The Worm of Consciousness, and Other Essays Essay - Critical Essays

Nicola Chiaromonte

The Worm of Consciousness, and Other Essays

In his lifetime, Nicola Chiaromonte published only two books—La Situazione Drammatica, a collection of his writings on the theater, and The Paradox of History. Both works received only scant attention in England and the United States. The Worm of Consciousness, a posthumous collection of essays, should finally attract the serious attention that Chiaromonte merits. It is the ultimate product of a mind that was intimately associated with the conflicting philosophies of the twentieth century.

After completing his education at the University of Rome, Chiaromonte fled the Fascists and went into self-imposed exile in Paris in 1934. In 1936 he was in Spain fighting for the Spanish Republic, flying with André Malraux’s Republican squadron. When the Germans invaded France he fled to Algeria, where he became friends with Camus. In 1941 he arrived in New York and became part of the circle of intellectuals who wrote for Dwight Macdonald’s Politics. Chiaromonte, who by this time had experienced some of the traumas of European liberalism, added a certain philosophical dimension to this group which was trying to maintain a radical outlook while abandoning Marxism. His literary acquaintances in New York also included Mary McCarthy, Meyer Schapiro, and James T. Farrell. After barely eking out his living writing essays for such journals as Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Partisan Review, and Politics, he returned to Italy in 1947 and became drama critic for the liberal weekly II Mondo. Between 1956 and 1968 he edited the monthly Tempo Presente with Ignazio Silone.

Chiaromonte avoided the mainstreams of Italian intellectual life and was consequently fated to isolation in his lifetime. Much of his problem and yet something of an asset, as revealed in The Worm of Consciousness, was his refusal to be labeled intellectually. He was neither Marxist nor anti-Communist, neither existential nor New Leftist. Fashions and schools all repelled him, thus he was not widely acclaimed by any group. He died in 1972, relatively unknown outside Italy.

The Worm of Consciousness is an impressive collection of writings representative of the author’s interests—the interaction of political authority and modern freedom, the role of the intellectual and the influence of mass culture on the humanist tradition. Included also are statements on Dante, Pirandello, the practice of criticism, and the political theater. The book is enriched by the inclusion of several memoirs which blend a mixture of personal modesty with an assurance that the path of history threads through the author’s experience—a kind of reflection possible only in an age of mass communication in which the humblest person can find himself caught up in world history.

Chiaronmonte’s essays constitute a testament to the impact of the philosophies and events of this century upon an alert and incisive mind. He might occasionally be wrong, but he is never deluded. In her preface to this collection, Mary McCarthy adroitly points out that Chiaromonte’s ideas do not fit into an established category; “he was neither on the left nor on the right. Nor did it follow that he was in the middle; he was alone.” Though his thought remains faithful in its way to philosophical anarchism, he had no belief in political “effectiveness.” His experiences in the Spanish Civil War had cured him, personally, of any hope for the application of force to the realm of ethics and ideals. He was immune to those fevers of twentieth century politics which have made so many intellectuals discover that there is always something they value just a little more than freedom.

The political essays embody a rational effort to identify those currents of thought and feeling that have enabled totalitarianism to flourish in our time. The Western intellectual, according to Chiaromonte, is unaware of the greatest threat to freedom—the advanced regimentation of collective life. This is an inevitable consequence of the “uncontrolled and uncontrollable authority” bred by the egalitarianism peculiar to industrial society. The author considered freedom the only guarantee of human dignity, and a free man was a man who could think for himself. Chiaromonte makes 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, he explains, descend like opaque curtains between ourselves and our real situation. They violate what he calls “the sacred boundary that separates ideas from facts.”...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)