Eric (Russell) Bentley Nicola Chiaromonte - Essay

Nicola Chiaromonte

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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….

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...

(The entire section is 989 words.)