˝In these essays Nicola Chiaromonte deals with a single theme: the contradictions inherent in the optimistic belief that man is master of his historical destiny. The author maintains that this belief, prevalent in the nineteenth century, still dominates our thinking. Faith in history is, he believes, a form of relativism which leads to the pursuit of truth in action, so that politics, war and violence are seen to be of the highest value. At this point nihilism sets in.
Instead of developing an abstract argument, Mr Chiaromonte attempts to trace the awareness of these contradictions in some nineteenth and twentieth century novels. Stendhal's reduction of the Battle of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma to a Series of absurd incidents, and Tolstoy's attack on the Napoleonic myth in War and Peace are seen to question the belief that man can fulfil his nature through acts attempting to `change the world'. The collapse of the optimistic view of history and its replacement by nihilism is exemplified, thinks Mr Chiaromonte, in Summer 1914, the last part of Roger Martin du Gard's great novel, The Thibaults.
André Malraux's novels and Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago are taken as further developments of the central problem, and a final essay deals with modern man's state of bad faith, engendered by the impossibility of reconciling his nihilism with his effort to believe that he can control his destiny. And so through his faith in history and the conviction that the world can be changed by war, man has once again come face to face with Fate and the Greek `theion', that hidden power which lies beyond all names and acts.˝
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