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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.

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    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?’ “

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