Mixing Memory and Desire: Leopardi Reading Petrarch

By Brose, Margaret | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Mixing Memory and Desire: Leopardi Reading Petrarch


Brose, Margaret, Annali d'Italianistica


The essay proposes that Giacomo Leopardi remains the true heir to Petrarch's temporal anxiety. The temporal crisis faced by Petrarch, adumbrated first perhaps in Augustine's Confessions,problematizes past and future in relationship to the present of the speaking subject. While the trauma of transience will be written on the human body in the pages of the Rime sparse, Leopardi will move that anxiety out of the body and into language itself. The essay examines two aspects of Leopardi's complex filiation with Petrarch. On the one hand, Leopardi's brilliant commentary to the Canzoniere (1826) reveals an uncanny ventriloquism: Leopardi adapts the first person singular, becoming the alter ego of Petrarch, thus screening his own anxiety of influence. On the other hand, the marrow of the Canzoniere, its temporal anxiety, is directly absorbed into Leopardi's Canti; in these lyrics, as well as in the Zibaldone, Leopardi develops a theory of time, poetic re-figuration, memory and desire. Leopardi learns from Petrarch that experiences of past and future, figured as memory (rimembranza) and hope (speranza), are performative rhetorical constructions. Petrarch deals with temporal anxiety by constructing in his lyrics an "iterative present" tense: the lyric space of enunciation exists as a suspended present without time's corrosive effects. Leopardi, who repeatedly stated that the present could never be poetic, constructs an intricate system of figural transpositions which fill up the texual present, itself a void, with the affect of memory and desire. For both poets, beauty, bodies, and language inevitably reveal loss.

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April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. T. S. Eliot ("The Wasteland" 1-4)

Given the extent of Petrarch's influence on the European lyric tradition, it may seem perverse to propose that Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), Italy's native son, remains Petrarch's true poetic heir. I am not referring primarily to what has been called Leopardi's "petrarchismo," although I will return to this topic later. Leopardi absorbed above all Petrarch's special brand of temporal anxiety. Temporality, with its attendant phenomena of memory and desire, is both the subject and the structuring principle of the Canzoniere (Barolini). Leopardi's lyrics, collected in his Canti (the title carries an obvious reference to the Canzoniere), also thematize the passage of time and the contrastive experiences of past, present, and future. Time exposes the finitude and folly of all we desire. However, emotions of infinitude can be elicited by employing rhetorical figurations of temporality itself: images of the past or of the future; that is, those temporalities which are more imaginative than chronological. This fundamental temporal dilemma informs Leopardi's theories of memory, the poetic sublime, happiness, boredom, desire, illusion, and so on, including his linguistically prescient investigations into the development and structure of languages: all contained in the more than 4,000 pages of his notebooks, the Zibaldone. (1)

The Italian genealogy of great lyric meditations on the problem of time moves directly from Petrarch to Leopardi to Ungaretti. (2) The temporal crisis faced by Petrarch, prefigured in Augustine's Confessions, concerns the problematic relationship of both past and future to the present of the enunciation. Petrarch was perennially in the middle, fluctuating between fixed points on the moral, temporal, and topographical spectrum. His poetico-spiritual itinerary parallels the circuitous movement of the ascent of Mt. Ventoux, for spatial circularity works much like temporal stasis. This temporal problematic is announced as early as the fourth verse of the opening sonnet in the Canzoniere, when Petrarch strives to construct temporal difference or progression: "quand'era in parte altr'uom da quel ch'i' sono" (1: 4). …

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