 1823) Leopardi states: "sempre che l'uomo pensa, ei desidera, perche tanto quanto pensa ei si ama." The individual, in the grip of desire, attempts to find solace in the haven of noncuranza and the "stato di tranquilla disperazione" (618,2; 6 febbraio 1821). Stoic philosophy is initially perceived as the wisdom through which painful desire can be eradicated: "Dei beni umani il piu supremo colmo e sentir meno il duolo" (2673,3; 19 febbraio 1823). Desire is also intricately linked to uneasiness and the question about which of the two is primary. This discussion is crucial to all eighteenth-century philosophy and, most centrally, to John Locke. It also imbues all Leopardi's philosophical underpinnings on desire.

(14) Despite the centrality of Leopardi's formative readings in the Stoics Seneca's De tranquillitate animi, Cicero's concept of "tranquillitas" and readings from Marcus Aurelius--the notion of "atarassia"(ataraxia), where there is an attempt to suspend desire, proves for Leopardi to be elusive because desire ultimately affirms its limitless and boundless nature.

(15) Levinas describes the 'Saying' as opposed to the 'Said,' "which consists in continually undoing its phrase by the foreword or the exegesis, in unsaying the said, in attempting to restate without ceremonies what has already been ill understood in the inevitable ceremonial in which the said delights" (1969:30). The 'Saying' measures the pre-ontological weight of language. The 'Said,' on the other hand, is the birthplace of ontology. The other person's radical and irreducible alterity, pushed into the domain of language, becomes the 'Saying/ which disrupts and gives sense to the 'Said.' It is because language now depends first on one-being-for-the-other, 'Saying,' that there is meaning, the 'Said.'

(16) Amor proprio degenerates into selfishness when the individual enters in contact with others. When amor proprio is taken to an extreme, it reflects the egoistic outlook of the "secol superbo e sciocco" ("La ginestra", line 53), where egoism crystallizes sentiment into the mauvaise honte, which originates from Jean Jacques Rousseau.

(17) The full quotation from Civilization and Its Discontents is: "we tend to regard the suffering that comes from our relations with other human beings as a kind of gratuitous addition, although it cannot be any less fatefully inevitable than the suffering which comes from elsewhere" (77).

(18) Even in an entry in the Zibaldone of September 1821, at the beginning of what (in retrospect) would be called his materialist phase, Leopardi would still leave the question of what predates the material fairly open: "Niente preesiste alie cose. Ne forme, o idee, ne necessita ne ragione di essere, e di essere cosi o cosi ec. ec. Tutto e posteriore all'esistenza"; "E vero che niente preesiste alie cose. Non preesiste dunque la necessita. Ma pur preesiste la possibilita" (1619).

(19) Leopardi's conception of social alliance can be set apart from any theories of social contract per se, but perhaps this distinction transpires best in a comparison with Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. In Hobbes, human beings give power to a sovereign because of their fear of living with each other in a state of nature. Leopardi's desiring the good of-the-other is initially, as it is for Hobbes, rooted in amor proprio. This is less the case, however, in "La ginestra". The question whether morality is grounded in amor proprio or 'benevolence' was posed by Hobbes, and is also crucial to Leopardi.

(20) Levinas explains what it means to avoid the Neuter: "One does not enter into this pluralist society without always remaining outside by speech (in which goodness is produced) - but one does not leave it in order to simply see oneself inside. The unity of plurality is peace, and not the coherence of the elements that constitute plurality" (1969: 306).

(21) Luigi Derla draws an important distinction between the Italian thinkers of the eighteenth century, in whom the concern with desire and pleasure is connected with its social aspect, and the modern insight of Leopardi, who alerted his readers to the importance of focusing on the individual's suffering and thus the impossibility of conceiving of a collective happiness (149).

(22) Leopardi turns John's words upside down. John says: "E gli uomini vollero la luce piuttosto che le tenebre". Leopardi's inversion implies that human beings painted themselves into a corner by resorting to rationality at all costs. The men who would rather see "le tenebre che la luce" could very well refer to those whose ideologies held up what Leopardi considered unattainable ideals to humanity, like belief in final salvation, ever increasing progress and wealth, or ultimate happiness for all.

(23) The face of the other is not simply the materiality of skin and features but represents what Levinas refers to as 'exteriority' (otherness, infinity, what disrupts and destabilizes sameness, what he calls the 'Saying' over the 'Said'), which sees beyond being and language. Thus, crucially, 'exteriority' prioritizes the interpersonal encounter.

(24) As Tristano claims in "Dialogo di Tristano e di un amico" in the Operette Morali: "Calpesto la vigliaccheria degli uomini, rifiuto ogni consolazione e ogn'inganno puerile,... ed accett...[o] tutte le conseguenze di una filosofia dolorosa, ma vera. La quale se non e utile ad altro, procura agli uomini forti la fiera compiacenza di vedere strappato ogni manto alia coperta e misteriosa crudelta del destino umano". (1982: 488-89)

(25) Although on other occasions Leopardi states the opposite, in Zibaldone 1724,1 the poet-philosopher propounds that the capacity to love oneself less in order to love others is found more abundantly in elderly people: "Tamicizia e piu facile tra un vecchio o maturo,... perche oggi, sparite le illusioni, e non trovandosi piu la virtu ne' giovani, i vecchi sono piu a portata di amarsi meno, di essere stanchi dell'egoismo perche disingannati del mondo, e quindi di amare gli altri."

(26) According to Leopardi, the desire to know is not infinite but finite. It is the desire to conceive thought that is limitless because it resorts to the faculty of the imagination. In the Zibaldone Leopardi argues:

Non e vero ch'egli sia infinito per se, ma solo materialmente, e come desiderio del piacere, ch'e tutt'uno coll'amor proprio. E non e vero che l'uomo naturale sia tormentato da un desiderio infinito precisamente di conoscere. Neanche l'uomo corrotto e moderno si trova in questo caso. Egli e tormentato da un desiderio infinito del piacere. II piacere non consiste se non che nelle sensazioni, perche quando non si sente, non si prova ne piacere ne dispiacere. Le sensazioni non le prova il corpo, ma l'anima, qualunque cosa s'intenda per anima. La sensazione dell'intelligenza, e il concepire... L'uomo non desidera di conoscere, ma di sentire infinitamente. (384-85; 7 dicembre 1820).

(27) This does not mean that Leopardi ever abandons reason. Sensationalism, materialism and idealism in Leopardi are linked by his loyalty to rationalism. "Il mio sistema," he wrote in the Zibaldone di pensieri, "introduce non solo uno Scetticismo ragionato e dimostrato, ma tale che... la ragione umana per qualsivoglia progresso possibile, non potra mai spogliarsi di questo scetticismo... e che non solo il dubbio giova a scoprire il vero... ma il vero consiste essenzialmente nel dubbio." (Zibaldone 1075-76).

(28) Humanity, on the one hand, craves the sublime sensation evoked by the engulfing universe and conveyed through the specifically finite. In the Zibaldone, Leopardi says "Tutto cio che e finito... desta sempre naturalmente nell'uomo un sentimento di dolore... Nel tempo stesso eccita un sentimento piacevole... e cio a causa delbinfinita dell'idea che si contiene in queste parole finito, ultimo" (2251,1; 13 dicembre 1821). Nonetheless, humanity is utterly powerless against this sublime sensation and "La ginestra" conveys this meaning most poignantly: "dell'uman seme/ Cui la dura nutrice, ou' ei men teme/ Con lieve moto in un momento annulla" (lines 43-5).

(29) In the Zibaldone, Leopardi declares the necessity of facing the impossibility of happiness. He asserts that "felice da vero non la rende altro che il falso" (351, 2; no date). It is through a rigorous application of reason that he discovers the destructive power of rationality, which, in the end, turns against itself: "La vita dunque e Lassoluta mancanza d'illusione, e quindi di speranza, sono cose contraddittorie" (1863,1; 7 ottobre 1821).

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