Not too long ago, I was having dinner with relatives and friends. The conversation was circling around topics I do not much care about (e.g., food), but at some point, I don’t remember exactly how, we moved to more interesting subjects. Specifically, literature and poetry. A friend mentioned how hard teaching poetry at their school is, and we ended up sharing comments on our favourite poets. As soon as Giacomo Leopardi’s name was thrown around, from the other side of the table a relative quickly shared their thought: “Giacomo Leopardi was a loser!”. It took me a while to realize what had just been said. Then I failed miserably at trying to explain the stunning beauty of L’infinito1 to an audience not particularly interested in the sublime, the absolute, and the Spinozistic reality of the poem. Over the course of the next days I kept returning to the statement “Giacomo Leopardi was a loser”. I wanted to understand it better. I was not particularly interested in shaming the author of the comment, because I am not a poetry expert, so it would have been silly to hold up true aesthetic values for art’s sake without being able to justify my opinion. I simply was fascinated by what something like “Giacomo Leopardi was a loser” could tell me on the author of the comment’s views on poetry and art in general.
What happens when we value a piece of art according to our perception of the author? The relative who expressed their opinion on Leopardi has never cared too much about humanities, so what does it mean for them to acknowledge something as beautiful? One possible explanation is that what they deem beautiful is in fact what they instinctively like or, to a certain degree, think they understand. This is the old subjective versus objective argument encapsulated by the following expression: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, I don’t think this kind of relativism can be used as a solid principle, mostly because it can be conducive to naive forms of skepticism for which there is no easy way out2. It’s also true that the mere fact that we like something does not make it automatically beautiful for everyone, and yet there are work of arts generally considered beautiful but in front of which we are not moved at all. Is art failing at communicating a universal value of beauty, or is it just us lacking the right perspective and the proper knowledge to grasp beauty as it should be?3
Another question raised in me by “Giacomo Leopardi was a loser” concerns the relationship between the person and the artist who that person is. I remember being desperately incapable of making a distinction between the two, for instance, praising or insulting an art piece depending on how close the author was to my political ideas. A professor dear to me once said: “Should we trash Being and Time now that we know of Heidegger’s sympathies for the Nazi Party?”4. Whatever the term “loser” means, it makes absolutely no difference when we consider what Leopardi left us with. We have his poetry, we can read his writings. What do they tell us? Do they still mean something to us? Is Leopardi’s art relevant today? Unless the answer to all of these questions is negative and justifiably so, I see no point in avoiding Leopardi in light of how the man was supposed to be.
Moreover, if beautiful is only what I like and can understand, does it even make sense to study this poet, or even poetry at all, at school? There is a not so subtle utilitarian dimension to a notion of beauty built upon an individual’s own interests which, in turn, renders poetry somehow imposed on students against more practical, day-to-day matters. This is an all too familiar situation, because it goes hand in hand with what I want a teacher to be. When I think of poetry, I think of the highest peak of the humans’ adventure with language. When I read poetry, I am taken simultaneously more beyond and within myself than with any other art by the incredible simplicity of the nature of poetry itself: it’s just words on a page, how can they push me so far? If a teacher cannot enable their students to explore the unknown sides of themselves by means of poetry, then the students are totally free to set Leopardi aside and move on. Finding beauty in poetry is hard, and that’s why it takes a really great teacher to make it possible5. Still, suppose for a moment that we have finally found a poem we do like. Suppose the poem has already been valued as beautiful by experts way more trustworthy than us. Should we consider its beauty useful? In my rather limited experience, engaging with beauty in art and humanities does not seem to pay the bills, so is there even a point in studying Giacomo Leopardi when the world out there will rarely if ever match your knowledge with a salary? Let me provide a short question as a quick answer first: who cares? Now let me try to expand on it.
Conflating beauty with interest makes sense only if, for a while, we wish to take care of ourselves in a less income-driven way. Yes, finding beauty in things is for the most part a self-involved endeavor. One can reasonably say that as long as there is pleasure in it, then something is beautiful and worth of their attention. Money means nothing here: I want beauty to provide instant gratification, please. Such a hedonistic stance depends on the kind of pleasure one is looking for. If it is immediate excitement or a quick diversion from boring routine we are searching, then this is not the beauty a poem like L’infinito conveys. To appreciate its beauty one needs hard work. One must know what Leopardi is writing about; one has to remove any interference with their reading; one has to be open to the endless paths the poem will eventually uncover. It takes considerable effort and time to do all of that and usually lack of time is the primary objection to this process, but I do not want to waste words on the amount of hours daily spent in front of screens of different sizes. The point here is actually very simple: you have to work for beauty to work on you. When you succeed, beauty succeeds, and as you feel the eternal you will know that it is worth every penny you are not putting in your wallet while sinking in this sea.
Put otherwise: if everything can be judged according to one’s opinions, then the statement “everything can be judged according to one’s opinions” is questionable as well. ↩
Studying Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment has led me to inquiries of this kind. ↩
I will never share Martin Heidegger’s ideas on Nazism, but Being and Time is one of the books I can point at if asked about my love for philosophy. ↩
I have never had a teacher capable of doing it. Luckily, I had teachers able to show me the wonders of literature and philosophy, and so I came to poetry with my eyes partially open already. ↩