The barbarism of reason: John Gray on the Notebooks of Leopardi

The first full translation of a reclusive Italian poet’s philosophical “hotchpotch” is a major event in the history of ideas.

Science and illusion: Giacomo Leopardi was an
unsparing interrogator of modern ideals.

Detail from a painting by Ferruccio Ferrazzi

Zibaldone: the Notebooks of Leopardi
Edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino
Penguin Classics, 2,592pp, £50

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.

With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.

Even in his native country, Leopardi has not received the recognition he deserves as a thinker. Though a selection of his aphorisms appeared not long after he died in 1837, during a cholera epidemic in Naples, the Zibaldone – a “hotchpotch of thoughts” – was not published in full in Italian until 1898, the centenary of his birth. Composed in secret and meant as a series of memos to himself, the notebook has something in common with Pascal’s Pensées and Kierkegaard’s diaries but the voice – refined, detached and betraying a reticent intellectual passion – is Leopardi’s alone. Beautifully rendered into English by seven translators, superbly edited and annotated by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino under the auspices of the Leopardi Centre at the University of Birmingham, with its more than 2,500 pages elegantly printed on thin, Bible-like paper, this is not just a triumph of scholarship but a work of art of which its author could have been justly proud.

The first full English version of the Zibaldone is a major event in the history of ideas. With its publication, Leopardi will be ranked among the supreme interrogators of the modern condition. Originally comprising some 4,500 handwritten pages, this huge text is a methodical dissection of the ruling myths of the new world that was emerging around the solitary young man. Much of it was written when he was in his early twenties, in his family home in the small hill town of Recanati, in one of the most old-fashioned papal states, where his bookish father dressed in black and still wore the sword that symbolised his princely caste. Developing a hunchback from spending his days crouched in his father’s library, where he devoured ancient texts and taught himself Greek and Hebrew, Leopardi spent most of his life thinking, reading and writing. Unfortunate in his relations with women and forming few enduring attachments aside from a difficult three-year involvement with a married Florentine beauty, suffering several spells of poverty along the way, he spent his last years living in the house of a close male friend in Naples.

The frail and sickly poet was also a thinker of intrepid bravery who produced one of the most unsparing critiques of modern ideals. Crucially, this was the work of a quintessentially modern mind – one that looked to the bottom of modern civilisation and found there nothing but conceit and illusion. An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”

His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.

Christianity was a reaction against corrosive doubt, a condition that took hold partly as a result of the habit of sceptical inquiry inculcated by philosophy: “What was destroying the world was the lack of illusions. Christianity saved it, not because it was the truth but because it was a new source of illusion.” This new illusion came in the form of a claim to truth that all the world had to accept: an inordinate demand that with the rise of the Enlightenment shifted to science, which has become a project aiming to dissolve the dreams in which humanity has hitherto lived. The result is modern nihilism – the perception that human beings are an insignificant accident in a scheme of things that cares nothing for them or their values – and a host of rackety creeds promising some kind of secular salvation.

Leopardi’s account of the paradoxical process whereby a Christian will to truth gave birth to nihilism has much in common with Nietzsche’s – an affinity that the fiery German thinker recognised. Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche was following a path opened up by Schopenhauer, who wrote that it was a tragedy that the world’s three great pessimists – “Byron, Leopardi and myself” –were in Italy at the same time but never met. (I’m not sure that a meeting between Leopardi and Schopenhauer would have been a success. Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter.)

What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.

Unlike philosophers today, Leopardi aims to do more than provide a comforting justification for the intuitions of well-meaning liberals. Just as much as Nietzsche, though much more soberly, he is a critic of modern ethics. Leopardi found the unthinking moral certainty of secular thinkers highly questionable, not least because of their hidden debts to Christianity. In an irony of which he was undoubtedly aware, this opponent of the Enlightenment ideal of reason was in many ways a child of the Enlightenment, not least because he shared the Enlightenment suspicion of Christianity.

Yet Leopardi’s resistance to Christianity was not simply, or even mainly, an intellectual objection to its theological claims. It was a moral objection, which applied equally to the secular successors of Christianity. He criticised Christianity not because he believed it to be untrue (he accepted that human beings cannot live without illusions) but because he saw the militant assertion of its truth as being harmful to civilisation. The universalism of which Christianity and its humanist offshoots are so proud was, for Leopardi, an openended licence for savagery and oppression.

Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.

Assessing the impact of Christianity on the ancient world, Leopardi notes that the more that universal principles are accepted as the basis of action, “the worse peoples and centuries prove to be”. The crimes that Christians in the Middle Ages committed were “quite different, more horrible and more barbarous than those of antiquity”. Long before the atrocities of the modern era,he perceived that such crimes, like those of the medieval Christians, emanated from belief, not passion. From late-19th-century imperialism to communism and the incessant wars launched in our time under the gaudy banner of democracy and human rights, the most barbarous kinds of violence have been promoted as rational means to achieving a higher civilisation. Even the Nazis believed their crimes were based in reason: genocide and “scientific breeding” would lead to a type of human being superior to any that had existed before. The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.

Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”

Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.

Yet it is hard to think of Leopardi being disconsolate because of this. Quietly dictating the closing lines of one of his most exquisite poems, “The Setting of the Moon”, as he lay dying in Naples, he seems to have seen his short life as being complete in itself. On the evidence of this magnificent volume, he was not mistaken.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Laid in America: how two YouTubers made a mainstream sex-comedy for children

Caspar Lee and KSI's new movie is officially rated 15, but digital downloading means their young audiences have easy access. 

It’s not that expectations are high when it comes to YouTube movies. Despite being released by Universal Studios, vloggers Caspar Lee and KSI’s latest feature film Laid In America always looked set to be cheap and cheerful rather than a cultural blockbuster. It’s just that the opening scene of the movie – in which KSI humps a blow-up sex doll doggy style while forcing its head down on Caspar Lee’s crotch, before ejaculating into his own boxers – jars a little when you consider the relative age of the pair’s fan bases.

Caspar Lee is a 22-year-old South African YouTuber whose prank videos and vlogs have earnt him 6.79 million subscribers. KSI – real name Olajide Olatunji – is a year older and has double the influence, with 14.64 million people subscribed to his video gaming channel. Although YouTube doesn’t allow the public to see the demographics of any particular YouTuber’s audience, videos of Olatunji and Lee’s meet-and-greets with fans reveal that the former is idolised by teenage boys and the latter beloved of pre-teen and teenage girls. Search “Caspar Lee book review” on YouTube and the first non-branded result shows a very young girl waxing lyrical about the star.

KSI and a 13-year-old fan, via kalabza1973

Despite Laid in America’s Red Band trailer and raunchy premise – of two English students in America desperately trying to lose their virginity, à la American pie – it seems the filmmakers, Bad Weather Films and The Fun Group, are aware of the pair’s audiences. The movie premieres tonight at the O2 in London and is then available for digital download only. This isn’t a reflection on the limited influence of YouTubers – whose transformation of the publishing industry alone shows they could easily sell out cinemas – but a savvy business decision that allows children to watch a film that has been rated 15 by the British Board of Film Classification. Rather than trying to sneak into a cinema, kids can affectively undo 104 years of film classification history with just a few clicks.

It’s not that it’s particularly shocking that 12-year-olds can easily watch this gross-out comedy complete with the requisite sex party, dwarf in a cage, plethora of swear words, and obligatory “That… was… awesome!”. No, the most offensive thing about the film (aside from KSI’s abysmal acting) isn’t the sex, it’s the sexism.

“Tabitha is a complete BLOB,” says Duncan (Olatunji) when Jack (Lee) asks why, if he’s so desperate to lose his virginity, he doesn’t sleep with the girl who keeps passing him love notes. “You know that girl that you’d never have sex with and then the night is coming to an end and you run out of options? … Basic Last Option Bae. BLOB.”

The credentials that make Tabitha a BLOB, appear to be – to the naked eye – that she is not tall, she is a normal weight, and she doesn’t wear concealer under her eyes. Heather Cowles, the actress who plays her, is in fact so attractive that you almost wish they’d gone down the old-fashioned fat-suit and fake-acne line. When a preteen girl who idolises YouTubers so much that she sets them as her profile picture watches them mock and deride what is essentially a normal looking girl, how will they feel?

Caspar Lee with fans at a book signing via Getty

There are a multitude of similar instances in the movie. “Did you get a chance to experience any American girls?” asks Jack and Duncan’s headmaster in one of the opening scenes of the film, as headmasters are wont to do. When the duo reveal they are both virgins, the principal acts shocked. “No girls? Not even fat girls?” he says.

None of this would be particularly damaging to the normal, adult audiences of similar Hollywood comedies. But YouTubers have an incredible influence over their fans, so much so that brands are willing to pay between £20,000 and £50,000 for them to recommend a single product in their videos. It seems a shame that this influence will be used to increase the insecurities of young girls and reinforce, yet again, that Sex Is Everything to young boys.

The attitudes to women in the film are beyond outdated. To begin with, Duncan and Jack need to “find hot girls” in order to be allowed into cool-kid Tucker Jones’ party. From this point on, women are a commodity. “The more money we appear to have, the hotter girls we’ll get,” says one of the stars – god, don’t ask me which – when the pair try out a dating app. Next we see them ride a Boober (like an Uber, but with two complimentary large-chested girls), leave a woman passed out in her lingerie after she hits her head, and be rewarded with sex for – and truly, romance is dying, dying, dead as I write this – telling a girl’s ex-boyfriend that she’s “not a bitch”.

But surely, surely, in 2016 this is all redeemed by a heartfelt message about how actually, losing your virginity and “getting” hot girls isn’t everything? No such luck. The ending of the film is basically softcore porn, though the final shot features Jack and Duncan riding a Segway shouting: “We go in your country and take your women!” They saw. They conquered. They came. 

It's not yet apparent whether the film will be a commercial success, though the pair think that if it is, other studios will also begin making download-only films. "I guess the studios will be like, 'Oh this worked, let's try this' and follow," KSI told the BBC. If this is the case, hopefully more consideration will be put into making movies with a positive message for YouTubers' young audiences. 

 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.