Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy


Comparative Literature


Jonathan Boulter

2nd Supervisor

Luca Pocci

Joint Supervisor


In this dissertation, I question critical approaches that argue for Giacomo Leopardi’s and Samuel Beckett’s pessimism and nihilism. Beckett quotes Leopardi when discussing the removal of desire in his monograph Proust, a context that has spurred pessimist and nihilist readings, whether the focus has been on one writer, the other, or both. I argue that the inappropriateness of the pessimist and nihilist label is, on the contrary, specifically exposed through the role of desire in the two thinkers. After tracing the notion of desire as it developed from Leopardi to key twentieth-century thinkers, I illustrate how, in contrast to the Greek concept of ataraxia as a form of ablation of desire, the desire of and for the Other is central in the two authors’ oeuvres. That is, while the two writers’ attempt to reach the respective existential cores of Beckettian “suffering of being” and Leopardian “souffrance” might seem to point towards the celebrated nothingness of their existential quest, closer examination reveals that the attempt to still desire common to both authors is frustrated and outdone by a combative desire that pervades their later work. Hence, while the desire to cease desiring is at the philosophical kernel of both authors’ oeuvre, it also draws attention to and exacerbates the inextinguishable quality of desire. Looking at Leopardi’s later poetry in the ciclo d’Aspasia, including the last poem “La Ginestra, o il fiore del deserto,” and examining Beckett’s plays Endgame, Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape and Not I, I argue that desire in Leopardi and Beckett could be read as lying at the cusp between Jacques Lacan’s and Emmanuel Levinas’ theories, a desire that both splits the subject (and is thus based on lack) as much as it moulds the subject when called to address the Other (inspiring what Levinas terms ‘infinity’ as opposed to ‘totality,’ an infinity pitted against the nothingness crucial to pessimist and nihilist readings). The centrality of desire in Leopardi and Beckett also comes close to the Lacanian desire-as-paradox, a desire that is lodged at the heart of Leopardi’s and Beckett’s dianoetic laugh and held to be expressive of their particularly dark, but elevating, humour.