Leopardian Ruins around the World. By way of an editorial.

In September 2010 I was on holiday in Harar, a historical village in Southern Ethiopia, renowned among other things for having been the residence of Arthur Rimbaud, when I received an unanticipated text message.

A close friend, who had kindly offered to check my emails in case important communications should arrive during my three-week stay abroad, informed me that I had been short-listed for interview at a UK university. In utter bemusement, I had to struggle to think how to reschedule my return flight and find a means of transport to travel the bumpy 500 km road that separated me from the only international airport in the country–Addis Ababa. Changing the plane ticket was not as big an ordeal as the night trip back to the capital, squeezed in a 12-seat mini bus, crammed with 20 passengers plus luggage. With my head leaning on the seat in front, desperate to catch some sleep, I began to wonder how on earth I would manage to prepare a research presentation on Leopardi in so little time. The few days I had planned for the task were cut further when, eventually at the airport the following night, I was advised of a 13-hour delay to my flight. With little else to do, I began to gather ideas and jot them down during the long and sleepy hours spent sitting on the benches in the corridors of the airport. Thinking back on my Ethiopian experience, suddenly interrupted by the exciting piece of news, I felt that it constituted a fragment of life, giving me a distinct sense of the passing of time, and the way Leopardi conveyed it in poetry.

Ethiopia is a country full of historical ruins. Among its most impressive and best preserved are the Churches in Lalibela and the Imperial court at Gonder.

However, the remains of the Italian camp that I identified, with the help of a local guide, as the last known whereabouts of my grandfather, who died there during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1937, were even more moving.

In approaching this place, I was caught by a distinct feeling, enhanced by the yellow blossoms surrounding the area, that I was walking in a graveyard–a place of tranquillity and peace, but also the remainder of things past and a reminder that life had once existed. The scattered ruins of the war camp made the association with the poetry of Leopardi inevitable. The theme of ruins permeates Leopardi’s work: the ruins of Rome, those of classical civilizations, the ruinous present disguised as progress, the ruins of the ageing human body, decaying and decomposing, the destruction of hopes and illusions, and ultimately the ruins of human life itself. To the extent to which a ruin is what remains of something that once existed, the ruin is a grave, a sign left by the scythe of death, and an indication that what was life does not exist as such any more. Ruins are inextricably linked with the destructive force of time. Time builds ruins because it frames and trims each single living experience, because it survives life–like poetry.

Let us briefly recall the famous Zibaldone page in which Leopardi describes the effect the Odes of Anacreon had on him:

Io per esprimere l’effetto indefinibile che fanno in noi le odi di Anacreonte non so trovare similitudine ed esempio più adattato di un alito passeggero di venticello fresco nell’estate odorifero e ricreante, che tutto in un momento vi ristora in certo modo e v’apre come il respiro e il cuore con una certa allegria, ma prima che voi possiate appagarvi pienamente di quel piacere, ovvero analizzarne la qualità, e distinguere perchè vi sentiate così refrigerato già quello spiro è passato, conforme appunto avviene in Anacreonte, che e quella sensazione indefinibile è quasi istantanea, e se volete analizzarla vi sfugge, non la sentite più, tornate a leggere, vi restano in mano le parole sole e secche, quell’arietta per così dire, è fuggita, e appena vi potete ricordare in confuso la sensazione che v’hanno prodotta un momento fa quelle stesse parole che avete sotto gli occhi.

As suggested in some works by Claudio Colaiacomo, the poetry of Leopardi represents the hypostatization of the experience of transience and temporality, the foretelling of death. What Leopardi seems to say in this Zibaldone page is that poetry reading releases a living sensation that eludes analysis, while the poetic text (that which lends itself to analysis) ultimately remains the ruin of this life experience, the residue of the sensation, what is left after the sensation is gone. When in A Silvia, the speaking I claims that «Lingua mortal non dice / quel ch’io sentiva in seno», he is speaking from the perspective of death, of loss, of mourning, striving to recall living feelings that are forever lost. We could read the Zibaldone passage as suggesting that poetry is like life: it passes away, but the poetic text remains as its ruin. Wordsworth defines poetry as «emotion recollected in tranquillity», alluding to the fact that poetry comes after experience: it is the record of an experience, it captures it once it is dead, and the recollection takes place in tranquillity–the same tranquillity of death I experienced among the ruins of the Italian camp in Ethiopia.

At the time of my holiday, I had already accepted the generous offer made by my valuable colleague and dear friend Andreia Guerini to co-edit with her an e-journal of Leopardi studies. By then I had overcome the mixture of pride, gratification, gratefulness and panic that gripped me when she first mentioned her project. In fact, we were already developing ideas together on how to get it going. The renewed epiphany into Leopardi offered by the Ethiopian experience, with my insight into the meaning of the ruins, added a further brick to my understanding of him as a poet-philosopher. By enacting the sense of the ephemeral, transient and fugitive nature of the feelings and emotions that make our lives, and the sense (or non-sense) of being in this world, I considered the extent to which Leopardi embodies the essence of modernity (and post-modernity). It now made even more sense for Andreia and me to get to grips with the exciting adventure on which we had embarked.

Conscious as we were of the enormous responsibility, we found that preparing the journal was no less difficult than we had expected. It took over a year of long conversations via skype, of drafting and revising, writing and re-writing, proof-reading and much more painstaking work to get to what we are offering today, on the 213th anniversary of Giacomo’s birth. It is thanks to the passionate commitment, patience and determinacy of Andreia as well as the support of her technical collaborators at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis (Brasil) that the journal has materialised. Special thanks also go to the numerous scholars in both the old and the new worlds that have supported us and accepted to partake in the initiatives as members of the editorial board. In line with the Romantic view that poetry is a living organism, the journal remains in fieri, eligible to reconfigurations and, hopefully, ameliorations. Andreia and I discussed in detail the structure that should be adopted by a journal that, while adhering to the immutable academic standards of a peer-reviewed publication, also aimed to address a wider readership, including non-experts of Leopardi and more general readers. It was a shared feeling that Appunti leopardiani should follow in the spirit of the project Leopardi nel mondo, promoting the diffusion of Giacomo Leopardi’s knowledge around the world, inside but also outside of academic circles. For this purpose, Andreia and I agreed that the journal should not welcome academic essays alone, but that it should also be flexible enough to include informative and creative sources such as interviews, poems inspired by Leopardi and translations of his texts; it should publicise new Leopardi releases and, most importantly, host a blog of Leopardi discussion that might bring together specialists and non-specialists. By posting ads in the blog, the journal will offer new, stimulating and–why not?–fashionable and “modern” ways of promoting research. Despite Leopardi’s controversial and, to say the least, critical view of fashion and modernity, the editors believe that he would consent to the use of an “ephemeral source” such as the internet for the benefit of readers who are willing to discover his works. As a true classic, Leopardi: «tende a relegare l’attualità al rango di rumore di fondo, ma nello stesso tempo di questo rumore di fondo non può fare a meno». These words by Italo Calvino, for whom Leopardi was truly a classic, convey the oxymoronic nature of what it means to belong to the cultural tradition: to enjoy mutable permanence, and, as Calvino again suggests, to produce a continuous yet ever outdated furrow of critical discourses. Our journal aspires to engage with these discourses and to offer, hopefully, a none-too-fleeting means of finding out more about Leopardi, his works and ideas, and all that which makes him today one of the key figures of Western culture. As the first specialist journal on Leopardi hosted in the New World, it is also the wish of the editors that Appunti leopardiani might encourage international collaborations and projects on Leopardi by boosting interest in the Italian poet-thinker throughout the world, also, eventually, in Ethiopia, where, as I learned from the Italian Ambassador during my stay, a School of Modern Languages including Italian will soon be launched at the university in Addis Abeba.

Cosetta M. Veronese


2 thoughts on “Leopardian Ruins around the World. By way of an editorial.

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