The Paradox of History: Stendhal, Tolstoy, Pasternak, and Others. By Nicole Chiaromonte. University of Pennsylvania Press, $13.95 paper.
December 1, 1985        

The disintegration of the Old Left in the first half of the 20th century produced an engaging and, on the whole, admirable type: the “virtuous” intellectual. Disillusioned by firsthand involvement with wars and totalitarianisms, undeceived by the ideological enchantments of left or right, these writers undertook to preserve an amateur, nonpartisan status and to bring cold war controversies before the bar of common sense and uncommon candor. One might say—though the phrase is a trifle ambiguous—that they made a career of honesty. For this they were rewarded with widespread affection and loyalty, if not quite celebrity, during their lifetime and a sort of minor immortality afterward. I’m thinking of Orwell in England, Camus in France, Dwight Macdonald in the United States, and Nicola Chiaromonte in Italy.

Chiaromonte was born in southern Italy in 1905. He joined a libertarian socialist group, Giustizia e Libertà, in his twenties and fled Mussolini’s regime in 1934. He later fought in the Spanish Civil War (he appears, as the philosophical Scali, in Malraux’s “Man’s Hope”). During World War II he came to the United States; he moved in “Partisan Review” circles and contributed to Dwight Macdonald’s “Politics,” where the ingenuous activist socialist radicalism of the early 20th century was metamorphosing into disenchanted humanism with ambiguous political implications. He returned to Europe after the war, wrote essays and theater criticism (occasionally for “Dissent” and other American journals), and co-edited “I Tempo Presente” with Ignazio Sione. He died in 1972. “The Worm of Consciousness”, a collection of his beat-known pieces—among them his graceful, searching meditations on “Modern Tyranny” and “The Mass Situation and Noble Values”—came out in 1976. “The Paradox of History”, given as the Christian Gauss Lectures at Princeton in 1966, was published in England in 1970 and appears now, for the first time, in the United States. Summing up as it does a life full of both action and erudition, it is an unusual, and intensely interesting, testament.

There is a passage in “The Paradox of History,” on the aftermath of World War I, that very well describes the “virtuous” intellectual and at the same time sounds the central theme of Chiaromonte’s book:

“The individual who has lived through a great historical upheaval has not only been dispossessed of his beliefs. He has found himself face to face with a reality that goes far beyond him and everyone else. He has discovered that one cannot be satisfied with substitutes for truth, and that one cannot at will believe in anything or nothing at all. He has seen that in the relations between man and the world something exists that cannot be changed. At the same time, he has sensed the reality of a Power which nobody can control. Finally, he has found himself personally in question, and he knows that, under any circumstances whatsoever, there is only one thing that matters: the relation between individual conscience and the world. This is some thing that cannot be counterfeited."

The “Power which nobody can control” is Fate. Chiaromonte proposes to trace “the resurgence of the idea of fate in a world…dedicated to the idea of progress.”

Autonomy, self-confidence, mastery of the environment—these notions are the essence of cultural modernity. Through a complex alchemy presided over by nearly all the modern masters, these ideas transmuted into a kind of philosophical precious metal, a key to interpretation and action: History as Progress. The strands of this concept are various, but they include at least two chains of reasoning. First, the physical world is intelligible and, to some extent, controllable; contrary to religious cosmology, human beings are part of the physical world; therefore, human relations are also, at least in principle, intelligible and controllable. Second: each individual life involves a progression, mediated by education, from helplessness to self-control; so, too, humankind is bound to grow into control of its collective destiny. The story of this growth is History. Obviously the cornerstone of this optimism is Reason; or rather, faith in Reason. Understanding means mastery; as Bacon said at the outset, knowledge is power.

All of that is familiar enough, as are the main historical objections to modern optimism: the theological-conservative doctrine of Original Sin; the Romantic idea of organic hierarchy; and the neo-Marxist critique of Enlightenment as instrumental reason. Chiaromonte’s objection is different. It is an intuition derived from the shadowy but powerful Greek notions of Moira, Ananke, and Nemesis, jointly interpreted by Chiaromonte as Fate. What these notions have in common is a suggestion that the reach of rationality is limited, because physical nature is full of unforeseeable accidents and human nature of incomprehensible impulses. To describe those limits precisely is impossible; to defy them, even for noble purposes, entails tragedy. Chiaromonte’s explanation of Fate is at times obscure and unsatisfying; but at its most lucid, it conveys some of the cosmology behind the tragic spirit.

As befits its imaginative and mythical origins, Chiaromonte’s argument takes the form of a commentary on a body of fiction: the novels of Stendhal, Tolstoy, Roger Martin du Gard, Malraux, and Pasternak. “Only through fiction and the dimension of the imaginary,” he writes, “can we learn something real about individual experience.’ What we learn is that “individual experience” perennially refutes historical optimism. Chiaromonte contends that the works of Stendhal et al. make up a tradition: the antihistorical novel, in which the idea of History as rational and progressive, as the working out of an intelligible human Destiny, is shown to be an illusion. As far as I know, no one has ever before linked these authors in quite this way; whatever the merits of Chiaromonte’s argument as political philosophy, it is, as literary criticism, a brilliant conception.

In “The Charterhouse of Parma” the ardent, empty-headed young Fabrizio del Dongo sets out to join Napoleon’s army. What ensues is farce: he is robbed by the first people he meets, thrown into jail as a spy, taken in by a worldly woman, an army provisioner, who outfits him in a dead Hussar’s uniform and sends him off to the great battle at Waterloo. Fabrizio wanders around the battlefield, alternately delighted and horrified, but always uncomprehending. And in fact the event as Stendhal describes it is largely incomprehensible— even, it seems, to Napoleon and his marshals, who gallop to and fro to little purpose and less effect. The scene is a masterly deflation of martial heroics, and especially of Napoleonic mythology. Hegel is supposed to have called Napoleon “the Idea on horse back.” Stendhal’s exquisite mockery is the antithesis of this apotheosis.

Tolstoy avowed that the antiheroic philosophy of “War and Peace” had its source in Stendhal’s irony. “War and Peace” and Isaiah Berlin’s essay on its epilogue, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” are the center of gravity of Chiaromonte’s book. According to Chiaromonte (and Berlin), Tolstoy’s antipathy to the “great man” theory of history stemmed from a deeper skepticism that anyone— great or ordinary, individually or collectively—could control, or even comprehend, the direction of history. In the novel, those who pretend otherwise, whether French or Russian, are shown to be either deluded or self- serving. Wisdom comes only to those who, like Pierre and the dying Prince Andrey, are forced to recognize the insignificance, the radical contingency, of their grandest projects. After such an awakening, one can only abandon the unreal hope of making history. “Real” life is rooted, intractable, impervious to abstractions.

It is a commonplace to compare Homer and Tolstoy, for their “epic” scope and vivid descriptions of nature, ritual, and warfare. Chiaromonte points out a deeper resemblance. Simone Weil called the “Iliad?” “a poem of force.” She meant that, more than anything else in Western literature, the “Iliad” insists on the futility of attempting to use force “rationally,” as a means. Chiaromonte suggests that “War and Peace” is a second “poem of force,” because it depicts world-historical ambition as hubris, the willful disregard of human limitations.

Chiaromonte’s chapters on Malraux, Pasternak, and Martin du Gard's magnificent, neglected “Summer 1914” extend his argument “individual experience” undermines ideology. The Second International, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Communist movement in China appear in these novels not as stages in the progress of Absolute Spirit or the Dialectic, but as so many installments of chaos. Disillusionment is the lot of every honest, undoctrinaire character. What they all learn is not so much that power corrupts as that large-scale historical designs necessarily transgress a certain limit—the limit of human predictability, the horizon of free will. Ideologies ignore “the irrational forces hidden in society, in nature, and within the individual himself” (the Greek word for “divine,” theion, originally meant “hidden”). They are guilty, according to Chiaromonte, of “cosmic impiety.”

The “mystery” of free will is at the core of his critique of historical determinism; it is in terms of free will that he formulates the “paradox” of history. “If we could get to know all 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. We would then always act rationally, that is, we would not act at all, since we would simply follow a preestablished and sterile pattern. But then we would not be free. We are free, however, and that means literally that we do not know what we are doing.” He is taking aim at dialectical materialism; but if true, his thesis discredits every utopia. William Morris’s no less than B. F. Skinner’s.

One can quibble with Chiaromonte’s “paradox” on logical grounds. His equation of freedom with uncertainty is a hoary fallacy: freedom is not indeterminacy, but self- determination, for which knowledge is not an obstacle but a prerequisite. And anyone who harbors the slightest strain of residual positivism will find it flaring up when Chiaromonte prescribes humility before “the eternally impenetrable whole” and “all that is ineffable, arcane, and secret in the world” as a cure for “the sickness of our times.”

But these objections miss much of the point and all the undeniable power of Chiaromonte’s warning. What he meant, I believe, is not that an “idyllic and constant harmony” among human beings would be sterile or oppressive, but that it is unattainable; that perfectibility is the premise of utopianism, a premise empirically disproved by fascism, Stalinism, and mechanized global war. In “Summer 1914” the pragmatic Antoine Thibault exclaims, with love and exasperation, to his brother Jacques, a socialist dreamer: “You will not succeed in changing man!” Jacques trembles with defiance and doubt—for these characters, the question of Progress is still open, which is why Chiaromonte calls “Summer 1914” “the last great novel of the classical nineteenth century.” For Chiaromonte in 1966, after half a century of barbarism, the question is closed. Utopianism in the late 20th century is at best contemptible naiveté, at worst a murderous pretext. The party of humanity has been reduced, for the time being, to chastened silence.

Do these dark counsels represent the beginning of wisdom or a failure of nerve? Perhaps both. The quality of Chiaromonte’s thinking (not to mention his biography) inspires immense respect, even trust. And anyone who could live through the horrors experienced by Chiaromonte’s generation without an occasional loss of nerve must simply have lacked imagination. Mass murder is awful enough; mass murder rationalized by appeals to science and socialism— this must have seemed to “progressive” intellectuals like the death of all hope.

Hope is a sturdy weed, though. Two years after Chiaromonte traveled to the New World to deliver his gloomy meditation on the necessity for limits, the gayest of revolutions broke out in the Old World, tossing off, among innumerable impudent slogans, “All Power to the Imagination” and “Love Without Limit, Play Without Restraint, Live Without Dead Time.” ‘To his credit, Chiaromonte met the French student revolt with the wisest, most generous response of any from his generation. He challenged the students to adopt a “nonrhetorical form of ‘total rejection’”; that is, to “detach them selves without shouting or riots, indeed, in silence and secrecy; not alone but in groups, in real ‘societies’ that will create, as far as possible, 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.” This is a skeptical voice, but not a cynical one. It is, at any rate, a far cry from neoconservatism. The 20th century hurt Chiaromonte into metaphysics, but not into despair, and still less into callous chauvinism.

Camus is not mentioned in “The Paradox of History”, but I suspect Chiaromonte’s book was written under the influence of “The Rebel”. There is the same rejection of ideology, concentration on art and literature, impossibly high-flown prose style, distaste for programmatic detail, and stress on limits and Mediterranean mèsure. Both are unforgettably eloquent about what must not be done and irritatingly vague about what, if anything, should be done. They are, in their way, the dernier cri of 20th century literary radicalism, by which I mean the attempt to derive from art a criticism of politics and an explanation of the apparently inexplicable history of this century. Nowadays their legacy has been claimed by the Parisian “new philosophers” —a sad dénouement to an honorable enterprise.

Chiaromonte was no Cold Warrior—nor were the rest of the “virtuous” cohort. They were not any sort of warrior, except insofar as they proposed, in Camus’s words, “to fight within History to preserve from History that part of man which is not its proper province.” What this meant was not a retreat from politics into art, but a desire to infuse politics with the values of art: intellectual detachment, emotional honesty, imaginative fullness. That was, and remains, a radical program.