Theory and Practice of Literature
Creation of the External World Through the Imagination
In Leopardi’s “In Praise of Birds,” the solitary philosopher Amelius writes about what interrupts him from his reading: the singing and movement of the birds. Struck by their joy, he decides that they must be the happiest of all animals, and “have more external and internal life than the other animals.” (369) The external life he concludes by his observations that they are the most active, movement-oriented of all the creatures, while he determines the internal as a reflection of the external. He assumes that with their nature of constant movement, and with their highly developed eye-sight and hearing, they must be very imaginative creatures. It is important to note that he separates their type of imagination, which he describes as “rich, varied, light, unstable and childlike, which is the most abundant source of pleasant and joyful thoughts,” from those of men, which he calls “profound, fervid and tempestuous... which is a most fatal gift and the origin of most grievous and perpetual anxiety and anguish.” (365,7) Written from a human perspective, Amelius makes many suppositions about the birds’ natures solely from his observations. He claims that they are the most joyous creatures, “not in the sense that they always bring you joy...but that they themselves feel joy and gaiety more than any other animals.” (353) His focus of the nature of the internal revealed by the external reflects an important relationship in human interpretation of the external world.
It is interesting that Amelius does not appear to concentrate on the human imagination’s result in anguish, but instead uses his own imagination to reflect on the laughter and happiness of other creatures. He does refer to his position as distinct from the carefree, childlike birds at the end when he desires to become a bird to experience their contentment. His focus of the bird’s happiness throughout “In Praise of Birds” distracts from the sadness that is implied in his desire to be so carefree. Amelius’s longing makes his name, which means “without care” in Greek, ironic. “Care” implies the burden of worrying and mental distress, while it also refers to reflection and interest. He desires to be carefree and untroubled, but the whole nature of describing what he lacks and desires implies that he does care. However, his focus does not appear to be on his lack, referring to the human condition and himself, but instead on the birds’ happiness, and their superiority in vivacity. Leopardi’s style of concealing the excluded by focusing on the apparent external is thus exemplified by the focus on birds and the implication of human nature’s contrast.
Amelius says that man is a pained creature who has lost the innocence of childhood. Yet even in this condition, he notes that man can understand the birds’ joy by distracting himself with inebriation or laughter, and can step back from his own position:
...for as men are unhappy beyond all other animals, so more than all others do they find pleasure in every painless alienation of the mind, in forgetting about themselves, in an interruption, so to speak, of life. And so, by suspending, or in some way decreasing, the sense and knowledge of their own ills, they receive no small benefit. (361)
Man can escape or alienate himself through various different types of interruptions, yet Amelius does not acknowledge that all that he writes is both an interruption of life, and caused by an interruption of hearing the bird’s song. The beauty of this implication, that “In Praise of Birds,” is like one great laugh, makes the quality of reading it similar to listening to the birds, as we focus on the external creature more than ourselves. In escaping care’s weight, laughter becomes “a form of temporary madness, raving, and delirium,” (359) and thus disconnected from a constant, reliable state of reality, as it throws one away from themselves.
Birds seem to Amelius to be the most joyful creatures because of their carefree attitudes: when they are comfortable, they are always singing with laughter, and moving to amuse themselves. He describes how they “change place every moment...from the lowest to the highest realms of the air, in a brief space of time and with prodigious ease.” He contrasts that other animals, including man, are sedentary and like “mainly leisure and apathy; he consumes almost his entire day sitting indolently and silently...” (363,5) Man does not have the abilities of the birds to adapt to situations and strife in life, and to shift dramatically and quickly. Because of their agility, birds are vivacious and their imagination appears to soar with the infinite things that they experience and see with each change of direction. With this observation, Amelius maintains that the birds must have an internal life that matches the external flight. This solitary philosopher does not however, extend this supposition to consider what it infers about the nature of man: that its external stagnation must mean that it is just as dead on the inside as well. The imagination argues for the fertility of mind even within a creature that is often motionless. In Amelius’s imagination, furnished from observation of the external, birds are the most lively and perfect creatures. Within his mind, they are alive and he relates to them by creating them as joyous, even though the human mind only constructs their chirps and flight to indicate their internal natures. Amelius imparts attitudes from his own experience upon them to explain why they differ from him, and to envy their laughter which is only his laughter ringing upon them subjectively. He explains their flight relating it to what he imagines--that they are the most lively--and in his ideal of liveliness, “anxiety and anguish” about what desires is created by his imagination. He can only contain the birds within his head, laughing and taking him away from himself.
In Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk,” the mice model many conceptions of the human relation to the external world that Leopardi creates in “In Praise of Birds.” The mice (excluding Josephine, whom I’ll refer to as J) do not yearn for the “kind of bliss which music may provide.” (360) Instead, they see it as similar to their piping, which is a “characteristic expression of our life.” (361) The sacred air that surrounds J’s music, and separates it into the realm of art, is somewhat like the laughing of the birds. The narrator mouse claims that it frees piping from the “fetters of everyday life and it sets us free too for a little while.” (370) In this way, it too is an interruption, a separation of the self from care.
It is enigmatic that J’s piping is effective in distraction, while the regular piping does not have a similar effect, even though it is even better. The narrator describes how J’s song
...is not merely a piping; to comprehend her art it is necessary not only to hear but to see her. Even if hers were only our usual workaday piping, there is first of all this peculiarity to consider, that here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of doing the usual thing. To crack a nut is truly no feat, so no one would ever dare to collect an audience in order to entertain it with nut-cracking. But if all the same one does do that and succeeds in entertaining the public, then it cannot be a matter of simple nut-cracking...we have over-looked the art of cracking nuts because we were too skilled in it and that this newcomer to it shows us its real nature...(361-2)
Thus, it is the defamiliarization of the everyday event that makes one reflect. The piping becomes external, and made important surrounded by the silence of respect, and the silence that shows the void without piping.
While Josephine is seen through the narrator’s eyes, we get a feeling for the pained emotion that goes into her song, and “it is as if she has concentrated all her strength on her song, as if from everything in her that does not directly subserve her singing all strength has been withdrawn, almost all power of life, as if she were laid bare, abandoned..” (363) This indicates why it is so powerful to see her, that she puts herself completely into the expression, and in this way bears the burdens of all the mice. Because the narrator again is extrapolating from an observation of the external, he is using his imagination just as Amelius did, and internalizes the song to speak through his interpretation. What J represents and gives to him through her piping, as to the other people, is a release from the normal world, an ability to both reflect and lose oneself. In J’s singing, the mass of mice
...are quite withdrawn into themselves. Here in the brief intervals between their struggles our people dream, it is as if the limbs of each were loosened, as if the harried individual once in a while could relax and stretch himself at ease in the great, warm bed of the community...something of our poor brief childhood is in it, something of lost happiness that can never be found again, but also something of active daily life, of its small gaieties, unaccountable and yet springing up and not to be obliterated. (370)
The community becomes thus unified through the song, and lets them release themselves from the troubles at paw. The songs of “In Praise of Birds” are similar to this in that they are public and that they bear witness (albeit false) to the joy of all. By creating an understanding of external creatures, and focusing our imagination on them, we lose ourselves to their gaiety, and take part in this unified happiness as the fetters of individual cares dissolve into pure and child-like song.