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 sculpted about 500 years ago by Andrea Ferrucci. He seemed so real, I felt a jolt when I saw him.
The bust is a masterpiece of stylization. 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 face, 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. Because of its casual posture and carved-in pupils and irises. the bust looks less stiff than most other statues, more natural.
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 focused and composed, but also as if he is able to see the humor in things. He seems self-aware and very confident. There is something perfect about this characterization. I don’t know whether that was what Julius Caesar was actually like (and I have no respect for dictators), but it is definitely the image of some kind of greatness.
It's not greatness or heroism per se that most fascinates me about the bust. It’s another quality, which I have had 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. Let me try to ground the concept with other examples before I generalize.
For example, the character of Howard Roark in The Fountainhead is exquisite. He is, in a sense, a perfect character. He's not morally perfect because he keeps helping Peter Keating when he shouldn’t. And it’s not that he’s psychologically perfect, either. 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 so unusual. 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 exquisite to observe.
We could almost say that Roark is Independence. He projects an immense, almost "metaphysical" presence. That feeling of presence is a good rough test of whether you have an exquisite character on your hands.
Caesar was ambiguous in his virtues and Roark is good, but on the unequivocally evil side, I love as an exquisite character Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Ever since the film 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 in some sense exquisite. It's his paradoxical nature that makes him so. He is quite reasonable —for a criminal—and his evil deeds are tempered by his “family values.” His "archetypal" quality is the Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove. (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. As portrayed by Sigourney Weaver she is a nuanced embodiment of the quality of Self-Possession But she’s just a second officer on a towing vessel. Still, I look at her and say “There is a woman—believe it or not!” 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 not literary 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 conjure a quality of experience for herself. (I write at length about the Pretender type in my 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 is an exquisite example of the Pretender Sophisticate.
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 image of a painting called “Alone Together.” 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 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.) Her skin is very pale and delicate, also a sign of vulnerability. She almost looks as if she is going to cry, but we know she won't She looks like she’s living with it, whatever it is. She seems present to her feelings. Where Caesar is a paradigm of a person who makes things happen, the woman in the painting is a paradigm of a vulnerable person who lets something happen without breaking down.
When I first had a sense of it, it was difficult for me to describe exactly what exquisiteness is and why I am in love with. It’s almost a cognitive thing rather than an aesthetic or moral quality: I love the perfect example of some human quality, even if it is not a morally admirable or a happy quality. The greater the complexity, the farther the distance from allegory, the more the representation is cognitively engaging.
The exquisite character is superficially similar to E.M. Forster's "round" character, who is "surprising in a convincing way," as opposed to Forster's concept of a "flat" character, who is predictable. The way it is often described today, the round character has complexities and contradictions, like a real person, while a flat character can be reduced to a single word or phrase, like "bully" or "loyal soldier."
The exquisite character, though complex, is different from the typical complex character. It can be described using, although not reduced to, a word or phrase. The exquisite character has a theme, some universal in human personality. Caesar is Determination. Roark is Independence. The Godfather is The Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove. Ripley is Self-Possession. Jean is Pretended Sophistication. The woman in Alone Together is Vulnerability to Sorrow. Yet, they are not figures from a morality play. They are rich and complex, but their complexity does not come from their theme stated in the abstract but from their individual instantiation of it. Caesar isn't clench-jawed and glowering determination, but is an attentive, self-controlled, yet not stiff. man who can see the humor in things.
If I try to transform "exquisite," which is my idiosyncratic handle, into more of a formal concept, I would say that the exquisite character is a perfect embodiment of an archetypal human characteristic. Notice I said "a." There might be more than one perfect embodiment. When I say embodiment, I mean like an individual, with specific, concrete traits. Again, not an allegorical figure.
I suppose the exquisite character is a specific kind of round character. Maybe I am surprised by Caesar because I never had a complex vision of what Determination could look like. But Ferruci's view works. But the exquisite character seems to me to be distinct from other round characters. Its complexity is organized around a single high concept or theme. The exquisite character is successful when the balance of abstract and particular is such that the character seems to attain a maximum of meaning and presence at the same time. It is the integration of abstract theme with individuating notes that does the trick.
I would compare exquisiteness in art to sense of life. You might say that a person has an unusually 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, convincing and present, would be missing. The joyous person always has something else going on: something a little mischievous, some silent wonder, some patient wisdom—usually many things all at once. The exquisite character is the same way. Roark is not just Independence: He has his naivete, which slowly becomes wisdom; he has his desire to make the earth beautiful through his buildings; he has his growing bonds to other people; he even has swimming as his favorite recreation. Roark's story is not the history of a statue, but a story about how a man who starts out as excessively independent realizes himself while not giving up his independence. Roark's attributes were among many possibilities that Ayn Rand chose from to realize her ideal of the independent man. Some of these no doubt played into her own values. Roark is "perfect" because Rand picked vivid, coherent, specific attributes that she integrated into an exquisite figure.
Because of the individuating notes that the exquisite figure has, there are many possible variations on the embodiment of a given quality. For example, a character who wants revenge upon God does not have to the one-legged captain of a whaler. He could be a second-rate composer who feels envy and contempt for a first-rate one. Or he could be a fallen angel who tempts the first woman. That the possibilities are distinct but equally valid realizations of a universal quality is another reason why the exquisite is not mere allegory, but something rich to be explored, which is why the study of art is so valuable an adjunct to the study of philosophy. (In fact, it may be a pre-requisite.)
If I can be forgiven for borrowing a phrase from the creationists, the exquisite character is an example of irreducible complexity. She adds up to something definite—Self-Possession in Ripley’s case, Pretended Sophistication in Miss Brodie’s—but she cannot be deduced from that characteristic in a straightforward way, any more than a real person can be deduced from a principle she believes in. Reality is richer than our bare concepts, and an exquisite character is greater than the quality she embodies—although she may embody it very well indeed.
The exquisite is a dimension of beauty that matters, sometimes even more than classical beauty or the sublime or even a moral ideal. The exquisite offers metaphysically significant stylization. The typical round character can be quite nuanced and rich, and unriddling that nuance can be a rewarding process. But the exquisite character offers this satisfaction plus something more elemental. Maybe we would not want that element in all our characters, because that would be too close to morality play, but I think it important to see how qualities of the highest level can be realized. The exquisite character, though certainly not the only worthwhile type of character, offers us philosophical landmarks that partake of the eternal. It energizes the mind at the highest level, by having us stretch in the directions of the universal abstraction and the concrete realization to the maximum degree. It makes you think, "I never saw something so essential put that way before, and in so real a manner!"
And now I’d like to know what you think. Do you believe in the idea of an unforgettable character whose exquisiteness 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 comment about one of your most unforgettable characters.
If you enjoyed this essay, you might also like my book, Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life