Book Reviews - Summer 2020

A Lifelong Habit of Being

Exploring a fundamentally ambiguous attribute

By Elizabeth D. Samet | June 2, 2020
Miranda - The Tempest (1916) by John William Waterhouse (Wikimedia Commons)
Miranda - The Tempest (1916) by John William Waterhouse (Wikimedia Commons)

Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession by Marjorie Garber; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp., $30

Days after the 9/11 attacks, Susan Sontag noted the frequency with which the hijackers were being charged with cowardice: “[W]hatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter,” she insisted in The New Yorker, “they were not cowards.” Sontag’s commentary outraged many readers, but her description of courage as “a morally neutral virtue” has a rich history. It finds an 18th-century analogue in Samuel Johnson’s observation that even a highwayman can manifest this quality. “We have more respect for a man who robs boldly on the highway, than for a fellow who jumps out of a ditch, and knocks you down behind your back,” Johnson said. “Courage is a quality so necessary for maintaining virtue,” he added incisively, “that it is always respected, even when it is associated with vice.” What Johnson and Sontag recognized about courage might also be said of other elements of character. Ambition, for example, is another fundamentally ambiguous attribute that incites wars just as readily as it cures disease. Neither quality, in and of itself, can testify to the existence of good character.

That the noun character calls for the modifier good is itself suggestive. “Neither too technical nor too colloquial, the word ‘character’ has become a catchall term for a certain aspect of human … comportment,” writes Marjorie Garber in Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession. “But if you push on the word itself, it often turns out to be enigmatic and elusive.” It cries out, in other words, for definition and elaboration. Among the many things the term can signify, Garber offers the following: “an incised mark, a moral idea, a type, a literary persona, a physical or physiological manifestation … an ingredient in drama, and the goal of various advocates of self-help.”

Garber, an English professor at Harvard, has set out to trace this slippery concept through the Western imagination from Aristotle’s ethics to the present-day boom in leadership studies. Character is animated by the same formidable intellectual energy and restless curiosity that led Garber from her original academic home in Shakespeare studies to books on cross-dressing, dog love, and real estate. Her latest work is encyclopedic, eclectic, and swift moving: Plutarch, Theophrastus, John Stuart Mill, George Washington hagiographer Parson Weems, Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, and (perhaps inevitably) Donald Trump all make appearances.

Character explores not only the linguistic and ethical but also the sociological, psychological, scientific, and pseudoscientific dimensions of its subject. Garber calls on politics, sport, celebrity, the idea of national character, phrenology, and psychoanalysis, among other subjects, to address fundamental questions that have swirled around character from antiquity: Is it fixed or variable? Innate or acquired? And if the latter, how can it best be taught? How can we tell when an individual’s behavior is “in” or “out” of character? Garber is especially good on the intersection of character and gender, in particular on the relationship traditionally asserted between the cultivation of character and ideas of masculine honor.

The book’s most engaging chapter, “Seeing It,” centers on attempts across the centuries to “read” character by means of physiognomy, gesture, photography, and dramatic performance. “Human nature is a literary artifact,” Garber writes, “and the experts in it are the poets.” Garber’s book provides ample evidence that works of the literary imagination—drama but also poetry and the novel—have strongly influenced generations of social and natural scientists concerned with accounting for human character. It is no accident that the characters of Shakespeare, so often credited with a peerless ability to dramatize introspection, have routinely been invoked by scientists ranging from Darwin to Freud. (The book’s defense of Freud as a literary critic at a moment when his reputation as a scientist has taken such a battering is particularly welcome.)

“It is often Shakespeare who defines character and character types for the modern world,” Garber writes, yet the majority of her attention to his texts is mediated. She explores at length the readings of others yet tends to stint on her own always provocative analysis. As a result, the full complexity of Shakespeare’s insights into character remain underexplored. So do the extraordinary insights of his age: with its rejuvenation of ancient thinkers, its interest in emulation and production of various books designed to instruct the behavior of magistrates and princes, and its simultaneous aspirational humanism and practical realpolitik, the Renaissance was preoccupied with character in all its complexity and potential duplicity.

The most insightful theorists of character tend to be the most skeptical. Thus I found myself wanting to hear Garber’s take on Montaigne’s essay “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” which grapples with the question of integrity. “Those who strive to account for a man’s deeds are never more bewildered,” Montaigne writes, “than when they try to knit them into one whole and to show them under one light, since they commonly contradict each other in so odd a fashion that it seems impossible that they should all come out of the same shop.” Human beings are, he argues, nests of self-contradiction, and it is almost impossible to find the thread that makes us hang together.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is Montaigne’s kindred spirit. Popular among character theorists, he makes frequent appearances in Character, but Garber does not address his most vertiginous meditation, occasioned by his mother’s complaint that Hamlet is showing too much grief (mourning clothes, downcast eyes) for his dead father. Loss is common, she tells him; “Why seems it so particular with thee?” Hamlet replies,

“Seems,” madam! nay it is; I know not “seems.”
’Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ’havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed “seem,”
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

What begins as a protestation about the sincerity of Hamlet’s grief turns into an alarming revelation that we are all of us performers whose internal characters are inaccessible to external proofs. We can never be quite sure that outward form corresponds to inner truth.

Hamlet here casts doubt on all those who express a faith in character as a kind of polestar, visible to all. His salubrious doubt seems a far more productive starting point than does the unwarranted certitude of those who cry, This is not who I am!—or This is not who we are!—in order to account for bad behavior. Garber observes near the end of her book that this utterance has today “become a standard comment that purports to be somehow exculpatory.” The increasingly popular description of institutional character as “our DNA” has a similar sureness and smugness. It is the antithesis of the kind of introspection that is the best hope for understanding and improving character in an age that, as Garber writes, suffers from the “category error” of misreading character as a “merit badge” rather than a “lifelong process,” as some mystical “essence” rather than “a habit of being.”

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