As one gets older, one grows more appreciative of life. I doubt if I would have conceived the same admiration for the beauty of Carole Landis had I encountered her twenty or thirty years ago. Knowledge and experience aside, appreciation of life is the basic component of what we can still call the “wisdom” of age. Life is finite for all, not merely the old; the latter’s sharper realization of it reflects the growing coincidence of their personal horizon with the reality of the human condition.
The affirmation of life, whether by old or young, is something sorely lacking in our intellectual world, dominated more than ever by resentment. Resentment is the implicit agenda of virtually everything written over the last forty years or so under the name, now becoming quaint, of “theory.” The resentful attitude is the only habitus immune to deconstruction, which casts humanity’s fundamental life-preserving process of deferral as itself a mode of violence–an “error” that guarantees the good conscience of endless expressions of hatred for all that is, condemned as violence done to the entropic paradise that isn’t.
Today’s nihilism dressed up as egalitarian distrust of authority reflects real problems–inequality is always a problem–but in the derealized mode suitable to tenured lifetimes of conference attendance–one of the more modest forms of life-affirming activity. This winter I am scheduled to teach our department’s “theory” course, which examines a series of discourses whose story-line is always the same: the uncovering of a new strand of the fiendish plot of being against nothingness, of the center against the periphery that the center defines–a paradox that the young Derrida had the intelligence to articulate, albeit in a mode that anticipates its forgetting.
The affirmation of life can begin but cannot end with the rejection of its deniers. This line of thought brings to mind Nietzsche, easily the most misconstrued of philosophers, whose message, for reasons not entirely extraneous to its content, has been distorted, first into an apology for Nazi brutality (in the name of the “blond beast”), and, more recently, as a lesser but more preposterous evil, into an apology for postmodern nihilism–nihilism, the very phenomenon against which Nietzsche fought so passionately, so desperately. Nietzsche’s simple point, the point of a sick man as mine is of an old one, is that the fundamental criterion of all our activities must be the affirmation of life–the promotion of love rather than resentment. This simple idea, in practice, is not simple at all, the human being precisely defined by the moment in which he defers that which, absent the specter of intraspecific conflict, would contribute to the maintenance of life. Although Nietzsche’s indifference to these anthropological niceties led his name to be invoked by personages whose idea of life-affirmation was putting Jews in gas chambers, the “artistic” self-affirmation he preached was meant to liberate others, not exterminate them.
Now that we have, not without success, devoted two generations to improving the lot of the world’s victims, it is time we turned our attention to encouraging not the resenting but the rejection of victimhood. If this must come through the study of the coping strategies of the “post-colonial” world, so be it. Even if the only cultures our own intellectual culture allows us to affirm are those most different from–and most economically irrelevant to–our own, it is better to affirm something than nothing. But I will leave this task to my able colleagues. For the past several months, I have been at work at my own project of life-affirmation.
Last Spring a young man whose opinion I greatly respect took me to task for descending from the general to the particular, from the origin of language to the life, marginally world-historical at best, of a largely forgotten Hollywood actress. How can the life of Carole Landis be relevant to generative anthropology, the science of the originary?
My answer, really only the beginning of an answer, is that human culture emerged as the result not of incremental evolutionary modification, but of a historically unique event, a singularity. This is not simply a “historical” observation. The human emerged in a singular event and is distinguished from other species by its preservation, through representation, of singular events, organized around singular objects. The founding intuition of Christianity is that human truth, even and particularly the truth of moral reciprocity before which all humans are equal, can be learned only in an experience that absolutely distinguishes from all others a single individual. It is only singular individuals–such as we all are–who can engage in the symmetrical actions of moral reciprocity. It is this singularity that we affirm when we speak of something as life-affirming. Our singular lives are made up, to be sure, of mimetically acquired components, but they are no less singular for that–there being no other model of singularity available to us.
My unplanned encounter with Carole Landis has given me a wholly unexpected insight into the affirmation of life. I learned, after sixty years of disbelief, that it is possible for real sexual beauty to exist in not merely the private but the public sphere–that in the world of publicity that induces us to desire signs in the place of substance, a woman of real beauty was able for a time, albeit at great cost, to maintain herself.
A photograph of Carole’s face alone suffices, but only because the beauty of her face is guaranteed by a perfect body, slim and full-bosomed, rounded rather than two-sided (compare the nonetheless beautiful Rita Hayworth), that inspires in whoever sees it not the least desire to add or subtract. That Carole was “strong as a lady wrestler” and able to “run like a deer” only confirms the perfect harmony her appearance makes manifest.
Why should we care about Carole’s beauty, even if we cannot help appreciate it? I can turn the question around. If we don’t care about the most beautiful human being we have ever seen, what indeed can we care about? If we are so devoured by invidious relations that we cannot stop to admire what our genetic endowment makes it impossible for us not to admire, then we are nihilists indeed. But we aren’t, really. I am encouraged by the fact that not only men but, especially, women to whom I have shown pictures of Carole always express amazement at her beauty, which inspires respect rather than rivalry. One need not desire her to find her incomparably desirable.
To the extent that Christianity captures the essence of humanity, it is in its doctrine that we are at once all equal before God and godlike before our equals. Precisely because Carole is more beautiful than the rest of us, her altogether exceptional beauty can serve as an example, so that each of us may conceive our own beauty as altogether exceptional as well. Because direct imitation of Carole’s example is impossible, she teaches us to find our own way, not necessarily visual, to merit the attentive and admiring desire of our peers.
A human physical presence is in the first place a moral presence; I admire Carole’s beauty because these images posed before still or moving film that are all we will ever have of her presence are radiant with the warmth of a human solidarity not subject to the limitations of mortality. The many historically attested demonstrations of Carole’s selfless generosity only confirm what I think anyone can intuit from the contemplation of her recorded image. Our common humanity gives us a common sense of each other; a look of human kindness can mislead us, but not a lifetime of such looks. The dictum that appearances are deceiving is a Cartesian myth; appearances may deceive, but not too often, for they would cease to be appearances of what they pretend to be. In Clouzot’s Le corbeau, one of the best films to come out of the Vichy era, a young woman suspected by the protagonist of sending the poison-pen letters that have terrorized their town asks him to look into her eyes, for the truth is there. If we can no longer do this, we might as well not look at each other at all.
A few months ago, in Chronicle 281I called myself a “dialectical hedgehog.” I would venture to say that this figure–rather, for example, than that of Rorty’s “liberal ironist–is the appropriate stance for the age of what my colleague Raoul Eshelman aptly calls “performatism.” It is false to presume that one demonstrates a due respect for one’s interlocutor in dialogue by treating one’s convictions ironically. Relativism is not a mode of thought but a rhetorical ploy, a tactic of thought rather than a strategy: there are no relative truths. Yet in the ethical domain of “practical reason” the assertion of a universal truth shows it to be something other than universal, since my assertion of it is asymmetrically situated with respect to you to whom it is addressed (compare, for example, a mathematical proof); however rigorously a law of conduct may be “deduced” from its premises, its enunciation is at least implicitly an imperative rather than a simple declarative. The post-millennial solution to this paradox is to affirm universal ethical truths in “performative” mode, one that seeks to persuade the spectator esthetically rather than by either logical demonstration or bald assertion.
Such persuasion does not narrowly take a proposition as its object. In the present case, my aim is not to persuade you of the propositions that Carole was the most beautiful actress in Hollywood, or the most beautiful woman ever photographed, but to show you her beauty in order to encourage you, as she herself did in her lifetime, to profit from your own experience of it as an affirmation of life.
For Carole the gift of beauty was the most general form of a generosity that she also practiced very specifically; many anecdotes testify to her readiness to give not only her money but her time, whether in speaking individually to the patients in a hospital ward or in inviting groups of soldiers home to dinner and the movies. But with all the good will in the world Carole could not communicate personally with a million soldiers, and, more generally, no number of particular gifts could provide the reassurance not merely of one woman’s personal generosity but of the ultimate harmony between human desire and reality.
Hence the relationship between what we might call Carole’s visual generosity and the more substantive forms of generosity is not merely fortuitous. To give the gift of beauty is not a substitute for but the first stage of genuine reciprocity. When Carole visited the troops, she saw it as her duty to look her best; her physical appearance was an expression of her desire that each soldier go into combat knowing “what he was fighting for.” The power of her image owes nothing, and everything, to mimesis. It owes nothing because it is self-evident; no side-glance at one’s fellows is necessary to appreciate true beauty. But the transcendental guarantee of desirability that Carole’s image bears with it is itself the product of mimetic tension and deferral. Beauty generates a scene of its own, but this scene itself is derived, like all scenes, from the originary scene. A woman’s beauty that concentrates and focuses on itself the mimetic desire of the community is a sacred trust, and the greatest beauty is possible only for one who inspires in us the confidence that she is worthy of that trust.
(to be continued)