Giacomo Leopardi. Wikimedia Commons

“Latte” with Leopardi

At the University of Perth an Australian professor proposes a course of study on an Italian poet to his students, challenging them with quotes from a critic and a priest.

John Kinder

With the sudden absence of a colleague, there was a need for someone to “fill the breach” and prepare a series of lessons on Leopardi. I considered the reflections by Father Giussani on the great Italian poet and in general his example and his challenge to take seriously St. Paul’s invitation to “consider all things and retain what is good.”

In short, a provocation, unexpected but there to be answered. “OK, I’ll do it.”
What was supposed to be a convenient solution to a staffing shortage in my university department, however, turned into an opportunity to experience the liberating power of the gaze of Father Giussani on all things and, through that, to meet my students in a new, direct, personal way.

I told the students that we would be reading the poems together and, once we had considered their cultural and social context, we would discuss “what message, if any, they have for a reader on the threshold of the third millennium” (quoting the assessment question posed).

Two Points of View
The students found Leopardi tough at first, of course. But as they warmed to the humanity of the texts, I realized that it would be of great benefit for them to be brought to face the central questions for interpretation of Leopardi that Father Giussani sets out so clearly. So in one lecture I gave the students a sheet with two brief quotations. I gave the bibliographical reference in each case, but no other information about the authors’ identities.

The first was the passage from Natalino Sapegno which is quoted in Chapter 6 of The Religious Sense: “The questions into which one condenses the confused, indiscriminate, and reflective callow capriciousness of adolescents, their primitive and undeveloped philosophy (that is, what is life? what is the use of it? what is the purpose of the universe? and why is there pain?), those questions from which the true, adult philosopher distances himself, seeing them as absurd and lacking in any authentic speculative value and of such a nature that they bring no answer or any possibility of development, precisely these become Leopardi’s obsession, the exclusive content of his philosophy.”

The second was from the Introduction to Cara Beltà [an essay on Leopardi’s poetry reviewed by Fr. Giussani]: “The real message that animates all the words of the great sufferer Giacomo Leopardi, is that man is nothing and all the greatness of man consists in his relationship with the infinite. The entire universe, just as the smallest object, are a sign that points to the infinite. Here lies the density of being human. And the bottom of the human heart is waiting for the presence within the sign to show itself in everything, in every concrete thing, within the great universe, waiting for ‘the eternal wisdom to take on corporal form,’ and ‘take up the troubles of funereal life,’ with us, as a companion.”

What was the purpose of this? It is important to act, but also to reflect on the reasons for our actions and our gestures. As a teacher, my responsibility to my students is to teach my subject. I am not there to proselytize or preach, but to do the job I am contractually bound to do. But the freshness and boldness of Father Giussani’s vision of the relationship between faith and culture gives one the courage to return to what one thought one knew, look at it again, and present it to others, in search of what is most deeply and truly human.

A week later, in the seminar, some students turned the discussion toward these two extracts. They were intrigued by these widely differing views. “This Sapegno sounds like a frustrated Catholic,” ventured one student. “Please explain,” I invited. “Well, he recognizes that Leopardi’s questions have some value (therefore Catholic), but is frustrated because Leopardi is stuck at the questions and cannot move on to answers and, ultimately, faith.”
Now it was my turn to be intrigued. “And what about Giussani?” “Oh, he seems much more open and tolerant, probably a left-wing intellectual, and maybe a Marxist.”

When I informed them of the identities of the two Italian critics, the students showed a range of reactions. One student had great difficulty believing this Giussani was an Italian Catholic priest: “I met a few priests in Italy and they don’t talk like that.”

What does this mean? For one thing, it reveals the deep cultural conditioning of my students, many of whom attended Catholic schools. For another, I believe Father Giussani’s reading of what he calls “the Christian hypothesis” is so free and liberating that it challenges us to form our judgments in a radically new way, by starting with our own human reality and that of those we meet. In short, through the impact with real.

Letters from far away
Discussing this experience with friends at the International Assembly in La Thuile, I was lucky to meet Father Antonio from Chile, who gave me a copy of some course notes prepared by Giuliana Contini at the Catholic University of Chile, on Italian Romanticism. What a wonderful coincidence, to come across a similarly open approach to literature and the search for meaning, across so many kilometers!

At the end of the brief course, I proposed to the students that we continue the discussion, and a dozen students and I met the following week in a coffee bar for a “Latte with Leopardi.” Here again I found a certain reluctance, even unease, among the students to talk in the first person. But the “latte” and the location helped break through the teacher-student posturing and I observed a great interest in Leopardi’s very human story, his intellectual achievement and his eternal questions.

The outcome of the latte experience? Nothing I can quantify, but the hour together was an enjoyable encounter with my students. One of the students, who came for the coffee, later wrote in her essay on Leopardi: “If Leopardi were alive today, I would ask him, ‘What would make you happy today?’ or, perhaps, I would simply invite him to my house for a ‘latte.’”