- The Pathos of Distance: Affects of the Moderns by Jean-Michel Rabaté
Jean-Michel Rabaté’s latest book is a machine of many moving parts, and the first pleasure it affords its reader is that of understanding how the different components of the argument interconnect. The study joins two critical conversations that have been gaining traction in literary scholarship over the last few years: it invites us to participate in a debate about the significance of affect in contemporary thought, and it tests a concept of modernism rooted in the elaboration of a philosophical middle-ground between Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin.1 Yet neither one of these contexts suffices to delimit the scope or, indeed, the method of the book. Where to begin?
“The pathos of distance” is a phrase that occurs several times in Nietzsche’s entire body of work and refers to an originary distinction between nobility and lowness, a chasm separating great from mediocre men. The principle ties in with the claim that egalitarianism is the hallmark of a decadent society and that, conversely, the values that define a healthy culture are always born of a hierarchical ordering of desire. But the phrase also harks back to Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy (as the dramatic form that deals with the passions of noble men) and of comedy (as an exploration of the baser passions).2
Rabaté’s idea is to distill from Nietzsche’s concept its constitutive temporal and spatial coordinates, reworking Nietzschean “distance” into a chronotope by which to approach the theme of modernist affect. To all appearances, the book is a study of how a radical interrogation of the origin of values filters into modernist aesthetic and political thought. But The Pathos of Distance is at its best precisely when it shows how the Nietzschean ideas we associate with the twentieth-century avant-garde come under the strain of a fraught historical perspective, a peculiar sense of the now as a ruinous, untimely juncture from which alone might an artist’s historicality be judged.
A reading of Roland Barthes in chapter 1 sets up a comparison between two images of pity. The first is a scene from Nietzsche’s life in which the philosopher witnesses the beating of a horse and rushes to embrace the dying animal before falling into a mad stupor.3 The second, set alongside it as in a Benjaminian montage, describes Barthes looking at a photograph of his dead mother, a moment balanced precariously between lyricism, sentimentality, and philosophical critique (67–71). The encounter with Barthes recalibrates Nietzsche’s discourse on pathos and re-dialecticizes it. More specifically, Barthes brings to Nietzschean ethics an element of anaclitic weakness, a mournful, pathetic love of the mother, coupled by a sense of historical belatedness. [End Page 384]
The analysis gives us the coordinates for the book’s wider argument—a series of conceptual oppositions that find the ethical character of modernism suspended between elitist and egalitarian politics, nostalgic sentiment and an avant-garde cult of the new, cultural decadence and vitalist (masculine) vigor. Navigating these extremes, always looking for the point at which one vanishes into the other, Rabaté pieces together a history that includes Alfred Jarry, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, W. B. Yeats, Joyce, Samuel Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Guillaume Apollinaire, Siri Hustvedt, J. M. Coetzee, Jean Cocteau, and Marcel Duchamp.
I wish to single out one entry from this list, with the caveat that The Pathos of Distance is at its most rewarding when the chapters are approached comparatively or, better still, combinatorially, such as the section on Duchamp that responds to an analysis of Jarry, the latter setting up a reading of Pound, and the reading of Pound connecting with discussions of Woolf, Eliot, and so on. New readings are more than likely to result in a different arrangement, but, if pressed, I would say that Pound is the book’s center of gravity.
The author of The Spirit of...