We need more movies about philosophers. I can only think of very few examples to mention, but David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, a 2011 film about the rivalry between early psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, shows that the format can work. This is an intelligent and straightforward narrative work, based on Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure which was itself based on the book A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein by John Kerr.
A Dangerous Method stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, and Keira Knightley as a severely disturbed young psychoanalytic patient named Sabina Spielrein who would eventually defeat her demons and become Jung's illicit lover, Jung and Freud's intellectual partner, and an innovative psychologist in her own right.
When life gets dreary, there's always Gilbert and Sullivan. This British duo's creative track record is almost as impressive as that of the Beatles, who took over the world in similar fashion three-quarters of a century later. They left us three wildly popular masterpieces: HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, and a giant body of lesser-known excellent work that somehow never drops too low in quality (though it does drop, sometimes, in accessibility).
Accessibility is often an issue with Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, which were written wholly with contemporary interests and sensibilities in mind. As with Shakespeare or James Joyce (also from the British isles, interestingly), when you enjoy a Gilbert and Sullivan work you can't ever feel confident that you're getting more than half the jokes. Both Gilbert's lyrics and Sullivan's melodies contain intricate layers of ironic reference to the hot topics of their day. Even though you can appreciate Pirates or Mikado just for the bouncy tunes and funny plots, you can appreciate them a lot more if you put some effort into decoding their cultural context.
As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued and, frankly, somewhat baffled by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend.
Vampire novels and movies seem to keep growing in popularity, even as they’re spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies. From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: why is America obsessed with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:
1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!
Between June 2009 and December 2010, Michael Norris explored Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, also known as Remembrance of Things Past, in these pages. Here, with original artwork by David Richardson, is the entire sequence.
Marcel Proust: Beyond the Madeleines
June 16, 2009
Pondering Proust II
September 8, 2009
Pondering Proust III: Guermantes Way
November 16, 2009
This is the last installment of my three-part study of William James, a philosopher I find uniquely compelling. William James was born in New York City in 1842, spent most of his adult life at Harvard University, and died in 1910 at his home in New Hampshire. He originally trained to be a medical doctor, and in this capacity he spent his early academic career absorbing the fascinating writings of new European "psychologists" like Ivan Pavlov and Sigmund Freud. He represented America at international conferences devoted to this then-controversial discipline, helped found Harvard's psychology department, then left the field to turn his attention towards epistemology and philosophy, where he would have his greatest influence.
William James's best books include The Varieties of Religious Experience, The Principles of Psychology and Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. His books are a breezy pleasure to read, and the arguments they present are not only enlightening but also heartening. Reading a book by William James can feel like escaping from jail. His approach to difficult or age-old philosophical debates like the free-will question is to point out that taking any stance on this question is a self-defining action that will determine the apparent "truth" about the matter. The truth does not define the stance; rather, the stance defines the truth. James demonstrates this with his answer to the free will question: "My first act of free will is to believe in free will".
James's concept of truth, which he labelled "Pragmatism" (building upon the work of an earlier American philosopher, Charles Peirce, who used the term "pragmatism" in a less forceful way), became his claim to fame. Interestingly, William James was not the only famous intellectual in his immediate family; the great novelist Henry James was his younger brother.
These are two of the most remarkable American minds, and yet surprisingly little information can be found about the relationship between the brothers. What follows is the evidence I've been able to gather by examining three sources: the biographical record, the published letters, and the fiction of Henry James. Here's what I found:
According to Leon Edel's classic biography of Henry James, the two brothers were close in age but never in temperament. William, the family's eldest, conducted himself with a purposeful moral seriousness, whereas Henry had a puckish sense of humor and a wholly artistic view of life.
In the way that close siblings sometimes do, William and Henry seem to have strictly defined their intellectual borders to oppose and exclude each other. William was generally disinterested in literature and fiction, and Henry scoffed gently at philosophy. The two even seemed to avoid each other physically; William left New York for the green pastures of Harvard University, and Henry abandoned America entirely, so fully losing himself in the rich pleasures of English dinner parties and literary salons that he is often mistaken for a European writer.
A thick Penguin Classics edition of Henry James's letters gives us a direct glimpse at the relationship between the two brothers. They clearly liked and respected each other, but they did not write often, and when they did they tended to chat about the health of their parents, the activities of their three younger siblings and other impersonal matters. But what, I am dying to know, did William think of Henry's remarkable novels? And what did Henry think about his brother's groundbreaking and controversial academic work?
They don't waste much time with praise. In 1905, William wrote to Henry about his latest weighty novel:
I read your Golden Bowl a month of more ago, and it put me, as most of your recenter long stories have put me, in a very puzzled state of mind. I don't enjoy the kind of 'problem,' especially when as in this case it is treated as problematic (viz. the adulterous relations betw. Ch. & the P.), and the method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don't know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing; and yet in spite of it all, there is a brilliancy and cleanness of effect, and in this book especially a high toned social atmosphere that are unique and extraordinary. Your methods & my ideals seem the reverse, the one of the other -- and yet I have to admit your extreme success in this book. But why won't you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?
Amazingly, William James seems to have wished for Ernest Hemingway as a younger brother, though the world would be much poorer for it.
As befits their lifelong pattern, Henry adopted a bemused shrug when discussing his older brother's important books. He never argued with William's conclusions, but sometimes pretended (the pose is hardly believable) to have had to struggle to follow them. In 1907 he apologized for failing to respond more quickly to William's Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, claiming that the book waylaid him even as he agreed with it:
I simply sank down, under it, into such depths of submission and assimilation that any reaction, very nearly, even that of acknowledgement, would have had almost the taint of dissent or escape. Then I was lost in the wonder of the extent to which all my life I have (like M. Jourdain) unconsciously pragmatized. You are immensely & universally right ...
Two years later, Henry writes, ending a long friendly letter:
All this time I'm not thanking you in the competent way for your 'Pluralistic' volume -- which now I can effusively do. I read it, while in town, with a more thrilled interest than I can say; with enchantment, with pride, & almost with comprehension. It may sustain & inspire you a little to know that I'm with you, all along the line -- & can conceive of no sense in any philosophy that is not yours!
Praise is the major note in this letter, yet Henry sneakily speaks in negative outlines: the novelist can conceive of no sense in any other philosophy, but it is not clear that he conceives of sense in any philosophy at all.
Henry James grasped the power of pragmatism, but many of his novels feature pragmatic and manipulative villians who destroy the lives of starry-eyed innocents. Gilbert Osmond, Doctor Sloper and the Marquise de Cintre are entirely willful and pragmatic (if not Pragmatistic); Isabel Archer, Catherine Sloper and Christopher Newman are their victims.
There is a danger of over-dramatizing the intellectual gulf between these two liberal thinkers, who clearly respected each other tremendously. Perhaps it's best to conclude that vast significances lie between the Apollonian opinions of the Harvard professor and the Dionysian observations of the London socialite. Both brothers seemed to have liked their younger sister Alice better than they liked each other. Maybe there was just too much brilliance abounding in the room for a single family dinner table to comfortably contain.
Perhaps this is why, when I am called upon to name my favorite writer associated with the so-called "Lake Poets" of the 1800's (William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, sometimes Percy Bysshe Shelley), I will tell you that I like Thomas deQuincey.
Not a poet himself, deQuincey wrote most of his prose for magazines and newspapers. Much of these works were later collected and published as books. DeQuincey's best known work is Confessions of an Opium Eater. By today's standards it's a rather tame tale, but it was considered edgy in its own time. There is evidence that both Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire were influenced by deQuincey to try the narcotic. Besides using opium in his autobiographical account, deQuincey raised eyebrows when he told his readers about a prostitute he befriended. Apparently, sex was not involved; people just didn't admit to "slumming" back then.
From 'Shakespeare Wallah' in 1965 to 'The Golden Bowl' in 2000, the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala produced films steeped in the greatness of Victorian and modern literary traditions, often adapted from books by authors like E. M. Forster and Henry James.
'A Room With A View' was their first breakthrough success, though in my opinion the team hit its peak in 1992 and 1993 with the wonderful 'Howards End' followed by the soaring, sublime 'Remains of the Day', featuring Anthony Hopkins as a repressed butler in a grand mansion. This film contained a smaller cast and fewer costumes than most Merchant-Ivory productions, but was probably their most thrilling work of all.
Hold it. Wait a minute. Cut! My kid sister will go on and on if we let her. The youngest Muse has an itty-bitty case of sibling rivalry. Ok? She's always, always practicing her acceptance speech, and she's always trying to catch up to me. I'm Calliope; Muse of epic poetry and rhetoric. Just call me Callie for short.
Homer, Melville, Proust, Shakespeare, Tolstoy; that's my line of work. I've been around awhile, so the glam's kind of off the rose, so to speak. I can be casual. Sis, being new to the game, is another story, however. She takes the job so seriously. But what can I say? There's no comparison. Pop culture can't hold a candle to the classics. She really needs to lighten up.
But she doesn't even have a name yet. And let me tell you that really chaps her, big time. I've told her and told her. Don't worry! I didn't get my name until well into my third century. You know? Whatever. We can deal with that later, after the council gives her full privilege and makes the 10th Muse an official addition to the clan.
We worked together on that first case and she did a fine job. To be honest, all I did was supervise. And now we are going before the council. Zeus, Mnemosyne, Aphrodite, Demeter, Persephone, Aries, Hermes, Hades, Hera; the whole gang will be there.
"She sees far horizons, beyond the limits of her birthright. She writes the future I have shown her. She plants the seeds of change and paints vistas others will soon hunger for. And when her time has passed, I watch over her garden as well as the harvest she has reaped, so that it flourishes and endures, into an era, where it will in turn inspire new generations to remember, the Muse, whose name goes unsung."
See what I mean? She drones. Absolutely. It's a good thing Edith Wharton had a mind of her own. Excuse me. That was tacky. Sister is earnest, and she has her talents. Well, I'm sure she'll get better. Ok. I admit it. I helped her out a little bit, and Edith did have an ear for the classics.
"Edith was the perfect candidate for amusement. She proved to have a quick and rich imagination at a very early age and was born into a family of privilege in 1862, which was an exhilarating time for world history. It was an era of accelerated change and invention. Her 75-year lifespan, which ended in 1937, encapsulated the height of civilization's capacity for progress and expansion as well as the depths of humanity's ability to create misery and ruin. Save for one thing. She was spared the horrors of the atom bomb, and thus, didn't even see a glimmer of the Atomic Age and the barbarism that was set loose a mere eight years after her passing."
But that is another bone, which we will pick with Aries at a later date. Now, we go before the council with our appeal. We need another Muse. Nine is just not enough. Sister did a spectacular job with her first assignment. She has carried it through to completion. And we now face a new era desperately in need of inspiration. It is time for her probation to end. She is entitled to a name; status, rank and the full extent of her powers should be bestowed upon her immediately. None of this "in due course" business. I speak for all of the Muses when I say that we are fed up with the bureaucracy and the red tape and the delay tactics. It is all such fallacious hogwash and folderol. We have grown weary of being treated as inferior divinities, while the gods run off and play like children in a sandbox.
Oh, I beg your pardon. I shouldn't have gone off like that, but we do feel so passionate about this issue, and we hope you will stand behind us when we make our plea. You see, they think that humans don't care anymore. They think that the Muse is- obsolete! As a matter of fact, they are considering washing their hands of the whole mess. Like, firing all of the Muses, entirely and forever. Where would we go? What would we do? We would vanish into thin air. There now, the cat is out of the bag and you can see what a pickle we are in. I only ask that you let us show you what we have done, just in this one case with Edith Wharton. And we can do so much more. I promise.
"Edith Wharton was George and Lucretia Jones' third child and only daughter, born in New York City, on January 24, 1862. It was an aristocratic New York family with a pedigree reaching back three centuries; old money accumulated through the shipping and real estate industries. As a daughter of society and a member of the elite upper crust, her prescribed role was to learn the mannerisms and rituals expected of well-bred young women, and in turn, marry well, raise some children and become a hostess within the narrow confines of Old New York. She was privately educated at home by governesses and tutors and had the privilege of access to her father's extensive library.
"The love of story telling appeared in Edith before she learned to read. She often preferred the activity of make believe to the company of children her own age. A near death experience caused by a bout of typhoid fever seems to have enhanced her creativity and imagination. I do believe the veils were lifted during the high fever; that she had a glimpse of the Muse. She was haunted for years afterwards, with the sensation that someone was watching her and following close behind. We were, dear. We were.
"Edith's family moved to Europe for several years during her early childhood in order to escape the high inflation, which was the result of the Civil War, and to preserve their leisurely standard of living. This would prove to be a formative period for her. Edith maintained a love and appreciation for the sophistication and beauty of Europe throughout her entire life. After 48 years of international travel, she would make a permanent move to Europe in 1911, do the unthinkable and divorce her husband, Teddy Wharton, and live in France as an expatriate until her death in 1937."
To tell you the truth, I don't understand why Edith hated living in America so much, and specifically, New York City. It was an exciting time to be there. We were busy doling out inspiration, I can tell you that. Her lifetime spanned a period rich with invention.
Imagine this, you with the computer and the internet. Picture life as a writer without paperclips, pushpins, scotch tape, fountain pens, ballpoint pens, mechanical pencils, crayons, or typewriters. Edith saw all these accessories invented in her lifetime. I guarantee she used them and loved it.
She also saw the invention of toilet paper and the pull chain toilet, band-aids,q-tips, germ theory, and x-rays. Communication was enhanced by first the drop mailbox, then transcontinental and transatlantic telegraph, radio and the telephone. She enjoyed the invent of records and the record player but refused to attend the motion picture show or buy a t.v. She loved her motorcar although she refused to get in a plane, and she totally appreciated her Kodak camera. The invention of the incandescent light bulb, electricity companies, transcontinental railroad, airplanes, escalators, revolving doors, refrigerators, sewing machines, rayon, zippers, cotton candy, hot dogs, bubble gum, coca cola, chocolate chip cookies, Lincoln logs, Monopoly, and the Ferris Wheel changed everyone's life for the better.
The era was known as the Gilded Age. Vast fortunes were made overnight. Railroads afforded western expansion and the transport of goods. Merchandising and manufacturing transformed the United States into a consumer economy. Electricity companies prompted the in vention of a multitude of time saving devices. Skyscrapers soared to the sky, and eventually, super sonic rockets did so as well.
Thoughts changed and new theories expanded the definition of truth. Darwin, Einstein, William James, Freud, and Jung altered forever the belief in creation and the understanding of the mind.
Yes, I loved the adventures of the Gilded Age. The new millennium pales in comparison if you ask me. But then again, I think Edith�s love of Europe was more about getting out of her family's reach than anything else.
"Edith married Teddy Wharton in 1885 at the late age of 23. Teddy was not her intellectual match but a good social one, and they had a love of travel in common. Early on in their marriage they took part in an extravagant three-month cruise in the Aegean Sea, despite familial disapproval. In later years, Edith would say this was the most important thing she could have ever done.
"The experience opened up new vistas for her. She had her first taste of independence from an overbearing, superficial mother, and relished the opportunity to pursue interests and develop friendships with creative and artistic people outside of the narrow scope of her upbringing. Along with the autonomy came a growing sense of self-determinism. Thereafter, she and Teddy spent a significant part of each year in Europe."
The marriage was not a passionate one, however. Her mother had never taught her about sex and Edith's lack of knowledge along with the oppressive mores of the times caused unresolved sexual disappointments. Pervasive social conditioning required that she play the part of hostess and dutiful wife even if there were no children, and these activities appear to have consumed most of her energy and time until she was well past her mid-30's. Understandably, given her creative and independent nature and her unfulfilled sexual desire; depression plagued her during this time. She wrote sporadically during these twelve odd years, publishing only a few short stories and poems of a personal nature, which reflected her unhappiness.
"Her first serious publishing effort and some moderate success came in 1897 with "A Decoration of Houses", which she wrote with architect Ogden Codman. The book effectively and single handedly changed the popular style for interior design, eliminating the clutter and fuss of the Victorian Era, and establishing a brand new career field for others to pursue as well; Interior Design."
This accomplishment coincided with Walter Berry's re-entry into Edith's arena. Walter Berry, the lawyer, judge and diplomat, was an important influence on her writing. Edith claims he taught her everything she needed to know about grammar in the weeks when he assisted with "A Decoration of Houses".
Some would also say he was the love of her life, but there is no proof that they ever did the nasty. They met the year before she married Teddy, and I think she would have married him if he had asked her. But then again, there is no substantiating evidence that Berry did the naughty thing with anyone, so he didn�t appear too inclined towards matrimony.
Now that he was back in her life, he seemed to lend direction to her aims, fulfill an intellectual void, and encourage her growth and independence. They remained close companions for the rest of his life. He was her most loyal reader and it is said that no new manuscript went to the publishers without first meeting his approval. He died in her arms in 1927. Edith said the sun went out for her on that day.
"After "A Decoration of Houses", Edith gained ground and momentum with her creativity and productivity. This proved to be the end of her depression and the beginning of an extravagant phase of expansion. From 1897 to 1904 she published prolifically; three short story collections, two novellas, two more books covering landscape and interior design, and a historical novel based on her travels and research in Italy.
"In 1901 Edith took on another ambitious project well suited to her nature; designing and building her own mammoth sized house and garden; "The Mount", in Lenox, Massachusetts. The decade she spent at The Mount would eventually be one of her happiest memories, as she benefited from living inside of her own creation and blossomed into a professional authoress during that time.
"The quiet atmosphere was conducive to writing and her lifestyle was inspirational. She enjoyed being away from the hectic pace and restraints of New York Society, working in her gardens, taking drives in the country in her new motorcar, and entertaining friends of her own choosing. (Edith loved her role as Salon Mistress and was definately the hostess with the mostest.)
"It was during this period that she developed daily writing habits and a supportive social circle that played a significant part in her success as one of the most prolific female writers of the early 20th century.
"At the age of 40 years, Edith Wharton had finally found her stride. "The House of Mirth", published in 1905, marks Edith's coming of age as a novelist. It was an immediate bestseller. In this novel of manners with a realist twist, she found fertile ground in old New York Society. She dissected the world of privilege, old and new money, with an ironic humor and cast her eye upon the American woman's plight with a grace and flare that won her a faithful and appreciative audience. Throughout the rest of her career, Edith would return to this subject matter, time and time again, to meet with great success."
Ironically, as Edith found her way, Teddy lost his. Mental illness afflicted him around the time that Edith's star was on the rise and her depression had ended. The atmosphere at the Mount was not well suited to his temperament. The quiet of the country seemed to exacerbate his troubles. But I think he was afflicted with a terrible case of inferiority living in the shadow of Edith's success, and that this was the major cause of his problems. See, they were living in a cultural climate that delegated women to the ornamental status and bestowed enormous amounts of power and accolades on men even when it wasn't warranted. He didn't have a job to do and couldn't stand Edith finding success and respect as a professional and an intellectual.
Teddy's mental condition continued on a downward spiral until he finally misappropriated funds from Edith's estate in order to support a mistress and then fought violently to maintain control over her finances. That's when she sold The Mount and moved to Europe for good. She continued to support Teddy financially after that, but refused to live with him and eventually faced the disapproval of her family and filed for divorce. This, indeed, was the major influence in Edith's choice to become an expatriate. It was personal after all, not necessarily a political statement, at least initially.
I think Henry James played a big role in saving Edith's life during the torrid years of a disintegrating marriage. They met at The Mount in 1902, on one of his few trips to America. An honored man of letters, he was, as well as a confidante, sounding board, and inspiration. Their friendship lasted until his death during World War I. He could do what Walter Berry could not. He could be an ear for Edith's marriage troubles and her most infamous affair, with Morton Fullerton.
Morton Fullerton was a dashing man, a journalist; but a bit of a cad. Aside from being incapable of commitment or fidelity, he was also a bisexual. For some reason only Aphrodite will know, however, he brought Edith's blood to a boil. She knew passion for the first time in her life during their affair, and wrote volumes of erotic poetry and journal entries in honor of the occasion. Henry James was there for her throughout all the ups and downs and ins and outs. The affair brought Edith's problems with Te ddy to a head and also taught her depths of feelings she would have otherwise never known.
"Ethan Frome", published in 1911, came out of that period in her life. It has proved to be the most honored of her writings, maybe because there is a depth of honesty and emotion laid down on those pages that cannot be denied. It would appear that she finally buried the ghost of her guilt about divorce in the writing of this manuscript, because afterwards, she made the final move to France.
"With the onset of World War I only a few years later, Edith decided to stay on in France and do volunteer work rather than return to the safety of the United States. These years took her out of the public eye, but on a personal level she worked harder than she had ever worked before, running hostels, infirmaries and orphanages.
"Her novel, "The Good Son" went fairly unnoticed, as the world rushed into the Jazz Age and speakeasies; away from the panic and pain of catastrophic war. Yet her efforts did not go unrecognized. The President of France awarded her with the Legion of Honor in 1916, the highest order the President could dispose.
"Age of Innocence", published in 1920, was overlooked at first; due to the fact that Edith had been busy with the war effort, working behind the scenes, for so long. In this story she returns to the Gilded Age and old New York Society, yet the heroine wins an independent life, unlike the heroine of "The House of Mirth." In this regard she reflects the climate of the Jazz Age and the changes it wrought for women.
"But the delayed notice was short lived. Yes, "Age of Innocence" proved to be her crowning accomplishment; bringing her recognition as the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, the year after women in America finally won the right to vote. In 1923 she also became the first woman awarded the Doctor of Letters by Yale University and she made her one and only trip back to America since 1912.
"She continued to write prolifically until her death in 1937; publishing more than 32 books throughout her life. Her final works included, "The Writing of Fiction", her autobiography, "A Backward Glance", "Ghosts", and the unfinished novel, "The Buccaneers". She is best remembered for her humor and irony as a writer in the genre of the novel of manners, yet she also produced poetry, critical analysis, travel writings, short stories, commentaries on World War I, and books on landscape architecture and interior design. She was a prolific letter writer and kept a journal. Upon her death, she left her papers to Yale University with the stipulation that publication be withheld until 1968."
That was MY best idea; keeping the papers and journals under lock and key for 30 years. I'm glad she took it. It gave the rest of the world time to catch up to Edith and her independent nature. We had entered into another era by the time the papers were released; one that brought more equality and appreciation for women, and a renewed interest in women's contributions from the past.
So there you have it. I'm sure you can see what we are capable of. Consider this. As you read us, we read you. Sort of like an interview. Take a moment to think about the possibilities. If you are willing to speak for us at the council, we may inspire you to greatness. Go on. Take your time. We'll be in touch�.
"Soaring beyond the limits of memory and experience, the Muse will take you there. Reaching from beneath the surface of what is known, the Muse will take you there. A love most splendid and a thrill superior, the Muse will take you there."
His father was a narrow-minded reactionary and his mother a severe educator. In his early years as a student he was tutored by local clerics who taught him Latin, French and Roman Catholic philosophy. At the age of fourteen he embarked on the study of Greek, English, German, Spanish, philology and the translation of the classics. The next seven years, a period of 'mad and desperate study' as he called it, were spent under his own direction in his father's considerable library.
He acquired an enormous amount of knowledge, but at the same time he ruined his health; he suffered from severe backache and had serious problems with his sight.
In 1822 Leopardi went to Rome, then capital of the backward Papal States, where, apart from meeting some philologists, he met no other man of culture. After six months the poet left the 'eternal city', which he labelled 'narrow and popish'. Leopardi bore within himself the so-called 'nineteenth century disease': the inability to 'adjust oneself to real life'. This condition, according to him, is the main cause of 'boredom'. In using this term Leopardi indicates estrangement from life and inner inertia.
He asserted that 'boredom' is the result of the conflict between Nature and Reason. Nature creates man in a state of happiness: this state kindles emotions and desires, causing the imagination to wander, which elements should contribute to a gratifying life worthy of being lived. Reason, on the other hand, destroys illusion, quenches enthusiasm and extinguishes hope. According to the poet this is the main reason for the unhappiness of mankind. Leopardi's first poems, which he called 'Idylls', are imbued with this pessimistic vision of life.
At the time he was writing the first 'Idylls', collected as "The Canti", he was also writing "Moral Tales", a collection of essays in the form of brief fables, and "Thoughts", 111 short paragraphs which express his moral and philosophical ideas. While working on these essays, Leopardi developed an even more radical pessimism based on the reasoning that if men are born for happiness and it is denied them, there is a tragic 'dissonance' between what they desire and what they can attain from life. Hence, the poet concluded that the cause of human unhappiness is essentially physio-biological. Human beings are destined to lead an unhappy life, to always seek the unreachable in an incomprehensible universe, and to be continually harassed by a Nature which is beautiful but hostile.
A mysterious will
moves All destined events.
All is unknown, except pain.
--The Last Song of Sappho
He then wrote 'The Great Idylls': 'To Silvia', 'The Solitary Thrush' and 'Saturday in the Village' are some poems of this period. At the same time Leopardi was writing "Zibaldone", a vast notebook which recorded his thoughts and ideas on poetry, society, philological questions and psychological enquiries. This work extends over 4,500 pages and was published posthumously.
Two dominant themes of Leopardi's poetry are his inner struggle between logic and emotion and his love-hate relationship with Nature.
Ah! Nature, Nature, why do you
Never keep the promises you made?
Why are your children so cruelly betrayed?
Another recurring element in Leopardi's writings is the poignant regret for the passing of youth. He considered this period the happiest of our life, the season of dreams and hopes not yet shattered by the hard realities of adult life.
Meanwhile the time of my youth flies,
More precious than fame and laurels,
Dearer than glorious daylight or breath itself
The poet, who was an atheist and a firm believer in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, supported the theories of sensism that contrasted greatly with the ideas of Catholic writers of his day. His last works reveal a strain of ?Titanism? often present in his first poems:
Let the black wings
Of the greedy bird wheel over me;
Let the wild beast and storms
Disperse my unknown remains,
And the wind erase my memory and name.
--The Younger Brutus
Giacomo Leopardi lived a directionless adulthood, moving from town to town. Milan, Bologna, Florence and Naples were some places where he lived. Wherever he went he was always "followed" by censorship. Being an atheist poet living in Catholic states, (at that time Italy was not a nation, but a conglomeration of small independent states), his works were always scrutinized and often forbidden by local authorities.
Leopardi was the eldest son of an aristocratic family, but his father was unwilling to support a son who hadn?t followed his advice to make a career in the church. He suffered frequent financial crises and died in 1837, a few days short of his thirty-ninth birthday. His works have been, translated and admired by writers, scholars, and poets all over the world. One of his poems, 'The Infinite', has been translated into more than forty languages. There have also been many translations into the English language, and among the American poets and writers known to have been interested in Leopardi are H.W. Longfellow, J. M. Morrison, Herman Melville, Henry Tuckerman, W. D. Howells, Thomas Parsons, Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell. In the field of English literature, Leopari's admirers include Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, A. C. Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, James Thomson ('B.V:'), A.C. Trevelian (who urged to translate Leopardi?s works by Bertrand Russell). Among the English and American translators of the last decade we count the poets G.Singh, J.G.Nichols, Eamon Grennan and Joseph Tusiani.
From my book of translations, 'Selected Works of Giacomo Leopardi', I wish to mention a few lines from the poem 'Of the Beginnings of the Human Race', which concern the fate of the native Americans living in California in the first years of the 19th century. The poet foresaw that their 'primitive and happy life' was going to be swept away by the coming of 'civilization':
The shores, the shaded places,
And the silent woods invaded
By our unrelenting fury.
The outraged people trained
To alien pain and unknown desires;
And their fleeting naked happiness
Beyond the sunset bar pursued.
(Leopardi's note:'Even today in California, among woods, hills and rivers, there are people who do not know the world 'civilization' and, as travelers say, they are very reluctant to assimilate that mean corruption we call culture.')