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William Righter GOLDEN RULES AND GOLDEN BOWLS In one of his last interviews Michel Foucault remarked on the relation of any search for a perfect existence to the source of those forms of obligation which paradoxically make it possible, and hence on the variable shapes of the interdependence of the beauty of life with the moral understanding by which we accept the nature of our obligations . He sees this in terms of the way these obligations establish themselves, by recognition and submission, by what he calls "the mode of subjection {mode d'assujettissement), that is, the way in which people are invited or incited to recognize their moral obligations. Is it, for instance, divine law, which has been revealed in a text? Is it a natural law, a cosmological order, in each case the same for every living being? Is it a rational rule? Is it the attempt to give your existence the most beautiful form possible?"' If we wish to do something like finding the most beautiful form of life, we face problems of moral calculation, we must formulate principles of choice, and above all learn to make our submission to the necessity such principles may imply. "What is the mode d'assujettissementT'' Foucault asks: It is that we have to build our existence as a beautiful existence; it is an aesthetic mode. You see, what I have tried to show is that nobody is obliged in classical ethics to behave in such a way as to be truthful to their wives, to not touch boys and so on. But if they want to have a beautiful existence, if they want to have a good reputation, if they want to be able to rule others, they have to do that. So they accept those obligations in a conscious way for the beauty or glory of existence. The choice, the aesthetic choice or political choice, for which they"decide to accept this 262 WtLLiAM Righter263 kind ofexistence—that's the mode d'assujettissement. It's a choice, a personal choice.2 At some levels this choice looks quite simply like a calculative sacrifice of the lesser thing for the greater. But an important element of the incommensurate enters into the choice. The beauty, the glory of the thing far surpasses the small normative commitments one undertakes for its sake, both in degree and in belonging to another and superior order. The beautiful form of existence is separated by some enormous gulffrom those social and human arrangements that must be submitted to it. Yet one is aware of basing the beauty of life on these lesser forms of obligation. Many things may be subjected, as one sees in The Golden Bowl, to the greater principle, where almost anything may be sacrificed as long as the beauty of that principle is in view. But how do we assess this disproportion and see the propriety of subjection established? For subjection could come to serve many principles , and in The Golden Bowl we shall observe the studied operation of subjection in a world where principles are continuously and meticulously examined and re-examined. The Foucaultian conjunction of obligation and the "glory of existence" touches the heart of a work where the fascination with the incommensurate moves uneasily between alternative versions of that glory. What is the overriding principle that underwrites and legitimates such anexistence?James's involvementwith such a "particular attaching case" seems to proceed from the fullest sense of the difficulty, from the fullest rendering of incompatible versions ofthat existence, brought into the closest and tightest formalbond. The very simplicity of the action somehow produces an enforced contemplation of a bizarrely closed world, in which the dynamics of the two marriages shape a conflict that seems inevitable, even strangely natural. It can be expressed in a few words. A widowed American millionaire, Adam Verver, has in his late forties retired to the life of a collector of objects of art. In his travels with his daughter Maggie, they collect also ahusband forher, a Roman prince. To ease the consequences for her father Maggie promotes his marriage to her closest school friend Charlotte. Unknown to the Ververs she and the Prince were once lovers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 262-281
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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