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” approach. That in itself may explain the above absurdities since if there is any predictable result that the reading of this small volume might lead to, it would be loss of faith in arriving at results through an act of thought, however prolonged. Yet results, prescriptions, solutions, remedies, optimists vs. pessimists, “What are we to do?”—the whole vocabulary of those reviews speaks of a cultural gulf, not to say chasm, between audience and writer. One feels that the reviewer ought to have been told to remove his pack of preconceptions on the threshold of this experience, as shoes are removed on entering a mosque or Japanese restaurant.

It is too bad, I think, looking back, that Chiaromonte’s deeply thoughtful and original six-part essay should have been exposed at its launching to the well-meaning philistinism of the English educated class. Fortunately the reappearance of The Paradox of History, in our different climate, offers the book—and its readers—another chance. We Americans have our share of British-style insularity, but not to the same point of saturation. Other strains—ethnic, racial, religious—have made our reviewers, when literate, less resistant by instinct to abstract ideas, indeed in some cases not resistant enough. Nor are we as deadly empirical as the English, even though pragmatism is supposed to be our national faith. It will be interesting to see how Chiaromonte’s thought (so very well translated, by himself with his wife’s help) will “take” in this country.

Yet, before going on, I want to say a final word about the English press reception of The Paradox of History. The odd fact is that the book is anti-abstract, empirical, non-theoretic. In all his writing and throughout his life (he died in 1972), Chiaromonte was always a stubborn rebel against the dictates of theory. Of course what was abstraction to him could be demonstrable reality for another mind—and vice versa. For example, the notion of material progress, so palpable and on the whole desirable to everyone else, to Chiaromonte was not only odious but also an immaterial illusion or, at best, a theoretical conception requiring careful testing to determine its actual existence. Similarly, the “arcane but ubiquitous realm beyond the world of events,” which for him was the realm of Fate for the very practical reason that, by definition, it was the enormous realm of the unknown, might be dismissed by others as pure mystic claptrap, for an almost identical reason, because it could not be known….


The relativeness of all this, too, can be frightening, like a seesaw, as a true-life anecdote will demonstrate. Many years ago my great friend Hannah Arendt and Chiaromonte had agreed to meet in Florence during a trip of hers to Europe, for they had much to talk about (he had greatly admired The Human Condition and written her a long letter about it, which she answered, also at length, I believe). In Florence, they spent a couple of days together looking at the city, but when afterward I asked one of them (I forget which) how it had gone, he or she shrugged: “All right, I suppose. She/he is intelligent. But so abstract!” The other reported the same.

In any case, Chiaromonte’s mind, even more than Arendt’s, was questioning, skeptical to the point of doubting the solidity of any proposition outside geometry. All abstractions but two—justice and freedom—were anathema to it. And if I ask myself now why he made an exception of justice and freedom, I can only think that it was because—unlike Progress, unlike History—they make no claim to be incarnate in the material world, but exist in it, so to speak, negatively, in bits and pieces, never “adding up.” In short, they really are Ideas, of the true Platonic stamp. Thus I can conceive a just act without ever having beheld one; I construct it in my mind as the reverse of the whole sum of unjust acts I am familiar with. Hegel’s famous utterance “I have seen an Idea on horseback”—Napoleon at Jena—would have made Chiaromonte laugh.

But to sum up: though he loved reason and reasoning, theory was repellent to Chiaromonte except in the realm of pure speculation, which is its natural home. And I suspect that the awful misunderstandings in the minds of those English reviewers, the yearning, evinced by all, to attribute a theory or a prescription to him, were caused, at least in part, by the absence of any such thing in the work they were trying to evaluate.

The message contained in The Paradox of History is mysteriously simple: the faith in History, which was shattered by an historical event—the impact of the First World War—cannot in good faith be restored since the confidence in Progress underpinning it, tacitly or explicitly, is no longer there. The collapse of that man-made structure can be dated—summer, 1914—that is, a credo in a forward-directed History fell an instant victim to history with a small h, history in a raw state, a “senseless” accumulation of happenings. That is the paradox, the irony, the joke if you wish; it suddenly emerged with a painful shock that history unprocessed, history in the raw, is what the ancients knew as Fate.

Yet this discovery, like all discoveries (which are only uncoverings), had been anticipated some time ago. Stendhal had glimpsed it in The Charterhouse of Parma; Tolstoy saw it full face in War and Peace. And between the two world wars, Roger Martin du Gard in Summer 1914, the concluding volume of The Thibaults (today forgotten except possibly as an example of the roman-fleuve), showed the trusting faith in History, which for the educated had replaced religion, in the act of collapsing as French and German socialists voted war credits in their respective parliaments. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo and of Jaurès in a Parisian café triggered—for once the word seems suitable—a kind of rapid, out-of-control automation in world events. Yet these assassinations could hardly be viewed as “causing” a chain reaction of trench warfare lasting four years or as historically inevitable—the result of deeper causes themselves: Princip can be said to have acted for “historic” reasons, but Jaurès was the victim of a crazed fanatic, i.e., of a psychiatric accident.

In Dr. Zhivago, Pasternak saw the Bolshevik revolution in somewhat similar terms: as an upheaval, an uprooting, a shaking and tossing that nobody was prepared for (though through hindsight it could be viewed as predictable) any more than for a violent windstorm or a raging flood. But the analogy with nature could not have been applied to World War I and, in any case, for Chiaromonte it is misleading. By equating revolution with a natural event, it is declared to be somehow affirmative, belonging by its very might to the sempiternal order of things, and hence not to be resisted by a mere individual in its path. In Pasternak’s vision you “bend to” a revolution as to a hurricane. Yet, as Chiaromonte points out with his invariable acuteness, we do not bow to an historical occurrence as we do to a natural force (though of course there are always those who try to swim with the current). There is a difference: even in daily affairs, “it is not possible to resign oneself to the evils of society in the same way as one submits to the adversity of nature.”


The underlying theme of The Paradox of History is, simply, fate. What happened, like a roll of thunder, on August 2, 1914, was the rediscovery of fate. It was not the intellectuals that the war forced to open their eyes. They had been discovering necessity in the awful freedom of nihilism for the past thirty years. “Clinging to the ‘notion of Man’ would man…fearing to draw the logical consequences of atheism, which demands that nothing be an obstacle to the realization of a human project. What is possible must be.” For them, there was no failure of belief in progress on that “fatal” date because they believed in nothing anyway. It was ordinary people who bore the brunt of looking into the face of fate suddenly exposed like the featureless egg in the Chinese tale of the traveler.

Fate is the unknown, the uncalculated and incalculable, what the Greeks called the sacred, meaning merely (to start with) that which is hidden. For Tolstoy, as Chiaromonte understood him, the perception of power as a relation of maximum dependence meant that “destiny has, for man, the face of his own neighbor.” Or, as he stated it on his own behalf, speaking of The Thibaults: “What is violently revealed in the transition [from peace and freedom to war and coercion] is the extreme dependence…in which each individual finds himself with respect to others.” And, again, referring to the characters in The Thibaults at the outbreak of the war: “Individuals are no longer alone. History invades their lives and, with history, the nation, the State, and all mankind.”

Chiaromonte’s book is descriptive, not prescriptive. The encounter with fate is shown almost novelistically, in episodes, which amount to a single prolonged encounter. As in a work of fiction, one of the figures tries to escape: Malraux, who in the person of his hero seeks to make himself the invincible lord of his destiny by invoking the demon of action. Or, as Chiaromonte puts it: “What matters to Malraux’s ‘conquerors’ is not history but force, and the problem of force in history…. They represent, pushed to the extreme, the great heresy of our time: the attempt to control force by becoming its servants.”

Chiaromonte is not really a difficult writer, but a dense writer, a compact writer; insights, aperçus, brief analyses, pungent observations are packed together in a continuous flow or stream of narrative, carrying the entire baggage, miscellaneous yet related, along with it as in the roman-fleuve. I will mention a few examples: the “arias” of Fabrizio’s soul (is Chiaromonte the first to notice the operatic element in The Charterhouse of Parma?); Anna Karenina’s passion is condemned not by the sixth commandment but by “universal entropy”; “Was it God who brought about Napoleon? It is hardly conceivable”; the “Stoic morality” of Martin du Gard, a phrase evoking not only a distinctive quality of the novelist but the fall of Rome; for Malraux, action is analyzed with “such vehemence” that it becomes “immaterial and transparent”; Malraux’s heroes as inheritors of Pascal’s wager; Malraux as the poet of defeat. Finally, and in my view most wonderfully characteristic, apropos of war and politics: “Why is war an extreme situation? Is it because of death? This is what a certain kind of pacifism (that of Barbusse, of Céline and Giono, for example) has maintained. Yet the most terrible thing about war is not death.”

The pithiness of such a remark (which hits a reader with the double force of surprise and recognition) points to an essential trait of Chiaromonte’s that is summed up like an ideogram in his very name: “Clear mountain,” “bright mountain.” I mean his absolute realism and clearsightedness, which were illustrated in nicely abridged form in an incident related to me by an American who had been sent in 1940 by the Quakers or Unitarians (maybe both) to help anti-Nazi and antifascist refugees in unoccupied France. One of the American’s first concerns was to supply all these people around Toulouse with false papers. Shortly afterward one of them—Chiaromonte—was halted on the street by a Vichy policeman who, naturally, demanded his papers. The reply came smilingly. “Which do you want? The real ones or the false ones?” Chiaromonte denied that it had happened that way, adding mildly, almost by way of confirmation, that those ridiculous forgeries would have deceived nobody.

That realism, which shines through this book, is Italian, I think, and by no means, if Joseph Frank will forgive my disagreement with his essay on Chiaromonte,2 uniquely a peasant’s trait, even though it seems to be connected with some basic simplicity. It has in it a strong element of naming things by their names, as though returning to our forefather, Adam, who gave a name, clearly the right one, to everything on the earth. There is also wit—an effect of compression, that compactness I spoke of. Chiaromonte had a humorous mind; that it was dark-complected prevented many people from observing the fact. There was a saturnine cast on occasion, I admit, and sometimes a rasp of sarcasm. But anyone who takes the pains to look will find a striking kind of humor in The Paradox of History, not only at intervals (as in some of the remarks quoted above), but in the fundamental conception, which is a wry joke, after all, an irony at the expense not only of “evolutionists,” progressives, and historical salvationists but also at that of our poor race as a whole, which had become over-hopeful and so was bound to meet Nemesis, another joker, on the high road to Utopia.

Yet if there were not a utopian, a thirster for justice and freedom, in Chiaromonte, this book of his, summing up in brief form a lifetime of meditation, could have been cruelly reductive rather than inspiring in something like Tolstoy’s way. To firmly conceive a notion of limit, of a boundary beyond which there stretch expanses of the unknown and unknowable, is no more gloomy or “confining” than the sight of the huge sky to Prince Andrey lying wounded on his back at Austerlitz. Moreover, as Chiaromonte puts it, paraphrasing Tolstoy on freedom, “If we could get to know the consequences of our actions, history would be nothing but an idyllic and constant harmony of free wills, or the infallible unfolding of a rational design…. But then we would not be free. We are free, however, and this means literally that we do not know what we are doing.”

So, if man had the choice between knowledge and freedom, which should he choose? Knowledge, of course, we answer, which to the “man” we have come to be means mastery, supreme control. Today’s genetic engineering—surely more significant for the future, if there is one, than the manufacture of nukes—leaves no doubt about how the vote has been cast.

This Issue

February 14, 1985