December 20, 2003

1. Bernard Berenson

A. Sketch for a Self-Portrait

I recently glanced at a book called Sketch for a Self-Portrait, Bernard Berenson’s brief and sketchy autobiography. I sometimes glance at books to see if they’re suitable for our book group. I knew that this book was out of print, but the bookstore where our group meets (Books on the Square) recently began selling used books as well as new books, so I may be able to choose an out-of-print book for the book group; members of the group could buy it from the bookstore as a used book. Doubtless this would be a cumbersome arrangement for the bookstore, which would prefer to order seven copies of a new book rather than to try to obtain seven copies of a used book. But I think the store owner would be willing to do it occasionally, especially if I helped the store to obtain the used books. Most book groups read only new books, but I think it’s important to be able to choose an out-of-print book, since many good books are no longer in print.

I’ve long been a fan of Bernard Berenson, the art historian. There must be some sort of affinity between us, because his thoughts and experiences often match mine. Perhaps I’m Berenson recycled, Berenson reincarnated.

Berenson was born into a Jewish family in Lithuania, and came to the U.S. as a youngster. He was a student of William James at Harvard, and he was also a friend of Henry Adams and Edith Wharton. Berenson studied art history with Charles Eliot Norton, who was influenced by John Ruskin. Berenson, however, had little use for Ruskin, since Berenson’s specialty was the Italian Renaissance, and Ruskin admired Turner and the Gothic period.

Berenson tells us that his family was from the upper reaches of Lithuanian-Jewish society: “My childhood was spent in an aristocratic republic and, though under Russian rule, all the more aristocratic for being Jewish. There my family was among the first if not the first, and from earliest awareness I was encouraged to regard myself as its future head.... I knew from infancy that I was to be the first in my village, and it bred in me a sense of being anybody’s social equal that I have never lost.”1

In his youth, Berenson was unusually handsome; he turned the head, and rejected the advances, of Oscar Wilde, who complained that Berenson had a heart of stone.2

An anecdote from Berenson’s Harvard years reminded me of my own Harvard years: “I had taken the [psychology] course under William James and attended it with the most zestful interest, not only listening open-mouthed to the exciting lectures of the professor, but doing the reading he recommended. Examination time came and a fellow student more devoted to sport and jollifying than to study begged me to help him pass it. I helped him so well that he got an A. As for me I got a C or at most a B, a result which confirmed my belief that it is the examiners who should be examined. I guessed what had happened. My listener had learned just enough to answer the questions in a straightforward, rudimentary fashion; whereas I probably elaborated, interpreted and bored the overworked and vexed examiner. I told James of this. He laughed grimly and shook me by the hand.”3

Of course, I never had exactly the same experience, but I often felt that the people who graded my essays didn’t appreciate their merits, but preferred instead the longer essays of classmates who had a more facile pen. The issue of “grade inflation” strikes me as less important than “grade accuracy” — that is, making grades accurately reflect knowledge and performance. How can “grade accuracy” be achieved? Perhaps professors should assign grades themselves, rather than delegate that task to assistants and graduate students, or perhaps grades should be based on multiple-choice tests — objective, black-and-white tests — rather than on essays.

My feeling about grades is part of a larger feeling that academic institutions are inherently flawed, and this is part of a still larger feeling that institutions in general are inherently flawed. I find the same feeling in Berenson: “[institutions] exist to actuate ideas, desires and ideals. But they [end up] by subjecting everything to a common average, distorting and even falsifying the ideals they were to serve — as, for instance, the teaching of Christ and His Apostles. As for political institutions, it is enough to recall how quickly Mazzini changed into Mussolini.”4

As might be expected from an author of advanced age, diverse experience, and vast learning, Berenson fills his book with a deep, ripe wisdom. He notes, for example, how people in executive positions often use other people as mere tools: “It is doubtful whether I could have made much headway in affairs, either public or private. I do not discuss the question of ability. What I do know is that I could never have hardened myself enough to use men and women as mere functions, as cogs in a wheel without regard to their own interests, their own personalities, their own souls. I might have been able to do so with a personnel I did not come in touch with, but I should have found it quite impossible to treat as mechanisms the people who were working with me in my presence, serving me as expert advisers, as secretaries, or mere typists.”

Berenson longed to serve someone else, to be a faithful vassal of someone else: “I have often thought that I... might have realized myself most completely, got the utmost out of myself, if I could have served an institution, a cause, best of all a person, who, by taking hold of my imagination, and offering fulfillment to my aspirations, absorbed me.”5

After graduating from Harvard, Berenson won a scholarship to study in Europe. He gained fame and wealth as a pioneer in a new field: determining who was the real painter of a painting. This field had never been treated in the systematic, scholarly way that Berenson treated it; Berenson used the methods that he had acquired as a scholar at Harvard.

Berenson didn’t enter this field for the sake of fame and wealth, though he may have had an obscure feeling that knowledge would lead to power. He recalls eating breakfast, when he was about 20, at an Italian café, and saying to his friend, “nobody before us has dedicated his entire activity, his entire life, to connoisseurship.... We shall give ourselves up to learning, to distinguish between the authentic works of an Italian painter of the fifteenth or sixteenth century, and those commonly ascribed to him. Here at Bergamo, and in all the fragrant and romantic valleys that branch out northward, we must not stop till we are sure that every Lotto is a Lotto, every Cariani a Cariani, every Previtali a Previtali.”6

Thus, the ambitious young man who had dreamed of becoming a Renaissance man like Goethe became instead a specialist. Perhaps the young Berenson needed something to do — something more concrete, more practical than being a Renaissance man. In his old age, when he looked back on his career, he lamented spending many years on specialized, scholarly works, such as his Drawings of the Florentine Painters. His later works, however, such as his Sketch for a Self-Portrait and his Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts, aren’t specialized. Thus, Berenson ultimately achieved his goal of being a generalist, a man-of-letters, a thinker — like the Goethe we find in Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe.

While over-specialization is a danger, one wonders if it’s possible to make one’s way in the world as a Renaissance man, to earn a living as a Renaissance man, to find a publisher as a Renaissance man. Our society has forgotten the ideal of the Renaissance man, the ideal of Goethe; it not only has no place, no niche, for the Renaissance man, it has forgotten this ideal altogether.

Berenson had a keen appreciation of nature, and loved to walk in the hills around Florence, or through his own garden. He believed that art helped him to find beauty in nature: “I wonder,” he asked, “whether art has a higher function than to make us feel, appreciate and enjoy natural objects for their art value?”7

Like other great writers, Berenson surprises us with fresh observations: “I have wondered ever since psychoanalysis has been the fashion whether after a certain age, say somewhere between fifty and sixty, more people were not concerned with constipation rather than with sex. It can get to be at least as much of a preoccupation, an obsession; and intestinal relief as eagerly awaited as ever sex relief in earlier years.”8

One of Berenson’s strongest appetites was the appetite for knowledge. “I wish I could conquer greed,” Berenson writes. “I do not refer to food or drink or lust, for I am temperate with regard to animal appetites. I wish I could get the better of the hunger and thirst for information that possesses me always, and most of all when I glance at shelf after shelf of books treating of the manifold matters that mark the steps of mankind’s humanization.”9

Berenson’s passion for reading distracted him from writing. Berenson says that, if he didn’t achieve much, it’s due to “an intemperate lust for reading, which has not diminished but grown with the years.... It is a commonplace that the more one loves to read the less one is likely to write.”10 Perhaps Berenson was familiar with Wilde’s remark, “I am too fond of reading books to care to write them.”11 Whenever Berenson saw someone reading a book, he wanted to know what they were reading. He bemoaned the fact that many good books aren’t translated into English; as examples, he mentions several of Burckhardt’s books, such as his multi-volume Greek Civilization.

Berenson’s wealth allowed him to hire a prominent architect, and build a spacious home outside Florence. He loved his home, and its large library. “If survival after death were conceivable, I should wish to be the indwelling soul of my house and library. To speak more grossly, I should like to haunt it.”12 In old age, surrounded by his books, his paintings, his gardens, and his friends, Berenson said, “I have attained Goethe’s promise that what one ardently desires when young one will realize in old age.... It is easy now to live in ecstasy.”13

B. Conversation

Berenson discusses the art of conversation, of which he was an acknowledged master. “I was born for conversation and not for writing books. I should have lived in the eighteenth century, when talk was appreciated instead of being, as now, almost despised by the governing classes and looked upon as mere entertainment by the few who can enjoy it.”14 One suspects that, if Berenson could see us now, he would feel that the art of conversation is a lost art, that cultured conversation is no longer taken seriously.

Berenson says that when he uses the term ‘conversationalist’ he doesn’t mean “the performer, the verbal soloist, such as among my acquaintances Oscar Wilde, Montesquiou and d’Annunzio were.” (I suppose that this Montesquiou is the same one Proust knew, the one who provided the model for M. de Charlus. If this is so, it’s likely that Berenson crossed paths with Proust.) “I have in mind talk which animates the listener and is animated by him, stimulates each to openings of mind, to lightning flashes of suggestion, to entertaining ideas that neither party would have come to by himself — not at the moment, at all events, and perhaps never. And conversation should have the same privilege that is granted — reluctantly enough — to the other fine arts, the privilege of freedom from utilitarian purpose.”15 Berenson calls Socrates “that greatest of all conversationalists.”16 One who often conversed with Socrates, Plato, said “it is the speech of the man who knows that is alive, the written word is really but its ghost.”17

What sort of people did Berenson like to converse with? Not “hard-boiled, too grown-up adults [but rather] individuals, of whatever age or sex, who remain adolescent-minded to the end. Women not overburdened with family, or philanthropy, or politics. Men in diplomacy, in business and in professions that leave them some leisure of mind.”18

Berenson was especially fond of conversing with women: “If the desire for possession does not intervene, men and women can be so much better friends than men with men and women with women, subject as we are to jealousy, envy, and spite.”19 Jungians tell us that the shadow causes conflict between people of the same sex, but between people of the opposite sex, the shadow causes merely annoyance. “So my kind of person turns to women, surrounds himself with women, appeals to women, not in the first place and perhaps not at all for reasons of sex [but because] women, especially certain society women, are more receptive, more appreciative and consequently more stimulating.”20

Berenson devotes a paragraph to four “men of action”: Caesar, Mohammed, Napoleon, and Bismarck. He says that they “have left far more than destructive results although God knows there were enough of these too. But they were great talkers and were or could have been great writers as well.” Berenson’s remarks on these men of action show a combination of erudition and taste; Berenson was more than a great art historian, he was a great intellectual.

Concluding his remarks on conversation, Berenson says that, while the pen is mightier than the sword, the tongue is mightier than the pen; “Socrates, Jesus and the Buddha talked and never wrote.”21 Writing during World War II, Berenson says that the war resulted from producing too much, and striving to sell products in foreign countries. Berenson hopes that productive activities will be curtailed. “If so, how can we hope to employ our leisure better than in enlightened and humanizing talk?”22

While Berenson enjoyed conversation, he was always somewhat reluctant to write. “Writing, not letters to friends [but] writing for print, was the only activity that I could call work. For that I seldom felt disposed and have not yet overcome the reluctance.”23

C. Culture

In Berenson’s view, culture means studying the best that man has achieved, and thereby acquiring a sense of what man can achieve now, and in the future. “The completest human being,” Berenson writes, “[is] the man of culture, and he is that because he has the fullest and most cheering and most inspiring sense of what man has been and therefore still may be.”24 In Berenson’s view, culture is cheering, inspiring, life-enhancing.

Berenson insists that culture has no utilitarian purpose, no practical result. “What we now need as never before is... work that is unproductive, leaves no results.” Too much energy is devoted to producing things. Berenson says we shouldn’t try to reduce this energy “but I would turn it into unproductive channels, the channels of play, of song, of dance, of sport in various phases, always with reference to what it did to educate the mind, build up the body and humanize the individual and his group. The Greeks did so to a degree never approached again. They tended in their best generations to turn everything into a sporting competition, even their politics.... Life itself became a sport. Too good to last zoologically, but we still live on their example.”25

Berenson was a connoisseur not only of art, but of man: “I am so fitted now to take in, to appreciate, to worship not only beauty in nature and in art, but the beauty of holiness (to which I have always been sensitive) and of that most wonderful of all masterpieces, a man or woman morally, intellectually, and physically satisfactory. Even the full possession of one of these qualities, provided it does not reject the others, enshrines the individual in a halo of wholehearted admiration, and I enjoy him as a great work of art.”26

More than any 20th-century writer I know, Berenson continues the best traditions of Western culture: the tradition of self-culture, self-development; the tradition of cultured conversation; the tradition of humanistic education — that is, the pursuit of knowledge, and the enjoyment of the arts. These are the ideals that Goethe lived for. As Berenson kept Goethe’s ideals alive in the 20th century, so we can keep Berenson’s ideals alive in the 21st century — you, by reading these lines, and I, by writing them.

2. Nietzsche and Self-Cultivation

A couple months ago, our book discussion group read Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. I was hoping that it would be a concise, readable introduction to Nietzsche. I was surprised to find, however, that it’s not very readable; of course, it’s more readable than the works of Hegel, Kant, etc. but it isn’t what I would call a readable book. I had the same feeling five years ago, when the group read Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo; I wouldn’t call Ecce Homo a readable book.

Leo Strauss said that philosophers sometimes write sentences that are aimed, not at the general public, but at future philosophers. This is eminently true of Nietzsche, much of whose work is aimed at future philosophers. Hence Nietzsche is very popular with philosophers, and aspiring philosophers, though he may be difficult for the average reader.

In the first section of Twilight (“Maxims and Barbs”), Nietzsche asks four questions, which he calls “questions for the conscience.” These questions are intended, in my opinion, to challenge the aspiring philosopher, to trouble his sleep, and to help him to become a philosopher, a philosopher such as Nietzsche would wish him to be. Here’s an example: “You are running on ahead?.... Are you doing it as a shepherd? Or as an exception? A third case would be the runaway... First question for the conscience.”27 Nietzsche addresses the future philosopher as a father would address his son.

The development of the young philosopher is part of the larger issue of self-culture, the development of the individual. My favorite aphorism in Twilight is the aphorism that deals with Goethe and self-culture. “What [Goethe] wanted,” Nietzsche says, “was totality; he fought against the disjunction of reason, sensuality, feeling, will... he disciplined himself into a whole, he created himself.... Goethe conceived of a strong, highly educated man, adept in all things bodily, with a tight rein on himself and a reverence for himself.”28 In our time, the ideal of self-culture will surely take account of Jung and Zen. Just as Goethe aimed at totality, so too Jung aims at totality. And Zen helps to prevent the domination of intellect over feeling.

Nietzsche’s keen interest in self-culture, and his deep admiration for Goethe as an example of self-culture, show that Nietzsche is part of the humanistic tradition that runs from ancient Greece all the way to Berenson, who died in 1959.

In Twilight, Nietzsche frequently uses the word “physiological”. Nietzsche traces every kind of corruption, disease, and decadence to a physiological cause. Jung, on the other hand, always traces these phenomena to a spiritual cause; for example, he ascribes his father’s illness and early death to his brittle religious faith, his shallow notion of God. Nietzsche’s emphasis on physiology, and his argument that a philosopher’s ideas are a by-product of his physiology, is profound and original, and it had some influence on my theory of history. But I now believe that Nietzsche over-emphasized physiological and material factors, just as Marx over-emphasized economic factors, and Freud over-emphasized sexual factors. Perhaps every thinker contributes a piece of the puzzle, and over-emphasizes the importance of that piece.

3. Nietzsche and Conrad

A couple months ago, our book group read a short novel by Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the “Narcissus”. I was struck by the similarity between Conrad and Nietzsche. Both were aristocrats who were inclined to despise the lower class. Conrad’s lower-class character, Donkin, is portrayed in an entirely negative way. Conrad insinuates that Donkin was an illegitimate child, calling him “the independent offspring of the ignoble freedom of the slums.”29 Conrad says that the forecastle “was his refuge; the place where he could be lazy; where he could wallow, and lie and eat — and curse the food he ate; where he could display his talents for shirking work, for cheating, for cadging; where he could find surely some one to wheedle and some one to bully.”30 Conrad says that every Donkin the world over is “the pet of philanthropists”31; Nietzsche shared Conrad’s dim view of compassion and philanthropy. It would be difficult to find a character anywhere in literature for whom the author has more loathing than Conrad has for Donkin.

The ship that Conrad describes is a little aristocracy, in which the few govern the many. The captain and his two mates are portrayed in a positive way. Some of the old salts among the crew are portrayed as quiet heroes, obedient sailors, while others (like Donkin) are engaged in what Nietzsche would call a “slave revolt” against the rulers of the ship. Since Conrad himself was, at various times, a captain, and a captain’s mate, it isn’t surprising that his sympathies are with the rulers, not the rebellious.

While Donkin infects the crew with his own rebellious spirit, another character, a black sailor named James Wait, infects the crew with a consciousness of death. Wait is bedridden, terminally-ill, and he drives the spirit of joy from the ship: “we had no songs and no music in the evening.... Our singers became mute because Jimmy was a dying man.”32 Wait casts a shadow of death over those around him, like Hamlet as interpreted by Wilson Knight.

The sailors begin to sympathize with Wait, and to lose sight of their responsibilities: “Through him we were becoming highly humanized, tender, complex, excessively decadent.”33 When Conrad equates tenderness with decadence, he reminds one of Nietzsche. Surely Nietzsche would agree with Conrad’s remark that “tenderness to suffering” contains a “latent egoism.”34

We read The Nigger of the “Narcissus” in the Norton Critical Edition. One of the essays in this edition is a personal reminiscence by Edward Garnett, Conrad’s literary agent. “I first met Conrad,” Garnett writes, “in November 1894.... My memory is of seeing a dark-haired man, short but extremely graceful in his nervous gestures, with brilliant eyes, now narrowed and penetrating, now soft and warm, with a manner alert yet caressing.... I had never seen before a man so masculinely keen yet so femininely sensitive.” Genius is often hermaphroditic — masculine and feminine.

© L. James Hammond 2004
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. Part 1, ch. 8, p. 50 back
2. See Ellman’s biography of Wilde. back
3. Part 2, ch. 1, p. 99 back
4. Part 3, ch. 3, p. 136 back
5. Part 1, ch. 21, p. 85 back
6. Part 1, ch. 11, p. 60 back
7. Part 3, ch. 10, p. 169 back
8. Part 1, ch. 10, p. 54 back
9. Part 3, ch. 11, p. 173 back
10. Part 1, ch. 8, p. 48 back
11. Dorian Gray, ch. 3 back
12. Part 3, ch. 11, p. 175 back
13. ibid back
14. Part 1, ch. 6, p. 32 back
15. ibid, p. 33 back
16. ibid back
17. Quoted in Berenson, Part 2, ch. 3, p. 105 back
18. Part 1, ch. 1, p. 11 back
19. ibid, p. 12 back
20. ibid back
21. ibid, p. 37 back
22. ibid back
23. ibid back
24. Part 1, ch. 7, p. 40 back
25. Part 1, ch. 22, p. 89 back
26. Epilogue, p. 182 back
27. #37 back
28. “Reconnaissance Raids of an Untimely Man,” #49 back
29. ch. 1, p. 6 (of Norton Critical Edition) back
30. ibid, p. 5, 6 back
31. ibid, p. 6 back
32. ch. 2, p. 22 back
33. ch. 5, p. 85 back
34. ibid back