December 4, 2020

What Is Your True ‘Character’? And Who’s to Judge It?

In the ungainly, interminable pageant of public apologies of late, one statement about misbehavior is proving strangely popular.

“This is not who I am,” a student at American University pleaded after a video circulated of her using a racial slur. “That’s not the real me,” the YouTuber Shane Dawson said, acknowledging his long history of wearing blackface in videos. “That’s not who I am,” the Patriots kicker Justin Rohrwasser swore after his tattoo of the logo of a right-wing militia sparked outrage.

It’s not me, not the real me, not the true me. Others afflicted by this sudden spate of bodily possession: the U.F.C. fighter Conor McGregor, filmed last year punching a man in the head at a pub. The rapper Trina, who recently compared protesters to “animals.” A Missouri woman, captured in a video last month, draped in a Confederate flag, shouting “K.K.K.” and telling a Black Lives Matter supporter, “I will teach my grandkids to hate you all.”

“The implication, not always made explicit, has to do with character; the mistake was ‘out of character’ for me,” Marjorie Garber writes in her hectic and absorbing new book, “Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession.” “The phrase ‘That is not who I am’ becomes a feedback loop, in which the speaker becomes his own character witness.”

What is the notion of character lurking behind these apologies? How are we conceiving of the self if we can insist: Never mind what you’ve seen on the video, never mind what I wrote or said, my true character exists independent of my choices and behavior — an intangible (and stainless) essence?

“‘Character’ remains one of the least understood of all modern terms,” Garber writes. She prods at the cloud of confusion surrounding the word — its philosophical roots, literary history, political uses and inadvertent comedy. “Character” has fallen out of scientific usage, but it’s brandished at the pulpit and podium, often, in Garber’s telling, by those employing it for protective camouflage. See Charlie Rose, Donald Trump and, most eloquently, Richard Nixon. (“You must not give power to a man unless, above everything else, he has character,” Nixon declared in a television advertisement for Barry Goldwater’s campaign. “Character is the most important qualification the president of the United States can have.”)

Garber is a celebrated Shakespearean scholar who has been heralded as “the queen of American cultural studies” and “one of the most powerful women in the academic world.” She has written widely on gender and sexuality, the academy and criticism. She marries high and low culture, using theory to dilate on the cultural significance of Jell-O, faked orgasms and dog ownership (“Is caninophilia an erotics of dominance?”).

“My work is all about boundaries,” Garber said 20 years ago. “My hope is to unsettle boundaries.” It’s an approach now so mainstream that it’s become an orthodoxy of its own; it’s difficult to think of a writer today, of any genre, who doesn’t congratulate herself for traducing artificial binaries. But how bitterly Garber was rebuked in the ’90s, for her interest in zines and Madonna. “She cares nothing for gravitas,” the critic Frank Kermode sniffed. Her appearance on “Geraldo,” discussing her study of cross-dressing, was a scandal.

Credit…Juliana Johnston

The through line in her eclectic body of work has been an interest in the proper use of literature, which exists, Garber argues, not as a tool of moral instruction but as “a way of thinking.” To think in a literary way is to privilege the question over the answer, to embrace uncertainty and associative imagination. “I do not propose to diagnose culture as if it were an illness of which we could be cured,” she has maintained, “but to read culture as if it were structured like a dream.”

To read culture, mind you, not interpret it. To hunt meaning is to squeeze art of its value, subtlety and pleasure. Her new book is the complicated fulfillment of this credo.

Garber begins with Aristotle, whose conception of character contrasts with our modern idea of an inward, fixed essence. In his “Poetics,” he emphasized character as “deliberate moral choice” in language and behavior. This notion of character as a quality that can be cultivated — even instilled — can be traced through the rise of the self-help movement of the 19th century and the establishment of the Boy Scouts movement, described by its founder, Robert Baden-Powell, as a “character factory.”

Garber is at her most fluent and thorough in this section as she traces Baden-Powell’s fusion of Spartan military training and Arthurian chivalric codes into a method of instruction, in which character became synonymous with an idealized form of “manliness” expressed in thought, attire, even movement. Baden-Powell compared the “fussy, swaggering little man paddling along with short steps with much arm actions” with “the smooth-going and silent step of the scout.” Garber draws out how the ideology of empire infused the philosophy of the Boy Scouts — to tame oneself before taming the world.

From this careful, attentive treatment, the book picks up speed. References whiz by, like uprooted trees in a cyclone. There goes the ancient philosopher Theophrastus with his taxonomy of social types; there goes the caricaturist William Hogarth, who believed the face to be “the index of the mind.” Phrenology, exclusionary college admission policies, Freud, inevitably, with his idea of character as the “outward sign, so to speak, of an inward personality” — there’s plenty to paddle around in, but do we arrive anywhere?

I have a high tolerance for rapid, associative, hunch-based writing, but I began to crave an argument, or at least a more explicit examination of the roots and consequences of character’s evolution. Garber will occasionally sidle up to tracing some point of continuity before parachuting away on the gusts of digression.

It’s not merely that Garber valorizes description over analysis; it’s that this method strips ideas of their historical context and function. As a critic, she has written powerfully about how life follows art — our understanding of character, for example, owes much to the construction of character in fiction and drama (to Shakespeare, in particular). But ideas aren’t merely “suggestive”; they don’t live only in the pages of novels or op-ed columns. They are put to particular uses in the service of particular ends. That the self-help movement in England, with its sense of personal responsibility and the perfectibility of character, overlapped with the Industrial Revolution seems salient, to put it mildly, as well as how conservative ideology has inflected the term — not that this book bothers much with such details.

Take her description of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he sexually assaulted her when they were high school students. Sixty-five women who knew Kavanaugh signed a document in support of his character. Twenty-four hundred law professors submitted a letter arguing that he lacked the temperament to sit on the court. Kavanaugh protested “character assassination” by the Democrats, and President Trump weighed in, praising him as “a man of great character and intellect.” We’re invited only to marvel at the copiousness of the term; Garber abstains from exploring how differently each party privately defines “character,” and why.

Her governing ethic is always to pose “literary questions: questions about the way something means, rather than what it means.” In this instance, it’s not merely a case of bringing the wrong weapons to a fight, but also, perhaps, a fitting capitulation to a word whose vacancy remains its power.