The Pathos of Distance: Affects of the Moderns by Jean-Michel Rabaté
“Moderns” such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound obsessively invented critical vocabularies as a means of reflecting upon the artist’s proximity to his work and the process of its construction. Eliot, for example, famously advocated an “impersonality” that based the “progress of an artist” on the “extinction of personality”; at the same time, his call for depersonalization advanced a corresponding theory of emotion as essential to poetic form.1 In The Pathos of Distance: Affects of the Moderns, Jean-Michel Rabaté traces this tension between distance and pathos through an intoxicating swath of texts, acts, and forms: Alfred Jarry’s futuristic sexual anarchism, W. B. Yeats’s and James Joyce’s Nietzschean self-fashioning, Samuel Beckett’s topologically constructed [End Page 208] cogito, Virginia Woolf’s ethos of the new, Eliot’s poetics of non-relational despair, Jean Cocteau’s allegorical wounds, Siri Hustvedt’s speaking of trauma, J. M. Coetzee’s uncanny allegory, and Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic last work. All engage the “pathos of distance,” the meaning of which Rabaté hangs in deliberately loose relation to Nietzsche’s critique of conventional morality in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), where cultural value is situated in human relationships organized around “distance” and an “order of rank” (quoted on 8; emphasis in original). For Nietzsche, such vertical relations confront modernity’s “leveling out” of man or what was, to William James, the “irremediable flatness” of middle-class morality and sameness (quoted on 8–9; emphasis in original). As it enables a new aristocracy of mind, distance, in Nietzsche’s view, is an actual “feeling” of strong emotions such as “extreme joy, passion, distress, disgust, anger, and enthusiasm” (quoted on 9; emphasis in original). Modernists, Rabaté writes, thus fed their “pathos of distance” with the “pain and discomfort” that emerged from their awareness of the tension between “egalitarianism and elitism” (14).
As with his numerous earlier books, which include The Ethics of the Lie (2008) and 1913: The Cradle of Modernism (2007), Rabaté refuses to reduce modernity to a master narrative, instead adopting a critical method that displays a “few chronotypes of modernity” or “selected slices of cultural history” organized around modernism as a “privileged conceptual attractor” (14, 12). The subject of distance, on which artist Joseph Beuys, critic James Huneker, Max Stirner, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan are important interlocutors, functions as an unrestrictive organizing principle in an associational history of modernity. So too does the corresponding notion of Pathosformel, defined by German art critic Aby Warburg as the combination of “strong or violent affects” with “a comparative analysis founded on an encyclopedia of forms” (10). One need not know a lot about Nietzsche’s actual philosophy to play along, as Rabaté exchanges lengthy elaboration on Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance” for glimpses into various works’ general indebtedness to the idea. There is, for example, the direct influence of Nietzsche on writers such as Yeats and Joyce, but more important, writes Rabaté, was the “Nietzschean moment” of Irish Modernism, which “absorbed quickly various influences without unifying them” (51).
Throughout the book, Rabaté offers novel reflections upon the most well-known ideas of Walter Benjamin—“aura” and “allegory”—to establish connections between texts such as Cocteau’s 1932 film The Blood of a Poet and contemporary novels by Hustvedt and Coetzee. In connecting Nietzsche’s “pathos of distance” to Benjamin’s conception of the aura, Rabaté observes that the technological metamorphosis of the aura was a “globally positive” phenomenon for Benjamin, but that its passing occasioned a problem of dimensionality, producing numerous “flat surfaces” capable of abolishing “inner distance” or the sense of “interiority” upon which bourgeois values had been built (5). Given Benjamin’s reactions to the potential mystifications that followed from this flattening, Rabaté suggests that there is still some value for Benjamin in the notion of an aura that grounds “the most authentic values . . . in the phenomenon of distance” (7). This value is crucial to Benjamin’s theory of allegory, in which distance produces an opacity that is resistant to “immediate apprehension” (129). As Rabaté’s thrilling close reading of Blood of a Poet suggests, allegory provides an ideal form for the expression of pathos because pathos needs the distance intrinsic to the structure of allegory to find expression. Blood of a Poet then explores the conditions necessary for the creation of a “new pathos through a new form of expression” in its inventions of a “composite supernatural being” and its creation of a web of “interconnected metonymies” in which the “visual” is “spoken,” an example of which is the mouth that appears on the Poet’s hand (138–41). Rabaté links this “dispersal” to the crisis of the aura, or the breakdown of any “seamless adequation of form and content” (146).
One does wish for a more coherent articulation of the relation between this “constructive dehiscense” and “formal excess,” this lack of symbolic cohesion and the “affects of the moderns” (146). Drawing from Deleuze in an earlier chapter, Rabaté suggests that the “task of art is to invent affects” (89). One can extrapolate that, as allegory, art induces a crisis in legibility; modern [End Page 209] art and modernity challenge the forms of reading prized by Darwin’s physiognomic program, for example, with its faith in our ability to decipher our affects and expressions. The book then might benefit from a stronger engagement with work on affect by critics such as Silvan Tomkins and Eve Sedgwick, who maintain that freedom arises from our potential wrongness about the meanings of our affects and their relation to our intentions. This sort of perspective or psyche is anti-Cartesian, or topological, in its construction of an ego that may be foreign to itself or to one’s consciousness of self. Such a model of character or psyche is relevant to Rabaté’s reading of Beckett’s Murphy (1938), in which character becomes a “negative Cartesian cogito” that acts as a “yardstick measuring the pathos of distance” and, even more radically, to his understanding of Eliot’s poetic construction of an “affect associated with one’s sense of being subjectively dead” (65, 110). These uncanny affective structures also appear in Woolf’s use of “the genre of the novel for non-psychological projections of affective states” (91). Reading Woolf, Rabaté identifies an ethical change in this sort of affective distance or strangeness linked to the loss of traditional notions of literary “character” and a corresponding “disregard for form or ‘style’” (73).
The book often takes for granted the question of how such “disregard” comes to be an ethics and, further, how this ethics arises from the proliferation of new forms. Why is distance, or the novelty of form it can initiate, ethical? In so far as ethics means “truth,” the book’s final and wonderfully compelling chapters on contemporary fiction by Hustvedt and Coetzee explore these questions by asking what model of relation, proximity or distance, best expresses “emotional truth,” even when unknowable or “inaccessible to words” (160–61). Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of An American (2008), Rabaté argues, “confirms a basic Lacanian” insight about the speakability of trauma, while Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013) affirms a future “marked” by the pathos of the anarchic and passionate child (160, 180). As much as Coetzee likens nihilism, or the vanishing of “all strong values,” to the Nietzschean “flattening” of affect, one can deduce that the price of ethics is the “rejection of egalitarian equanimity” (164). This rejection rests on a structure of verticality that Rabaté also sees in Pound’s “invention of comparative literature” and Eliot’s “historical sense” (69, 73). Our understanding of the ethical and affective implications of such an intriguing concept might profit from a more thorough elaboration of Nietzschean affect, which, scholars have argued, is based in the particular feeling of “contempt.”2 Similarly, work on spatiality and affect, by critics such as Gabriel Rotello, Tim Dean, Sarah Ahmed, and Sedgwick has acknowledged the productive possibilities of experiencing relationships ecologically or horizontally—and has advocated, in one way or another, a retreat from psychologically driven forms of affective expression. To engage such accounts might offer a potentially powerful clarification of the “stakes” of the “pathos of distance,” aimed at the question of how to preserve an egalitarian space that promotes human autonomy without the loss of difference and dimension that is retained in “vertical” models of relation. But perhaps such an intervention would be “superfluous,” as Rabaté, after a short concluding reading of Hannah Arendt’s notion of “understanding,” indicates (189). The Pathos of Distance takes its own refreshing distance from the imperative that literary criticism be linked explicitly and closely to the political. Distance allows us to imagine and to create, and it is only through this process that we can “bridge abysses of remoteness” or understand and reflect upon objectivity in the first place (quoted on 188).
1. T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harvest, 1975), 40, 44.
2. Mark Alfano, “A Schooling in Contempt: Emotions and the Pathos of Distance,” Philosophy and Other Thoughts, 2014, alfanophilosophy.com/blog/2015/11/21/a-schooling-in-contempt-emotions-and-the-pathos-of-distance. [End Page 210]