Alert Respect Before the Other Soul: On Katja Haustein’s “Alone with Others”

By Ian EllisonMarch 20, 2024

Alert Respect Before the Other Soul: On Katja Haustein’s “Alone with Others”

Alone with Others: An Essay on Tact in Five Modernist Encounters by Katja Haustein

FIVE MODERNISTS walk into a bar. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? A tactless beginning to a tactless joke. Yet if actual accounts of modernists in bars are anything to go by, we should be prepared for an uncomfortable encounter. Just think of the time Marcel Proust met James Joyce back in the 1920s. They both turned up late, for one thing: Joyce steamed in after dinner was done, more than a few sheets to the wind, and headed straight for the champagne. Just after three o’clock in the morning, Proust arrived, immaculately swathed in fur, if a little green around the gills. When the two writers could no longer avoid an interaction, they awkwardly listed their respective works to one another, each confessing their ignorance of the other’s writing. Later, Joyce would acknowledge that their conversation had mostly consisted of repeating the words “no” and “non, monsieur.” Even at the remove of nearly a century, it makes you cringe.

Tact isn’t a word you hear a lot nowadays. Perhaps we’re no longer all that tactful. But how tactful were modernist writers and thinkers? This is just one question posed by Katja Haustein’s new book, Alone with Others: An Essay on Tact in Five Modernist Encounters (2023): “What is the relation,” she asks,

between empathy, widely associated with proximity, and tact as a generator of distance? How can we distinguish tact from politeness and what are the implications of this distinction? How does social tact, as the spontaneous and individual art of mitigating social encounter, relate to hermeneutical tact as a particular mode of reading faces, images, texts?

According to Haustein, the key problem of modern subjectivity is not, as you might suspect, the increased distance between individuals. On the contrary, it is the erasure or disappearance of that distance. This observation, Alone with Others shows, is a recurring theme at the heart of numerous major works of the 20th-century European modernist avant-garde. Haustein’s argument is that, in their writings and films, all five of the auteurs she examines, regardless of manifold differences in their historical and intellectual contexts, share a sense of crisis when trying to figure out the amount of distance that needs to be maintained between oneself and others. This crisis is particularly acute if one is attempting to build—as Haustein advocates—a community without collusion, a sociability without alienation, and a form of individual freedom that implies solitude but not isolation.

Haustein assembles an unusually eclectic group of interlocutors to try and solve this puzzle. Sure, you might expect a few of them to be brought together for a typical academic tête-à-tête—Theodor Adorno and Helmuth Plessner, for instance, or Proust, Roland Barthes, and François Truffaut—but Haustein’s book demonstrates how, despite differences in linguistic and cultural traditions, as well as intellectual disciplines, all five wrestled with the concept of tact and tactfulness in their work, albeit to different ends. Analyzing the works of literature, film, and philosophy produced by Proust in the 1910s, Plessner in the 1920s, Adorno in the 1940s, Truffaut in the 1960s, and Barthes in the 1970s, Haustein shows how the concept of tact recurs again and again as a crucial mode of interpersonal engagement in times of crisis, when established codes and conventions have begun to crumble but have not yet disappeared. In such cases, the real challenge of tact—the capacity to be “alone with others”—involves developing new forms of communication that enable us, as Plessner put it, to “come close to each other without meeting” and to “establish distance without damaging each other through indifference.”

In an era of online immodesty and oversharing, where borders between the private and the public have been so deeply eroded, those can feel like noble goals. Haustein’s book seeks to understand tactfulness not as a stultifying set of old-fashioned bourgeois manners and expectations but rather as a kind of unsettling yet egalitarian framework of human interaction, a negotiation between social convention and authenticity. How, in other words, can we engage with others by keeping our distance? In the years since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions of distance and proximity have a fresh and shocking urgency.

In a brief, more personal aside following the introductory chapter, Haustein recalls the experience of writing Alone with Others “during a time when we seemed to have lost our balance.” Social signals of politeness and intimacy (hand-shaking, cheek-kissing, hugging) became, during the recurrent lockdowns of the early 2020s, potentially life-threatening acts. While Haustein is wise enough to avoid trying to crowbar up-to-the-minute readings of post-COVID tactfulness (or lack thereof) into her elegantly erudite essays, she nevertheless “make[s] the case against a dystopic vision of future societies where isolated individuals float aimlessly like debris in space.” Rather, she mobilizes tact to argue that “interpersonal distance is at the heart of any well-working society.” Adorno once argued that “[e]strangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people.” How well, for instance, do you really know your followers on social media? Haustein flips Adorno’s maxim around and argues that its inverse is also true, that intimacy shows itself precisely through giving people space and respectful distance. What was social distancing during the pandemic if not an act of love toward others?

Proust, the first of Haustein’s modernists, best known for his multivolume novel A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27), a monumental modernist text if ever there was one, has long been associated with the anxieties and sensitivities required to navigate the social sensibility of the belle epoque, around the time the 19th century barreled into the 20th. His is a world “widely associated with prosperity, technological advance, and a widespread belief in the value of progress,” which Proust casts as “an age that was also marked by growing social and political anxieties bubbling under the seemingly glamourous surface.” In this time and place of constantly shifting norms, conventions and hierarchies broke apart. Yet, as Haustein observes, what seems at first like crisis and decay might also be an opportunity for liberation and for individuals to effect change, negotiating and subverting societal expectations.

In 1924, a few years before the posthumous publication of the final volume of Proust’s massive novel, the German sociologist and anthropologist Plessner published his essay The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism, which pitted a “spirit of tact, restraint, goodness, and ease” against the “cramped faces of today’s humanity.” Writing explicitly against the Expressionist movement, Plessner, a trained biologist, saw these distorted visages as encapsulating exaggerated and formless behavior that attempted to display fraught emotions. In his major work  The Levels of Organic Life and the Human: Introduction to Philosophical Anthropology (1928), he introduced his notion of “eccentric positionality,” which put great emphasis on the idea that, as human beings, we are characterized by a unique sense of detachment or distance from ourselves. Tact, for Plessner, was a means of mediating across this divide: “Tact is the eternally alert respect before the other soul; that is why it is the first and the last virtue of the human heart.” Individuals could engage with the world, and with others, without losing essential elements of their humanity.

Plessner warned against the rise of political and social radicalism on both the right and the left in the Weimar Republic. Several decades later, from the other side of the cataclysm, Adorno, the next thinker in Haustein’s tactful panoply and a co-founding father of critical theory, contemplated the effects of fascism on German society, exploring how the most innocuous occurrences in everyday life might mirror the most catastrophic events of human history. In his 1951 treatise Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, Adorno elaborated a theory of aesthetic tact that resisted immediate judgments, allowing people to approach works of art and engage with them with an open sensitivity. As Haustein makes clear, Adorno and Plessner categorically disagree about the various constitutive parts of their theories of tact, yet they come to strikingly similar conclusions. For Adorno, the younger of the two, tact is “the saving reference between alienated human beings.” As Haustein remarks, “This does not mean that the humane dimension of tact consists in the idea of an overcoming of the boundary between the self and the other. It consists, on the contrary, in the conscious renunciation of the very idea of undiminished intimacy in the first place.”

Both Adorno and Plessner had returned to Germany from their respective exiles in California and the Netherlands in 1949. They were well acquainted with each other, even colleagues for a short while at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt. Yet they were also intellectual rivals whose work stood for the best part of a century as totems of two mutually exclusive schools of thought: philosophical anthropology and critical theory. Plessner’s and Adorno’s periods of intellectual muscle-flexing overlapped with that of the French semiologist Barthes, another of the modernists Haustein encounters (a label that makes sense, despite Barthes’s tendency to focus on classical and realist literature, since modernism remains a key object of Barthes’s critique). Yet, in an echo of Proust’s and Joyce’s mutual ignorance or unintelligibility, neither German scholar ever mentions Barthes’s theories in their published works, nor does Barthes mention them in his lectures or his writing.

Lastly, Haustein calls upon the iconic filmmaker of the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut. And to give us a better indication of what she means by tact, she draws on a sequence from Truffaut’s gorgeous 1968 film Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses), his third of five films starring the French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel, the protagonist and sometime alter ego of Truffaut himself. Haustein’s book appropriately takes many of its cues (and its charming cover image) from Stolen Kisses, perhaps because the film dramatizes a fact that is crucial to Haustein’s argument—that tact is based on a dialectical relationship between nearness and distance, between identification and separation.

In one particular scene that Haustein anatomizes in great detail, Antoine inadvertently addresses a local shop owner’s wife, with whom he has developed an infatuation, as “Monsieur” instead of “Madame.” The excruciating embarrassment is too much; Antoine drops his coffee and flees the scene. Hours later, returning to his own apartment, he finds a little present left next to his door by the alluring Madame Fabienne Tabard (played in fine femme fatale form by Delphine Seyrig). There’s a note attached to the present that reads as follows:

When I was [in high] school, my teacher explained the difference between tact [“tacte”] and politeness [“politesse”]. A gentleman caller accidentally opens a bathroom door and sees a naked lady. He quickly withdraws and, closing the door, he says: “Pardon, Madame!” This is politeness. Should the same gentleman open the same door, discover the same naked lady and withdraw by saying: “Pardon, Monsieur!”—that would be tact.

Tact, we learn from Truffaut’s film, is—like compassion or pity—a derivative of empathy, grounded in the pretense of not noticing the cause of embarrassment. Being able to empathize with another is a foundation for mutual understanding and recognition. Imagining and feeling what another person feels allows us to find ways to alleviate their distress.

Etymologically, as Haustein points out, our word empathy comes to us from the Greek “εμπάθεια” (empátheia), consisting of “em” (in or at) and “pathos,” meaning passion and suffering. The German rendering of the same word as “Einfühlung,” literally “feeling into,” further highlights the sense of identificatory coalescence between the individuals involved. “It implies,” as Haustein observes, “the idea of being able to climb into and out of each other’s minds.” But there’s a crucial distinction to be made between empathy and tact. While being able to empathize may well show us the way toward tactful behavior, tact (unlike empathy) does not aim to bring us closer together. Quite the opposite: the goal of tact is, as Haustein notes, “to acknowledge difference and to generate distance (‘Pardon, Monsieur!’).” In Truffaut’s film, Antoine must preserve and respect the intimate sphere of the other and, in doing so, enable her dignity to be restored. Being tactful means, or is sensually defined by, what one does not say. Haustein, too, notes the association of tact with the Latin “tacere,” meaning to be silent or to conceal.

Haustein doesn’t think we should confuse tactful behavior with denial or even with lying, however. Instead, we should understand it as a kind of role-play. Tact is a mode of interaction that needs to be understood and adopted by all individuals involved. Its goal is to repair face-to-face relationships that are temporarily damaged, to restore what the Canadian American sociologist and social psychologist Erving Goffman would have called the “normal state” between interlocutors. You can’t do this just by being polite. Politeness, as we can see in Fabienne’s note, is mostly a matter of convention: it is a set of tools, a cold code of etiquette. Tact, in Haustein’s view, holds far more sway: it is something like the individual’s variations on that code, essentially a kind of personal deviation. Tact is situated in between the masks of social roles and their actual execution. It organizes the relations between the social persona and the intimate self. The ultimate goal of tactful behavior is the sparing of someone’s intimate self.

One fascinating parallel among the work of all five figures Haustein analyzes is the fact that their texts came to be written during periods of significant political and social change, even turbulence. For Plessner, it was the collapse of the Weimar Republic; for Adorno, it was the exposure of a German society left reeling by the ravages of fascism to the spoils and excesses of capitalism. And for Barthes, it was a matter of “how to live together,” as the title of his lecture series at the Collège de France in the late 1970s put it, particularly as individuals in the aftermath of the 1968 protest movements. Ultimately, Alone with Others understands the works of the writers it examines as variations on an ethics of indirectness. “Cultivated as the art of making space when we fear colliding, and of bridging gaps when we drift too far away from each other, tact is a mode of being alone with others that exists not to destroy but to protect our societal ways of living together,” Haustein persuasively argues. The encounters she stages in Alone with Others share a preference for individual difference over communal identification and push back against forms of incorporation. The eventual outcome of all this, as awkward as it might sound, is a kind of nonviolent contemplation, viewing one another across a shifting respectful expanse. For Adorno, at least, this was “the source of all […] joy.”

LARB Contributor

Ian Ellison is the postdoctoral research associate on the “Kafka’s Transformative Communities” project at the University of Oxford and a visiting fellow of Wadham College. He was short-listed for the 2023 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, and his first book, Late Europeans and Melancholy Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium, appeared in 2022.


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