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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837)

On Reciting One’s Own Compositions

From “Thoughts”

JUST as Cervantes wrote a book which purged Spain of spurious chivalry, so I, if I but possessed his genius, would fain write one calculated to purge Italy, and indeed the whole civilized world, of a vice which, having regard to the humanity which in other respects characterizes the age, is perhaps not less cruel and barbarous than any of the relics of medieval ferocity which were lashed by the satire of Cervantes.

I refer to the vicious practise which some writers have of reading or reciting their compositions to their friends. Now this offense is, indeed, of hoary antiquity; but in former ages it was comparatively endurable, because it was comparatively rare. At the present day, however, when all men write, and when it is most difficult to meet with a man who is not an author, it has assumed the proportions of a social scourge, a public calamity, and a new terror to life. Indeed, it is no exaggeration, but the simple truth, to say that by reason of this odious practise our acquaintances have become objects of suspicion, and friendship itself a danger; and that there is no time or place at which some innocent person may not be assailed, and subjected on the spot, or be dragged away in order to be subjected, to the torture of listening to interminable prose compositions, or to verses by the thousand. Nor is this cruelty any longer practised under the colorable pretext of desiring an opinion on the merits of these compositions, as used to be the ostensible excuse for such inflictions, but simply and solely for the pleasure it gives to the author to hear the sound of his own productions; and in order that, on the conclusion of his recitation, he may enjoy the extorted applause of his hearers.

In good sooth I think that few things are more calculated than this to exhibit the puerility of human nature, and the extreme of blindness and infatuation to which self-love is capable of conducting a man; while at the same time it is a lurid illustration of the capacity of the human mind to cheat itself with illusions. For every man knows by his own experience what an ineffable nuisance it is to have to listen to the twaddle of other people, and yet, though he sees his friends turn pale with dismay when invited to listen to his; though he hears them plead every imaginable pretext for escape, and perceives that they even try to flee from him and hide themselves, nevertheless, with a brazen front, and with a fell persistence like that of a famished bear, he will hunt and pursue his prey over half the town, and when he catches him he drags him to the destined scene of suffering. Then during the recitation, though he perceives, first by his yawns, then by his uneasy shiftings and contortions, and a hundred other signs, how acute are the sufferings of the unhappy listener, yet he will not desist or have mercy on him, but all the more ruthlessly continues droning on for hours, if not for entire days or evenings, until, having talked himself hoarse, and his hearer having swooned, he is at length exhausted though not sated.

Yet during this process, and throughout this torture which he inflicts on his neighbor, it is evident that he experiences a sort of superhuman delight; for we see a man, in the pursuit of this pleasure, sacrifice all other enjoyments, neglect food and repose, and forget everything else in life. And his delight arises from his firm belief that he excites the admiration of his hearer, and gives him pleasure; for if this were not so, it would serve his purpose equally well to declaim to the desert as to recite to his fellow creatures. Now, as to the pleasure conferred on the auditors—I say advisedly auditors, not listeners—I have just said that every one knows by experience what that is, and it is not concealed even from the reciter himself; and sure am I that many would prefer grievous bodily pain to such a pleasure as that. Finally, even the most beautiful and valuable compositions, when recited by their authors, are enough to bore one to death; which reminds me of the opinion of a learned friend of mine, who said that if it be true that the Empress Octavia fainted away while Vergil was reading to her the sixth canto of his Æneid, the probability is that her swoon was caused not by the poet’s pathetic allusion to the fate of her son Marcellus, as is commonly alleged, but by sheer weariness of the reading.

Such is human nature. For this practise, so barbarous and so ridiculous, and so repugnant to common sense, springs in fact from a disease inherent in the human species, since there is not, and never has been, any nation, however polite, any condition of human society, or any age, exempt from this pest. Italians, French, English, Germans; hoary-headed men; men wise in all other respects; men of worth and genius; the most experienced in social conduct; the most finished in manners, including those most prone to note the follies of others, and to brand them with ridicule—all alike become children, and very cruel children, when they have a chance of reciting their own compositions. And just as this vice flourishes in our time, so it did in that of Horace, who declared it to be insupportable; and in that of Martial, who, being asked by an acquaintance why he did not recite his verses, replied, “That I may escape from hearing yours.” And so it was even in the most brilliant period of ancient Greece; since it is related that once Diogenes the cynic, finding himself present at one of these recitations, in company with some other persons, all in a state of utter exhaustion, and seeing at length the blank page appear at the end of the scroll which the reciter held in his hand, he exclaimed, “Courage, friends, I see land!”

Nowadays, however, matters have come to such a pass that the supply of listeners, even on compulsion, no longer keeps pace with the demands of reciters. In these circumstances certain ingenious friends of mine have given their serious attention to the subject, and, being persuaded that the recitation by authors of their own compositions is one of the most imperious needs of human nature, they have pondered on a scheme calculated not only to satisfy it, but also to direct its gratification, like that of other general public needs, to the promotion of the benefit of individuals. For this purpose they are about to open an Academy of Listening, where, at specified hours, they, or persons employed by them, will listen to any writer desirous of reciting his compositions. For this service there will be a fixed tariff of charges: for listening to prose, one crown for the first hour, two crowns for the second, four for the third, eight crowns for the fourth hour, and so on, increasing by arithmetical progression. For listening to poetry, these charges will be doubled. If at any time the reciter should wish to read any particular passage a second time, as often happens, he will be charged a florin extra for each line so repeated. If, in the course of any reading, any of the listeners should fall asleep, he will forfeit to the reader one-third of the fee falling due to be paid him. To provide for the possible case of convulsions, syncopes, or other such accesses overtaking any listener or reciter, the institution will be furnished with appropriate essences and medicines, which will be dispensed without extra charge.

In this way, the ear, which has hitherto been an unproductive organ, will become a source of direct profit to its owner, and a new path will be opened up to industry, to the increase of the public wealth.