Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Giacomo Leopardi; Fishers of Men; Brilliant, arrived

A short post, since my deadline for my book has gone well into post-death, zombie time. Yesterday, though, brought encouragement in the mail. On lousy days I like to think of the review books that show up from publishers as "presents"; but they're usually the kind of presents you'd get from a semi-hostile distant relation. How else to describe the multiple copies of Fishers of Men: The Gospel of an Ayahuasca Vision Quest I've received? According to the flap copy (which, to be fair, should rarely be trusted), it's a journey from crippling depression to self-acceptance by way of magic mushrooms and "shamanic ceremonies" in South America. Christ. I think I knew this kid back in college. You probably did, too. It's a good thing we have the Indians and their rituals to help us accept ourselves.

(My apologies to Adam Elenbaas if your book is not what your publisher has packaged it as. I know what that's about. But some of the blurbs from your friends really aren't helping -- that one about how tripping made you "God-realized" and capable of seeing the Christ we all need, or something like that? Or the one celebrating the "gradual absorption of ayahuasca shamanism into North American culture"? Really? Because absorption turned out so well for North American Indians?)

But yesterday, it really did seem like I received presents in the mail. Probably from a shaman, since the two books that arrived were both desired? One is Jane Brox's new Brilliant, about which I made a note here before; the other is Canti, a thick, bilingual edition of the poems of Giacomo Leopardi translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi. I learned about Leopardi, said to be one the first modern European poets, while I was reporting a profile on the cultural critic Cornel West:

“That’s the American way,” says West when I raise the question of the blue note and its dismissal, the common conviction that looking forward means forgetting the past. “ ‘No problem we cannot solve,’” he says, paraphrasing conventional wisdom. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t know why Americans tell that lie all the time.” He laughs, shaking in his chair, mimicking a voice that sounds like a suburban golfer in pants a size too small. “‘No problem we can’t get beyond.’ That’s a lie! But—it generates a strenuous mood.”
This, to West, is a good thing, the naiveté that makes ambition possible. “Engagement! I like that. Now, Brother Leopardi on the other hand”—Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th century Italian poet-philosopher revered in Italy but little read in the U.S—“he starts with what he calls, ‘The mind’s sweet shipwreck.’ Ain’t that a beautiful phrase?”
Leopardi should be the poet of our times, West tells me—late empire, mid-recession. “You hear about people rereading Steinbeck now,” he says, referring to a recent surge in sales of Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Great Depression chronicle. “They got to go deeper than that!” Steinbeck lets us off too easy. West prescribes Brother Leopardi for “deep-sea diving of the soul,” a process’s not just personal but essential to understanding “the paradox of human freedom”: that we must summon the strength to resist and endure oppression even as we acknowledge that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire,” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.”
West gets down on his hands and knees, crawling along the bottom shelf until he locates a green volume. “This is the Leopardi, brother.” He flips through the pages. “Oh, man! See this one? ‘I refuse even hope.’” He repeats the line, his body suddenly slack, staring at me as if to ask, “Do you follow?” I do, or, at least, I’ll try. West begins to read, rocking forwards and backwards at his hips like a metronome. “‘Everything is hidden,’” he reads, “‘Except our pain.’” He looks up. “Deep blues, man.” He returns to the green book in his hand. “We come, a forsaken race, / Crying into the world, and the gods / Keep their own counsel…’” I bend close, following the rhythm of his handwritten annotations down the margins: “blues,” “jazz,” “blues,” “blues,” “jazz.” ...
“Now, this, this is the greatest one,” West says, petting a page of Leopardi’s poems and looking at me with giant poem eyes as if to communicate the gravity of the words in his hand, the necessity of their immediate recitation.  He resumes rocking and reading:
That man has a truly noble nature
Who, without flinching, still can face
Our common plight, tell the truth
With an honest tongue,
Admit the evil lot we’ve been given
And the abject, impotent condition we’re in;
Who shows himself great and full of grace
Under pressure.…
West closes his book and stands still. His head shakes back and forth with admiration. That’s too polite a word for the emotion flooding over him: it’s relief, gratitude. 
After that interview I walked across the street from West's Princeton office and looked for a copy of Leopardi at Labyrinth Books, an amazing bookstore (with one of the best remainder tables I know of) that was my best bet for finding such a volume. No luck. I suppose I could have ordered one from Amazon, but books like this -- books that you bump into by accident -- are best waited for.