Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West

Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West

Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West

Enchantment: On Charisma and the Sublime in the Arts of the West


What is the force in art, C. Stephen Jaeger asks, that can enter our consciousness, inspire admiration or imitation, and carry a reader or viewer from the world as it is to a world more sublime? We have long recognized the power of individuals to lead or enchant by the force of personal charisma--and indeed, in his award-winning Envy of Angels, Jaeger himself brilliantly parsed the ability of charismatic teachers to shape the world of medieval learning. In Enchantment, he turns his attention to a sweeping and multifaceted exploration of the charisma not of individuals but of art.

For Jaeger, the charisma of the visual arts, literature, and film functions by creating an exalted semblance of life, a realm of beauty, sublime emotions, heroic motives and deeds, godlike bodies and actions, and superhuman abilities, so as to dazzle the humbled spectator and lift him or her up into the place so represented. Charismatic art makes us want to live in the higher world that it depicts, to behave like its heroes and heroines, and to think and act according to their values. It temporarily weakens individual will and rational critical thought. It brings us into a state of enchantment.

Ranging widely across periods and genres, Enchantment investigates the charismatic effect of an ancient statue of Apollo on the poet Rilke, of the painter Dürer's self-portrayal as a figure of Christ-like magnificence, of a numinous Odysseus washed ashore on Phaeacia, and of the black-and-white projection of Fred Astaire dancing across the Depression-era movie screen. From the tattoos on the face of a Maori tribesman to the haunting visage of Charlotte Rampling in a film by Woody Allen, Jaeger's extraordinary book explores the dichotomies of reality and illusion, life and art that are fundamental to both cultic and aesthetic experience.


The book on my desk, in the Loeb Classical Library series, puts together three works: Aristotle’s Poetics, Longinus’s On the Sublime, and Demetrius’s On Style. the first two have a claim to a greater influence on theory of representation in the West than any others before or since. We might say, what Aristotle and Plato are for philosophy, Aristotle and Longinus are for aesthetic thought, two opposed poles, from which theory of representation evolves.

The empiricist Aristotle described genres, aspects of style, and structure, and he gave the term “mimesis” as lengthy an explanation as it would receive in antiquity—without clarifying it, at least for modern readers. Later commentators could take up “imitation,” extend it to “imitation of nature,” or “imitation of reality” or “re-presentation of reality,” and so make realism the anchor of representation, holding the things tethered to it at varying lengths and radii, but always returning to that which held it in water however shallow, deep, or unfathomable.

“Better Than Our Normal Level”

Aristotle explained mimesis as “the imitation of a human action” and laid out three modes of it: “Mimetic artists … can represent people better than our normal level, worse than it, or much the same.” It would be hard to combine the brilliant and the banal as seamlessly as this passage. Aristotle recognized that Homer and Sophocles depicted elevated characters, and he mentioned the exemplary as a mode above reality. (He distinguished between an artfully painted object and reality by the degree to which the picture could collect and unite excellent forms, which in reality never come together in one person or one object—Politics But he had next to no interest in defining these modes in any detail. “Our normal level” is . . .

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