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.
36 comments from readers
I am reminded of the song, "They Can't Take That Away from Me." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExmoiGZuiFQ The singer is in love with the little things about the person they're singing to. In love, just as in art, the details are magnified to an almost unendurable degree of poignancy. Even when it's something sad, as in the Pieta, even when it is something evil, it makes us feel life is special.
I think that some sensitive or artistic people believe the exquisite is enough. It isn't, of course. We need moral ideals, we need art that helps us make sense of the world. We even need pastoral beauty (something Rand was not big on). It's more complicated than any one thing, but I believe that intellectual rigor combined with a sense of the exquisite would energize a person and lift them up to a new level of life. That's what I'm trying for, anyway.
The use of the exquisiteness does not add any clarity for me, however. If you're going to introduce a new concept to try to describe a special esthetic phenomenon, I think it needs to be made specific and clear, which isn't easy to do.
In one part, it seemed that you were mainly using the term as a substitute for "perfection" or an "ideal". But later it seemed to mean something about a conflicted or mixed character that was fascinating because of that mixture (I think).
A lot of what you are responding to strikes me as explained by the concepts of perfection and ideal. Corleone as a character is an idealization based on the standard of his values (as bad as many of them are), and it is fascinating to see how it plays out. Roark was explicitly designed as an ideal man, and while some will find him strange because of his radical inability to concern himself with other people -- by the standard of his values, his perfection in relation to those values is exciting to understand through the novel. Caeser's bust exudes a strength of character and idealized masculinty created through a remarkable stylistic and technical skill.
In any case, other than fitting some of the detailed phenomena you mention into these esthetic/moral concepts, I otherwise can't get a good handle on "exquisite".
I grant that the concept is hard to define. That's partly because it includes the idea that the qualities of a really good character cannot be deduced from a philosophical abstraction. Roark doesn't have to be strange to be independent: Dr Stockmann in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People isn't strange in the same way. Nor does an independent person have to to love the earth like Roark does. And yet those attributes come together to form a "perfect" whole.
So the point of the exquisite is that it contains particular and unexpected combinations of traits that create a vividly individual character, while at the same time representing a philosophical or psychological principle perfectly.The exquisite is the particular in the abstract.
Note that the vividness depends on the unexpected combination. This need not involve conflic, but it needs to be unexpected because a really striking person cannot be predicted: he is a fresh integration.
I have been struggling with this concept for several months and I don't think I've got it quite right yet. Perfect and ideal don't cover it because they don't focus enough on the exact nature of the particular traits involved.
I hope to write other essays about exquisite characters and to make the idea clearer as I go along. I'll leave you with a "perfect" example of the exquisite: George S. Patton in the movie Patton. He is definitely a surprising combination of individual traits that adds up to an integrated whole. He is the consummate soldier, soldierly to an absurd extent.
I've had a similar emotional / intelectual experience to the ones described here in the Prado museum of Madrid, where there's a portrait of a nun (a nun!) by Velazquez that left me mesmerized: here is a woman who has clearly "seen it all and knows it all", most probably in the more negative sense of this expression. Afterwards, I read about the woman portrayed: in the 16th century, this nun had travelled from Madrid to the Philippines and back... twice! Sailed accross the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and crossed Mexico on a donkey... 4 TIMES! Imagine the things she saw and lived! Imagine the situations she had to deal with!
Thank you Velazquez for this portrait, and thank you Kurt Keefner for this article!
In music there's something called "tempo giusto" - "the right tempo." It feels natural because it's the pace of the resting heart. I don't know if there is a term for the pace of normal breathing, but that's probably the speed I mean. Just musing here.
Here is a link to an inset of her:
And detail of her face:
But no online image does her justice, so one must see her in person. :o)
The critique from anyone other than a peer is meaningless. If another individual finds a connection with the work-that is wonderful and compliments are enjoyed and appreciated. But that said, the work done is for the artists' pleasure.
I have seen and heard explanations of the 'how-why-when' from phd's that didn't know the difference between Paul Klee and Goya. The students sitting through these 'teachings' didn't recieve any useful information and I am sure appreciate their childrens refrigerator art with more 'appreciation' than the works of 'the Masters', and rightfully so.
Your article is enjoyable to me and I share your feeling. Me thinks you should have been a teacher-good choice for a career-, as you cover this area wonderfully and students would have good things to dwell and reflect on.
In the words of Maestro Brooks, "Hhrrummph!"
I don't want to be a fanboy and relate everything I see to one of Rand's characters, but Caesar reminds me of Gail Wynand, the self-made aristocrat certain of his power. Of course, Caesar was certain of HIS power, too, and look what happened to him!
Is there something specific that he did?
I enjoyed the other character studies.
While it certainly true that Caesar did some constructive things--fixing the calendar comes to mind--he did become dictator for life, effectively scuttling what was left of the Roman Republic. That alone would make him not an agent of freedom.
I haven't read any serious histories of Caesar. Just popular accounts and novels and the like. But it seems to me that Caesar was a member of a generation that did not know what to do. Caesar didn't really fix the Republic or even create a stable empire. In fact he was about to troop off to fight the Parthians when the Senators got him. Brutus and the conspirators did not know what to do: they thought that after they killed Caesar, the Republic would magically re-establish itself. Antony knew enough to go after the conspirators, but after that he just wanted to lie around with Cleopatra.
In the end only Octavian knew what he wanted and what to do to get it. Which is why Rome ended up an empire. There were no Founding Fathers in Rome to craft a workable Constitutions. Alas.
Jefferson? Screaming ENTP.
Lincoln, INFJ or INFP leaning towards P... but base personality, NF
Leaving Roosevelt: SP (Wanna attack uphill? Sure!) ESTP
There's a reason for that little sculpture...
The Founders of the United States attempted, by a brilliant system of checks and balances (which has since then been partially destroyed) to protect against oligarchy at the same time as limiting the propensity of democracy to empower demagogues with despotic authority. That's why, for example, under the original Constitution the only federal representative a citizen could vote for was to the House of Representatives (House districts at the time comprised only about 50,000-70,000 citizens, compared to today's 700,000 or so).
Interesting Ratio info... hadn't thought that way before.
The way I've held it condensed was as a type of certainty they have about themselves.
And that certainty is where I think the pre philosophic part you sense may stem from.
But for the sake of differentiation, could you name a couple of characters that do not have it?
What change would make a character who has this quality lose it?
I saw the modern Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes and was impressed. Coriolanus is not exquisite IMO, but more of an archetype: the perfect soldier.
Characters who are not exquisite abound. Peter Keating. Polonius. Many good characters (both moral and well-drawn) do not rise to the level of the exquisite. Coriolanus. Francisco d'Anconia (in my opinion).
If you're asking what would cause an exquisite character to become non-exquisite, my main answer would probably be giving up. No examples come to mind, however.
Thanks for writing!
Is that your real name?
I might agree that personality is shaped by traits like sense of life and psycho-epistemollgy and that these things are implicit, somewhat emotional equivalents to philosophy. But I would say that while these things are formed in the context of the ideas in one's culture, they are formed by the individual in his developmental struggle to define his way of being and that furthermore, sense of life, psycho-epistemology, attitude, wisdom or folly form an irreducibly complex integration. (Hope no one minds me borrowing a phrase from creationism there.)
When a portrayal of such an integration adds up to something definite and includes fresh individual notes, then you get the exquisite.
I read about how Rand put you off literature. She didn't put me off it.
Rand was a great thinker. She was the clearest, most concise, most unambiguous, most direct communicator I've had the pleasure of encountering.
She was the Roark of writers.
And I owe her the way my life has been and I'm grateful for that. I am unabashedly, an Objectivist and a Randian (and I use the word here deliberately for a reason)
But she wasn't great literature. Hugo was. Is. As a writer, the mental horizon he explores is so vast, so heroic, so unbelievably deep that the description of a cannon set loose on a ship's deck can leave you breathless. I can think of a few screenplay writers other than Puzo --- Inherit the Wind, Return of the Dark Knight (It's not who you are inside, it's what you do that matters) -- that are also breathtaking in their "exquisiteness" as you call it.
But what I want to talk to you about -- since you are a student of philosophy -- is something more fundamental. A concept you are clearly, acutely aware of.
Our identity as "human beings" BEFORE we find our philosophies. More specifically, BEFORE we find Rand. It's something, I think a lot of us are aware of but rarely speak of.
I've been thinking about this for a long time. A lot of our identities are formed by the choices we make before we meet Rand.
Roark is Roark before he solidifies his position on people. Rearden and Dagny are who they are before they meet Galt or Francisco. Wynand is Wynand and meeting Roark shows him what he COULD HAVE BEEN.
Our choices, our response to our cultural milieu and our environment, has already made us -- at a very fundamental level -- who we are.
The philosophical framework that we then encounter and chose to adopt -- it gives us the words for who we are.
I think Rand is fine for those who find in her an Echo. Find themselves identifying, if you must, with one of her "exquisite characters" so to speak. Which, in Atlas Shrugged would have to be Hank Rearden. In Fountainhead, Roark. In We the Living, surprisingly Andrei Taganov.
For those who DON'T find an echo in Rand but something they should ASPIRE to, she's probably a very dangerous influence. That's why so many turn away from her at some point.
Because fundamental character reasserts itself, as it should and must. That deep a conflict of the soul is not good for anyone.
For those who think they can take her political philosophy and leave her moral philosophy alone, forget that she was above all a logician. It's too intertwined.
But she was also incomplete. Not having explored relationships of a wife, mother, daughter, son and father -- having perhaps not truly experienced them -- she had little to say about that.
For those, it is assumed that she is cold and logical and calculating.
However, on closer look, she is anything but.
Andrei Taganov's feelings for Dagny are anything but. Hank Rearden's tolerance for his family are anything but. Roark's patient waiting for Dominique Francon to get over her fear, over two marriages -- they all speak of a vast kindness, an enormous capacity for understanding and great nuance.
But, I digress.
My proposition simply is -- Rand is okay if she's an echo. Dangerous if she's an aspiration.