When Nicola Chiaromonte’s brilliant, searching book, The Paradox of History, was brought out in England in 1970, it got generally respectful, even laudatory reviews, which differed from each other only in their degree of deafness to what the author was saying.1 To his misfortune, “Signor Chiaromonte” had run up against British practicality, empiricism, dread of abstraction—all aspects of blimpishness. In The Paradox of History a man was visibly thinking about his topic, musing, almost meditating, not English practice in expository prose: if you want to muse and ponder, verse is your medium.
The reviewers felt fairly sure—if not quite positive—of what Chiaromonte was getting at. Anthony Powell (A Dance to the Music of Time) put it in his own plain English. “What have we got to do about it all?” he summed up on behalf of the reader. In other words, what does this Italian recommend doing in a thorougly bad situation when “things have got finally and totally out of hand through a combination of action, blind interpretation of history and doctrinaire theory”? Some people might call for “something positive” to combat “the…political abstractions of Communism/Fascism, and their aggressive tactics,” but not Chiaromonte, if Powell has understood him. In reality Chiaromonte has been proposing that we accept the fact that the world and our perception of it are “only fragments of an eternally impenetrable whole,” and Powell, God bless him, “take[s] that to mean” that “Mr. Chiaromonte thinks we are much better rubbing along as best we can, dealing with problems as and when they arise, rather than committing ourselves to more oppressive theory.”
Another reviewer concluded, more cautiously, that Chiaromonte “has set himself a problem which is central to the contemporary human predicament and will continue to be so, as long as men are unable to resolve it. Nicola Chiaromonte does not claim to have done so; what he has done brilliantly and convincingly,” etc., etc. Still a third, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, saw disturbing evidence of “fatalism” in Chiaromonte and/or the writers discussed, fatalism being the conviction that events “do not cause each other: all of them are independently caused by some single, external, superhuman agency of which human beings are merely blind instruments.” Absorbed in his private nursery game of dividing fatalists between optimists and pessimists (Dr. Pangloss, I guess, would be an optimistic fatalist), the reviewer failed to notice that the “blind instrument” notion was expressly and vigorously rejected by Chiaromonte. A few sentences later the Times Literary Supplement was cheerily reassuring the reader: “There is no need to feel disappointment that Mr. Chiaromonte veers sharply to a pessimistic conclusion.” An “interim judgment,” surely; given time, there was every reason to hope that Chiaromonte would change his outlook. Finally a writer in Tribune, i.e., a Laborite, voiced a sorrowful suspicion: “Chiaromonte’s prescription for twentieth-century nihilism…would appear to be some kind of religious commitment.”
All these reviews, wherever they sprang from, right, left, or center, had one thing in common: a “problem-solving”…
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