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  • Giacomo Leopardi’s Art and Science of Emotion in Memory and Anticipation *
  • John Alcorn

I. Introduction

Emotion in memory and anticipation is a crux of Giacomo Leopardi’s work, in two complementary ways: (i) It is a central subject of his art and science, notably several fine poems in the Canti 1 and many fascinating notebook entries in the Zibaldone di pensieri. 2 (ii) It is a central element in his understanding of his art, for he considers it a necessary cause of artistic creativity: “per l’invenzione [...] ci vuole [...] un influsso dell’entusiasmo passato o futuro o abituale, piuttosto che la sua presenza, e possiamo dire il suo crepuscolo, piuttosto che il mezzogiorno” (Z 257–59, 3.X.1820). This article surveys Leopardi’s representations of, and reflections upon, emotion in memory and anticipation, and offers an interpretation of “Le ricordanze” (C 435–60), where the intertemporal dimensions of emotion are most relentlessly explored. [End Page 89]

The article also seeks to illustrate how literature, philosophy, and the social sciences are complementary resources in the study of the human condition. 3 In a stimulating essay Jon Elster considers five resources for the study of emotions: (i) the findings of experimental psychologists; (ii) the observations of historians and anthropologists; (iii) the intuitions of the classical moralists from Michel de Montaigne to Jean de La Bruyère; (iv) the portraits of characters in great works of literature; (v) introspection. 4 Of these the richest are intuitions, portraits, and introspection, for they combine realism and insight. Elster explains this in the case of literature: “Il grande vantaggio della letteratura è che può essere più completa di qualsiasi descrizione fattuale, in quanto ci mostra il funzionamento interiore dei meccanismi emotivi, e non solo le loro apparenze esteriori” (p. 19). In this light, Leopardi’s work is of special interest, for it closely integrates all the resources which combine realism and insight: the intuitions of the moralist, the independent plausibility of great literature, and profound introspection. True, as Elster notes, some works of literature are more useful than others in the study of emotions, and introspection is subject to specific kinds of distortion (pp. 12 and 20). I shall consider whether and how these notes of caution bear on the cognitive value of Leopardi’s work in my concluding remarks.

Jürgen Habermas’s work suggests another reason why literature is an indispensable tool in the study of emotions. Language is often poorer than the world, and this is especially true of the vocabulary of the emotions. Authenticity can fail us, despite our sincerity:

So long as we are dealing [...] with beliefs or intentions, that is, with cognitive acts, the question of whether someone says what he means is clearly a question of [...] sincerity. With desires and feelings this is not always the case. In situations in which accuracy of expression is important, it is sometimes difficult to separate questions of sincerity from those of authenticity. Often we lack the words to say what we feel; and this in turn places the feelings themselves in a questionable light. 5

Artists have special powers of imagination and description, enabling them to achieve authenticity in the expression and representation of emotions. [End Page 90]

“Le ricordanze” is of course not simply a study in the intertemporal dimensions of emotion. It, and indeed the Canti as a whole, are autobiography in the form of poetry. Baroness Warnock explains what autobiography requires, and why it can be of special value:

What [autobiography] needs is the search for truth, through memory and the interpreting imagination. For an individual truthfully explored [...] is more than just an individual. Because human beings are bound together by sympathy, the reflection in the glass is necessarily not of one person only. The common, the shared, and the general is to be found in the particular, if that particular is truthfully described, and with imagination. To discover such a common truth is an intrinsic good. 6

The worry, then, is that the artist-autobiographer, who has special powers of description and imagination, can achieve authenticity without sincerity. Is Leopardi’s autobiographical poetry a search for truth, through memory and the interpreting imagination? Or does stylized presentation...

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pp. 89-122
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