The Bust of Caesar

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 focussed and composed, but also as if he is able to see the humor in things. He seems self-aware and very confident.

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 that was 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 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 first has sex with her. 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 explicit 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. Caesar was in a somewhat similar situation. And given his criminal behavior, Corleone is actually reasonable – for a criminal – 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. Miss Brodie 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 “creme de la creme.” Jean is an exquisite example of the Pretender.

But Miss Brodie is still a formidable person in her own way. Exquisiteness can also be coupled with vulnerability and then it is a thing so piquant that it’s breath-taking. 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. (The painting is oil on canvas, 20 x 11 inches, done in 2012. You can see more of the artist’s work at

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 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 (where Caesar’s are compressed.) 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. Where Caesar is the paradigm of a person who makes something happen, the woman in the painting is a paradigm of a person letting something happen.

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 pollyanna-ish “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 the gift Maria Kreyn has given us.

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 quality or a 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 characteristi but a concretized realization, 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, naive 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 sense of life. You could say that a person has a joyous or a tragic sense of life, just as you 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. The exquisite character is the same way – that’s what makes him a presence.

If I can be forgiven for borrowing a phrase from the creationists, the exquisite character is an example of irreducible complexity. He adds up to something definite – independence in Roark’s case, pretended sophistication in Miss Brodie’s – but he cannot be deduced from that characteristic, any more than a real person can be deduced from a principle. Reality is richer than our concepts, and an exquisite character is greater than the principle he embodies – although he embodies it very well indeed.

The exquisite is a dimension of beauty that counts too, sometimes even more than classical beauty or the sublime or even a moral ideal. The exquisite gives us hope 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 wisdom. 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.

And now I’d like to know what you think. Do you believe in the idea of an unforgettable character who can transcend good and bad? And 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.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.

12 thoughts on “The Bust of Caesar

  1. In contemplating characters that have left their indelible imprint, I’m flooded with a torrent of all sorts of iconic figures. For now, I’ll just discuss some of those that I most admire as heroes.
    In terms of fiction, Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is my ideal sleuthing male, a perfect blend of intelligence, sophistication, sensitivity, and obvious good looks. His polished aspects are nicely counterbalanced by his vulnerable traits, including his discomfiture with his pursuers and his insecurity and hurt regarding his love interest, Eve Kendall. Another heroic detective that I particularly like is Frank Serpico, whose unflinching loyalty to his professional ethics exemplifies integrity at its finest.
    In the science fiction/horror realm, my all-time favorite male protagonists are Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and The Night Stalker’s Kolchak. The Enterprise officers embody philosophy of charismatic, fearless exploration that is tempered with non-interference directives and respect for all life forms. Carl Kolchak is the paragon of a socially inept, yet professionally savvy, reporter/investigator.
    The world of science fiction has its equally outstanding female leads, who are, in my opinion, Dana Scully of the X-Files, Ellen Ripley of Alien, Sarah Connor in Predator II, and Meg (I forgot her last name) in A Wrinkle in Time. Ripley and Connor surpass their adversaries( and other female SF protagonists) in terms of their all-around gutsiness and strength; Scully and Meg succeed in their more diffuse attributes and forms of character strength.
    Other male protagonists which I greatly admire include Mahatma Ghandi in Ghandi, Sir Thomas Moore in A Man for all Seasons, and King Arthur in The Once and Future King.
    Some other female favorites of mine are Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, Norma Rae in Norma Rae, Harriet Tubman (I forgot the name of the book), and Queen Elizabeth in Elizabeth.

  2. I’m just filling in two details that I couldn’t remember on my previous post, concerning two female characters. The complete name of the heroine in A Wrinkle in Time is Meg Murry, and the title of my favorite Harriet Tubman book is Harriet Tubman:The Road to Freedom.

  3. Wow, you have a big list. I’m assembling a pinboard of my “exquisite characters” over at Pinterest. I definitely should add Kirk and Spock. And I’m kicking myself over having forgotten Annie Sullivan!

    When I was writing on this subject for an Objectivist audience and trying to explain how a character could be notable without being really a good person, the two examples I used were Cool Hand Luke and Patton. What do you think of them?

    • Although I’m not that familar with the character of Cool Hand Luke (another movie that I missed), I would agree that Patton is a memorable character, as an exquisite composite of virtues such as valor and cunning and vices such as irascibility and impetuousness.
      Another male lead that falls under this domain for me is Randle McMurphy of Cukoo’s Nest, who exhibits reprobate behaviors and facets in his personality, while also displaying very humanistic, righteous attributes within the opressive setting he is in .
      A female character that I find memorable for her complexity is Sophie Zawitoski of Sophie’s Choice. She is a compelling combination of contradictions and ambivalences, a character who survived unspeakable atrocities on a basic level, but who is ultimately destroyed by her tormented memories of those horrific events.

  4. Pingback: Descending Mount Olympus | Become Who You Are

  5. Pingback: Lessons of The Godfather | Become Who You Are

  6. I stumbled onto your blog article while searching for the above Maria Kreyn painting. The Caesar bust caught my eye, because I too saw its incredible ‘exquisiteness.’ Scrolling down, I saw reference to The Fountainhead’s fascinating characters (say what you will about Rand, but Toohey is truly the greatest villain ever written) and stole myself to read this in my spare time. You see, I have always admired the impossibly strong. The emotionally powerful. The in-your-face. The unforgettable. Therefore, this piece resonates with me a great deal. There is a fantastic musician Andy Hull (frontman for band Manchester Orchestra) who has a side project entitled “Right Away, Great Capitan!” He has a trilogy of concept albums documenting the mental disintegration of a 17th century sailor upon finding his wife with his brother and the psychological depth is the audio-equivalent of “Alone Together.” Moreover, it features this heroic character known as “The Capitan” who doles out beautiful advice (“oh young sailor do you see what your capitan sees? Love is nothing more than an action. What an ocean; what a world on the big blue seas! You can change it all if you want to.”), acts as guide and is truly an exquisite man, even if he is only a peripheral–and symbolic–figure.

    Thank you for sharing your musings! I am very pleased to have stumbled upon this.

    -M.H. 11.2012

    • Megan, I was hoping my essay would reach someone like you who also saw the exquisiteness of characters and art in general. Thank you leaving a comment. It’s means a lot to know there are people out there who appreciate what I have to say.

      By the way, I’m writing a book about being “real” or authentic instead of trying to be someone else. I guess you could say it’s about how to become exquisite yourself!

      I’m going to check out the music you mentioned.

      • Oh, good, I’m thrilled! I’ll look for your book in stores; I’m sure I’ll appreciate it. My own work and musings are included in the click through link my name provides. If you’re at all interested in reading things that I’ve written, you may find them there. Have a happy evening.

        • I’m not sure you’ll find Killing Cool (that’s the title) in stores, although I will have it available as an on-demand physical book that bookstores can order if they want to. The primary distribution will be as an e-book, on Kindle, Nook and Apple. In May I published a long essay on free will on Kindle and it sold reasonably well (500+ copies so far).

          I looked at your blog, which I liked. I especially liked your essay on Rand. Rand’s attitude toward feminism and rape is disturbing to say the least. I read somewhere that some very powerful men and women like to be dominated sexually because it is the only thing that breaks down their barriers. I sure Rand couldn’t imagine (without horror and indignation) one of her male heroes submitting to a dominatrix!

          I bookmarked your blog and will continue perusing it. I hope you will check out the other stuff on my blog, some of which may interest you. I’d especially like to know what you think of the essay “Descending Mount Olympus,” which if nothing else will give you some insight into me as a person, if that would interest you.

          Take care and good night!

  7. Hypatia in Agora, Idi Amin (The Last King of Scotland), and in Network (1976 movie), virtually all characters. In novels — Gail Wynand, Don Corleone, and I hope….Olivia Allen. 🙂

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