Lapsarian Literature: Lampedusa’s Leopard

The Leopard was not a work I encountered on my own (are not all of the best books like that?); rather, I was gifted a copy of it for my birthday. It sat on my shelf for months as other books came and went from my life. Gift a literature student a book and they’ll get back to you in six months to ten years with their thoughts on it.

I wish I hadn’t waited to read The Leopard– among other reasons, its prose is masterful and gorgeous, its settings finely wrought, its characters complex and curious. But first and foremost, it is The Leopard’s tackling of its theme that sets it apart in my mind.

Lapsarian literature is not just my attempt at an alliterative title to grab readers. It refers to the movement that finds its height in the Decadents and the fin de siecle, when writers and artists became obsessed to a fault with narratives of decline and decay. “The lapse” of civilisation, referencing the end of the Roman Empire, commonly believed to be partly caused by its decadent decay, permeates the literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. In his book “The Symbolist Movement,” Arthur Symons explores the French authors who defined the genre and style. But the French were not the only lapsarian writers. Giuseppe di Lampedusa, an Italian, was exploring the same idea. The Leopard follows the story of the Prince of the House of Salina and his family through several decades in the tumultuous time of revolution and unification in Sicily and Italy. Its focus is the decay of this aristocratic family from within (the Prince’s nephew, Tancredi, marries into a “lesser family” for the sake of money) as well as its decay from the outside (the joining of Sicily to the rest of Italy and the establishment of a senate that strips the aristocrats of their power). There is a double lapse in The Leopard: of the individual and of the society and they are inextricably linked.

The House of Salina is experiencing a decay of its nobility because of its own mistakes. Like many old and noble families, wealth has trickled away over generations of high spending and little return: to recover, young nobles are forced to find matches with the rising merchant classes, who are forging noble names to ingratiate themselves with the old nobility. Tancredi Falconeri, the Prince’s nephew, chooses to marry Angelica in part because of the wealth she holds and he lacks. Angelica, in return, gains a noble name. Tancredi sacrifices the line that separates his aristocratic nature from that of “other people” by marrying Angelica, even though it was a necessary move for his own sustenance. But occurring over generations, the entirety of the noble class then fades into the merchant and middle classes. There no longer exists a ruling class, only a general population where money and not honour is the currency.

The decline of families like the Salinas and the Falconeris affects and mirrors the decline of the society around them. Without a class of honour, society must essentially devolve into pettiness and money-grabbing. Without a group of people who represent the virtuous and best of us, there is no standard for anyone to reach towards. Like when the emperors of Rome stopped being gods apart from their people and thus killed the Roman empire, when the aristocrats of The Leopard stop standing apart, they kill Sicily, and then Italy. “For the significance of a noble family lies entirely in its traditions, that is in its vital memories; and he was the last to have any unusual memories, anything different from those of other families,” the books reads, in reference to the dying Prince, Don Fabrizio. Like a stalwart cathedral falling into disrepair and crumbling ruin, the House of Salina– the leopards– breathe their last in this novel. And so does Sicily, as an independent, safe, and peaceful world, protected by traditions and customs. The death of the family’s soul and of the individual’s soul always leads to the death of the society.

The Leopard bears in it a melancholy tone, akin to Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush,” in ways prefiguring The Waste Land. Certainly, it looks back to a time like that of The Three Musketeers or The Aeneid with lamentation for the loss of what was in men and what was in civilisation at those times. Nor are its characters ignorant of the movements around them, though they appear powerless or unwilling to stop them: Don Fabrizio muses in an earlier part of the book

“All this shouldn’t last, but it will, always; the human ‘always,’ of course, a century, two centuries…and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”

He is a mere observer, too spent of energy, watching the world shatter before him. And we have done the same, giving in to a deep and dark decay of civilisation; we fell prey to the decadent destruction of a nobility– not just of blood, but of spirit. “Like strings of broken lyres,” Hardy remarks when he tells us the Century is dead, and Eliot laments about “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” We merely have to look at the architecture of any downtown city: the horrible skyscrapers that grate against every sense of beauty in our bones, the crowded and dirty streets we must stumble through, and the commercialized skylines. Down to the beauty of the every day: we live in decay, but we do nothing to change it. We simply continue to exist in it, regardless of how much we complain about it. We live in the world of The Leopard and we fall into the same traps and mistakes as the characters.

Theophile Gautier, a French decadent, in a line heavily echoing Don Fabrizio, said, “I am a man of the Homeric age; the world in which I live is not my own.” Across Europe, the sentiments of desperate realization and helpless gazes at the crumbles of greatness are heard. But it is in The Leopard, an almost never-published novel, that the deep despair is most clearly echoed, woven into every line of the story. Lapsarian literature finds its hero in Lampedusa and its clearest voice of regret in The Leopard.

It is by no means a happy book, but it is a beautiful one and one well worth the time to savor every sentence. To shore our ruins, we must read the heroes and their funeral orations: of Achilles and of Fabrizio. For, like them, we see the inevitable coming. And unlike them, we ought not let the lapse consume us. Take to heart the words of the Leopard: “The real problem is how to go on living this life of the spirit in its most sublimated moments, those moments that are most like death.” And seek in the Leopard’s story some of the answers.

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