|"My Bleeding Heart" by Angela Kennedy|
What impressed me most about the review essay was the dangers for literary men of becoming involved in politics. Hugo was elected to the National Assembly in 1848. Remember 1848? That was the year that Europe was breaking out all over in revolutionary agitation. Yet, despite the impression we might have from seeing the play or the movie of Les Misérables, Hugo did not come out on the side of the common man at that time. After visiting the barricades put up by Parisian workers rebelling at the new government's introduction of compulsory conscription for the unemployed, Hugo demanded the barricades be dismantled; when that did not take place, he ordered the National Guard to open fire, resulting in the deaths of a lot of workers.
Zibaldone, namely, "that compassion in literature simply allows the reader to congratulate himself on his humanity without producing any change in behavior."
Goethe, too, was involved some decades before Hugo in what passed for politics under the Old Regime. There are many indications in his writings of his compassion for the lower orders, but it must be admitted that he did not indulge in literati theatrics of the type that Victor Hugo appears to have inaugurated. He was aware of the writings of social reformers and quasi-socialists, for instance, of the Saint-Simonists, which he read with great interest, but Goethe really seems not to have had a sentimental bone in his body. If he did, it was in any case held in check by the classical norms he imposed on himself, especially in his political dramas. In his late novel, Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship, he explores the situation of rootlessness experienced by individuals under capitalism and technological change, but here, too, any compassion is muted by a very distanced portrait. I have not read Zibaldone, but I wonder if Leopardi was familiar with Goethe.
Picture credit: Angela Kennedy