character: between representation and cause

Character, unlike the soul, or the person, or the self, has never settled its ontological accounts, so that it can be said to exist in the “world” or in the “representation of the world”.

Seventeenth century character books were written in the shadow of the ut pictura poesis – which gains its legitimacy not just in the tradition of the humors, but in the tradition of the portrait. Plutarch, at the beginning of his life of Alexander, makes the association between the picture and the character explicit:

“For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.  Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests.” [B. Perrin, translation]

The association of the character with the sketch, the picture and the mask pulls the concept into the domain of representation, and it is here that “Alexander” can become a character in an anecdote or a life. The association of character with expression, with what is under the surface, with virtue and vice, pulls it into the domain of the self, the person, the soul – and, most importantly, of cause. It is here that character can impose itself in history, for it is not simply the character Alexander, but the character of Alexander, that is exposed in his Life. In the first association of character we can see the roots of the notion of alienation – an imprisonment in obsessions, routines, repetitions, humors. Self-representation, then, does have a causal status in as much as it causes  others to act in a certain way to the imprisoned character, and the prison grows more impenetrable as the character precedes to write itself into this script. In the second, character is something outside of the prison, something recognizing, something that stands, emblematically, before the good and the bad, the act and the habit. In its second guise, character can be ‘acted upon’, trained. Character, here, is linked to education – in the humanist tradition, in a text like Montaigne’s The ‘institution’ [education] of children’, character is the central object of all teaching.

It is the conceptual fate of character that it should have these two analytically distinct poles, and that historically, as they coalesce in the semantic space of “character”, they bleed into one another.

The way character has come to straddle these realms of being makes it hard to imagine (for an "us", a Westerner, a paleface, a member in good standing of the artificial paradise) a culture with a semantic table of fundamental elements that wouldn’t have a word for, or a notion of, character.