Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia >>  Dialogue between Tasso and his familiar spirit   (1)
Other languages:   italian_flag                                   


illeopardi text integral passage complete quotation of the sources comedies works historical literary works in prose and in verses

Translated by Charles Edwardes

SPIRIT -- Ah, Torquato. How are you?

TASSO -- As well as it is possible to be, when in prison, and up to the neck in misfortunes.

SPIRIT -- Courage! After supper is not the time to be sorrowful. Cheer up, and let us laugh at your griefs.

TASSO -- I am little inclined for that. But somehow your presence and conversation always do me good. Come and sit down by me.

SPIRIT -- How can I sit? Such a thing is not easy for a spirit. But what does it matter? Consider that I am seated.

TASSO -- Oh, that I could see my Leonora again! Whenever I think of her, I feel a thrill of joy that reaches from the crown of my head to the extremity of my feet, and all my nerves and veins are pervaded with it. My mind, too, becomes inflamed with certain imaginings and longings that seem for the time to transform me. I cannot think that I am the Torquato who has experienced so much misfortune, and I often mourn for myself as though I were dead. Truly, it would seem that worldly friction and suffering are wont to overwhelm and lethargise our first nature within each of us. This from time to time awakens for a brief space, but less frequently as we grow older, when it always withdraws, and falls into an increasingly sound sleep. Finally, it dies, although our life still continues. In short, I marvel how the thought of a woman should have sufficient power to rejuvenate the mind, and make it forget so many troubles. Had I not lost all hope of seeing Leonora again, I could almost believe I might still succeed in being happy.

SPIRIT -- Which do you consider the more delightful, to see the dear woman, or to think of her?

TASSO -- I do not know. It is true when near me she seemed only a woman; at a distance, however, she was like a goddess.

SPIRIT -- These goddesses are so amiable that when one approaches you, she instantaneously puts off her divinity, and pockets her halo of greatness for fear of dazzling the mortal to whom she appears.

TASSO -- There is only too much truth in what you say. But do you not think it is a great failing in women that they prove really to be so very different from what we imagine?

SPIRIT -- I .scarcely think it is their fault that they are, like us, made of flesh and blood, instead of ambrosia and nectar. What in the world has a thousandth part of the perfection with which your fancy endows women? It surprises me that you are not astonished to find that men are men, that is, creatures of little merit and amiability, since you cannot understand why women are not really angels.

TASSO -- In spite of all this, I am dying to see her again.

SPIRIT -- Compose yourself. This very night you shall dream of her. I will lead her to you, beautiful as youth, and so kindly disposed that you will be encouraged to speak to her much more freely and readily than in former times. You will be induced at length to take her by the hand, and she, looking intently at you, will surfeit your soul with sweetness. And to-morrow, whenever you think of the dream, your heart will overflow with affection.

TASSO -- What a consolation! A dream instead of the truth.

SPIRIT -- What is truth?

TASSO -- I am as ignorant on the subject as Pilate was.

SPIRIT -- Well, I will tell you. Between truth or reality, and a dream there is this difference the latter is much the finer thing of the two.

TASSO -- What! The pleasure of a dream worth more than a real pleasure?

SPIRIT -- It is. As an instance, I know a man who studiously avoids meeting his sweetheart the following day after she has appeared to him in a dream. He knows full well that he would not find in her all the charms with which she was endowed in the dream, and that reality, dispelling the illusion, would deprive him of the pleasure he felt. The ancients too, who were much more diligent and skilful in their search after all the enjoyments possible for man to have, did wisely in endeavouring by various means to realise the sweetness and pleasure of dreams. Pythagoras also was right when he forbad the eating of beans for supper; these vegetables producing a dreamless or troubled sleep (2). I could also find excuse for those superstitious people who were wont, before going to bed, to invoke the aid of Mercury, the president of dreams. They offered sacrifice to him that he might grant them happy dreams, and used to keep an image of the god at the foot of their bed. Thus it was that being unable to procure any happiness during the day, people sought it in the night-time. I am of opinion that they were in a measure successful, and that Mercury paid more attention to their prayers than was the custom of the other gods.

TASSO -- But, since men live for nothing but pleasure, whether of mind or body, if this pleasure can only be found when we dream, it follows that we live for no other purpose but to dream. Now I really cannot admit that.

SPIRIT -- You already admit it, inasmuch as you live, and are willing to live. But what is pleasure?

TASSO -- My acquaintance with it is too slight to enable me to answer you.

SPIRIT -- No one has any real acquaintance with it, because pleasure is not a reality, but a conception. It is a desire, not a fact. A sentiment, imagined not experienced; or, better, it is a conception, and not a sentiment at all. Do you not perceive that even in the very moment of enjoyment, however ardently it may have been longed for or painfully acquired, your mind, not deriving complete satisfaction from the happiness, anticipates at some future time a greater and more complete enjoyment? It is expectation that constitutes pleasure. Thus, you never weary of placing reliance on some pleasure of the future, which melts away just when you expect to enjoy it. The truth is, you possess nothing but the hope of a more complete enjoyment at some other time; and the satisfaction of imagining that you. have had some enjoyment, and of talking about it to others, less because you are vain than to persuade yourself that the illusion is a reality. Hence, everyone that consents to live makes this fugitive dream his aim in life. He believes in the reality of past and future enjoyment, both of which beliefs are false and fanciful.

TASSO -- Then is it impossible for a man to believe that he is actually happy?

SPIRIT -- If such a belief were possible, his happiness would be genuine. But tell me: do you ever remember having been able at any moment in your life to say sincerely, " I am happy "? Doubtless you have daily been able to say, and have said in all sincerity, " I shall be happy;" and often too, though less sincerely, "I have been happy." Thus, pleasure is always either a thing of the past, or the future, never the present.

TASSO -- You may as well say it is non-existent.

SPIRIT -- So it seems.

TASSO -- Even in dreams?

SPIRIT -- Even in dreams, considering pleasure in its true sense.

TASSO -- And yet pleasure is the sole object and aim of life! By the term pleasure I mean the happiness which ought to be a consequence of pleasure.

SPIRIT -- Assuredly.

TASSO -- Then our life, being deprived of its real aim, must always be imperfect, and existence itself unnatural.

SPIRIT -- Perhaps.

TASSO -- There is no perhaps in the matter. But why is it that we live? I mean, why do we consent to live?

SPIRIT -- How should I know? You yourselves ought to know better than I.

TASSO -- I assure you I do not know.

SPIRIT -- Ask some one wiser than yourself. Perhaps he may be able to satisfy you.

TASSO -- I will do so. But certainly, the life that I lead is an unnatural state, because apart from my sufferings, ennui alone murders me.

SPIRIT -- What is ennui?

TASSO -- As to this, I can answer from experience. Ennui seems to me of the nature of atmosphere, which fills up the spaces between material bodies, and also the voids in the bodies themselves. Whenever a body disappears, and is not replaced by another, air fills up the gap immediately. So too, in human life, the intervals between pleasures and pains are occupied by ennui. And since in the material world, according to the Peripatetics, there can be no vacuum, so also in our life there is none, save when for some cause or other the mind loses its power of thought. At all other times the mind, considered as a separate identity from the body, is occupied with some sentiment. If void of pleasure or pain, it is full of ennui; for this last is also a sentiment like pleasure and pain. Spirit. And, since all your pleasures are like cobwebs, exceedingly fragile, thin and transparent, ennui penetrates their tissue, and saturates them, just as air penetrates the webs. I believe ennui is really nothing but the desire of happiness, without the illusion of pleasure and the suffering of pain. This desire, we have said, is never completely satisfied, since true pleasure does not exist. So that human life may be said to be interwoven with pain and ennui, and one of these sentiments disappears only to give place to the other. This is the fate of all men, and not of yourself alone.

TASSO -- What remedy is there for ennui?

SPIRIT -- Sleep, opium, and pain. The last is the best of the three, because he who suffers never experiences ennui.

TASSO -- I would rather submit to ennui for the rest of my life, than take such medicine. But its force and strength may be diminished by action, work, and even other sentiments; though these do not entirely free us from ennui, since they are unable to give us real pleasure. Here in prison however, deprived of human society, without even the means of writing, reduced for an amusement to counting the ticks of the clock, looking at the beams, cracks, and nails of the ceiling, thinking about the pavement stones, and watching the gnats and flies which flit across my cell, I have nothing to relieve for a moment my burden of ennui.

SPIRIT -- How long have you been reduced to this kind of life?

TASSO -- For many weeks, as you know.

SPIRIT -- Have you felt no variation in the ennui which, oppresses you, from the first day until now?

TASSO -- Yes. I felt it more at first. Gradually my mind is becoming accustomed to its own society; I derive more and more pleasure from my solitude, and by practice I am acquiring so great a readiness in conversation, or rather chattering to myself, that I seem to have in my head a company of talkative people, and the most trifling object is now sufficient to give rise to endless discourse.

SPIRIT -- This habit will grow on you daily to such an extent, that when you are free, you will feel more idle in society than in solitude. Custom has made you bear patiently your kind of life, and the same influence works not only in people who meditate like you, but in everyone. Besides, the very fact that you are separated from men, and even, it may be said, from life itself, will be of some advantage to you. Disgusted and wearied with human affairs, as you are from your sad experience, you will in time begin to look on them, from a distance, with an appreciative eye. In your solitude they will appear to you more beautiful, and worthy of affection. You will forget their vanity and misery, and will take upon yourself to re-create the world as you would have it. Consequently, you will value, desire, and love life. And, provided there be the possibility or certainty of your return to human society some day, your new aspect of life will fill and gladden your mind with a joy like that of childhood.

Solitude does indeed sometimes act like a second youth. It rejuvenates the soul, revives the imagination, and renews in an experienced man those impressions of early innocence that you so ardently desire. But your eyes seem heavy with sleep: I will now therefore leave you to prepare the fine dream I promised you. Thus between dreams and fancies, your life shall pass without other gain than the fact of its passing, which is the sole benefit of life. To hasten it should be the one aim of your existence. You are often obliged to cling to life, as it were with your teeth; happy will be the day when death releases you from the struggle. But after all, time passes as tediously with your persecutor in his palace and gardens, as with you in your prison chamber. Adieu.

TASSO -- Adieu, yet stay a moment. Your conversation always enlivens me. It does not draw me from my sadness, but my mind, which is generally comparable to a dark night, moonless and starless, changes when you are near to a condition like that of a grey dawn, pleasurable rather than otherwise. Now tell me how I can find you in case I want you at some future time.

SPIRIT -- Do you not yet know? -- In any generous liquor.


(1) Tasso, during his mental hallucinations, used to fancy, like Socrates, that he was visited by a friendly spirit, with which he would hold long conversations. Manso, in his life of Tasso, mentions this, and states that he was once present during such a colloquy or soliloquy between Tasso and his imagined companion.

(2) Apollonius, Hist. Comment., cap. 46, &c.

eXTReMe Tracker
        Giacomo Leopardi - Opera Omnia  -  edited by ilVignettificio  -  Privacy & cookie  -  FRIEND WEBSITES : English literature OperaOmnia

w3c xhtml validation w3c css validation