February 22, 2010

Nothing less than the Infinite



Hold tight, folks, what this post is all about is nothing less than “the Infinite.” Which is also the title of a famous poem by Giacomo Leopardi, one of the greatest Italian poets ever. A poet which, for mysterious reasons, is not as well known in the English speaking world as it ought to be, in my humble opinion, but this is a secondary issue—what matters most is a fundamental philosophical/religious problem. But let’s go step by step.

In much of Leopardi’s poetry, the principal poetic mood is melancholic, and themes of solitude, suffering, despair, and disappointed love largely predominate. He often stresses his belief that joy is nothing but the momentary subsidence of pain and that only in death can man find lasting happiness, and his prose writings are eloquent articulations of his materialist, atheistic, skeptical, and decidedly “modern” thought—affinities between his pessimistic worldview and that of Arthur Schopenhauer, for instance, have been noted, while Friedrich Nietzsche found Leopardi’s historical insights congenial to his own.

Yet, from time to time, quite different (though not contradictory) aspects of his personality emerge: an immense admiration of nature’s beauty, a deep belief in the power of imagination, and a characteristically Romantic longing for the infinite (see, for instance, Matthew Arnold’s 1882 comparison of Leopardi with the English Romantic poets Lord Byron and William Wordsworth).

This could somehow explain why something unexpected happened to an Italian priest, a very famous one: Fr Luigi Giussani, the founder and spiritual guide of the Communion and Liberation movement. In fact, he happened to read Leopardi’s hymn Alla sua donna [To his Woman] as … a sort of introduction to the prologue to the Gospel of St John, and what is more Leopardi became his favourite poet and a life-long “friend.” This is how Paul Zalonski tries to uncover the mystery:

Giussani quotes the great 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi--who is speaking here in the persona of a shepherd watching his flock by night, conversing with the moon:

And when I gaze upon you,
Who mutely stand above the desert plains
Which heaven with its far circle but confines,
Or often, when I see you
Following step by step my flock and me,
Or watch the stars that shine there in the sky,
Musing, I say within me:
"Wherefore those many lights,
That boundless atmosphere,
And infinite calm sky? And what the meaning
Of this vast solitude? And what am I
?

There are a couple of points about this striking poetic excerpt that are worth mentioning as illustrative of central themes in Giussani. The first point is this: note that the shepherd's questions are so poignantly expressed "from the heart" (Musing, I say within me). They are "personal" questions we might say; that is, they are questions that seem deeply important to the shepherd's own life, that emerge from the shepherd's solitude as he watches the flocks by night and gazes at the moon. And yet, the questions themselves are really "philosophical" questions: "metaphysical" questions which ask about the relationship of the universe to its mysterious Source, and "anthropological" questions about the nature of the world, of man, of the self. Let us note these things only to emphasize that Giussani's evaluation of the dynamic of the human heart is not exclusively concerned with the pursuit of external objects and the way in which these objects lead "beyond" themselves the acting person who engages them. Giussani stresses that the need for truth is inscribed on the human heart; the need to see the meaning of things is fundamental to man. Hence the "objectivity" required for addressing philosophical and scientific questions does not imply that these questions are detached from the "heart" of the person who deals with them. When the scientist scans that infinite, calm sky and that vast solitude with his telescope, he must record what he sees, not what he wishes he would have seen. In this sense, he must be "objective," and his questions and methodology must be detached from his own particular interests. But what puts him behind that telescope in the first place is his own personal need for truth and this need grows and articulates itself more and more as questions emerge in the light of his discoveries. All of this could be applied by analogy to the researches carried out by a true philosopher.

The second point is this: Leopardi's poem conveys with imaginative force the inexhaustibility of human desire and the questions through which it is expressed, or at least tends to be expressed insofar as man is willing to live in a way that is true to himself (several chapters of Giussani's book are devoted to the various ways in which man is capable of distracting himself or ignoring the dynamic of the religious sense, or anesthetizing himself against its felt urgency). Even more importantly, he indicates that the unlimited character of man's most fundamental questions points toward an Infinite Mystery, a mystery that man continually stands in front of with fascination and existential hunger but also with questions, because he is ultimately unable by his own power to unveil its secrets.

The experience of life teaches man, if he is willing to pay attention to it, that what he is truly seeking, in every circumstance is the unfathomable mystery which alone corresponds to the depths of his soul. Offer to man anything less than the Infinite and you will frustrate him, whether he admits it or not. Yet at the same time man is not able to grasp the Infinite by his own power. Man's power is limited, and anything it attains it finitizes, reducing it to the measure of itself. The desire of man as a person, however, is unlimited, which means that man does not have the power to completely satisfy himself; anything that he makes is going to be less than the Infinite.

Here we begin to see clearly why Giussani holds that the ultimate questions regarding the meaning, the value, and the purpose of life have a religious character; and how it is that these questions are asked by everyone within the ordinary, non-theoretical reasoning process which he terms "the religious sense." The human heart is, in fact, a great, burning question, a plea, an insatiable hunger, a fascination and a desire for the unfathomable mystery that underlies reality and that gives life its meaning and value. This mystery is something Other than any of the limited things that we can perceive or produce; indeed it is their fundamental Source. Therefore, the all-encompassing and limitless search that constitutes the human heart and shapes our approach to everything is a religious search. It is indeed, as we shall see in a moment, a search for "God."

We seek an infinite fulfillment, an infinite coherence, an infinite interpenetration of unity between persons, an infinite wisdom and comprehension, an infinite love, an infinite perfection. But we do not have the capacity to achieve any of these things by our own power. Yet, in spite of this incapacity, in spite of the fact that the mystery of life--the mystery of happiness--seems always one step beyond us, our natural inclination is not one of despair, but rather one of dogged persistence and constant hope. Giussani insists that this hope and expectation is what most profoundly shapes the self; when I say the word "I," I express this center of hope and expectation of infinite perfection and happiness that is coextensive with myself, that "is" myself, my heart. And when I say the word "you," truly and with love, then I am acknowledging that same undying hope that shapes your self.

And now the moment has come to read the poem I mentioned at the start of this post:

The Infinite

I was always fond of this secluded hill
And this hedge which hides from my view
So large a portion of the farthest horizon.
But sitting and musing here, I picture to myself
Interminable spaces beyond the hedge,
Silences beyond the human grasp,
And stillness so profound
That my heart is almost frightened.
But the moment I hear the wind
Rustle through these leaves,
I compare that sound with infinite silence,
And I call to mind the eternal,
The dead seasons and the present
Alive with all its turmoil.
In such immensity my thought is drowned,
And it’s pleasant to be shipwrecked in this sea.



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