Book Reviews - Summer 2020

A Lifelong Habit of Being

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Exploring a fundamentally ambiguous attribute

By Elizabeth D. Samet | June 2, 2020
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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.”

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