Emma Rothschild


Dialogue Between a Sprite and a Gnome by Giacomo Leopardi
(Translation by Giovanni Cecchetti, 1982)


SPRITE. Oh, is it you, son of Sabatius?1 Where are you going?

GNOME. My father dispatched me here to figure out what the devil men, those seoundrels, are brewing. He is very suspicious because they haven't given us any trouble for a long time, and not a single one of them can be seen in all his kingdom. He's afraid they're planning something big against him, unless they've gone back to their old custom of bartering sheep instead of using gold and silver in their dealings; or unless civilized peoples aren't satisfied with paper money, as they used to be, or with glass beads, like the barbarians; or unless the laws of Lycurgus2 have been brought back to life, which he thinks the most unlikely ease.

SPRITE. You look for them in vain. They are all dead,3 you could hear at the end of a tragedy in which all the characters had been killed.

GNOME. What do you mean?

SPRITE. I mean to say that men are all dead and their race is lost.

GNOME. Oh, that's the kind of news that should be in the papers. But so far we haven't read it anywhere.

SPRITE. Nonsense! Don't you see that with all men dead, there are no more papers?

GNOME. You're right. But how can we find out the news of the world?

SPRITE. What news? That the sun has risen or set, that the weather is hot or cold, that here or there it has rained or snowed, or it's been windy? For without men, Fortune has taken off her blindfold, has put on glasses, and has hung her wheel on a hook, and now she sits with her arms crossed, watching the affairs of the world without meddling. There are no more kingdoms or empires that keep swelling until they burst like so many bubbles, for they've all vanished. There are no more wars, and all years are alike - just as all eggs are alike.

GNOME. But we won't even be able to tell what day of the month it is, for nobody will print calendars any more.

SPRITE. And so what? This won't make the moon lose her path.

GNOME. And the days of the week won't have names anymore.

SPRITE. What do you think? That if you don't call them by their names they're not going to come? Or do you think that, once they're gone, if you call them you can make them come back?

GNOME. And we won't be able to keep count of the years.

SPRITE. So we can pass ourselves off as young even after youth is gone. And since we keep no count of the passing years, we'll worry less, and when we're very old, we won't be expecting death from one day to the next.

GNOME. But how did those rascals come to an end?

SPRITE. Some by making war against each other; some by sailing and drowning; some by eating one another; some, and quite a few, by killing themselves; some by rotting in idleness; some by racking their brains over books; some by debauehery and by reveling in a thousand excesses; and, finally, some by finding all kinds of ways to act against their own nature and go to their own destruction.

GNOME. In any case, I can't understand how a whole species of animals can be completely lost, as you say.

SPRITE. A master geologist like yourself should know that it's not such a novelty and that in ancient times there were on earth many kinds of animals that aren't there any more - except for a few petrified bones. And yet it's certain that those poor creatures didn't resort to any of the many devices which, as I was saying, men turned to in order to go to their own destruction.

GNOME. I suppose you're right. Yet I would like one or two of that lousy bunch to come back to life so that we could find out what they'd think, seeing that in spite of the disappearance of the human race, everything else is still there and keeps on going just as before - while they thought that the whole world had been created and sustained only for them.

SPRITE. And they couldn't understand that it was created and sustained for the sprites.

GNOME. You're really talking nonsense - if you mean what you're saying.

SPRITE. Why? I most certainly mean it.

GNOME. Come on, you're really foolish. Who doesn't know that the world was created for the gnomes?

SPRITE. For the gnomes, who always live underground? This is really the greatest nonsense that can he heard. What good to the gnomes are the sun, the moon, the air, the sea, the fields?

GNOME. What good to the sprites are the gold and silver mines and the whole body of earth, except for her outer skin?

SPRITE. Well, well, whether they do any good or not, let's stop arguing, for I firmly believe that even lizards and gnats think that the whole world was especially made for their species. So let everyone stick to his own opinion, for nobody could drive it out of his head. As for me, I'll only tell you this: that if I hadn't been born a sprite, I would be desperate.

GNOME. I would feel the same way if I hadn't been born a gnome. But I would really like to know what men would say of their arrogance, which, in addition to many other things, made them dig thousands of feet into the earth and violently rob us of our property under the pretext that it belonged to the human race and that nature had hidden it and buried it there as a practical joke - just to see if men could find it and dig it out.

SPRITE. I'm not surprised. For not only did they believe that there was no other reason for everything in the world to exist, except for their personal use and benefit, but they also thought that, in comparison with the human race, it all was of no consequence whatsoever. Thus, they called their own events world revolutions and the histories of their own peoples world histories - although even within the confines of the earth, one could probably find as many species of animals, let alone other creatures, as there are individual living men; those animals, however, that had been created only for their benefit never realized that such world revolutions existed.

GNOME. Mosquitoes and fleas were created for the benefit of men too?

SPRITE. Yes, they were; to make them practice patience, as they used to say.

GNOME. As if they had no other occasion to practice patience, except for fleas.

SPRITE. And pigs, as Chrysippus believed,4 were pieces of meat especially prepared by nature for the kitchens and the pantries of men, and to keep them from rotting, they had been dressed with souls rather than with salt.

GNOME. I'd rather think that if Chrysippus had in his brain a pinch of salt instead of a soul, he wouldn't have dreamed up such an absurdity.

SPRITE. This is a good one, too. There are innumerable species of animals that have never been seen or known by man, their master, either because they live in places where he has never set foot or because they are so small that he couldn't discover them, no matter how hard he tried. And of very many other species, he discovered the existence only in his last days. The same can be said of plants as well as of a thousand other species. Also, every once in a while. by means of a telescope, he became aware of some star or planet, which until then, for thousands and thousands of years, he had never known existed in the world; and immediately he entered it in the catalogue of his possessions; for he fancied that stars and planets were, so to speak, candle stubs planted up there just to give light to his lordship, who was very busy at night.

GNOME. And so, during the summer, when he saw those little flames that on certain nights shoot through the air, he must have said that there were spirits up there who snuffed the stars for the benefit of men.

SPRITE. But now that they are all gone, the earth doesn't feel that there is anything missing; and the rivers aren't tired of flowing, and the sea doesn't seem to be drying up, even if it's no longer used for the traffic of ships.

GNOME. And the stars and the planets don't cease rising and setting, nor have they put on mourning clothes.

SPRITE. And the sun hasn't plastered his face with rust, as he did, according to Virgil, for the death of Caesar5 - about whom I believe he worried as much as did the statue of Pompey.6



1. Sabatius is the Thracian name of Bacchus, the god of Nature's perennial cycle of life and death, whom the Cabalists considered the most ancient of gnomes.

2. According to Lycurgus's laws, the Spartans could use only iron coins, which were not current outside their city. Ownership of gold and silver was punished by death.

3. The last line of a tragicomedy by Zaccaria Vallaresso published in 1724 and entitled Rutzvanscad it giovine (Rutzvanscad the Younger), which was intended to be a parody of Ulisse it giovine (Ulysses the Younger ) by Domenico Lazzarini.

4. See Cicero, De natura deorum II, 64 (Leopardi's note). Chrysippus was a Stoic philosopher who lived in the third century B.C.

5. See Virgil, Georgics I, 466-67.

6. Caesar was killed at the foot of Pompey's statue.


From Operette Morali: Essays and Dialogues by Giacomo Leopardi. Translated with introduction and notes by Giovanni Cecchetti (Univerity of California Press, 1982).