- 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...