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The worm of consciousness and other essays…

The worm of consciousness and other essays

by Nicola Chiaromonte

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Far from longing for Heaven, I simply want to see things as they are (and not as they are interpreted by me).
—Nicola Chiaromonte

An irresistible title, discovered quite by accident in the local treasure that is Troubadour Books. The epigraph consists of lines from Czesław Miłosz:

You pronounce a name, but it is not known to anyone.

Either because that man had died, or because
He was famous on the banks of another river

This is a collection of beautifully composed, thought-provoking essays—erudite without being stuffy—published between 1948 and 1969 in various European and American literary journals. I was unfamiliar with Chiaromonte and his river, but am glad to have found him.

The first of three sections compiles essays under the heading “Experience.” Chiaromonte contemplates the national character of his native country (“Italy is no place for categorical imperatives”), continuity and change in Rome (“where one may find the Fanatic and the Cynic, but not the Heretic”), and the tragic comradeship of Italians abroad—among partisans in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance—which he tellingly contrasts with the student revolt of the 1960s and the longing for an Authority worthy of respect. The observations are personal without being sentimental, engagé but unpretentious, and reflective of the best kind of humanism. He also enjoys reading the crime pages of Le Figaro in a Paris café (and in particular the tale of the machine a étrangler, which he describes as a “little masterpiece of sadistic imagination”) and declaiming on the inscrutability of Gandhi (“an absurdly logical man”), illuminated by an evocatively drawn parallel with Tolstoy. All in all, these bits make for a fascinating first-draft interpretation of the near-past.

The second set of essays (“Criticism”) treats of literature in the theatre—an art form with which I am admittedly mostly unfamiliar, but I found plenty here to chew on. There are pieces on Dante’s appeal to “the mind’s eye,” Pirandello and the humorous concept of art, the “cruel, cathartic gnosticism” of Antonin Artaud, the political drama of Aeschylus and Brecht, and the “ceremonial” theatre of Genet. The title essay considers the work of Alberto Moravia, who for Chiaromonte excelled at depicting the discordance between an expansive human consciousness and quotidian reality, and the recurring “monotonous collisions” that reveal reality as finally overwhelming in its banality. What impresses Chiaromonte is not the writer’s narrative skills so much as his capacity to present convincingly the mental uneasiness triggered by a gesture, or physical contact, or the crushing repetition of our response to the mundane. Chiaromonte suggests that literature can be both an expression of and a shield against such “psychological nausea.”

Chiaromonte’s writing on politics, ethics, and the idea of liberty in the last section (“Speculation”) shows up the poverty of what passes for social and political commentary nowadays. He is particularly good on one of the great themes in modernist literature, namely the tension between individual consciousness and the constraints of social life:

To live in a mass society means automatically to perform acts that are not free; doing what one does not because it is natural, and not even because one considers it positively useful, but because one wishes to avoid the complications and bad results that would come (for oneself and for others) from acting differently…What matters to the individual consciousness is that one feels subject to an overwhelming force that comes neither from a moral norm nor from the sum of individual demands, but simply from the fact of collective existence… Existence is deprived of meaning when it is reduced to a long series of obligatory and indifferent acts…Individual consciousness then is suspended, obscured, doubted…

Though too often treated by technocrats and intellectuals as an assemblage of interchangeable parts, mass society is also an “ensemble of individuals,” writes Chiaromonte, with each of us facing the challenge of “finding room” while living in a crowd:

…the person next to me is a stranger, and at the same time, reflects at every point my own condition. Thus reflected by him, my condition is not the “human condition” in general, my “nature” is not the human nature of the novelists and philosophers, but, so to speak, what is left over.

What is left over is still enough, though,

and the fact remains that we do not leave the cave in a mass, but only one by one, each helping the other.

Chiaromonte finds room with a bit of Plato, a bit of Walt Whitman. I thought of another few lines from Miłosz:

Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I know what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature
. ( )
  HectorSwell | Dec 12, 2012 |
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