Monday, March 17, 2008


Leopardi and Solitary Dining

Maybe the need will never arise, but if you're ever called on to translate English unclubable into ancient Greek, μονοφάγος (monophágos = eating alone) might not be a bad choice.

According to Fanny Burney, Dr. Johnson invented the word unclubable to describe Sir John Hawkins:
He said that Sir John and he once belonged to the same club, but that as he ate no supper after the first night of his admission, he desired to be excused paying his share.

"And was he excused?"

"O yes; for no man is angry at another for being inferior to himself! We all scorned him, and admitted his plea. For my part I was such a fool as to pay my share for wine, though I never tasted any. But Sir John was a most unclubable man!"
Johnson objected to Hawkins' penny-pinching, cheese-paring meanness in refusing to eat with the other members of the club. Rather than contribute his share toward the common meal, Hawkins preferred to eat alone, like the ancient Greek μονοφάγος. For the Greeks, solitary dining (μονοφαγία) was the distinguishing mark of the unsociable, the unclubable man.

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone 4183 (Bologna, July 6, 1826), wrote:
Eating alone, τὸ μονοφαγεῖν, was disgraceful according to the Greeks and Romans, and was considered uncivilized, and the designation of μονοφάγος was given to someone as an insult, similar to that of τοιχώρυχος, that is, of thief. See Casaubon on Athenaeus, Book 2, Chapter 8, and the Addenda on that passage. I would have deserved this opprobrium according to the ancients.

Il mangiar soli, τὸ μονοφαγεῖν, era infame presso i greci e i latini, e stimato inhumanum, e il titolo di μονοφάγος si dava ad alcuno per vituperio, come quello di τοιχώρυχος, cioè di ladro. V. Casaub. ad Athenae. l.2. c.8. e gli Addenda a quel luogo. Io avrei meritata quest'infamia presso gli antichi.
I wonder whether Leopardi ate alone out of choice, because he wanted to, or whether he did so out of necessity, because others didn't want to eat with him. There is a sad story that, many years after Leopardi died, someone asked Fanny Targioni Tozzetti why she had never returned Leopardi's love for her. She answered, "Mia cara, puzzava" ("My dear, he stank").

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