Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Nature and a Icelander
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illeopardi text integral passage complete quotation of the sources comedies works historical literary works in prose and in verses

Translated by Charles Edwardes

An Icelander who had travelled over most of the earth, and had lived in very many different lands, found himself one day in the heart of Africa. As he crossed the equator in a place never before penetrated by man, he had an adventure like that which happened to Vasco di Gama, who, when passing the Cape of Good Hope, was opposed by two giants, the guardians of the southern seas, that tried to prevent his entrance into the new waters (1). The Icelander saw in the distance a huge bust, in appearance like the. colossal Hermes he had formerly seen in the Isle of Pasqua. At first he thought it was made of stone, but as he drew near to it he saw that the head belonged to an enormous woman, who was seated on the ground, resting her back against a mountain. The figure was alive, and had a countenance both magnificent and terrible, and eyes and hair of a jet black colour. She looked fixedly at him for a long time in silence. At length she said:

NATURE -- Who art thou? What doest thou here, where thy race is unknown?

ICELANDER -- I am a poor Icelander, fleeing from Nature. I have fled from her ever since I was a child, through a hundred different parts of the world, and I am fleeing from her now.

NATURE -- So flees the squirrel from the rattlesnake, and runs in its haste deliberately into the mouth of its tormentor. I am that from which thou fleest.

ICELANDER -- Nature?

NATURE -- Even so.

ICELANDER -- I am smitten with anguish, for I consider no worse misfortune could befall me.

NATURE -- Thou mightest well have imagined that I was to be found in countries where my power is supremest. But why dost thou shun me?

ICELANDER -- You must know that from my earliest youth, experience convinced me of the vanity of life, and the folly of men. I saw these latter ceaselessly struggling for pleasures that please not, and possessions that do not satisfy. I saw them inflict on themselves, and voluntarily suffer, infinite pains, which, unlike the pleasures, were only too genuine. In short, the more ardently they sought happiness, the further they seemed removed from it. These things made me determine to abandon every design, to live a life of peace arid obscurity, harming no one, striving in nought to better my condition, and contesting nothing with anyone. I despaired of happiness, which I regarded as a thing withheld from our race, and my only aim was to shield myself from suffering. Not that I had the least intention of abstaining from work, or bodily labour; for there is as great a difference between mere fatigue and pain, (2) as between a peaceful and an idle life. But when I began to carry out my project, I learnt from experience how fallacious it is to think that one can live inoffensively amongst men without offending them. Though I always gave them precedence, and took the smallest part of everything, I found neither rest nor happiness among them. However, this I soon remedied. By avoiding men I freed myself from their persecutions. I took refuge in solitude -- easily obtainable in my native island. Having done this, I lived without a shadow of enjoyment; yet I found I had not escaped all suffering. The intense cold of the long winter, and the extreme heat of summer, characteristic of the country, allowed me no cessation from pain. And when, to warm myself, I passed much time by the fire, I was scorched by the flames, and blinded by the smoke. I suffered continuously, whether in the open air, or in the shelter of my cabin. In short, I failed to obtain that life of peace which was my one desire. Terrible storms, Hecla's menaces and rumblings, and the constant fires which occur among the wooden houses of my country, combined to keep me in a state of perpetual disquietude. Such annoyances as these, trivial though they be when the mind is distracted by the thoughts and actions of social and civil life, are intensified by solitude. I endured them all, together with the hopeless monotony of my existence, solely in order to obtain the tranquillity I desired. I perceived that the more I isolated myself from men, and confined me to my own little sphere, the less I succeeded in protecting myself from the discomforts and sufferings of the outer world.

Then I determined to try other climates and countries, to see if anywhere I could live in peace, harming no one, and exist without suffering, if also without pleasure. I was urged to this by the thought that perhaps you had destined for the human race a certain part of the earth (as you have for many animals and plants), where alone they could live in comfort. In which case it was our own fault if we suffered inconvenience from having exceeded our natural boundaries. I have therefore been over the whole earth, testing every country, and always fulfilling my intention of troubling others in the least possible degree, and seeking nothing for myself but a life of tranquillity. But in vain. The tropical sun burnt me; the Arctic cold froze me; in temperate regions the changeability of the weather troubled me; and everywhere I have experienced the fury of the elements. I have been in places where not a day passes without a storm, and where you, Nature, are incessantly at war with simple people who have never done you any harm. In other places cloudless skies are compensated for by frequent earthquakes, active volcanoes, and subterranean commotions. Elsewhere hurricanes and whirlwinds take the place of other scourges. Sometimes I have heard the roof over my head groan with the burden of snow that it supported; at other times the earth, saturated with rain, has broken away beneath my feet. Eivers have burst their banks, and pursued me, fleeing at full speed, as though I were an enemy. Wild beasts tried to devour me, without the least provocation on my part. Serpents have sought to poison or crush me; and I have been nearly killed by insects. I make no mention of the daily hazards by which man is surrounded. These last are so numerous that an ancient philosopher (3) laid down a rule, that to resist the constant influence of fear, it were well to fear everything.

Again, sickness has not failed to torment me, though invariably temperate, and even abstemious, in all bodily pleasures. In truth, our natural constitution is an admirably arranged affair! You inspire us with a strong and incessant yearning for pleasure, deprived of which our life is imperfect; and on the other hand you ordain that nothing should be more opposed to physical health and strength, more calamitous in its effects, and more incompatible with the duration of life itself, than this same pleasure. But although I indulged in no pleasures, numerous diseases attacked me, some of which endangered my life, and others the use of my limbs, thus threatening me with even an access of misery. All, during many days or months, caused me to experience a thousand bodily and mental pangs. And, whereas in sickness we endure new and extraordinary sufferings, as though our ordinary life were not sufficiently unhappy; you do not compensate for this by giving us equally exceptional periods of health and strength, and consequent enjoyment. In regions where the snow never melts, I lost my sight; this is an ordinary occurrence among the Laplanders in their cold country. The sun and air, things necessary for life, and therefore unavoidable, trouble us continually; the latter by its dampness or severity, the former by its heat, and even its light; and to neither of them can man remain exposed without suffering more or less inconvenience or harm. In short, I cannot recollect a single day during which I have not suffered in some way; whereas, on the other hand, the days that have gone by without a shadow of enjoyment are countless. I conclude therefore that we are destined to suffer much in proportion as we enjoy little, and that it is as impossible to live peacefully as happily. I also naturally come to the conclusion that you are the avowed enemy of men, and all other creatures of your creation. Sometimes alluring, at other times menacing; now attacking, now striking, now pursuing, now destroying; you are^ always engaged in tormenting us. Either by habit or necessity you are the enemy of your own family, and the executioner of your own flesh and blood. As for me, I have lost all hope. Experience has proved to me that though it be possible to escape from men and their persecutions, it is impossible to evade you, who will never cease tormenting us until you have trodden us under foot. Old age, with all its bitterness, and sorrows, and accumulation of troubles, is already near to me. This worst of evils you have destined for us and all created beings, from the time of infancy. From the fifth lustre of life, decline makes itself manifest; its progress we are powerless to stay. Scarce a third of life is spent in the bloom of youth; but few moments are claimed by maturity; all the rest is one gradual decay, with its attendant evils.

NATURE -- Thinkest thou then that the world was made for thee? It is time thou knewest that in my designs, operations, and decrees, I never gave a thought to the happiness or unhappiness of man. If I cause you to suffer, I am unaware of the fact; nor do I perceive that I can in any way give you pleasure. What I do is in no sense done for your enjoyment or benefit, as you seem to think. Finally, if I by chance exterminated your species, I should not know it.

ICELANDER -- Suppose a stranger invited me to his house in a most pressing manner, and I, to oblige him, accepted his invitation. On my arrival he took me to a damp and unhealthy place, and lodged me in a chamber open to the air, and so ruinous that it threatened momentarily to collapse and crush me. Ear from endeavouring to amuse me, and make me comfortable, he neglected to provide me with even the necessaries of life. And more than this. Suppose my host caused me to be insulted, ridiculed, threatened, and beaten by his sons and household. And on my complaining to him of such ill-treatment, he replied: "Dost thou think I made this house for thee? Do I keep these my children and servants for thy service? I assure thee I have other things to occupy me, than that I should amuse thee, or give thee welcome." To which I answered: "Well, my friend, though you may not have built your house especially for me, at least you might have forborne to ask me hither. And, since I owe it to you that I am here, ought I not to rely on you to assure me, if possible, a life free from trouble and danger?"

Thus I reply to you. I am well aware you did not make the world for the service of men. It were easier to believe that you made it expressly as a place of torment for them. But tell me: why am I here at all? Did I ask to come into the world? Or am I here unnaturally, contrary to your will? If however, you yourself have placed me here, without giving me the power of acceptance or refusal of this gift of life, ought you not as far as possible to try and make me happy, or at least preserve me from the evils and dangers, which render my sojourn a painful one? And what I say of myself, I say of the whole human race, and of every living creature.

NATURE -- Thou forgettest that the life of the world is a perpetual cycle of production and destruction, so combined that the one works for the good of the other. By their joint operation the universe is preserved. If either ceased, the world would dissolve. Therefore, if suffering were removed from the earth, its own existence would be endangered.

ICELANDER -- So say all the philosophers. But since that which is destroyed suffers, and that which is born from its destruction also suffers in due course, and finally is in its turn destroyed, would you enlighten me on one point, about which hitherto no philosopher has satisfied me? For whose pleasure and service is this wretched life of the world maintained, by the suffering and death of all the beings which compose it?

Whilst they discussed these and similar questions, two lions are said to have suddenly appeared. The beasts were so enfeebled and emaciated with hunger that they were scarcely able to devour the Icelander. They accomplished the feat however, and thus gained sufficient strength to live to the end of the day. But certain people dispute this fact. They affirm that a violent wind having arisen, the unfortunate Icelander was blown to the ground, and soon overwhelmed beneath a magnificent mausoleum of sand. Here his corpse was remarkably preserved, and in process of time he was transformed into a fine mummy. Subsequently, some travellers discovered the body, and carried it off as a specimen, ultimately depositing it in one of the museums of Europe.


(1) Camoens' Lusiad, canto 5.

(2) Cicero says: "Labour and pain are not identical. Labour is a toilsome function of body or mind -- pain an unpleasant disturbance in the body. When they cut Marius' veins, it was pain; when he marched at the head of the troops in a great heat, it was labour." Tusc. Quaest.

(3) Seneca, Natural. Question: lib. 6, cap. 2.

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