This book examines charisma as the force in art, literature, and film that engages the reader's or viewer's consciousness and inspires admiration and imitation. Thirteen chapters analyze the workings of charisma and its effects, ranging from Homer to Woody Allen.

On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West

C. Stephen Jaeger

2012 | 440 pages | Cloth $69.95
Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Charisma and Art
Chapter 2. Living Art and Its Surrogates: The Genesis of Charismatic Art
Chapter 3. Odysseus Rising: The Homeric World
Chapter 4. Icon and Relic
Chapter 5. Charismatic Culture and Its Media: Gothic Sculpture and Medieval Humanism
Chapter 6. Romance and Adventure
Chapter 7. Albrecht Dürer's Self-Portrait (1500): The Face and Its Contents
Chapter 8. Book Burning at Don Quixote's
Chapter 9. Goethe's Faust and the Limits of the Imagination
Chapter 10. The Statue Changes Rilke's Life
Chapter 11. Grand Illusions: Classic American Cinema
Chapter 12. Lost Illusions: American Neorealism and Hitchcock's Vertigo
Chapter 13. Woody Allen: Allan Felix's Glasses and Cecilia's Smile


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The book on my desk, in the Loeb Classical Text series, puts together three works: Aristotle's Poetics, Longinus's On the Sublime, and Demetrius's On Style. The first two have a claim to a greater influence on theory of representation in the West than any others before or since. We might say, what Aristotle and Plato are for philosophy, Aristotle and Longinus are for aesthetic thought, two opposed poles, from which theory of representation radiates.

The empiricist Aristotle described genres, aspects of style, and structure, and he gave the term "mimesis" as lengthy an explanation as it would receive in antiquity—without clarifying it, at least for modern readers. Later commentators could take up "imitation," extend it to "imitation of nature," or "imitation of reality" or "re-presentation of reality," and so make realism the anchor of representation, holding the things tethered to it at varying lengths and radii, but always returning to that which held it in water however shallow, deep, or unfathomable.

Better Than Our Normal Level

Aristotle explained mimesis as "the imitation of a human action" and laid out three modes of it: "Mimetic artists . . . can represent people better than our normal level, worse than it, or much the same." It would be hard to combine the brilliant and the banal as seamlessly as this passage. Aristotle recognized that Homer and Sophocles depicted elevated characters, and he mentioned the exemplary as a mode above reality. (He distinguished between an artfully painted object and reality by the degree to which the picture could collect and unite excellent forms, which in reality never come together in one person or one object—Politics But he had next to no interest in defining these modes in any detail. "Our normal level" is a shaky criterion on which to base centuries of literary debate. But the study of mimesis has tended to posit something like "our normal level" and take "reality" as its instantiation. Aristotle thought that the pleasure gotten from mimesis consisted in learning, investigating causes, drawing conclusions, recognizing form, reasoning out what each thing represents. Given this scientific-intellectualist rationalism applied to poetry, he can contribute little to understanding what I will call "charismatic art."

If the treatise On the Sublime (Peri hypsous) had had anything like the reception of Aristotle's Poetics, literary theory might have concentrated more on the ways poetry elevated its objects above "our normal level" and raised "reality" beyond the laws of nature while persuading the reader that it had not left them altogether. Its supposed author, Longinus, is the theorist of the "high" style. Peri hypsous means "Concerning the High" (literally "height"), better translated, "On the Sublime," or "On the Lofty/Elevated." While mimesis always looked to reality for what is being re-presented, hypsos looked beyond and above it: "[in the sublime] our attention is drawn from the reasoning to the enthralling effect of the imagination and the reality is concealed in a halo of brilliance."

This book (that is, the one that you're reading) is about an aspect of the sublime style, which I will call "charismatic art." This mode also "conceals" reality—or at least clothes it—in brilliance; it diminishes the reasoning faculty, speaks to the imagination, and exercises an "enthralling" effect on the reader or viewer. A closer discussion of the sublime, the charismatic, and the mimetic follows in the first chapter. Charisma of art is one particular aspect of the high style in various media. "Mimesis" is a concern mainly as a difficult "other," which plays into sublime and charismatic art in many ways, not always adversarial.

The separation and polarization of a mimetic and a hypermimetic mode of art is a given of theory that I will argue against in virtually every section of this book. "Mimesis" has become the dominant concept in aesthetics in part because of the rationalist anchoring of representation in reality, but it owes a great deal to its prominence in one of the most brilliant and influential works of literary criticism, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis. This book wrote mimesis and representation of reality into the history of Western literature. By tying art to the real, Auerbach at the same time created, or opened the door to, a large project of investigating Western art and literature in their sublime, charismatic, hyperreal aspects. In the commentaries that follow here I pursue charismatic elements wherever I find them; I draw on literature, painting, sculpture, and film. Auerbach limited himself to literature, and that narrowing and sharpening of the relevant material is an advantage my study does not have. I am acutely aware of its vulnerability to the readings of experts in the various fields that my chapters venture into. I can only hope for a benevolent reading that pardons individual faults and failures to consult all the relevant specialized literature by way of favoring a larger picture. What induced me to spread my study across so many genres of representation is that I saw common features of "enchantment" through charismatic effects shared across a variety of forms of representation, a variety broader than the (generally) "high" art and literature on which my commentaries focus. The integrity of a work on such a range of media depends on the limitations inherent in the working of charisma: the effects are limited; the causes widely varied. If any or all media offer a kind of art that exercises beguiling effects clearly parallel to the working of charismatic political and religious figures, then those effects deserve close study across the entire range of media that produce them, all the more so since there is often so little separating enchantment from seduction and exaltation from deception.

Throughout this work I focus on the congruence of experience and representation. The distinction between life and art is weakened in the eyes of the beholder when either a real person or a representation possesses charisma. The ability of a living person to sustain charismatic effects in an audience or collection of fans, worshippers, or devotees depends on his or her ability to enter or appear to enter the condition of a work of art; and conversely the work of art that does not convey the sense of living a heightened form of life and promising to transport the viewer into that world cannot produce charismatic effects. The "self as a work of art" is a well-known topic, especially of court life and courtly self-fashioning, which calls on a sophisticated artistry of the self; the work of art as heightened life is also well known. The common effect of art as life and life as art is addressed in virtually every chapter.

The guiding conceptions of my readings and their definition are more in the foreground than Auerbach's in Mimesis. I hope there is more profit than loss in this approach. Auerbach's very reluctance to theorize mimesis sheltered his conception, highly open to revision and criticism, of the history of Western literature. An odd fate for a critical concept: it proves the more vital and durable the more it recedes from definition.

"Charismatic" is a subcategory of the sublime. Many aspects of sublimity accommodate and describe the charisma of art, but it will be important to distinguish among them. It is also useful to refer to the sublime by way of defining charismatic, since charisma has next to no commentary in aesthetic theory. I develop the concept in my introduction and apply it in a series of commentaries on specific passages in works of art from Homer to Woody Allen.

Auerbach is the constant companion of this book and has been since its conception. My commentaries, sometimes on the same works Auerbach chose, are more complementary than adversarial to his. I adapt the form and historical trajectory of Mimesis, its adherence to textual commentary and to deriving concepts from analysis of texts. Auerbach is the giant on whose shoulders I am standing. I do not see farther than he saw, but I do see differently—by looking in the opposite direction.

The Effects of Art

Auerbach approached each text he examined in Mimesis with an analysis of rhetoric and literary style. Frame the approach as analysis of charismatic representation, and the focus rests necessarily on techniques of exaltation, rhetorical, visual, conceptual: in narrative, the creation of character and the unfolding of a destiny charged with redemptive force and imitative allure; in visual art, qualities that raise the subject above the ordinary, suggest indwelling forces, exercise some kind of visual arrest on the viewer. This perspective brings with it an element that was relatively unimportant for Auerbach, the emotional response of the reader or viewer. The response to the work of art is central to my study. The sublime and its close relative the charismatic verify their existence by their effects, by the response of the recipient far more than by any definable qualities inherent in the sublime object or the charismatic person. Longinus defines the sublime by its effect on the observer: "The effect of the Sublime is not to persuade the audience but rather to transport them out of themselves. Invariably what inspires wonder, with its power of amazing us, always prevails over what is merely convincing and pleasing. For our persuasions are usually under our own control, while these things [i.e., sublime elements] exercise an irresistible power and mastery and get the better of every listener. . . . A well-timed flash of sublimity shatters everything like a bolt of lightning." Whereas Auerbach could focus each of his chapters on works with significant stylistic elements as markers of mimetic representation, a project on charismatic art must work from a shaping effect the work has exercised on an audience and relate the effect to qualities of the work that inspired it. Since individual response to art and literature is always only anecdotal, open to question as a generally valid commentary on the work to which it responds, the charismatic effect becomes demonstrable when the influence is widely shared and the effect registers in a large number of viewers or readers. The works I have selected have both enjoyed wide popularity and exercised a demonstrable educating or transforming influence. The questions put to them here are, what are charismatic effects? What qualities of living persons or works of art exercise them? Most of the following chapters address those questions; others concentrate on works that reflect on rather than represent charisma and charismatic effects (Don Quixote; Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo"; Woody Allen's films).

It follows that one of my questions is, what qualities consitute charisma in art? It is related to the questions posed by W. J. T. Mitchell, "What Do Pictures Really Want?" and to the direction in aesthetic thinking marked out by David Freedberg on "the power of images" and by Alfred Gell in proposing an "agency" in art that aims at a variety of effects on the viewer, prominent among them a form of "enchantment" worked by intricacies in pattern and design and furthered but not exclusively activated by pictorial representation. A common idea of Mitchell and Gell is that works of art possess a dynamism that has the qualities, or at least the effect, of living beings: will, desire, the ability to generate certain kinds of action in the viewer. This approach is commodious to the idea of charisma of art and charismatic effects. But narrowing to charisma the broader question of what art wants and what it does, sharpens the focus on a particular human quality, or human potential. Its nature and its effects are approachable via the parallel to the quality of lived charisma. My approach also invests more in the question of the interaction of artwork and recipient than either Mitchell's or Gell's. Their studies posit responses generated by the agency or the desire of art, but are not particularly interested in the specifics of interaction between viewer and image. From the point of view of charismatic art, the particular relationship of a perceived authority of the image or text and its successful assertion of influence on the viewer and reader have to be the key elements in understanding charisma in art. This book is perhaps best characterized as a study of response to art, above all its educating and transforming effects. How art produces charismatic effects is a question that resists unequivocal answers, and while there do seem to be some general characteristics that recur in my various chapters, I have avoided any attempt to systematize the subject of this study. This book offers a series of readings of individual texts and works of art, not a systematic theory of representation.

Also, I am not—or only marginally—concerned with aesthetic judgment or connoisseurship; the quality of art is one aspect among many able to rouse certain emotional responses in a particular set of readers and viewers. The judgments of critics, scholars, and connoisseurs are of peripheral help in locating and analyzing the charismatic effects of art. The effects of art that interest me happen in the state of semi-intoxication that my title indicates. The critic and connoisseur are virtually obliged to sober up from the spell of art and to shed the effects of enchantment, maybe even to downplay or discredit them, in order to do their job. Confessional statements of fans and devotees (including my own confessions), the testimony to broadly transforming effects on a large audience, communal or even national, and charismatic relations modeled in literature and art, are the best witnesses. Response to movies and television shows, rock music, poster and advertising art, religious and other cult phenomena, are useful. The responses of cults to representations are especially valuable for my enterprise. They are no less exemplary of charismatic effects than are cult responses to political figures or religious leaders—the context in which the most influential studies of charisma, those of Max Weber, are set.

Charisma, a Useful Concept

What follows in this section is a survey of studies of the concept "charisma." This might be a good moment for the reader not interested in the academic discussion to head for the first chapter, perhaps with a glance at the last two pages of this introduction.

I said earlier that charisma has only rarely and recently been a subject of serious discussion in aesthetics and critical theory. Academic study of this strange kind of body magic has virtually restricted itself to politics, sociology, and religion. Max Weber's studies of charismatic leadership put the concept on the map, and it has more or less remained where he put it: in sociology and political science. Weber's ideas have dominated virtually every discussion of the concept, apart from history of religion, until very recently.

This predominance has fixed the subject in its late romantic, post-Nietzschean mold. There is a built-in romantic structure to the theory of charismatic rule among the sociologists following Weber: a once vital model remains artificially in place in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The trend started by Weber questions whether "genuine" or "pure" charisma is at all realizable in the present, since media create charisma artificially, and that inner excitability, which is the primal determinant of charisma, has faded or, if present, then only as a cultivated, artificially reconstructed, not an inborn quality.

The skepticism of academic commentary toward contemporary charisma assumes that its artificial cultivation, its "production" and staging, began in the twentieth century. In fact the cultivation of charismatic qualities is a feature of public life in classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and beyond. Those periods have left a number of tracts and books on the subject (the counterpart of the masses of self-help books on charisma currently available in the United States): Cicero and Quintilian on the orator, Baldesar Castiglione and hosts of followers on the ideal courtier. Lisa Jardine has applied the concept to the public career of Erasmus.

The metastasizing popular use of the term is taken to confirm those Weberians convinced that all contemporary charisma is trumped up and that the ecstatic excitability which makes it genuine has shriveled to packaging. But inferring banality from banal usages of the term is shortsighted interpreting. The near saturation of the culture with the term is more likely a sign of its prominence and a provocation to assess the phenomenon in its many instantiations. Academic intellectuals who regard only the classical formulation of the concept or the "pure form" of the phenomenon as valid rob themselves and their readers of an insight into its depth of penetration into the culture. If the concept were restricted to religion and politics, studied only by academics, absent from business, popular culture, commercial art, and show business, would that suggest its "purity," strength, and vitality

In the area of religion, its sociology, history, and psychology, there is both a tradition of studies and an abundance of contemporary interest. However that trend also confirms the Weberians, since the primitive authority of charismatic fundamentalists appears as a throwback to the primal condition of charisma, surviving into the modern age the way Stone Age tribes preserve archaic customs in exotic corners of the world.

Interest in the concept fades as we approach the humanities. The recent, excellent Encyclopaedia of Aesthetics has no entry on "charisma," and the word does not occur in the index.

Literary studies? Forget it. Neither the traditionally oriented Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics nor the trendier Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism mentions it. Raphael Falco's studies of charisma in tragedy and the recent work of Eva Horn (see note 5) are an exception. Falco says that he has no predecessors in his approach, and I cannot find any either.

It is surprising to me that film theory has made little use of the concept (see Chapter 11). A recent book by Joseph Roach studies charisma, its hypnotic qualities and its powers of seduction in stage and film performance. The admirably clipped title: It. The author sees "It" as linked to a welter of charismatic effects that range from religious experience to political and theatrical performance, historically from the Old Testament to ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English theater (the latter, one of Roach's two focal points), and the modern cult of film stardom (focal point number two). It is an influence exerted by "abnormally interesting people." Roach uses "It" interchangeably with "charisma." The quality produces a loss of reality on the part of the charisma-bearer and the charisma-smitten. Both tend to see fictions and illusions merge with reality—and accept the effacing of that ordinarily uncrossable boundary. That merging, delusional but perceived with the force of experienced reality, creates the possibility of "enchantment," or, seen in the historical frame Roach puts it in, the "reenchantment" of a human perceptual apparatus disenchanted by the reign of reason and skeptical thought since the Enlightenment: "The It-effect often takes on a powerful and sometimes even fearsome religiosity of its own, making everyday experience seem not only strange but also enchanted, as if possessed by the mischievous spirits of portentous little gods" (It, pp. 16-17).

An actor's roles form a patina of associations around her/him, which exists only in the mind of the viewer/fan/audience. Roach calls this accretion "effigy," the phenomenon "ghosting." A stage or film actor is like a king or popular political figure in possessing "two bodies," "the body natural, which decays and dies, and the body cinematic" (p. 36). Roach's "effigy" and "ghost" are close to what I'll call "aura," the accretion of associations around a person, object, or experience, a kind of invisible but perceptible amplification of the self. I will try to bring my usage into focus with the extensive discussion of Walter Benjamin's orphic pronouncements on aura.

The terms "charisma," "aura," and "enchantment" can be profitably rehabilitated as critical concepts to analyze art, literature, and films, their aesthetics, their impact on the audience, and the psychology of both star and fan. They have the advantage over "glamour," "It," "stardom," and so forth of reaching beyond film and stage performance, linking theatrical enchantment with others in its extended family. The reach of "charisma" of course is huge; "aura" and "enchantment" set the subject at a logical crossing point of film magic and other occult and magical phenomena.

The aesthetics of charisma can never move away from its fundamental form, an effect of physical presence. Max Weber pondered whether objects could possess charisma—a throne or royal regalia, for instance—and decided that it was exclusively a characteristic or an effect of living persons. I agree (if we add "represented" persons). An epic landscape or a quality of prose may be charged with force, charm, the ability to charm and entice, but charismatic effects must always be referred to a quality of personality. Body parts of saints and celebrity memorabilia are mediators that continue the diffusion of personal charisma, but they convey force by extending or replacing personal presence. I distinguish charisma from objects charged with force, authority, or sentiment by the concept "aura," which I will develop in several of the chapters that follow.

I understand charisma of person as a kind of force and authority exercised by people with an extraordinary personal presence, either given by nature, acquired by calculation, training, or merit. In contrast to most forms of authority, charisma is always seen as benevolent and life-affirming, at least until disenchantment sets in.

The effect charismatic personalities have on those in their orbit varies widely, from an evanescent buzz and a brief affection, to love, passionate devotion, elevation, and transformation, to destructive obsession. Whatever the range or intensity, I will call the effect of charisma "enchantment," engaging the whole range of meaning of that word from a shallow moment of pleasure ("Enchanted to make your acquaintance") to a spellbound state of participation and imitation, to idolatry and transformation.

Texts and artworks can also exercise enchantment. A passage from Michael Taussig's book Mimesis and Alterity seems to me amenable to my reading of enchantment by art. He takes mimetic verisimilitude as the textual quality that makes this effect:

Can't we say that to give an example, to instantiate, to be concrete, are all examples of the magic of mimesis wherein the replication, the copy, acquires the power of the represented? And does not the magical power of this embodying inhere in the fact that in reading such examples we are thereby lifted out of ourselves into those images? . . . If I am correct in making this analogy with what I take to be the magician's art of reproduction, then the model, if it works, gains through its sensuous fidelity something of the power and personality of that of which it is a model.

For my purpose it would be important to limit the realm of "sensuous fidelity" to an elevated, exalted reality.

Given the relation of living model to a represented world as the core of charismatic representation, I begin with a discussion of charisma of person.