Books: Cultural Amnesia — Benedetto Croce |
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Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) was the philosopher of twentieth-century Italy. One says “the” philosopher because nobody else came close, and even those intellectuals who disagreed with him most violently—Giovanni Gentile, who pledged allegiance to Fascism, was one of them—were obliged to take account of what he said. A practising politician as well as a political theorist, Croce was impressed by Mussolini in the beginning but soon saw the threat to liberalism. He went into internal exile and continued with his writing. After the war Croce was offered the presidency of Italy but declined, although in other respects he was crucial to the rebuilding of the country’s liberal institutions. Lending him almost irresistible force as a thinker was the riverine flow and clarity of his prose style, fully equal to Shaw at his best, but without the paradoxes. Unfortunately no comparable stylist ever tried to translate him, and although some of his central works were brought over into English, they never had the influence that was their due. (An admirer of R. G. Collingwood would object to these assessments, but few admirers of Collingwood are aware that his indebtedness to Croce attained the level of mimicry, which always belittles the original.) In the 1960s I learned quite a lot of Italian by reading almost everything Croce wrote, and emerged from the experience with a lasting admiration for his range of understanding. When he didn’t understand something, however, he brought all his powers of expression to bear on saying the wrong thing: a salutary lesson in the relationship between style and substance.

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Attempts to determine the place of art have, until now, looked for that place either at the peak of the theoretical spirit or in the vicinity of philosophy itself. But if, so far, no satisfactory result has been obtained, might it not be because of the obstinacy of looking too high? Why not turn the attempt on its head, and instead of proposing the hypothesis that art is one of the highest grades, if not the highest grade, of the theoretical spirit, propose instead the inverted and opposite hypothesis, that it is one of the lowest, even the lowest of all?


AS ALWAYS, CROCE defeats ordinary expectation by looking for the creative impulse in the natural instinct rather than in the developed mind. The secret of his fecundity as a thinker was to open up possibilities rather than close them off, and he always did so by demoting the adept. According to him, a heart in the right place, rather than a mind in a high state of training, was the more likely source of truth, and the only source of creativity. Art, far from being the furthermost refinement of intelligence, came before thought, and was as natural as breathing. Croce’s guess was that the first human beings sang before they spoke. He was certainly right that they drew before they wrote, and wrote poetry before they wrote prose.

Such propositions from Croce, when taken all at once, can sound like paradox-mongering. But he made them consistent. Over the vast range of his fundamental works—leaving the incidental works aside, which it takes a separate room to do—the key concepts are thoroughly and concretely worked out, abetting each other without friction. The best way of summing up their effect is to say that they show how the instinct to live and grow is channelled through creativity towards mentality. If he had given the mind the precedence over art, he would have been inhibited in his explanatory powers. He did the opposite, and released them. Released, they could give a reasoned account of what he saw in the street: all the busy littleness that was so astonishing in its prodigality and variety of imagination. He always thought that there must be something wrong with an overarching concept if a necessary mental activity withered in its shadow. For a philosophy to be true, he believed, its proponent had to be able to write history. (One of the reasons he thought religions were incomplete philosophies was that no religion can tell the truth about the past.) For an aesthetic to be valid, its proponent had to be able to write criticism. That second idea was especially valuable to his successors. Its effect was to humanize in advance the Italian critical tradition as it extended without a notable break into the modern period. Italy’s left-wing theorists, for example, unlike those in other countries, have always felt obliged to show due tact when treating the arts as a political expression, thereby acknowledging Croce’s warnings against doing such a thing to any degree at all. (Not even the red radical Gramsci could afford to ignore Croce.)

One of Croce’s precepts was paraphrased by Eugenio Montale when he said: “It isn’t the man who wants to who continues the tradition, it’s the man who can, and sometimes he’s the man who knows least about it.” It was one of the sentences that made Montale almost as famous a critic as he was a poet, but he would not have been able to write it if he had not read Croce first, and Montale’s very next sentence was one that Croce could have written himself. “To this end, programmes and good intentions are of little use.” Montale’s echo of Croce—or, if you like, Croce’s presaging of Montale—is an example of the continuity that makes Italian literary culture so satisfying in its coherence. We should remember, however, that there are Italians who find it too coherent, to the point of being hidebound. They would prefer a story big enough to get lost in, in the way that we get lost in ours. We don’t feel obliged to read our philosophers before we read our critics. In Italy there is one philosopher whom everyone has to read before they read anything else, down to and including the instruction manual for a new washing machine.