The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living

Mari Ruti. Columbia University Press, 2014. 192 pages. $25.00.

By Doug Phillips

Let’s begin with the way you’ve been hurt, with what’s been taken from you, your greatest loss, your most searing wound; consider too the pricks of all those pins, but also the love—last year, was it?—that buckled, then went belly-up; the pet or person who passed-on before you were quite ready; the job that fell through; those many, many ends, as Hemingway’s title has it, of something. While it seems much too obvious to say, without these experiences, these events, you wouldn’t be who you are; your capacity for feeling, for empathy, would be far less enlarged than it is; your imagination stunted; your view of things smaller, skewed, a peephole’s perspective. “Those who have borne a great deal of pain,” writes Mari Ruti in The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living, “may have garnered a more panoramic understanding of the human predicament than those who haven’t.”  Apart from the hedge (what’s that “may” doing there?), Ruti draws here, and everywhere in her latest work, from the well  of existential philosophy, though it’s an existentialism refitted for today’s generation, with the likes of Lacan and Badiou, rather than Camus and Sartre. French all the same, but of another vintage; tannic still, but without a hint of the passé. 

If the title of her book, her sixth, sounds a bit like self-help, then that’s because it is, but only in the sense and to the extent that we might call all of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche self-help. Which is to say there’s nothing schmaltzy here, no Dr Phil-isms, no pretend tough-love, no encouragements for “positive thinking” as prescribed by today’s self-help industry, no Oprah-inspired plumb lines to the soul. And while Ruti is plenty warm throughout with her interventions, she’s never fuzzy, a feat worth recognizing—and welcoming—in a critical theorist whose go-tos (Lacan and co.) are faulted by many for their reader-unfriendliness. In contrast, Ruti has earned a reputation for her ability to unpack, pellucidly, the inherent challenges of contemporary theory into readable, life-buzzing relevancy. And all of this, mercifully, without the academic rigging one might rightfully expect from the Columbia University Press imprimatur. 

To get to the quick of what Ruti means by character, its calling, and a life worth living, consider Sarah Polley’s recent throat-gulp of a film, Take This Waltz (2011). In the aftermath of their upturned Toronto lives, one character admonishes another:  “Life has a gap in it…It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” As epigraph, as through-line, as distillation, the observation encapsulates The Call of Character’s Lacan-based underbelly. Ruti, who happens to teach at the University of Toronto, argues approvingly for the void at the heart of it all (“a foundational lack that is inherently unfillable,” she writes), assuring us at the same time that such a gap isn’t something to despair over, but rather something to embrace, just so long as we don’t go crazy trying to fill it. That is, our eccentric and singular dimensions and desires are worth realizing in all their splendor, provided such a realization doesn’t do damage to others (a point Ruti pursues in the chapter “The Ethics of Responsibility”), or that we don’t fall into the trap of believing that any one thing or person will plug, for all time, the emptiness that generates our desire in the first place.  And that’s a good thing, because desire—if indeed it’s truly our own—has the potential to propel us toward great, creative heights, the loss of which would diminish our characterial tree rings. 

In the brain-tingling chapter “The Specificity of Desire” (one of the book’s best), Ruti further elaborates, via Lacan, the way “our relationship to the world is inherently conflicted,” which goes something like this: in exchange for our place in society, along with all its attendant uplifts (air travel, cell phones, wet wipes), we lose something of ourselves, namely the sense of wholeness we felt before we (and our world) were divvied up by language, before the murderous dissection that Wordsworth so lamented. This in turn has left us longing, and forever on the hunt, for that imagined, last, magical signifier that will have us at hello and make us complete. Ruti, though, would have it otherwise: may you never be complete. And that too is a good thing. After all, she says, “our sense of deprivation—our sense of being perpetually ‘unfinished’—is not an impediment to an inspired life, but rather its precondition.”  

If the troubling of our desire weren’t enough, society also does a number on our singularity by pressuring us to line-up sheepishly and conform. In the process, what Lacan calls our “true” desire gets easily muddled with the consumer-driven desire of the corporate-social-collective. Those Ugg boots you’re wearing, for example, may be an expression of your individuality, but, more likely, they’re an expression of your coerced need to fit in. For Ruti, then, character is “that part of our being that has not been entirely tamed by the normative expectations of the social world.” Furthermore, “when it comes to honoring the call of our character, it may be that nothing is quite as important as protecting the sublime aura of what we love against the pragmatic thrust of society.” A life worth living therefore is one of “self-poeticization,” whereby we tap into and nurture, as best we can, “the eccentric frequencies of our being,” because as Lacan boldly states, and as Ruti boldly affirms, “the only thing of which one can be guilty of is having given ground relative to one’s desire.” 

How, though, is it possible to heed the call of our character and tune ourselves to what we really want, without being seduced instead by all those “wants” our society has imposed upon us? To begin, says Ruti, we should let “ourselves fall into a less organized state of being” and become receptive to what she calls in one chapter “the erotics of being,” and in another, “the swerve of passion.” The former recalls Sontag’s “the erotics of art” and refers to moments in our lives when “we manage to embed ourselves within the details of the world in ways that enable us to bypass the mundane,” the unthinking tedium that takes up so much of the day-to-day. It is, Ruti says, a “mode of experiencing the world that infuses the everyday with a special radiance.” Likewise, the “swerve of passion” refers to “a sudden upsurge of passion” that “disrupts our normal existential rhythm” and “shatters the shell of our usual preoccupations, sending us in life directions that we might not have been able to foresee.” Similar to Badiou’s notion of the Event—of which Ruti’s mining is especially instructive—the swerve of passion “represents an eruption of insight that makes it impossible for us to proceed as usual.”

If all of these eruptions, shatterings, and upsurges seem a touch discomforting, if not downright painful, then know it’s the price paid for stretching yourself into the beyond—upward, way high above, where Nietzsche said your best and future self awaits. Getting there won’t be easy. In his famous writing seminars Gordon Lish, the story goes, encouraged his students to “find the major, basal, fundamental, ineradicable losses” of their lives, for in these losses, he told them, “lie your artistic powers.” He added, “The thing taken from you is your gift.”  Ruti, it appears, could not agree more: “The key to the good life is not the ability to avoid pain, but rather the capacity to metabolize it so that we become capable of a more rewarding relationship to ourselves.” In this, she suggests, lie your life powers. 

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.