“Charisma and Fictional Authority—Nine Fragments toward an Essay”
After long delays, the person we have waited for stands up there, elevated above everyone else. From moment to moment, the speaker’s face is solemn, mocking, knowing, scornful, radiant. The audience members—and there must always be an audience—lean forward toward the person addressing them, and from their expectant expressions, you can tell that they’re transfixed by the words that are somehow running parallel alongside the charismatic figure’s physical presence. You had questions? Here at last are the answers, but the words—this is strange—are less important than the presence.
Toward the end, the listeners applaud and stomp their feet; they nod; they roar their approval. They are lifted up. In our time, they raise their iPhones to snap pictures. Many audience members are dressed in clothes that somehow imitate their leader’s clothing, and some of their hats and shirts contain quotations from speeches that the speaker has uttered. They are branded with the speaker’s brand. They may have tattoos of the speaker’s face or initials on their flesh. The speaker, who has certain powers denied to everyone else, is saying that they, the ones in the room, are in a special group, consisting of us, and those who oppose us are not important and can be classed as unenlightened nobodies—or enemies. The outsiders may comprise the terrible, unknowing, and malevolently contemptible others beyond the group, and—don’t forget—these others should be ignored or converted or healed, at best, and, at worst, well, use your imagination.
The atmosphere in the room is electric with rage, devotion, excitement, and permission giving. It is epiphany time. Ordinary day-to-day meaninglessness has been replaced by meaning, great gobs of it, almost too much meaning, an overflow of meaning that answers all doubts and will lead to action. There are goals that, given great communal sacrifice and sometimes big monetary donations, will be met. Or else.
The arrow goes into the string of the bow and is pulled back. The speaker is often absent once the arrow reaches its target.
In the wake of the Trump presidency, I feel compelled to write an essay on charisma, a topic I previously thought to be impossibly large. Where do I start, where does anyone start? The first hurdle one has to jump over has to do with definitions. The word has morphed from the early Christian era, when in the Pauline epistles charisma referred to a variety of grace that had everything to do with the divine presence. It was thought to be conferred by the Holy Spirit through the gift of Christ’s divinity, and all good things flowed through it; those who received it were blessed. “Charismatic Christianity” still holds on to this definition.
When the social theorist Max Weber brought the word back into common use in the early part of the twentieth century, however, he applied the term to a certain kind of political authority: the charismatic figure is assumed to have supernatural, superhuman, or godlike powers that the rest of us lack. (A friend of mine, speaking of a charismatic teacher and mentor of hers, said to me, “He can summon angels.”) In Weber’s terms, this charismatic power is neither good nor bad, although it certainly can be misused. It requires the audience’s belief or faith, without which it disappears. Charisma answers to—and responds to—chronic neediness and creates a kind of feedback loop in which an appetite is fed, providing a brief satisfaction that in turn increases the appetite. Weber does not, to my knowledge, take up the related problem of meaning at any length, nor does he discuss the techniques that the charismatic leader uses to fill in the emptiness of daily secular life, but a feeling of emptiness serves as a catalytic entry point into the circuitry and the jolt of electricity provided by the Weberian charismatic figure.
A second theory of charisma (in fiction and elsewhere) arrives at politics through the back door: in René Girard’s version of it in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1965), charisma arises when two conditions meet: the person, usually male, is physically striking or beautiful and also seems to love no one and to need nobody. This is the where’s-my-mirror narcissism of the stupendously beautiful or of the supremely confident and self-absorbed. Girard’s charismatic figures may not have an agenda, but people go out of their heads when they’re near them, and violence is often in the air—people don’t look at such stars; they stare at them and want to crowd up close to get inside the aura. Think of the immobile and indifferent Andy Warhol and the mayhem surrounding him. Everyone want to get ahold of that, but it’s maddeningly hard to get ahold of that when the Fortunate One doesn’t give anything back and doesn’t even seem to care that other people exist.
Girard’s exemplary fictional character for this version of charisma is Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872), and there’s a brilliant and witty reading of Girard’s theory, and of Dostoevsky’s novel and narcissistic autonomy, and of life as a graduate student in Elif Batuman’s nonfiction memoir The Possessed (2010). Girard’s theory could equally be applied to Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood (1936), as it happens, and its female protagonist. Nightwood’s central figure is the enigmatic and almost silent Robin Vote, whom everyone in the novel—Felix, Nora, and Jenny—would like to possess or get a piece of, but Robin is the sort of person who doesn’t notice you when you’re in the room, who often doesn’t listen when spoken to, who would rather play with her dolls. She’s beautiful, of course (Barnes is cagey on this point), but she sleepwalks through life, and just when you think you’ve got her attention, she wanders away, muttering half-intelligible statements on her way to the nearest back-alley bar. When the person you love doesn’t seem to remember your name or notice you enough to recall what you look like, you either give up or go a little crazy. Your love may intensify. You should know better, but in matters of love, who knows better? Despair and crazy eloquence at its outer limit are the two poles of the battery in Nightwood.
Max Weber’s theory of charisma is closely related to a variety of demagoguery, which amounts to rhetorical control over an audience, whereas Girard’s theory has nothing to do with demagoguery, although the audience is still under a kind of spell. Both theories lean toward what happens when there’s the creation of a spellbound cult around the charismatic figure. In my own thinking about charisma, I’d emphasize the spellbinding: how we get there, and what we’re like when we’re under a spell, the way that we’re bound, tied up, and stuck in a web of fixation. The charismatic figure is best understood by observing not the figure, but the audience. This is an important point for fiction writers who are crafting characters who compel our attention. Most of the time, we pay attention to fictional characters because of what they do. With charismatic fictional characters, we pay attention because of what they are.
For example, here’s Elif Batuman on the subject of a fellow graduate student at Stanford, whose name was Matej. He was from Croatia and thus was exotic at Stanford. She notes that, like Dostoevsky’s fictional character Stavrogin, the real-life Matej had a certain masklike beauty: “narrow glinting eyes, high cheekbones, too-black hair—with a long-limbed, perfectly proportioned physical elegance, such that his body always looked at once extravagantly casual and perfectly composed.” If the reader should happen to think that what’s being described is an instance of standard-issue physical attraction by the bedazzled author in response to stone-cold male beauty, Batuman is quick to set to set us straight:
But the more time I spent around Matej, the more vividly I realized that I was for the first time in the presence of pure charisma, the real thing. It was an elemental power, like weather or electricity. Recognizing it had no effect on your physical response.
Notice the switch from “I” to “your” in this paragraph. Soul and body take a vacation from the mind and rational judgment when Matej is around. But now another problem has arisen. Batuman has made a claim about Matej’s charisma, but, simply by using words, she cannot prove it. The charisma experience is hers alone. All writing distances, filters, and mediates charisma so that it loses its initial force and becomes just another reaction between two people. One of those people cannot be the reader because all of us are positioned too far away from the charisma to feel its voltage. We can only note its presence in the text and its effect on others. Batuman may think that Matej’s charisma is like weather or electricity, but we, her readers, register her reactions and not the electricity. Words are there instead, and mere words can’t reproduce what someone’s physical presence can do to you. Something about writing adds distance and dimension to physical life and experience, making it referential. In fiction, a beautiful or charismatic character has to be beautiful or ugly to someone in the story if it is to have any dramatic force.
Therefore: charisma in writing can only be asserted, even in romance writing and pornography, and its effects can only be shown through the behavior of those who are clustered around the charismatic figure. It’s the same with beauty. You can say a character is beautiful by writing about that person, but you can’t substantiate that beauty—eye of the beholder, and all that.
Movies are opposed to written fiction in this respect. The eye of the beholder is fixed on the screen, and suddenly a big star, let’s say, shows up. The big star’s appearance is proof or disproof about claims that may have been made about her/him/them. The viewer is free to decide if the actor on screen is beautiful and whether it matters. The star’s appearance is more than an assertion of a claim; it is the evidence of the claim. An actor’s appearance in a film may even convey the force of charisma to the viewer. I don’t happen to find movie actors charismatic, but many people do—and they may feel similarly about some rock stars, politicians, and religious leaders. The word we have for this awed fascination is starstruck. But it’s complicated: years ago, when I was in my thirties, I met an unfamous writer whose work I admired, and I was so starstruck that I could hardly speak. Years later, I met Morgan Freeman and thought he was a polite, courtly old gentleman from the South who had been in pictures. There he was—no charisma. The unfamous writer had once met Elvis Presley on a movie set. The movie was based on the unfamous writer’s first novel. What was the writer’s reaction? “Elvis? Oh, well. He was a polite young man with very good manners.” To the unfamous writer, Elvis was just another guy. This, I think, is one definition of sanity—the ability to keep things in perspective.
When charisma fades, you are disenchanted and are living in the dreaded realm of sobriety. It may feel like a hangover, but that disenchantment is a very important spiritual and psychological condition, a cold-hillside sanity realm whose great poets are Keats and Coleridge. The secret word of admission to this realm is forlorn. Coleridge names the lime-tree bower as his prison, a place of terrible gravity. Keats’ knight at arms wakes up on a cold hillside after his encounter with la belle dame sans merci. In the nightingale ode, the last stanza begins with a bell ringing out the word forlorn.
In the only undergraduate creative writing class I ever took, the instructor was at pains to encourage us to make our characters “lively” and “colorful.” The idea was that colorful characters were good for the story and helped to make it memorable. He also said that we should write our characters so that they became “real characters,” by which he meant standout weirdos. The example he used was that of a smalltown crackpot. The result of his advice and suggestions was disconcerting. For several weeks, most of us in the class turned in stories about an array of zany relatives and friends: Old Uncle Torpash, who smoked tobaccy in his corncob pipe while taking a bath; Little Aunt Mildred, who went deaf when the whole town started talking about the affair she’d had with the mayor; Cousin Ralphie, who worked on his souped-up Chevrolet when not putting in paid hours at the garage, and who was, by the way, secretly gay; and a character named Borden Cow (I still remember that name), who was rewriting the Bible in his spare time, in hopes of making it more forgiving to sinners like him.
The stories were tedious and rarely went anywhere. You were supposed to be amused or appalled by the characters, and once the character had performed the signature actions the author had prepared, the story was over. Colorful characters are not charismatic, and their actions are usually inconsequential. What’s interesting is to make them a part of a community, as David Rhodes does in his novel Driftless (2009). Once you give a colorful character a hazardous dramatic situation and a goal, you can ramp up a plot. Colorful characters freed of plot stop being entertaining rather quickly and sometimes seem to have walked out of the pages of the Reader’s Digest, from their regular series My Most Unforgettable Character. Charismatic characters are not merely colorful but have to be dynamic and transformative, and they appeal to people who want to be healed and who are hungry for meaning. According to Girard, such characters also seem to be autonomous in some way. They do not love anybody and have no friends but wallow in the love that others send in their direction.
So how do we recognize a charismatic character in fiction (and maybe outside of it) even if we are not directly electrified by that person’s force field? Here are eleven observations on the subject taken from my notebook from the election year 2020.
- The charismatic character never tells the story. Someone else has to tell it. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t write his own history because he never feels the need to explain himself. There is no horse’s mouth with charisma, only relatives and friends and witnesses who will testify about what the horse said and did. Often when the charismatic figure speaks, nonsensical blather comes out; you have to have been there. This is a problem for storytellers. Only Ishmael can tell us about Ahab and the whale; you need some distance and perspective to get the story down on paper.
- In stories, the person afflicted with viewing or experiencing the charisma is at least as important as the charismatic figure. In reading about the NXIVM cult or watching the HBO documentary about it, The Vow, you notice that the leader, Keith Raniere, is much less interesting than the people who have fallen under his spell. Raniere himself is a semihandsome con artist who utters nonstop platitudes from the literature of self-help and self-actualization, with heavily diluted wisdom sprinkles from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Werner Erhard. He can be boring, but his enthralled followers never are. Their need for him powers the narrative. When you watch them, you watch glamorous people being hypnotized, falling under a spell, and then waking up on the cold hillside as Raniere is sentenced and is led away to prison in handcuffs.
- Charismatic figures are actors and performers. They are always performing in the theater of themselves. They are most at home on a stage, even when you can’t see the stage. The charismatic figure typically likes stages and will try to find a stage anywhere to stand on and cannot function very well without an audience.
- Given their usual narcissism, charismatic figures love no one in particular. Instead of love, they have obsessions. Most of them do not have friends, either. Their grandiosity precludes friendship.
- Charismatic figures often stage-manage their first appearance from above: Hitler, in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, descends from an airplane; Donald J. Trump comes down to us on an escalator. The deus ex machina effect is often engineered into the show right at the start.
- For their followers, something about charismatic figures seems special, glittering, but only the circle of followers can feel that specialness. For everyone else, the emperor is prancing around, naked.
- When the charismatic figure is around, violence is in the air. So are sudden healings and cures. Desperation and ecstasy are the bipolar moods in play. In this environment, sanity, balance, and cool judgment are discarded and often treated with contempt.
- Although charismatic figures are sometimes capable of conversation, they prefer monologues, speeches, and arias. Conversation breaks the singleminded spell they depend upon. This point is related to their taste for being onstage.
- In some versions of this story, the charismatic figure may be obsessed by something to get, kill, or acquire: twenty Rolls-Royces (the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), the white whale (Ahab), an end to slavery (John Brown), a following (Jean Brodie), money and sex (Keith Raniere), fame and brand recognition (Trump) and, more distantly, enlightenment that will fill up the emptiness.
- Most of these characters are needy men impatient with ordinary life. With such men, fascist thinking is not far off. But, given certain conditions, women can evoke it.
- When the charismatic figure is a woman, as in Nightwood or Anita Brookner’s Look at Me or Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, or Henry James’ The Bostonians, power arises from the force of indifference, which is established by the woman’s lack of interest in or hostility to social norms and the usual social courtesies. The assumption of transgressive authority leads to genuine authority.
According to the novelist Stacey D’Erasmo, to whose ideas I am indebted in this section, narcissism has a tendency to split off into two forms, light and dark. Both forms, light narcissism and dark narcissism, depend on a division between us and them, the inner circle and the outer circle, but with light narcissism, everyone out there is invited in to the party—the more people, the better. The light narcissist is always telling jokes and throwing parties and having a good time, roping everyone within sight into the twenty-four-hour festivities. You may lose your job if you stay at the party, but the light narcissist doesn’t care about your job or your social obligations or your fate. Falstaff and Gatsby and Dean Moriarty are light narcissists, and so, probably, is the god Dionysus; I will therefore use the masculine pronoun to describe them. Light narcissists give you laughing permission to ruin your life. They will laugh as you go down the drain. The light narcissist magnetizes followers by giving them permission not to go to work or into the army, and encourages them to stay out all day and all night smoking weed, drinking wine, taking off their clothes, having mindblowing sex, and applying hammer blows to the alarm clock. The light narcissist, charisma ablaze, torching the house of the self, can be seen at conventions surrounded by admirers at breakfast, as he tells jokes from his endless supply—for such a person, jokes and booze substitute for conversation. He is a lovable figure for many people, but the end point is drunkenness, madness, or frenzy—not his, but yours.
By contrast, the dark narcissist sits elsewhere, usually in the corner, eyes shifting around the room to see who’s coming in through the door. This guy is not lovable. Dark suspicions are his passion. His opening line is, “You do realize what’s going on, don’t you? If not, I’ll tell you.” He holds on to dark, secret truths, but only the dark narcissist and his associates know what they are, although if you’re lucky and are admitted into the inner sanctum, he’ll share them with you and wise you up about who’s in charge; what they’re doing; who they claim to be; and the evil they’re perpetrating. The dark narcissist leads his own conspiracy against other conspiracies, against those people. There are always those people, the enemy, and they are gaining ground, day by day, minute by minute, hatching their terrible plans. The dark narcissist is drunk not on wine, as the light narcissist is, but on conspiracies. You are privileged to be admitted into the dark narcissist’s inner circle, but time is running out. Here, “Everything has meaning,” to quote QAnon. What parties and jokes are to the light narcissist, crusades are to the dark narcissist, who has to lure you to follow him on his quest for the white whale or whatever the white whale happens to be this time. We have to do something, the dark narcissist says, or evil will triumph. The dark narcissist is obsessive and goal-oriented by nature and is close to being a flat character because of obsession’s grip: he wants only one thing, which is typically unobtainable. Treated without respect, the dark narcissist, or the person in league with the dark narcissist, may become a semicomic character, heading for Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in search of a pedophile sex ring. The trouble is, he has a gun.
Funny story: the dark narcissist can be noble and heroic, given the right circumstances, when the darkness of his conspiracy theories matches the truth of the actual situation.
Both light and dark narcissists are larger than life when they’re found in fiction; they are often rambling around in ego palaces of their own design. Orson Welles’ films contain both dark and light narcissists: Charles Foster Kane starts as a light narcissist before turning into something else. Booth Tarkington’s George Amberson Minafer is a dark narcissist who puts hobbles on his mother, and Falstaff is entirely a light one. Some of our greatest literary works contain both kinds of charisma, notably Wuthering Heights (Heathcliff) and Jane Eyre (Rochester). Count Dracula has gothic supercharisma, and he has an ever-enlarging retinue in thrall to him. But for writers, these sorts of characters are extremely dangerous to handle because the somewhat amorphous meanings they generate are larger than they are, and, having risen to a level high above everyone else, they have washed their hands of ordinary life and common sense and have therefore become, to a smaller or greater degree, monsters. You can’t leave a monster alone; you either have to convert it or humble it or kill it. The monster, rather than the writer, directs the story.
As a consequence, both light and dark narcissists—bathed in the charisma granted to them by their observers—take up a great deal of space in everyone’s consciousness. You are compelled to think about them—they are high-voltage soul magnets attracting the attention they seem to require. Those who surround them—the observers or fans or worshippers or followers—cannot stop discussing them, sometimes guiltily, as if there were some X factor in their makeup, a quality or substance that no one else has access to, and that makes them endlessly fascinating and disturbing, human mysteries that need to be solved.
The four years of the Trump presidency were notable not for discussion of policy but for endless discussions of Trump himself. Trump was a highly charged combination of light and dark narcissism, and as a permission giver, he was capable of producing a violent frenzy in his followers.
At this late point in literary history, it is hard to say anything about Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick (1851) that hasn’t been said several times already, but in thinking about charisma in a literary and an American context, I want to draw attention to a few small and (for me) telling details in Melville’s novel, particularly Ahab’s habit of referring to himself in the third person as the novel reaches its conclusion. This tendency of his becomes more pronounced as the whale approaches and becomes visible, and it follows the much-delayed introduction of Ahab himself, who stays belowdecks until his first appearance in chapter twenty-eight. Given his initial invisibility, the crew members are forced to speculate about him. Charisma undiscussed is like an unlit match. As I’ve noted before, charismatic figures are rarely on time: they often make you wait for them before they appear, the teasing, withholding strategy of rock-star gods, who can be as late as they want to be to demonstrate their power over you.
Ahab is talked about even before Ishmael and Queequeg have boarded the Pequod. In chapter nineteen, the dockside prophet Elijah shows up and begins to jabber about Ahab as if he’s the only worthy subject of conversation, the source of all future significance on the voyage. Ahab’s semisupernatural status is signaled by the biblical haze surrounding Elijah and by the warning Elijah gives Ishmael and Queequeg that their souls are in danger if they go on board under Ahab’s command. Souls? “Oh, perhaps you hav’n’t got any,” Elijah says, quickly adding that Ahab has enough soul to take up the slack in the souls of his followers, “to make up for all deficiencies of that sort in other chaps.”
At this point, before the ship has even left the harbor, the gods up there and the souls down here have been implicated in Ahab’s behavior. This is not, to put the matter in the simplest possible terms, an ordinary voyage with plain old commonsensical meanings; the voyage has turned cosmic and supernatural before it’s even started. The problem of bloated meaning in Moby-Dick has enlarged to such an extent that human beings seem inadequate to the task of handling or interpreting it—we are in a world governed not by humans but by forces said to be invisible to them. Nature itself is on trial for criminal behavior, and the problem of meaning in Moby-Dick is as outsized as the white whale himself, which is Exhibit A for nature’s horror show. It’s as if the novel is engaged in a life-or-death battle with the problem of what matters, and the holders of common sense—the Pequod’s crew, particularly Starbuck—have to be converted by Ahab to the fanatic cause of the pursuit of the white whale. It is not a reasonable quest, and Ahab is not a reasonable man, but a mesmerist.
The white whale is the MacGuffin in Moby-Dick—its blank, unreadable, perpetually mysterious unsignified signifier, and in order to enlist the crew into the cause of killing it, Ahab must become a charismatic performer: he must somehow convince his crew members that his personal injury, the loss of his leg, is also their injury. He does so through ritualistic initiation rites, including call-and response in chapter thirty-six, “The Quarter-Deck.” Ahab’s wound enlarges to absorb everything surrounding it—the whole world and the totality of one’s experiences comprise the wound. What the novel Moby-Dick teaches us is that in great literature, a personal injury, a Charisma and Fictional Authority—Nine Fragments toward an Essay 147 grievance, can be converted into a communal grievance if the charismatic figure can universalize the source of his private pain and turn its perpetrator into an entity that menaces everybody. Communal grievances typically take on overt form in warfare, concluding with massive casualties that provide the narrative’s climactic moments. Welcome to a collective death wish: “so Ahab’s purpose now fixedly gleamed down upon the constant midnight of the gloomy crew” (chapter 130).
Moby-Dick as a novel, as several commentators have noted, comes close at times to comedy, some of it deliberate, and Ahab himself would be an almost comic figure if he didn’t take the whole crew (except for Ishmael) down with him. The crazy theories of the mass murderer are often funny until the shooting starts and the innocent bystanders drop to the ground or sink into the ocean. The fanaticism of Ahab and his inability to get a grip are made manifest in his way of referring to himself as if he were subdivided into crazed actor on one side and a transfixed audience member on the other, who observes the performance and comments on it. “Is Ahab, Ahab?” he asks in chapter 132. “Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” A few pages later, he is still speaking in the third person, isolated: “Ahab,” he says, apparently in awe of himself, “stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth.” In chapter 134, Ahab refers to himself in the third person no less than four times.
The doomed Pequod sinks like an object out of a bad dream, a “fading phantom,” its “pagan harpooneers” still standing in their lookouts as it goes down, a flapping bird, a “living part of heaven,” nailed to its mast, all the overdetermined ingredients of a nightmare that no psychology can adequately interpret. One critic, Robert M. Adams, in Nil, has called it a “clogged allegory.” Another commentator, Andrew Delbanco, in Melville, His World and His Work makes a connection between charisma and fascism and destruction: “In Captain Ahab,” he writes, “Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose—an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete anytime soon.”
Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) is indeed a comedy of manners and attitudes, though it is rarely funny, and reading it is a bit like watching laboratory mice jumping around after being given periodic shocks. The novel’s last shock—administered to the reader—is the observation by Sandy, one of Miss Jean Brodie’s former pupils, that “she’s a born Fascist, have you thought of that?” But how can Jean Brodie be a person of fascist consequence? She’s only a charismatic schoolteacher in Scotland. What harm could she possibly do?
I want to pause here for a moment to ask what domestic fascism might look like, what might be called the fascism of ordinary life as pictured in fiction. Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie is a female Ahab in a schoolroom where she is shorn of the metaphysical and spiritual hubbub of Ahab’s mania but is still self-obsessed to a fault. Her retinue, “the Brodie set,” is reminded at every possible moment that they are the chosen few, and their future is in Miss Brodie’s hands. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life,” Miss Brodie says, the startling claim of an enchanter who’s pleased to use her “suicidal enchantments” on her willing victims. Instead of hunting a white whale, Jean Brodie has more modest aims: she’s merely the charismatic teacher who wants to make you into one of her own and then to claim ownership over you. She earnestly wants you to be in her set, to be special, to be branded as hers. Like many teachers and lovers, she wants to assert certain proprietary rights over you and to be the person who issues permissions and prohibitions. In Spark’s novel, such assertions are not sexual, exactly, but they feel erotic all Charisma and Fictional Authority—Nine Fragments toward an Essay 149 the same and use some of the language of Eros. “‘It is because you are mine,’ said Miss Brodie. ‘I mean of my stamp and cut, and I am in my prime.’”
The novel in which she appears is largely nonlinear, with the result that there is no white whale, or anything else out there, to hunt down. There is simply the collective falling under a spell inspired by Miss Jean Brodie. The plot, such as it is, deals with the resulting collective disillusions of the young women who had once idolized her because she made them feel elevated above the rest and who wake up, one by one, into their adulthoods, when they realize, first, that they are nothing special, and second, that they were tricked. At least one of her students takes orders as a cloistered nun and, when we last see her, is behind bars.
The girls speculate about Miss Brodie’s love life at considerable length, and she is betrayed (her favorite word) by a girl with “piggy” eyes. The arc of the novel is largely formed when it becomes apparent that teenagers in the Brodie set are more susceptible to pedagogical charisma than adults are and will eventually grow out of it. Spells, and spellbinding, it turns out, usually expire with maturity and age, and when they do, if they do, the audience wakes up and grows angry at the magician. (Benito Mussolini, much admired by Miss Jean Brodie, was eventually hung upside down and stripped in the public square.) But before that, “they had to admit, at last, and without doubt, that she was really an exciting woman as a woman.”
Muriel Spark is at some pains to make sure that the almost humdrum situation of a classroom teacher and her pupils serves as a miniature replica of charismatic performances going on beyond the walls of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a locale presented in a tone of “amused and mannered irony,” as the critic Frank Kermode describes it in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition. “Brodie,” he says, “is charmingly and always relevantly funny.” Of course no one wants to be a dullard, left out and clueless about a charming joke concerning fascism and fascist interactions between an authority and her subjects. A plainspoken American reader, immune to charm, may be excused for being dour and unamused when, at the end of World War II, Miss Brodie observes that “Hitler was rather naughty.” The whole enterprise has gone a bit beyond dramatic irony prior to that anyway when Miss Brodie, in the mid-1930s, goes on summer vacation to Nazi Germany, where Hitler, she says, “was become [sic] Chancellor, a prophet-like figure like Thomas Carlyle, and more reliable than Mussolini.” After all, the typical charismatic figure is untroubled by doubts: “she let everyone know she was in no doubt, that God was on her side whatever her course.”
For the charismatic leader, God is either an ally or an implacable enemy, and the Bible is held up high in the air, as proof of either point.
Frank Kermode’s claim that this novel is charmingly and always relevantly funny probably holds true if a reader doesn’t mind it when a person of authority takes malevolent and manipulative control over another human being. You’re supposed to see the joke in that, the comic premise, the lighthearted entrapment. The literature of love stories, after all, is a collection of tales about one person, or many people, who fall under the spell of another. That’s not about fascism, that particular story. It only becomes a story on that subject when the powerful and charismatic one in control, seeking an advantage, commands the spellbound lover to do his or her bidding and then, slowly but surely, reduces that person’s liberty and increases the surveillance until the hapless victim is enclosed in a house or apartment and feels like a political prisoner in a police state. The request moment returns in such situations as a command moment, and woe to the person who does not, in this situation, follow the command of the leader. The primrose pathway trod by lovers in such stories leads by winding twists and turns to the place of confinement.
At the risk of undermining my entire argument, I want to introduce as my final example of charismatic leadership the figure of John Brown in James McBride’s 2013 novel, The Good Lord Bird, the National Book Award winner in fiction that year. Like other novels of its type, it is narrated by an observer-bystander, in this case the young Henry Shackleford, a slave in the Kansas Territory in 1856, who, disguised as a girl and named Little Onion, becomes John Brown’s sidekick and good-luck charm.
McBride’s novel does the seemingly impossible: its central character, John Brown, is righteous, fanatical, charismatic, noble, and weirdly comic. To have a protagonist who is both noble and comic, correct and maniacal, constitutes a balancing act that almost never succeeds in the literature of charisma, partly because a charismatic campaign typically ascribes meaning to objects that refuse it, such as the white whale, or to events that are empty of commonsense significance and become inflated with conspiratorial meanings. One theory of comedy asserts that the comic figure is mechanical, repetitive, and predictable—in a word, obsessive. Comic characters do the same thing every time, at any opportunity, and at length. The Good Lord Bird’s way of exploiting these patterns is to provide us with an antagonist—slavery itself—whose evil is as large and as significant as John Brown says it is. His fanaticism is entirely appropriate to the size and malignity of his opposition, and if he believes that God is on his side, and prays at predictable, tiresome length, who could possibly oppose him, and on what grounds?
In the struggle in which John Brown is engaged, reasonability and perspective and good liberal values are beside the point. With slavery, no middle ground exists where compromise would be the sensible alternative upon which all right-thinking people would agree. If there were any such ground, the Missouri Compromise would be noted in our nation’s history as a triumphant act of diplomacy. In McBride’s novel, it is as if mania and single-mindedness have finally met their heroic protagonist and their proper opponent, and charisma has finally been conferred on someone in whom the divine forces have installed an unshakable conviction in a just cause. He is a fanatic, a comic figure, and a holy man.
Above all, in McBride’s portrait of him, John Brown is a scary guy whose fanaticism cannot be separated from his religious faith. In the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas, the five people killed were all slavery advocates who refused to renounce it. There are no mass murders involving slavery that need to be explained away, according to the novel. Still, there’s no question that John Brown was a religious fanatic and is portrayed as one. “He got downright holy when it was killing time.”
Henry Shackleford’s perspective on John Brown’s campaign has the down-to-earth sanity of a Sancho Panza who notices Don Quixote’s mania but loves it and serves it anyway. Most of John Brown’s followers, however, resemble sheep:
They followed him like sheep, though. Smart as they was, nary a one of’em challenged him on his orders or even knowed where we was going from day to day. The Old Man was stone-cold silent on his plans, and they trusted his word. Only thing he allowed was, “We going east, men. We are going east to fight the war against slavery.”
Well, there is a lot of east. And there is a lot of slavery. And it is one thing to say you is gonna fight slavery and ride east to do it and take the war all the way to Africa and so forth. It is another to keep riding day after day in the cold to do it.
In this novel, John Brown’s conviction that he is on a mission from God relieves him of earthly concerns. Early in the novel, when Charisma and Fictional Authority—Nine Fragments toward an Essay 153 he is asked whether he is indeed John Brown, he replies, “I’m the child of my Maker.” Questioned again, he replies, “I’m whoever the Lord wants me to be.” Having shed the clothing, the appearance, and the mundane concerns of ordinary secular life, John Brown (often referred to as “the Old Man,” as Ahab is, in Moby-Dick) doesn’t bother with any of the usual pleasantries. Smiling, for example, is not in his range of skills; he has no aptitude for it, as Little Onion notes. “The Old Man stretched his lips in a crazy fashion. It weren’t a real smile, but as close as he could come. Never saw him out and out smile up to that point. It didn’t fit his face.”
If we know a bit of our history, we know how this story will end, with the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, John Brown’s arrest, and his execution by hanging—witnessed, we learn, by Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, among many others. But immediately before his execution, he shares a scene in his jail cell with Henry Shackleford, our narrator, and he smiles again, a different smile from the one several hundred pages earlier. This time, Shackleford says, “It was the first time I ever saw him smile free. A true smile. It was like looking at the face of God. And I knowed then, for the first time, that him being the person to lead the colored to freedom weren’t no lunacy. It was something he knowed true inside him.”
This scene, possibly the most important one in the book, flips the story’s entire point and creates a thematic reversal: this soldier in the army for truth is not crazy at all. We may have thought so, but our perspective, sitting in our armchairs and reading the book at a safe distance, was mistaken. John Brown’s mania is more noble, and saner, than our moderation.
readers are so accustomed to mad, villainous, charismatic preachers in literature, like Preacher Harry Powell in Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, The Night of the Hunter, or plain, homespun hypocritical evangelists like Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, that finding a charismatic figure who is on the right side of justice and of God tests a person’s twenty-first-century skepticism. Someone who gives up common sense and leads a go-for-broke crusade has got to be wrong—this is the settled position of the ironist who sees through every blind faith. For such an ironist, however, there is no such thing as a hero, and no such thing as heroism. For the ironist, everybody sooner or later proves to be a hypocrite. Everyone traffics in fraud. The Good Lord Bird disproves this kind of thinking.
Philip Rieff’s book Charisma (2007) denies that the charismatic divine power once bodied forth by Christ (in Rieff’s formulation) is available to us in our present world. Most current examples, such as Susan Choi’s sinister fictional character Mr. Kingsley, an acting teacher in the novel Trust Exercise (2019), can be seen as updated versions of Miss Jean Brodie, and would reinforce Rieff’s theories on the subject. A more complicated example might be Jude, the wounded, charismatic center of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015), a man whose brilliance and beauty cast a spell over those who surround him, a spell that, like a floodlight, shines out from his suffering, which the novel rather relentlessly and remorselessly contrives to intensify until it reaches its inevitable ghastly outcome.
I started this essay with a deep distrust of the dynamic power of charisma. When I see someone who wants me to dress up in a uniform for the next crusade, I quickly turn and head in the opposite direction—no Jerusalem for me; you can have your Jerusalem. In daily life I am more a skeptic than a believer. Confronted with believers and their charismatic leader, I usually think, “What’s wrong with them? Look at how crazy they are! Who could believe that?”
My position, however, would make heroic action impossible in situations that require sacrifices for which people may have to give Charisma and Fictional Authority—Nine Fragments toward an Essay 155 up their lives. When the innocent and downtrodden are being hurt, someone must try to rescue them. To watch and to do nothing is a failure of character. In our writing and our thinking, skepticism and irony are too easy, too close to philosophical and metaphysical clichés, unless they are well and truly absorbed. When we see a charismatic figure—and we have seen plenty of them—we often think, “It’s a con job.” In our literature, America is a breeding ground for confidence men. Everywhere you turn, a trickster is around the corner. But then someone like James McBride’s character John Brown shows up, and suddenly it feels like cowardice not to take a stand. It seems small and mingy to deny the existence of heroic action and charisma that serve a good cause. To quote the title of the old Pete Seeger song, “Which side are you on?”
From Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature. Reprinted with permission from Graywolf Press.