Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Eternal”

The inexpressible nothing. It is meant in a lovely way, encapsulating an affectionate gesture. But it bridges two complicated realities hinted in the gesture. “The inexpressible nothing” emerges from one flower picked and the other given. A picked flower suggests growth and death, both at once; in like manner, a given flower suggests the entanglement of beauty and sacrifice.

A number of us are trying to be far more empathetic than we’ve ever been. We’re not doing this because we’re good people, but because it’s necessary to try to be better. It’s likely we will make gestures that are insincere or overdone, and in the hope of addressing that, I understand Ungaretti’s short poem as a meditation on this problem:

Eternal
Ungaretti (tr. Patrick Creagh)

Between one flower picked and the other given
the inexpressible nothing

Original Italian:

Eterno

Tra un fiore colto e l’altro donato
l’inesprimibile nulla

The poem’s title and last word frame its content as between what is eternal and nothingness (h/t Eugenia Loffredo). The content is a gesture characteristic of romantic love: finding a pretty flower, plucking it, giving it away to a beloved. It does not seem, though, that this celebrates romantic love as “eternal” or “all there is in the face of nothing.” After all, between one flower picked and the other given lacks continuity. It would have been easier to say “between the time a flower is picked and given,” but Ungaretti consciously avoided any construction of that sort. He wants us to inquire about two discrete moments which can be treated separately.

I suspect he is asking about the meaning of memory. Two discrete moments imply that the problem of the poem is how we put our memories together. To be sure, I won’t confuse the time I gave flowers to one lover with the reaction I got from another. But if I’m wondering about what might be worth having for eternity, e.g. the feeling of love’s sweetness, then I must admit indulging a jumble of memories. The point is to recreate the feeling, and therein lies the trap. I’ll talk to myself about how I’ve grown and forgotten what I’ve left behind. I’ll focus on what made someone beautiful and forget how much I gave up, rightly or wrongly, for it.

Ungaretti isn’t saying any of these tendencies are particularly wrong. If my reading works, I may have located a gentle comedy. It doesn’t look like we can be entirely true to ourselves when pursuing the memories we believe we most treasure. Hence, the inexpressible nothing—the fact we wanted to think something beautiful, gentle, and sweet is itself ennobling. I do need to qualify this thought, as there are a lot of men who believe they deserve love and attention no matter what and are dedicated to grand romantic gestures as opposed to leaving people alone. The poem doesn’t endorse that confusion or selfishness. It quietly asks you to think about how your conception of love or happiness is a construct, and asserts what’s most beautiful is the limits of that construct.

It asks you, in other words, to find how you can be more empathetic with a self you may have rejected or need to reject. A self too obsessed with one memory or another, a self devoted to the wrong causes, a self that was clueless and couldn’t be reasoned with. If I can be empathetic with the idiot I’ve been and am, maybe I can consistently give others the benefit of the doubt and support they need. They didn’t do the stupid things I did, after all.

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