A Man for the Hour

The Worm of Consciousness and Other Essays

by Nicola Chiaromonte, edited by Miriam Chiaromonte, introduction by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 270 pp., $10.00

Nicola Chiaromonte was born in southern Italy in 1901, and studied at the University of Rome. His true education, however, was of a different kind, the “real European education” of which Jan Kott has recently written. As an anti-Fascist he went into exile in Paris in 1934, where he was for a short while associated with nonviolent anarchist groups. In 1936 he flew with André Malraux’s Republican squadron in Spain, and appears as Scali in Malraux’s fictional account of the war, Man’s Hope. (Scali is the art-historian-turned-bomber who brings the works of Plato to the front.)1

When the Nazis invaded France Chiaromonte fled with his wife to the unoccupied south, where she died; from there he moved on to Algeria, where he befriended Camus. In 1941 he arrived in the United States, and here he remained for the duration of the war, eking out his living with essays for such journals as Partisan Review, Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and politics. In New York he met Meyer Schapiro, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, and others, as well as his second wife, who has edited the present volume. He returned to Italy in 1947 and became drama critic for the liberal weekly Il Mondo. Between 1956 and 1968 he edited the monthly Tempo Presente with Ignazio Silone. He delivered the Christian Gauss lectures at Princeton in 1966, about ideas of history in the modern novel. He died suddenly in Rome in 1972.

In his lifetime Chiaromonte published only two books—La Situazione Drammatica, a collection of his writings on the theater, and The Paradox of History, which unfortunately found no publisher in the United States and received only scant attention in England. The Worm of Consciousness should attract the serious attention that Chiaromonte deserves.

This impressive book brings together a selection of writings representative of his interests—the nature of political authority and modern freedom, the role of the intellectuals, mass culture and its wearing down of humanist character, Dante, Pirandello, the practice of criticism, the political theater, Gandhi, Simone Weil. Included as well are several memoirs, which most resemble Orwell’s in their mixture of personal modesty and assurance that the pulse of history beats through the author’s experience—the kind of reflections possible only in an age of mass politics, in which the humblest person can find himself caught up in world history. Chiaromonte’s essays are testimony to the impact of this century upon a mind of singular alertness and probity. They are, too, exquisitely written. Their plainness, economy, and self-discipline—qualities of style sorely absent from much critical writing now—recall the muted, precise beauty of a Morandi canvas.

Like his fellow Italian’s paintings, Chiaromonte’s essays are slow journeys toward the light, attempts to reestablish contact with things. “Far from longing for Heaven,” he writes, “I simply want to see things as they are.” Or, in The Paradox of History: “Some people cannot help seeing what is before their eyes; others must at all costs see what is not there.” Or: some people are up to the world as it comes, others must at all costs have it smoothed out and made palatable by ideology. For Chiaromonte our mal du siècle has been the blindness induced by ideology, by mass efforts to recapture the kinds of faith which for centuries made the world so simple and accessible to the common man.

It is by now apparent that much of the intellectual and literary life of the past century has consisted in campaigns to heal the fragmentations of modern life by rehabilitating or fabricating any number of shared faiths. The “thirst for wholeness” which Peter Gay found fermenting in Weimar culture is with us still—nothing, indeed, is quite so tiresome as turtle-necked academics rhapsodizing about this folk-culture or that, protesting that all they really want is to find a place in the country or a safe tradition to which they can attach themselves and into which they can dissolve. For some, secularism is to blame; for others, reverently parroting Tocqueville, it is the essential duplicity of democracy. For the colossus Solzhenitsyn, contemporary unfreedom is a problem of the wrong social discipline.

Chiaromonte had very little sympathy for all the modern Gemeinschaft-mongering. He was very well aware of what are the attractions of such faiths; his poignant memoir of the fiercely authoritarian Jesuit ambiance of his youth is clear evidence of that sympathetic understanding of the superstitious which for de Quincey betokened generosity of mind. He was also too wise to believe that such answers would ever disappear from human consciousness, or even to wish that they should. But he never envied the masses their simplicity, and was too honest not to see their new faiths as so many fraudulent forms of manipulation from above. As for contemporary clercs, their unpardonable trahison was to take their own freedom for granted. Chiaromonte’s indictment is never more powerful than in his exposé in 1969 of the Western intellectual’s condescension toward the dissidents of Eastern Europe:

But, because the issue is freedom, the freedom that the Western intellectual thinks he owns as he might own a piece of furniture, he finds the protest movements and the changes taking place in Eastern Europe only too familiar, passé, not really significant. Hence the widespread feeling that, although the libertarian ferment shaking these countries deserves our sympathy, it does not really concern us. After all, what is involved is the achievement of a social good that we already enjoy and that has become worn out and cheapened by use. What we need is something else: a stronger medicine, perhaps. Or drugs. Or systematic violence.

But the Western intellectual is unaware of the greatest threat to Western freedom, the advanced regimentation of collective life; this for Chiaromonte is an inevitable consequence of the “uncontrolled and uncontrollable authority” bred by the egalitarianism peculiar to industrial society.

For Chiaromonte freedom was a summum bonum, the only trustworthy guarantee of human dignity. But a free man was a man who could think for himself. For him the essential estrangement of the critical mind was no punishment. Here, then, is a critic who never shrank from the bedevilling complexity of his age, who consistently displayed an extraordinary mental sangfroid in the face of alienation and brutality, because he never stopped believing first and foremost in the powers of unfettered reason.

Chiaromonte’s intellectual identity consisted finally in an emphatic rejection of the claim that in order to understand anything you must first believe in a larger theory which explains everything. Such theories descend like opaque blades between ourselves and our real situation; they violate what he called “the sacred boundary that separates ideas from facts.” In our times these theories—or pseudotheories, because there is no way one can disprove them—have been mostly about history, or History.

Chiaromonte is at his rigorous best in his polemics against history’s present-day confidantes, the Marxists. (“What I demand is the right to regard as false—or, rather, as equivocal—such notions as that of the class struggle, without being accused of being a tool of capitalism.”) His strictures upon metaphysical history and historicist politics recall the philosophical wisdom of Isaiah Berlin on the subject. And, like Berlin, he turns instead to the reasoning intellect, clarifying facts, constructing hypotheses, confirming or refuting them—in short, to that most misnamed of mental procedures, common sense. (Which is what the “lucidity” of his friend Camus comes down to once Chiaromonte has it shorn of its schmaltz.)

Genuine conviction,” Chiaromonte once wrote, “is based on direct, natural evidence, on primary facts of inner and outer experience.” Or, more generally, upon the tenacious assurance that the intellect unmoved by any interest except truth is sufficient for this complicated world. This was Chiaromonte’s “dearest wisdom: …to trust the event for suggesting what our response to it shall be.”

In formulating his standards of intellectual behavior—his view of the relation between freedom of thought and participation in the community—Chiaromonte concurred strongly with Hannah Arendt’s account of Western intellectual life from Plato to modern times. Arendt contended that the classical conception of the intellectual was of a being developing his ideas in isolation, and only later returning to his fellow citizens with truths and programs, if indeed he returned at all. Like Plato’s philosopher, he left the cave alone, was distinguished from the others by his place in the sun, and was as different from the common man as was gold from bronze.

This notion that truth and its seekers subsisted on the periphery remained an axiom of the humanist tradition, Arendt claimed, until Marx. Marx argued that truth was historical, a theoretical prelude to action, and was therefore attainable only from within the ranks of the proletariat, who were alone exempt from false consciousness. The intellectual had to belong to the masses and share their interests. And this for Chiaromonte became the unhappy formula for the modern intellectual’s relationship to society.

Of course many things are not quite right about such an analysis. One does not have to be a devout Marxist to realize that the Platonic view had its own ideological edge, and that throughout the centuries ostensibly Olympian intellectuals have themselves belonged to and served the interests of various classes of society. More important, the Romantic idea that the thinker endures and requires utter isolation from the community contains a serious, somewhat self-glorifying distortion. What Chiaromonte consistently failed to note, but what is by now a commonplace of social and cultural criticism, is that Western intellectuals have congealed into their own stratum of society, however much a minority they are, and they enjoy the solidarity and security which class membership promises. No diagnosis of contemporary intellectual life can proceed without taking this irony into account.

But if Chiaromonte’s view is historically or sociologically imprecise, the dispiriting development of the intellectual class into what Harold Rosenberg called “the herd of independent minds” lends greater urgency to his call for pure independence of thought. In so far as an intellectual uncritically accepts the terms of discourse promoted by his class, the life of reason does indeed become less exigent and more vulnerable to the subtle manipulations of the culture industry. What Ortega said of the mass man applies just as well to many intellectuals—“to have an idea does not mean to have reasons for having it.”

Does the inevitability of class identity for the intellectual then mean that affairs of the mind have been irreparably coarsened? Such pessimism is premature. There have always been pressures of influence which capable intellects have overcome, and indeed put to good use. Ultimately, however, it is a matter of choice: either one believes in the mind or one does not. Either free intellectual activity has always been possible, or it has not. Chiaromonte’s provocative dispute with the Marxists consisted really of his repudiation of their determinism, his refusal to entertain any appraisal of human activity which writes its greatest achievements off to necessity. Chiaromonte believed in a free human spirit. And in the battle for freedom it matters not whether the attacks come from the right or the left.

Opposed to the right but sharply critical of the left, Chiaromonte’s politics defy convenient labeling. They are, however, excellently illustrated by his response to the student revolt in Italy in the 1960s. He concurred with the students’ grievances against the archaic educational system of Italian universities. He saw, too, that what drove the students to violence was a deeper dissatisfaction with the moral and political organization of their society. “The young find themselves living in a society that neither commands nor deserves respect…. It is a serious matter, not to be answered by police attack or tricky maneuvers.” For Chiaromonte, no less than for the students, the ruling class of Italy was corrupt and devoid of legitimate authority. Certainly his indignation at its shabby and self-serving intrigues would hardly have been assuaged by the game of musical chairs which the Christian Democrats continue to play, and with little time on their side.

The students were not wrong. Their denunciations of Italian society were accurate. Lacking any moral guidance, they naturally turned to such strange gods as Mao and Che and Ho. But neither were they right. “You can talk about right only when you talk reasonably, person to person. A rioting crowd never reasons, nor can it be right.” Chiaromonte suggested instead a more tough-minded and nonrhetorical remedy. The only proper response to an indifferent and deadening society, he wrote, was withdrawal—not quietistic withdrawal into individual self-development, which would be a retreat from politics, but a more difficult and still political secession “not alone, but in groups.” For Chiaromonte—as for Hannah Arendt—decentralization was the only really revolutionary strategy. He wanted “real society,” communities of politically concerned people who could, in the more human setting of smaller groups, develop alternative social aims and formations. In such groups ethics would find its place in politics. So, too, would a sober and engaged reason.

If there is a name for his confidence that reason can make sense of situations, it must be liberalism, and of an old-fashioned kind. A respect for measure in argument and action; a systematic irreverence toward all ideas and policies which have yet to prove their truth and efficacy; a reluctance to hurry the gradual improvement of the common condition; above all, an unflagging patience with all human affairs—these were the conclusions drawn by one who had himself witnessed the ravages of revolutionary impatience. The liberal attitude toward reality perhaps never received a better formulation than this:

Reality always remains the same; it is this sublunary world which nothing in our experience shows us to be transformable, but which everything shows to be simply changing. This world is given to us in its entirety and forever—with its limits.

To respect these limits, and to honor the intractability, complexity, and incompleteness of human experience, is for Chiaromonte the beginning of all wisdom. Chiaromonte’s politics consist, then, in realism and a concern for ethical discrimination. But if they therefore fall short of a fullblown political faith, if they do not display the kind of grandiose and reassuring principles we have come to expect of modern political creeds, it would be worth recalling Kant’s definition of a fanatic as someone who dreams according to principles. In this century of enfranchised fanaticism, nothing has abetted murder quite so efficiently as principles. What most recommends the liberal mentality is its cautious skepticism toward ultimate truths and final solutions.

In her preface to The Worm of Consciousness, Mary McCarthy is surely right to hope that “for young people…finding him will be a revelation.” Beyond the discernment of his political views, there is another aspect of Chiaromonte’s work that will be exhilarating to present-day students. I refer to his criticism of literature, which stands in welcome contrast to most of the unreadable literary criticism currently being churned out. The present situation of literary studies is one in which—to put it oversimply—the elemental richness of literature has been egregiously split into the competing systems of formalists who guard the word and Marxists (and fellow-travelers) who guard the meaning. Occasionally, and often in Paris, the two systems mingle, but rarely on equal terms.

Future historians of ideas will undoubtedly conclude that the overriding intellectual preoccupation of our time will have been the study of language, indeed, that language is to this century what history was to the last. A major factor in this regard has been the meteoric rise of linguistics, which, though it has its roots in such eighteenth-century thinkers as Humboldt, can properly be said to be our epoch’s contribution to the study of man. (Psychoanalysis is not a discipline in the same sense that linguistics is.) The influence of linguistics has been pervasive, in some cases revolutionary, and it is no wonder that literary criticism has also been affected. What is doubtful, however, is that the relationship has been mutually beneficial. Linguists stand to learn much from the restricted and highly stressed use of language in literature, but they appear to have little to teach poets or critics in return. Even the fascinating researches of Roman Jakobson into the grammar of poetry have little to do with poetry as it is written and read.

But an addiction to language can be found in numerous contemporary critics who have not the slightest familiarity with linguistics. If there is a prevailing wisdom in contemporary criticism—I refer mainly to the influential successors to the New Critics at Yale and elsewhere—it is this: that literature is primarily about language and language primarily about itself. So critics busily set about identifying and classifying repertories of literary devices, giving us poetics and semiotics and stylistics, formalism and structuralism and deconstructionism, signs and symbols and modes and tropes—a critical vocabulary so unregenerately technical that it is not unfair to say that criticism today resembles nothing so much as classical rhetoric. And in its passion for the varieties of literary signs—conceived under French influence—it has turned itself into a brand of cryptography.

A challenging illustration of such specialized, one-dimensional criticism is J. Hillis Miller’s sophisticated introduction to the Penguin edition of Dickens’s Bleak House. Bleak House is a novel about the decay of nineteenth-century British society as it was reflected by the callous and sclerotic workings of its courts and legal bureaucracy. The painfully protracted adjudication of a will is the thread that holds so much of its labyrinthine plot together. Hillis Miller is thus perfectly—ingeniously—justified in maintaining that “Bleak House is a document about the interpretation of documents.”

But he goes further. The injustice which mars Dickens’s England, he writes, is not that of “any person or persons, not correctable evil in any institution [but] …the act of interpretation itself….” That is to say, Dickens’s novel of social disarray is really a novel about reading, or—there is after all not that much a formalist can do with Dickens—a novel about the reading peculiar to a certain society.

Surely this has got Dickens’s achievement in Bleak House the wrong way around—which is not to transform reality into interpretation by language, or to concoct the perfect literary metaphor for a diseased society, but rather to create a fictional language sufficiently rich and spacious and suggestive to encompass convincingly the world outside itself. Like all great novels, it is made up as much of experience as it is of language. When Hillis Miller writes that Dickens’s characters “exist only in language” and that the novel is “a structure based on words,” he is either emptying the book of its luminous evocation of life, or uttering the kind of truism a physicist might who kept reminding us that everything we see is a structure of atoms. So too, when F.R. Leavis concludes a lengthy sermon about D.H. Lawrence’s theories of vital energies by informing us that all this Lawrence communicated in language. Lawrence, we may conclude, was not a writer who worked in oils.

The mystifying tone and terminology of present criticism conceal the fact that it is based on a drastically impoverished view of literature. For just as literature is about much more than just language, so language is about more than itself. To claim otherwise is to deny literature’s most deeply enigmatic qualities: its variousness and multidimensionality, its miraculous capacity for joining the seductive powers of the word to the rough textures of experience. Furthermore, the critical hope of producing an exhaustive accounting of literary means, of manufacturing some scheme of tropes or modes into which all things literary will obligingly fall, reflects a diminished confidence in the resources of literary form and insight, resources which our greatest works show to be virtually infinite. Ironically enough it is the formalists who disenchant literature—not, of course, by binding it to the besotted world in which it is born, but by going about its discussion with scientific airs.

But Chiaromonte was—to use Gautier’s words but not quite in his sense—“un homme pour qui le monde extérieur existe.” In a remarkable essay, “Three Lines from Dante”—the magical “So does the snow unseal itself in the sun” of Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso—Chiaromonte considers the conventional reading of these lines as “pure poetry,” the reading for which “the values of sensibility outrank all others.” Hardly unresponsive to the softness of the tercet’s melody and the delicacy of its image, as a critic Chiaromonte still demands more than an analysis or adulation of its form. To do so, as he felicitously put it, would be “to abstract poetry from poetry.” But poetry is always something more: it is the poet’s image of the world as well, and no poem has ever been written which was not, however inadvertently, such an image. Formalism, he writes,

limits us to the surface of poetic form by the very fact that it confines itself to the sensuous resonance of language, assuming language to be an enclosed self-sufficient object and not a conveyor of meaning. Pindar tells us that the music of the golden lyre heard by Zeus’s eagle causes sleep to fall on the eyelids of the divine creature as he shudders with pleasure, “possessed by the magic of the sounds.” But that isn’t enough for man. Whatever the pleasure, the human mind cannot rest in it, nor in attention to the fact that begets it. The mind still feels a need to judge the sense and value of that fact, that is, to put it into proper relationship with everything else, with all experience, with the world’s image as it appears to a man through his own experience.

Art is in ineluctable complicity with experience, and beauty is as much a clarification of human life as it is a free play of human imagination. Indeed, it is the very imagination, working under no compulsion of interests, for which everything seems possible, that can convincingly reconstruct experience. The imagination abandons the world only to restore it to us in a crystal state of heightened intelligibility. Art’s lies are themselves unwilling works of truth.

These are the articles of Chiaromonte’s critical persuasion. And what he seeks in literature is not the ubiquitous and Procrustean dialectic, but a connection much more primordial and elusive—the very linkage of consciousness to its world. Hence his admiration for Alberto Moravia’s novel La Noia (The Empty Canvas), which attempts to capture precisely the initial collision of consciousness with the objects around it, the swift and sudden moments when objects snap out of their inertness to become occasions for human awareness.

One would have wished for more essays and criticism than the present collection has given us. The discussion of Dante intelligently introduced Chiaromonte’s method, and the essay on Moravia—the title essay of the volume—his faith in the ability of art to cast light upon that murky association with reality which sires our experience. There are pieces as well on Artaud and Pirandello—his portrait of Artaud is sensitive and surprising—but his attitude toward drama was not quite his attitude toward poetry and fiction. Nonetheless, his preoccupations as a literary critic are apparent, and they are again his favorite themes—clarity, lucidity, the need for a truthful relation to things.

The true characteristic of all authentic poetry,” wrote Chiaromonte, is “a mastery of the senses and feelings by the mind—by the mind, and not the techne alone—together with an immediate and substantial contact of mind with the being of things.” Much like Pater in his essay on style, Chiaromonte expects of literature a logical cogency and architectural pattern in its rendering of experience. His “intellectualist” view is nowhere more pronounced than in his conception of the theater.

It is an austere conception, for which the subject of drama is destiny itself, the nature of things as “the supreme principle of reason” remorselessly unveils it. Characters in a play are significant not for their private and transient feelings, but as moments in a universal and inexorable human fate. Chiaromonte’s is a cold and very Greek theater. It is also one for which the playwright is everything and the director almost nothing—nothing is quite so abhorrent to Chiaromonte’s theater as the kind of elaborate production which distracts from the deeper and supremely unsensuous principle propelling the action. Naturally he did not take kindly to modern experimental theater, which “is addressed not to the mind but to the nerves,” and he had some virulent and unjustified things to say about film as an irredeemably superficial medium which can represent the situation but never its inward reason.2

But everywhere one looks in Chiaromonte one finds the mind. Only in his drama criticism, however, do we encounter inflexibility and censoriousness. For Chiaromonte the theater was the last refuge of metaphysical decorum, of a rationality unimpaired by reality: he demanded of the theater what he was shrewd enough not to demand of the world. But the mind which governs poetry and which deserves to govern politics is something different and less exclusive. The greatest strength of Chiaromonte’s work is to propose the ideal of a supple and capacious reason, a reason which is no longer put to flight by what it cannot master.

He is in distinguished company here. Freud, Mann, Lukács before his conversion on the road to Moscow—and among our own critics, Trilling—all sought to revise the disjunction between reason and the irrational which for centuries strained modern culture. They wanted in its place a reason that could cope with the irrational, that could recognize its claims and allow them their appropriate place in experience, that could accommodate itself to impulses and desires that resisted argument and arrangement. To put it differently, they insisted that the fruits of Romanticism are most desirable when savored sparingly. To this movement in cultural and personal self-discipline Chiaromonte belonged. He too believed there was a connection between intellectual honesty and personal honor. He too aspired to a self which, as things fell apart, had a center that would hold.

This is hardly a popular idea of the self in America—still less among many young Americans, who are content to be passive, ready for stimulation. Beyond a certain point, however, “openness” ceases to be a virtue, and becomes a license for personal laxity and selfishness. It is not from an excess of mind or its respectability that we are suffering. Chiaromonte’s counsel to the rioting students of 1968 was to recover first the personal dignity of which participation in the mob had robbed them. The only alternative to the system they detested, he wrote, was those “real societies” which would foster

a life that is independent and wise, not utopian or phalansterian, in which each man learns to govern himself first of all and to behave rightly toward others, and works at his own job according to the standards of the craft itself, standards that in themselves are the simplest and strictest of moral principles and, by their very nature, cut out deception and prevarication, charlatanism and the love of power and possession.

With his commitment to reason Chiaromonte sought not an aristocracy of intelligence, but rather an aristocracy of character—an elitism that it is impossible to deplore.

  1. 1

    Scali pushed back his spectacles and shrugged his shoulders with a gesture of profound hopelessness. That notion, so prevalent among the Fascists, that their enemies were as a matter of course a lower race, despicable and subhuman—that impulse to disdain, so typical of fools—had not been least among the reasons for which he had left his country…. He had no knack of repartee in vulgar brawls, any more than of giving order. Like a good intellectual, he wanted not only to explain, but to convince. As for physical violence, he had an aversion from it amounting to disgust. Leclerc, who felt instinctively this disgust, mistook it for fear.” In perhaps the most haunting scene in the novel, Scali argues with an aging Spanish art historian who refuses to evacuate Madrid without his library: “‘In the churches of the south where there’d been fighting, I sometimes saw great pools of blood in front of the pictures. And the pictures…had lost their efficacy.’ ‘We’ve got to have new pictures, that’s all,’ Alvear said…. ‘I see,’ said Scali. ‘But surely it’s rating works of art very high?’ “

  2. 2

    Perhaps the best essay in the collection—certainly the one which brings together all of Chiaromonte’s personal concerns and critical gifts—is “The Political Theater.” It is a model of critical and political sanity, and should be compared to Walter Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” an essay on the same subject which is just as much a model of the collapse of clear thinking—Benjamin’s most dismal hour.