Nicholas Hiromura

Consummate Damnation: Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”


ISSUE 25 | CONSERVATISM AND REACTION | FEB 2013

I.

Consensus seems to have been reached that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is a novel about the decline or a Sicilian noble family. “Appeared in 1958, but it reads more like the last 19th-century novel, a perfect evocation of a lost world”; “Acutely aware he would be the last Prince of Lampedusa, he began to write about his Sicilian world”; “The novel helped him reconstitute things he’d lost.” The Leopard, it would seem, is about loss, about the passing of an age, about end and at first glance all these things seem true. Looking more closely, however, at the actual content of the story, and in particular at the world-view of its protagonist, the Don Fabrizio the prince of Lampedusa, one is confronted with a very different understanding of history and his place in it, one is struck by a glimpse into something beyond the world-history of rising and falling, of ascent and decline, one is witness to an existence beyond history.

Don Fabrizio lives in the time of Garibaldi, in the age when there was still The Kingdom of Two Sicilies, during the great movement of Italy’s Risorgimento, the joining of regions, counties, kingdoms, and their formation into one nation. He lives during a period of intense political conviction and polarization in which battles are fought for or against the unification of Italy in which cries of progress fill the air and fear of change grips the church and the nobility. But in a way, Don Fabrizio only half-inhabits this age. For beyond the liberal-conservative divide, beyond partisan politics, beyond the traditionalism and the progressivism, beyond the very concepts of tradition and progress, lives Don Fabrizio with his family in Sicily, his land. Don Fabrizio is a nobleman. But he is not gripped, as much of the nobility is, by the fear of their losing power. Don Fabrizio is a true noblemen, filled with the skepticism of a belonging to an estate in the feudal sense, incapable of really understanding the ideas of class and party. Don Fabrizio cannot be a conservative, because he does not believe that there is anything to conserve. There is no glorious past, no sacred tradition, no core values. Don Fabrizio’s position beyond liberalism and conservatism is his fundamental lack of belief in anything like political progress. Both conservatism and liberalism will remain alien to him because, while conservatism and liberalism are ostensibly opposed to one another and certainly feel themselves so, they are both obsessed with the idea of doing something. Conservatives and Liberals alike believe, whether for the sake of the future or the past, there is something to be done. Don Fabrizio is not so sure about this, and out of this skepticism there emerges a story which, contrary to so many opinions about the book, is neither the story of decline, nor of downfall, because only those who rose can fall, and there never was a rise of Don Fabrizio, there never was anything like the youthful optimism of an ascent. His is the story of things being as they are.

One day a diplomat named Chevalley, from Piedmont—from the North—visits the Don with the intention of offering him a seat in the newly founded Senate. The representative goes away empty-handed, disappointed and baffled. He cannot understand why Don Fabrizio will not join the Senate—he would be an important man, more important than he already is, would participate in a great political project and be among those proud few who led Italy into the future.

* * *

He thinks he will do me a great honor with this, me, I who am, among other things a peer of the Kingdom of Sicily […] “Yes, well, knight—but explain to me what this means in reality: being a Senator! The press of the bygone Monarchy did not allow news about the constitutional systems of the other Italian states, and an eight-day stay in Turin two years ago was not enough to enlighten me. What is a Senate? A simple, honorific title? A kind of service medal, or will it also fill a legislative and decision-making function? […] ”

“But Prince, the Senate is the highest parliament of the kingdom! In it sit the best politicians of Italy, selected by the wisdom of the ruler to examine and discuss whatever law the government suggests for the progress of the Nation, to approve or reject it […] ”

“Listen to me, Chevalley. If it were only a matter of an honor, just a title which one puts on their business card and that was all, I would have accepted it.”

* * *

Don Fabrizio does not join the Senate, not because he thinks that the Senate is bad, but because he does not want to have to do anything, because, in other words, he wants to get something for nothing. Is the Don therefore a freeloader? No. For beyond the initial impression of laziness there is something more: there is a rejection of the very concept of action. Because the Don considers doing nothing the ideal state, he detests both the conservatives and the liberals, both of which operate on the assumption that there is something to be done. The fault of both liberals and conservatives is their giddy optimism (in which even conservative pessimism participates), their belief that whether for the sake of the future or the past, they can change things, restore things, make things better. And the Sicilians, tired and empty, have no interest in making things better, because really, they have no interest in doing anything at all. The Don dislikes movement and says this much when speaking to the diplomat Chevalley:

“In Sicily it is not important whether one does evil or one does good: the sin, which we Sicilians never forgive, is simply the sin of ‘doing’ anything at all.”

The difficulty of describing this sublime defeatedness of all progress and all regress is understanding the absolute prohibition on “‘doing’ anything at all” pronounced in this sentence—why, when the Sicilian could do something to better his situation, he does not. Sicily’s absolute sloth and the Don’s hatred of movement have two sources: time and space.

* * *

Time.

“Twenty five centuries of excellent, wholly diverse cultures: all of them came from outside, none of them originated within us and we have in no way dictated the tone; we are white people, as you are, Chevalley, and just as white as the queen of England; and yet we have been a colony for two thousand five hundred years. I do not say this to complain: it is our fault. But all the same—we are tired and empty.”

The result of which is that the real sin is not a question of good and evil, but of that something which both the conservatives and the liberals would love to do: to act. Sicily’s conviction and the reason for which it refuses all those who, in a moment of youthful optimism believe that there is anything to be changed, is its eternity, its belief that no amount of progress can change the heart of things, the fact that Sicily is the way it is, the way that things are, the fact that things are. One need only wait to see that hopeful youth too will be returned to its natural state. The Don’s relation to time, his rejection of time in its linear form, is essential to his rejection of both the conservatives and the liberals because to be conservative or liberal is to have a certain perception of time, to believe in moving forward or backward, to believe that time and history are governed by laws of progress and regress, improvement and decline, back and forth.

“There are too many of of us for there not to be exceptions; […] As for the young Crispi, I will certainly not live to see it—but you will undoubtedly see whether he does not, with age, fall back into our voluptuous frozenness: all of them do.

* * *

Space.

Don Fabrizio’s distaste for movement is a product of his land:

On the other hand, I see that I have not expressed myself well—I said: the Sicilians, I should have said: Sicily, the climate, the Sicilian landscape. These are the forces which have—and perhaps more than foreign rule and defilements – built our spirit: […] this land, in which the hell around Randazzo and the beauty of the bay of Taormina are separated by only a few miles; this climate that inflicts six months of fever upon us. Count Chevalley, count them: May, June, July, August, September, October; six times thirty days of sun coming down directly on one’s head.”

Sicily has been tired. Sicily is damned. It is an island of suffering land, condemned, and these six months of heat, those six months in which every drop of water drawn from the well is paid in sweat, have beaten, flattened, emptied and tired the land to its scorchedness, its barrenness, its infertility, have, in a way, reduced the land to nothing more than being. Sicily has been tired. But its philosophy is not merely one of giving up, it is not merely defeatism. Or if it is, it is an absolute defeatism which does not admit critique, because to critique this defeat, to believe, that is, to argue that there is something to be done, is only to prove that one has missed the real matter at hand.

* * *

“One of them asked me what these free soldiers truly wanted here in Sicily. ‘They are coming to teach us good manners’, I answered. ‘But they won’t succeed, because we are gods.’ You want to teach us good manners, but you will not complete this mission, because we are gods. I do not believe that they understood the joke, but they laughed and went away.

So I answer you too, dear Chevalley: the Sicilians most certainly do not want things to get better, for the simple reason that they believe they are consummate.”


Illustration by Emily Balsamo

Sicily’s defeatism is an apprehension of the absolute, of the consummate. Sicily bears witness to the infinite freedom of being damned, of time’s ceasing to be linear, ceasing to contain forward and backward, and to the fact that the real question at hand is not whether one is damned or saved, but of the consummation of damnation and salvation and the fact that these two meet, like parallel lines, at the point of infinity. Infinite damnation, infinite salvation; the freedom of being damned and the damnation of being saved. Nothing can be made better because, for better or for worse, because there is no better and worse, there is no good and evil, there is only the fact that to change anything would be to change something and that would not even make things worse, but less perfect. And in this leveling of differences, in this flattening of the land, which the sun always strikes, like the wholly other God of Karl Barth, “perpendicularly from above,” there enters not so much god as the fact of things being consummate as they are, there is almost a reenactment of that moment “and God saw that it was good,” that creation was good, consummate, there enters a flatness into the world.

II.1

This flatness, this “we are tired and empty,” is the thought of Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community, particularly so in the fragments entitled The Irreparable, where he writes that “The irreparable is that the things are as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their manner of being. Irreparable are the states of things, however these may be: sad or happy, atrocious or beatified. How you are, how the world is—this is the irreparable” (73). Agamben drives at a point in close proximity to Don Fabrizio’s speech. Things cannot be made better, they are perfect as they are, they neither can be made better nor is it really even possible in this world to make anything better. Things can only be made different.

For Agamben, this is a question inextricably tied up in love. More precisely, to the question of the object of love, not as “what do I love,” but “what is it that I love about the thing that I love?” Thus he ends the first chapter: “therefore love never directs itself towards this or that property of the beloved (the being blond, small, tender, imperfect), not even, disregarding such things, in name of insipid genericity (universal love): love desires the thing with all its predicates, its being whatever it is.”

Perhaps, that is to say, what one is witness to in the Don’s speech to Chevalley is not so much the refusal of modernity but an expression of love. Love of the way that Sicily is, only not as if Don Fabrizio feared that Sicily could be different, not as if the Don were a protector of his land, not as if the Don could set the course of Sicily’s future or prevent it from being changed, a love born in the moment of being delivered, broken upon and commended unto the fate that is Sicily.

II.2

Agamben makes clear that he understands the irreparable in close connection with Nietzsche’s yes, the affirmation of life of “the being-this of each thing being, in this sense, incorruptible.” To love being is to affirm things being as they are: “that it be. To affirm in each thing simply the ‘such,’ ‘thus’ (sic) beyond good and evil. But ‘such’ does not signify simply: in this or that mode, with those certain properties. ‘To be such’ means: ‘may it be so.’” There echoes: And it was Good. “That is: yes. (This is the second of Nietzsche’s yes: the yes is not said simply to one state of things, but to its being-such. Only for this reason can it return eternally. The such is eternal.)”

This is no less true of Don Fabrizio’s relationship with Sicily, which also has much to do with Nietzsche’s “yes.” But it’s relationship to yes-saying is not the same as that of Agamben’s irreparable. In fact, it may even seem that what the Don wants to be is anything but a “yes-sayer.” Indeed he says, “sleep, dear Chevalley, the Sicilians want sleep and they always hate the one who wants to wake them, even if he would bring them the most beautiful presents; and—I say this in confidence—I have great doubts about whether this new kingdom has many presents for us in store.”

We are, in other words, not encountering Zarathustra, we are encountering the prophet of sleep, the prophet of not being awake at all times, not of embracing and affirming life, but of entrance into sleep, the cousin of death: that wonderful moment in which one lies in bed and willingly, happily, closes one’s eyes, precisely so as not to see the world. The thought and the metaphor of sleep are continued when Don Fabrizio begins to speak of dreaming.

“All revelations of Sicilian essence emerge from morbid dreamery, even the most intense: our sensuality is the desire to forget; our gunshots and stabs of the knife the desire for death; our sloth as well as our sherbert are a desire for voluptuous immobility—that means: once more, for death; our brooding way aims itself at nothingness, as if we thereby wanted to solve the riddle of nirvana.”

Don Fabrizio is not interested in reality, he is not interested in “making the ugly beautiful,” he is interested in letting the beautiful pleasure him. And yet the Don is something other than Nietzsche’s last man, concerned only with having as peaceful and untroubled a life as possible, the mortal enemy of the yes-sayer, he is not, despite what appearances might suggest, merely a hedonist. The question is set up in the first chapter when, talking with Father Pirrone about the arrival of the Redshirts and the danger they represent to both the Church and the Nobility, the Don says “May dogs like Bendico hunt their prey on the land down there, may the cook’s cleaver cut apart the flesh of small, innocent animals: in the height of this observatory, the mistake of the one flows together with the bloodthirst of the other in tranquil harmony. The true problem is how one can continue to live this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those most similar to death” (49). Suddenly it would seem as if the Don’s true goal is nothing other than life, the life of the spirit, and that he is indeed a yes-sayer, a beautiful-maker of ugly things. But that might be a bit much.

One should perhaps pay attention to the Don’s taste, to the fact that the Don is a man of taste, not in the sense that he has good taste, but in the sense that he perceives much of the world through taste. His hatred of the tricolour, for instance, the way its geometry offends him, its vulgarity, its boorishness, and how he prefers the gold lilies of his family’s flag, his distaste for movement, are not products of a consequent and systematic program, but of something less definable. The Don hates moving things, hates screaming things, hates this affected striving to be or do or make something. But there is always also a sense in which the Don is a lover of the visceral, of “dogs like Bendico” hunting “their prey on the land down there,” of “the cook’s cleaver” as it cuts “the flesh of small, innocent animals,” of the way in which “the mistake of the one flows together with the bloodthirst of the other in tranquil harmony.” This is not to say that there is no coherence to the Don’s taste or that taste is an arbitrary thing. Likewise, the Don’s relationship to yes-saying is not that simple and cannot be reduced to mere affirmation of all things. It is a complex of both yes and no, far more a confirmation than an affirmation, and it finds its expression nowhere more strongly, as well as more gently, in the Don’s strange love of dessert. Let us linger a moment on the idea of dessert.

By all accounts the Don is very much a man, not given to weakness or to complaining. He can be somewhat aggressive. And yet there are several moments in The Leopard in which the Don is reduced to something of a child. A rum-dessert “which the prince loved especially,” presented at the end of the first chapter, is one of them. Don Fabrizio, who lives under the weight of twenty-five centuries of time, who considers it a sin to do anything and whose gaze falls daily on land condemned to suffering, who visits prostitutes and sins so as not to sin more, likes desserts. The idea that this man has a sweet-tooth is part and parcel of the feeling of this book. The whole of the Don’s world view is captured in its contradiction in this description:

This gelatine hat an almost threatening appearance: it had the form of a crenelated defense tower supported by bastions and retaining walls, with walls so smooth and slick that it was impossible to scale them; this tower was defended by a red and green garrison of cherries and pistachios; it was however transparent, it shook, and the spoon sank into it with mysterious ease. […] Excited from the smell of the liqueur and the delicious taste of the many-colored work of bellicose art, the prince had a real joy in witnessing the destruction of the grim mountain fortress by the onslaught of gluttony.

The Don’s sweet-tooth is not just a love of the sweet, it is this turning of dessert into something visceral, violent and gluttonous which he loves. But it is also not just that, for just as dessert was rendered grotesque and bleeding, so too, in the wake of the dessert, the following line is given:

A half-full glass of Marsala remained. He held it up, looked at the family around him, while at the same time dwelling on Concetta’s blue eyes ever so slightly longer, and said: “to the health of our Tancredi.”

And in that moment of lingering on Concetta’s blue eyes the bellicose description is suspended, the dessert is in a way returned to its sweetness, there is no longer gluttony and violence, there is just a taste, a moment of blue, “ever so slightly longer.” It is the death of aristocratic beauty, of the last perfumed moment of life just before it dissipates. One might even say that dessert is the driving motif of The Leopard: that sweet something which is always served after the main course has been served, in the evening of the meal.

Nor is the image of perfume unfitting, for the Don has already told us that the true problem lies in those most sublimated moments, in the movement from solid directly into gas, into a mere scent. Sublimation: the evaporation of a solid, the entrance into the sublime?, sublimations, as Nietzsche says, in which “the basic element seems almost evaporated and betrays its presence only to the keenest observation,” which one can only smell. Smell as the most invisible of the senses, its strength, its pungence, but also its intimate relation to air, the material of the soul, of the pneuma and the psyche and the Hebrew nephesh.

Dessert is the taste of that faint scent of the sweetness of life, the crepuscular. And so it is not without reason that at the ball in the chapter before the Don departs his mortal coil, there is an extended passage about the desserts, and that there is an exorbitant eruption of desserts in which one almost experiences not only the Don’s departure from this world, but the departure of nobility, its fading, sublimating away, and the experiencing of it all through the sweet taste of dessert.

“He disdained the crystal and silver glittering tray with drinks to his right side and turned to his left where the sweets stood. Here there were humungous baba, foxcolored like the coat of the horse, snowy-whipped cream Montblancs, beigneits Dauphin, sprinkled white with almonds and light green with pistachios, whole hills of chocolate profiteroles, chestnut brown and fat like the humus of the plains of Catania, where they indeed, on long, incovenient paths, had come, pink parfaits, champagne parfaits, gray parfaits, which crackled as they flaked when the surface of the spoon cut in, the violin tones in major key of the candied sour cherry, the bitter timbres of yellow pineapples, trionfi della gola, triumphs of gluttony with the dull green of their round pistachios, unvirgin paste delle Vergini. Of these things Don Fabrizio let himself be served.”

The Don’s love of dessert is both a love of and a redefinition of pleasure, is not a philosophy of hedonism but the revelation of a hedonism which points beyond the pleasured, which moves into the realm of pain. The Don’s concept of pleasure is a concept of pleasure which points beyond the pleasured because his pleasure is never merely an act of self-pleasuring, it is always tied up in the suffering against which it is set, in which it occurs and which occurs in it. It is the pleasure of bitter timbres, of violin tones. It is, in short, bittersweet.

Therefore, the Don’s love for dessert is both an affirmation and a denial of earthly existence, sprung from a love of his land grounded in suffering, it is a moment of shade in the six months of sun endured by the Sicilians, a moment of shade which, however, is not mere escapism. It is an escapism of such degree that it actually affirms existence. For only an existence affirmed in the entirety of its suffering and a suffering founded in existence itself could refine one’s taste to such a degree, not so as to be capable of tasting the subtlety of the dessert, but to sense in that overwhelming sweetness, those triumphs of gluttony, the “violin tones in major key of the candied sour cherry, the bitter timbres of yellow pineapples,” the impossibility of gluttony ever truly triumphing because the dessert was never so much a triumph as it was a moment of respite, not of denial, but of something much simpler, of a brief moment in which to breathe, a moment of “sinning in order not to sin more,” escapism so as to be able to affirm. The Don’s concept of dessert is born out of his belief that he is a weak man and perhaps, in some way, that humanity is a weak thing and that the key is not to triumph, but to be, because, as Rilke wrote, “the key is to survive.”

Through this lens of the bittersweet the Don watches the dance, watches the ball, watches the mortal coils fret their hour on the stage and it is beautiful, it is sensuous and it is transient, it is fading but it is not downfall, it is not decline—that motto of conservatism which motivates so many to ‘restore’ as if something had been lost—it is the a static state of disintegration, a never-ending fading and fading and fading, it is eternal motion, the fact that time always passes but that time is, itself, never passed.

It is out of this sentiment, which one cannot call a conviction because it is too much of a fact of existence ever to be argued for, that the Don, renowned as a liberal, turns conservative on the diplomat from Piedmont, that he sees through all his talk of progress and regress and liberalism and conservatism. It is true that the Don lives at the end of the aristocracy and that The Leopard is a book filled with fading. But The Leopard is actually far less concerned with the end of things than almost all its reviewers seem to believe—even if years after the Don has died a bomb manufactured in Pennsylvania would destroy the beautiful ceiling on which “the gods, reclining on gilded couches,” “who thought themselves eternal,” “gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky.” The political history described in this book is one of change, of transition and the end of the nobility. But can the nobility ever really end, especially if it never really started? Discussing the “decline” of the nobility misunderstands its inexorability. Not the noble class, the concrete people and their bodies, but the nobility is eternal, the golden gilded hue of existence—provided that there remains the scent and taste of ignobility, a shade of burnt bronzen brown in the gold, a tarnish of decline not punctual, not to be found at the end of the 19th century, but to be found in everything and everywhere, in Whatever, Quodlibet, to be seen in the sun-scorched earth, provided that in the every sweetness there is bitter, in the moment of respite a sense of suffering, and in the suffering a respite, not so much from which to affirm, but in which to confirm the suffering—yes it is there.

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