Cairo Reflection: In Light of Leopardi

Man is born in labour:
and there’s a risk of death in being born.
The very first things he learns
are pain and anguish: from the first
his mother and father
console him for being born.
Then as he grows
they both support him, go on
trying, with words and actions,
to give him heart,
console him merely for being human:
there’s nothing kinder
a parent can do for a child.
Yet why bring one who needs
such comforting to life,
and then keep him alive?
If life is a misfortune,
why grant us such strength?
Such is the human condition,
inviolate Moon.
But you who are not mortal
care little, maybe, for my words. — Giacome Leopardi, Night-Song Of A Wandering Shepherd of Asia (Canti XXIII, translation by A. S. Kline)

Coughing up phlegm may be among the least attractive things a human can do, and, one supposes, that it goes beyond the bacteria,  glycoproteins, immunoglobulins, lipids, and dirt contained in sputum. It’s not just the contagion being forced out of your body and into the air, but that fact it reminds of us that even our most intimate recesses, the inside of nasal passages, lungs, and throat is not entirely ours. If beauty is symmetry in aesthetics and the promise of something better in morality–however thin the line between morality and aesthetic actually are–ugliness is not quite the opposite of those things, more an indication of the lack of health or the promise of a future.

The air is cooler now in Cairo and the breeze cuts through my apartment shoddy insulation–the new apartment buildings are concrete, brick, and rebar covered in a stucco of concrete on the outside and plaster on the inside.  The windowsills are rarely flush, weather stripping generally making up a large portion of the differences, and few things are level, plumb, or square. My two siamese cats, Moshe and Frida, keep me company and when the desert dust is not too high in the air and the smoke from burning foliage to make way for new crops on the Nile is not too thick, I go to my balcony and watch the street beneath, listening to the rutting honks of car horns–Egyptians communicate constantly and once one is used to it, it is endearing–or read my books or grade student papers.

I have been writing some more poetry lately, but they are love poems with a introspective and somewhat idiosyncratic nature.  I don’t like lack, but I lack the ones I love, and that space creates a more reflection on the nature of love itself.  It is a stark contrast with the political ranting I am often doing or the persona of the expatriate scholar I often wear.  I have been avoiding the gym as my lungs have not be able to handle the cardio as this bronchitis lingers.

In some ways, how strange gyms are?  The way machinery and technology becomes an extension of our bodies, a means of expression, expanding our minds, and yet the dangers of that technology making natural exercise a choir.  The sidewalks in Egypt blend with the street, one rarely uses them because the trash left for collection, the unregulated and uneven pavement, and the clattered of Egyptians in them.  No, you walk in the streets, in the bustle of life, weaving in-between cars and street dogs, like a platelet forced by the body’s pressure in capillaries. That pressure forces one into the social world, but is a little too chaotic for regular exercise. So those of us who don’t work manual labor jobs and who can afford it–which in Cairo is a fairly exclusive club–pay to exercise on machines to compensate for the lack of exercise elsewhere. This becomes its own status seeking activity, but for me, it is a necessary discipline that my last two weeks of travel and illness have let me to forgo.

Like Nietzsche, aesthetics was Leopardi’s gift and his respite from a mind so analytical and marred by disease that he often makes the dark Kantianism of Arthur Schopenhauer seem somewhat optimistic.  Indeed, Schopenhauer had more hope for human will than Leopardi.  Yet like so many analytic-minded depressives, Leopardi had a gift for hard truths.  Insights that, in reality, probably helped his assessment of his own condition little.Schopenhauer appreciate Leopardi as he stated in The World as Will and Representation:

But no one has treated this subject so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi in our own day. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect.

Lately, I have had a similar jaundiced view and yet have become more gratitude for love and poetry myself. Leopardi, hunched over and ill, losing his love to death, lost faith in the later too.  I find myself reading Leopardi on the eve of Thanksgiving.  My partner back in the States with her family in a small town in the mountain West, I will visit her in the snows so foreign to my last four years in deserts.  The deserts abrade and, because of that, one realizes why people thought there was more god in the dust. The snows of Utah and Wyoming are barren in a different way–slowing the atoms and life down to the crunch of ice.

There is so much to grateful for despite all that changed. Leopardi wanted to die, and eventually got his wise, but his gift was probing the wounds of his mind intimately until the contorts of struggling under the weight of the clarity of depression.  I am not entirely depressed–once I was accused of romanticizing my brother’s depression the day he shot himself in the face, trying to see some good in what was tragedy.  I was accused of trying to make it special.  While he was healing a hospital in Georgia, I was in Mexico. Trying to come to terms with it.

I didn’t lose him, but I can see Leopardi’s grimness in both my brother’s action and my tugging at any straw to make it seemingly worth it. I am grateful that there are arms for me to come back, friends to love me when I go back, and that world is not crystalized in amber.  Beyond that: to assume that things can’t worse is a profound lack of imagination, but to assume they will only get worse misses that is always something to glint out of the counter of the eye, some piece of memory, some lost culture, some loved’s body, something.  I will see my partner for a week soon.  The desert wind is cooling. The beer in the fridge is cold. My best friends will see me over the summer, and I will have been on four continents. My cats will cuddle with me as write.

 

 

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