Víctor Pérez-Díaz, a sociologist at Harvard University and Complutense University in Madrid, at the presentation of Fr. Giussani's biography in Madrid.

Giussani and Leopardi: Beacons in the fog

He is one of the great scholars of our society, a place under construction whose questions are still wide-open. And where there is still an "impulse to reach the sublime", which he recognizes in two men. A conversation with Víctor Pérez-Díaz.
Juan Carlos Hernández

Víctor Pérez-Díaz, perhaps the most renowned sociologist in Spain, assures in his latest essay, Faros en la niebla (Lighthouses in the Fog), that secularization can be an occasion for religious experience. He adds that, at this time, "the sense of drama increases and questions remain up in the air. The current turmoil promotes dissatisfaction with the answers given by political leaders, ruling elites, the media.” In this context, he believes that Giacomo Leopardi and Fr. Luigi Giussani can be two clear points of reference.

Why is secularization an opportunity?
A challenge is always an opportunity. Things are not decided a priori. The present moment is the moment of a modernity that is dubious and that is, at the same time, proud of itself. Its task is to combine its doubts with its pride. In previous centuries, people thought that you had to be on one side or the other. But things are not black and white. They are actually more complicated. Over time, it became apparent how the wars of religion were largely wars of state, civil and noncivil, of which it was necessary to repent. This experience of repentance for excesses and violence is a recurring one. There is or can be an ongoing process of learning. We have reached the year 2022 and find ourselves, in a sense, with the same old problems. History does not evolve inexorably in one direction, it goes blindly. There has been progress; refusing to see it is absurd. But now we have become competent in some things and not in others. For example, in regard to the matter of death. It is a subject that modernity tends to obscure. But the question of eternity is always present. The drama of lasting and not lasting, not only for us but also for the people we love, is always present. And so does the perceived impulse to strive for the sublime. Is this an exaggerated romanticism? No, it is something recurrent in human life, it is recurrent in people's lives.

Despite these advances, you say that men do not feel at home in today's world.
We always have a question in our heads: I live in a home, in a place, but even so, how long will it last? The modern setting gives us the impression that we create things, we build, and among them we build a dwelling, a place. There is a positive component to this, because we are responsible for what we do. But there is also a negative component: it hides the limits of our ability to do. Much of what we find is already done. Religions are opportunities to make sense of questions, dramas, experiences of limitations and longing. They are also a place, yes, but we must also keep in mind that we have to leave this place. Perhaps it is best to do so without too much rupture. Think of the Romans: they had their hearth, their home, their local and familiar deities. But at a given time they had to go to war, they had to go out into the agora, they had to argue in public, they had to face challenges and dangers, they had to go with the legions far away. The modern and contemporary era is a time of finding a place and leaving a place, of favorable and unfavorable situations.

In this situation, you claim that Leopardi and Fr. Giussani are beacons amid the fog, why?
Giussani is all about worrying about what to do with young people, who are in a kind of dramatic, tragicomic, melodramatic adventure. He accompanies them within that experience and in the 1950s was willing to do something significant about it. He was a very ordinary person from northern Italy. With his problematic Catholicism, he was aware of the many compromises one had to accept in order to continue to operate; it was Catholicism coming out of an experience full of ambiguities and oddities, in which there was fascism and Christian Democracy and other movements. But Giussani has a vital impulse, a romantic impulse. He sees and understands the experience he is about to propose as a religious experience. It is a combative experience, not in the sense of fighting against something or someone, but of being full of momentum, encounters, love, identification, help, gifts. It is a momentum that gives immense satisfaction. And it turns out that he had a particular passion for Leopardi, which is surprising.

Leopardi, who was an atheist poet.
Yes, of course. Leopardi was desperate, but he sung his desperation with immense vividness. There is a contradiction between that despair and the way Leopardi lived the present, until the end and beyond. He sung a hymn to life that Giussani graspsed as something akin to his own sensibility. Sometimes it is intensity in solitude, being present and not being there. In a space that is difficult to define with precise words because it has an internal contradiction, but with a clear message: the intensity of commitment to life and to the present moment. In the midst of the despair of going to nowhere, Leopardi cried out intensely as if his cry should persist indefinitely. It is an extreme situation that I find difficult to put into words. There is an affinity between Giussani and Leopardi in the affirmation of life, albeit in the form of a protest against a short, or inadequate life. How far does this affirmation go and how can we assimilate this experience? It is an open question. I do not think I have succeeded yet. I try to approach and understand it thus. The Leopardian feeling of the sublime is something that Giussani held in his head and heart. He talks about the sublimity of feeling as a reference. It is an impulse to push oneself to the limit, but defining that limit as much as possible. This is a curious moment in modern Western experience, which usually expresses itself irreligiously or a-religiously. The religious spirit can feel a deep affinity with this experience, it is a kind of fraternity of ability, of attitude. You cannot live that experience, you do not have the right to change the terms by which people have expressed their feelings. Expressing feelings is very complicated. It is not a given that you know how to. It is a matter of reflection, with help from the psychiatrist, the confessor, from a lover who understands you, from intimate friendships. That is what happened to the Curie couple. In their way of seeing things, in which there is no God and no religious experience, there is a kind of passion to find something that is explicitly existential, moral. It is about finding selective affinities between the crypto-religious or the religious that does not express itself as religious, and as religiosity. I think Giussani makes a good attempt, which does not necessarily have to be realized; things do not necessarily come to fruition. I find that striking. I do not interpret what CL does as an organization, whether it does this or that in the world, I do not go into that. I look at the testimony of Giussani who has a desire to heal souls, and who expresses this desire in terms as close as possible to those of Leopardi before him.

It is striking that for Giussani, Leopardi was a companion and not an enemy.
He is not an enemy; he is almost a kind of soul mate. He is a character who goes his own way, who has his own life. One must strictly respect his experience on its own terms, otherwise Giussani would not be faithful to friendship with them. If there is friendship, you recognize the experiences of others. You recognize, awkwardly, as happens with any mutual recognition, which is never sharp or clear and always has a component of confused perception. This was, moreover, the vision people had in the Baroque era, centered not so much on the clear and distinct Cartesian idea, but on confused perceptions that are improved as much as possible. This is important for understanding modernity not in the terms of the 18th-century Enlightenment, but in more complex terms. There is a complex dialectic between some historical eras and others that, with the narcissistic stupidity of the present moment, is forgotten. A dialectic that goes against the current, in haste, in search of an empty future. And so you do not have the slightest idea, to take one example, that a war could break out in Ukraine at any moment.

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Can science and art help in this conversation?
Pure scientists are obsessed with their science, and that same passion gives them roots. There are interesting traces in lay and secular humanism and, of course, in artists. Science is constantly pushing its limits, often dominated by delusions of grandeur. On the one hand this is a mistake, but on the other hand, seen in perspective, it is a mistake that can make interesting contributions to the process of human knowledge. If we understand them, we have taken a step forward. We need to have a gradual judgment; this is the key to education. Education is not information. Many people seem so obsessed with information that they do not know what to do with the complexity and cloudiness of the past, because they think they have to overcome it – so they believe – or simply qualify it as good or bad, exalt one, erase the other; this is terrible.