About 20 years ago my wife and I were walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when, at the end of a corridor, I came upon a bust of Julius Caesar. It was made about 500 years ago by Andrea Ferrucci. He seemed so real, I felt a jolt when I saw him.
The statue portrays Caesar at the age of 45 or 50, showing some wrinkles, but still quite vigorous. He’s a good looking man: thin, broad forehead, direct eyes, beautiful Roman nose, nice mouth, smallish jaw with a slightly prominent chin and a long neck. He’s wearing a magnificent breastplate with a screaming Medusa — to turn his enemies to stone, presumably — and a Roman eagle.
But it’s the expression Ferrucci gave Caesar that really impressed me. He has his head a little cocked as if he’s curious and amused. His eyes are intense, with creases at the corners and he is looking off to one side as if something had gotten his attention. His mouth is a little compressed, as if he is in control of himself. Overall he looks confident and composed, but also as if he is able to see the humor in things. He seems self-aware and self-assured.
Because of its casual posture and carved-in pupils and irises, the bust looks less stiff than most other statues, more natural. Yet it is a masterpiece of stylization. Ferrucci’s Caesar is idealized, compared to the traditional representation of the dictator as balding and maybe a bit past his prime. But the expression represents a triumph of characterization. I don’t know whether it is what Julius Caesar was actually like, but it is definitely the image of some kind of greatness.
The real Julius Caesar is not a hero of mine. He had many virtues, but he was an agent of Rome’s loss of freedom. The person in the bust, however, is a hero to me. You look at him and say “There is a man.” Nietzsche thought the real Caesar was a superman. I’m not sure I buy that concept, but this depiction does make the idea plausible.
However, it’s not greatness or heroism per se that most fascinates me about the bust. It’s another quality, which I have trouble pinning down. I call it the “exquisite.” It refers to a kind of perfection of character, so particular that it could be real and at the same time almost archetypal.
For example, the character of Howard Roark, in The Fountainhead, is exquisite. It’s not that he’s morally perfect; he keeps helping Keating, for example, when he shouldn’t. And it’s not that he’s psychologically perfect, either. Actually Roark is practically a freak. We’re talking about a man who is surprised to find himself thinking about a woman the day after he has sex with her for the first time.
He’s interesting because he’s a freak. What makes him special is he does not start out all tangled up with other people as the rest of us are. He has to learn to be connected. That learning process is an exquisite thing to watch.
Caesar was morally ambiguous and Roark was good, but I even appreciate, if that’s the right word, exquisiteness in the portrayal of evil. In The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey and Gail Wynand are both exquisite characters. Toohey gets the best dialogue Rand ever wrote. Wynand gets the second best.
Also on the evil side, I love Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Ever since the movie came out in 1972, Don Corleone has had a grip on the American mind. For a while, all young men had a Godfather impression. That’s because people sensed, without having the concept, that he was exquisite.
Interestingly, there’s a connection between Corleone and Caesar. According to the novel, Vito chose a path of crime because he refused to have his greatness crushed by a corrupt society. Furthermore, given his criminal behavior, Corleone is actually quite reasonable, and his evil deeds are tempered by his “family values.”
Corleone is also somewhat similar to Wynand, and both are romanticized notions of bad people. Real criminals, of course, are not generally so pure in their motives and are not exquisite.
All the examples I have discussed so far have been great men, in the sense of being larger-than-life human beings of superior ability. But an exquisite character need not be great in this sense, nor a man.
Take for example the character of Ripley as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the first Alien movie. She is a thinking person. She is not reactive. She is healthily assertive with the men on the spaceship. But she’s just a second officer on a towing vessel.
Still, I look at her and say “There is a woman!” And it’s not just the climactic duel between her and the alien that makes me say so. She’s admirable throughout the story. Sure, it’s just science fiction, but her character is still indelible.
Ripley is still impressive as a great survivor, even if she is not a “great woman” in a general sense. But greatness need not be a feature of the exquisite character at all. Take another of my favorite film personages: Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The story concerns a teacher at a private school for girls in 1930s Scotland. Jean tries to make her charges into something above the run of the mill, tries to bring some refinement into their lives. Unfortunately, this includes showing slides of her Italian vacation when she is supposed to be teaching history. Even more unfortunately, it includes her sharing her admiration for the Italian dictator Mussolini.
Jean is what I call a “pretender.” She adopts a false sense of life, not as a pose for others, but to try to become something she’s not. (I write at length about the pretender type in my forthcoming book Killing Cool.) The false sense of life that Jean adopts is one of “sophistication.” She believes in art and that all of her little girls are “the crème de la crème.” Jean, played artfully by Maggie Smith, is an exquisite example of the pretender.
But even Jean Brodie is still a formidable person. Exquisiteness can co-exist with vulnerability, too, and then it becomes a thing so piquant that it’s breathtaking. Look at this painting. It’s the sketch for “Alone Together,” and it’s by realist painter Maria Kreyn, who is based in New York.
I’ve given a lot of thought to what I love about this painting. I tried to look at it as I did the bust of Caesar. The woman is comforting the man, her fingers in his hair as he lays his head in the crook of her neck. She is not looking at him. She is looking off to one side, like Caesar, but I don’t think she’s looking at something specific. I think she’s looking at a source of her own private sorrow. She may share that sorrow with the man, but the pain is her own.
She is vulnerable, not controlled: her lips are parted. He skin is very pale and delicate, also a sign of vulnerability. She almost looks as if she is going to cry, but she doesn’t look like she’s breaking down. She just looks like she’s living with it, whatever it is. She seems present to her feelings.
Now I certainly don’t worship pain. But this woman is beautiful in her suffering. I almost imagine that this is a couple who has lost a child.
Some sadness is part of life. The only way you can avoid it is to withdraw from caring in a stoical or Buddhist fashion or to adopt some kind of Pollyannaish “It all happens for the best” attitude. But how much more life-affirming is it to face pain and go on? This painting shows us the answer to that question. That is its gift.
It’s very difficult for me to describe exactly what exquisiteness is and why I am in love with. It’s almost a cognitive thing rather than a moral quality: I love the perfect example of some human quality, even if it is not a morally admirable or happy quality. I love how a representation of a person can mix unexpected, even paradoxical, qualities and not come out just a muddle. I don’t belong to the cult of moral grayness, but freakish, ambiguous and even evil characters can be exquisitely subtle and therefore cognitively engaging.
Good art shows us what is possible for human beings, for better or worse. The best art gives us not just an abstraction of a single characteristic but a concretized embodiment of that trait, with all the individual notes. Roark is not an allegory of independence, but a fully realized person, freakish in his separateness, loyal to the earth, naïve at the novel’s opening when it comes to people. The unexpected, yet logical, juxtaposition of these traits and many others makes him seem real and at the same time becomes a whole too integrated to reduce to a philosophical abstraction.
I would compare exquisiteness to Rand’s concept of a “sense of life.” One could say that a person has a joyous or a tragic sense of life, just as one could say that Roark embodies the virtue of independence. But the individual notes that make a person unrepeatable would be missing. The joyous person always has something else going on, too: something a little mischievous, some silent wonder, a patient wisdom. And so it is with the exquisite character; that’s what makes him a presence.
The exquisite is a dimension of beauty that counts for a lot, sometimes even more than classical beauty or the sublime or even a moral ideal. The exquisite promises us that we will not fizzle out into a tepid gray puddle, but will continue to be interesting and alive. The exquisite energizes the mind by showing it what subtleties it is capable of grasping.
Human beings are the most fascinating thing in the known universe. Their specialness is prior to philosophy and, in a way, transcends it. Look at how Rand’s positive characters struggle to find philosophy. They are already something beautiful, if sometimes tortured, before they do find it. Roark never does find a full-fledged philosophy, just some isolated bits of truth. Ah, but there is a man!
We need to remind ourselves that philosophy serves life, not the other way around. Philosophy helps our natural inclinations find their proper ends, but those natural inclinations and our passion for living do not descend from philosophy — they motivate it. This way of looking at things leads to passion, and it is passion that makes one want to live, rather than merely not wanting to die.
The Reader’s Digest used to run a feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” At the risk of trivializing my meaning, I will say that that’s what I’m talking about: the most distinctive and impressive kinds of human beings, good or bad, happy or sad, pure or mixed. Such characters provide us with reassurance that we as a species are not ordinary, drab, and merely “nice.” They are pinnacles.
I’d like to know what you think. Do you believe in the idea of an unforgettable character who transcends good and bad? Was Francis Bacon right when he said, “There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion”? Please leave a message about one of your most unforgettable characters.
Kurt Keefner is a writer and teacher who studied philosophy at the University of Chicago. He lives near Washington, DC with his wife. His first book, Killing Cool, will be published in early 2013. His recent essay “Free Will: A Response to Sam Harris” is available from Amazon. Visit his blog at kurtkeefner.com.