Nicola Chiaromonte

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 989

Mr. Bentley has tried to deal with a very important subject [in "A Century of Hero-Worship"]: the undeniable split that took place toward the middle of the nineteenth century between humanitarian ideals and intellectual developments, so that when eventually the Western world found itself confronted with a resurgence of political despotism, the intellectuals and the artists seemed to be, if not on the side of despotism, at least indifferent to it….

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Having been struck by the fact that Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, Spengler, D. H. Lawrence and Stefan George have in common an anti-democratic attitude, Mr. Bentley has tried to show that they have in common also a philosophy, or at least a Weltanschauung. And having thought that they have in common a Weltanschauung, he has tried to show that the essence of this world attitude is also the essence of the modern attack on democracy. Both steps were absolutely unwarranted, so that the series of intellectual biographies sketched by Mr. Bentley is completely blurred, and the justification that there might have been for his attempt utterly shattered. Having chosen to take at their face value such concepts as vitalism, historicism and heroism, Mr. Bentley ends in confusion and insecurity, a confusion and an insecurity that are apparent from the very beginning.

The title of the book would seem to suggest that from 1840, the date of Carlyle's lectures on heroes, until 1940, the date of Hitler's scalp dance at compiègne, the outstanding and most significant intellectual attitude in European culture has been the cult of the heroic in history…. We open the volume and in the Foreword we find that, "In this book, the word heroism does not mean just any sort of human goodness. It has reference to a philosophy of life that was intended by its champions to be to the centuries that lie ahead more than Catholicism ever was to the Middle Ages. The half-dozen minds examined in the following pages do not come together by accident." What they have in common is that "each has one foot in the democratic camp and one in the fascist camp." (p. 526)

The trouble with Mr. Bentley is that he is totally incapable of remaining faithful to a single one of the assumptions on which his effort is supposed to be based. As soon as the stream becomes perilous, he quickly changes horses. What he does with Heroic Vitalism, his basic concept, is quite typical of his technique. The clearest meaning of this phrase, as far as one can understand, is: the cult of the Hero plus the cult of the Life Force. These concepts are extremely hazy and should be defined, since it is obviously difficult to include under the same heading a conception of the hero such as Carlyle's which embraces Doctor Johnson together with Frederick II, and Nietzsche's Superman, which is certainly a very ambiguous notion but not to the point of including indiscriminately poets, prelates and kings, all men "of courage and nobility" (which is one definition Mr. Bentley gives of the hero, although by no means the only one). And how far does Heroic Vitalism have to be stretched in order to hold G. B. Shaw and D. H. Lawrence at the same time?

Mr. Bentley is well aware of the difficulty. In fact, I should say that he is aware how impossible it is to maintain that the Hero and the Life Force can have the same meaning in Carlyle and in Shaw, in Spengler and in Wagner, in Nietzsche and in D. H. Lawrence…. He starts by hinting that only Carlyle and Nietzsche are actually related to each other, the only authentic Heroic Vitalists. He applies psychoanalysis to them, and finds out that both Carlyle and Nietzsche lost not only their fathers but their Gods; hence in both, a spasmodic longing for the breast and the womb, and unfortunate relations with women; hence, the strong ambivalence in their philosophies. In comparison with such striking parallels, the other characters of the book are just tangential Hero-Worshipers (although the great family of Heroic Vitalists still clutches them to its bosom).

But Mr. Bentley has hardly begun to talk when he finds himself saying that, after all, Carlyle is "perhaps even closer to the exponent of historical Nietzscheanism, Oswald Spengler" than to Nietzsche. And when he speaks about Spengler, he is obliged to admit that Spengler's hero "has not much control over the destined course of history." In fact, as Mr. Bentley knows, Spengler has no use at all for individuals, the only individualities (provided with a soul) being for him the organisms he calls Cultures. The conclusion would seem to be: Exeunt both the Hero and the Superman. But not for Mr. Bentley, who goes on expounding in eight belabored and numbered paragraphs how Carlyle, Nietzsche and Spengler blessedly communicate in Heroic Vitalism (although he graciously admits that "Spengler's idea of the hero is less various and suggestive")….

As for the political implications of Heroic Vitalism, and more especially its relationship to liberalism and democracy, it is difficult to discuss them, since these terms are accepted by him on their most commonplace and propagandistic levels, so that they are completely meaningless. So meaningless, in fact, that in the peroration of his book Mr. Bentley is able to exclaim: "What is more basic to democracy than 'careers open to talent' …?" and to find the slogan of a future rejuvenated democracy in this well known Napoleonic motto, the universal bait of despots.

Mr. Bentley could have written a sensible and modest series of essays, like the chapter on Stefan George, which is at least informative. He has written instead a pretentious and confused book. And one wouldn't even mind the confusion so much were the author not so excessively wary. (p. 528)

Nicola Chiaromonte, "From Carlyle to Shaw," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1944 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 3, No. 17, October 23, 1944, pp. 526, 528.

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