U.S. vinyl release of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin. Image Credit: Wikimedia / Public Domain
The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius identified auctoritas as the defining quality of any successful project, manual, political, intellectual, or a combination of all three. Auctoritas provided the ultimate validation for creations as disparate as buildings, sculpted moldings, wall paintings, speeches, and books; the aim of all these efforts, in the Vitruvian scheme of things, was to convince. All arts, at their core, were arts of persuasion.
Despite its evident connection to the English word “authority,” Latin auctoritas was rooted, as Jed Perl reminds his readers, in the idea of increase and fertility, in the verb augeo, which meant both “to increase” and “to make increase.” An auctor, therefore, was understood as a benefactor as well as an author in our sense of the word, and Vitruvius devotes one of his prefaces to all the ways in which authors have benefited society, wryly suggesting that they, not athletes, are the ones who truly deserve the tributes reserved for Olympic victors. Auctoritas was the aura that Julius Caesar had apparently exuded in irresistible superabundance, and auctoritas is what Vitruvius meant to achieve with his Ten Books on Architecture. Caesar, whom Vitruvius served as a catapult-maker, was apparently born with his charisma (though wealth and an illustrious family must have helped). Vitruvius, on the other hand, destined his Ten Books for auctoritas by endowing them with an ordered structure, expert research, and the careful deployment of different rhetorical styles for different subjects: plain language for the practical points of construction, lively anecdotes to provide momentum and, flowery formality in the addresses to his patron, the Emperor Augustus, by which he began each section of his treatise. As he informed the emperor in the preface to his second book, he was compelled to rely on his craft rather than his physical presence.
But auctoritas in Latin could also mean freedom. Sometimes, the two guiding lights of Jed’s creative credo coalesce into one supernova, the freedom authorized by auctoritas itself, the confidence to make an audacious move and simply pull it off. Caesar had that kind of command, at least until the Ides of March. In our own era, it is hard to imagine a more radiant instance of free-flying auctoritas than a moment late in the program of the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., of December 30, 2015. The last honoree in the evening’s long program was singer and songwriter Carole King, whose songs, both written for others and performed herself, had indelibly shaped popular music in the second half of the twentieth century. Many of her early collaborations with lyricist (and former husband) Gerry Goffin were first performed by Black musicians, including a song composed in 1967 for 25-year-old Aretha Franklin, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which promptly became the singer’s third top-ten single in the same year. King was exactly the same age; for both of them, the range of feelings evoked by “natural” included both the back-to-nature sensibility of the burgeoning environmental movement and the “natural” sensibility of Blackness owned, acknowledged, and fed up with racism. Propelled on that unreal voice, with a three-octave range that slid without effort from a husky contralto whisper to a tart soprano whiplash, the song staked out a powerful definition of womanhood itself. In 1967, “Natural Woman” was still a young woman’s love song, but it already demanded a lover who grasped the import of “Respect,” the Otis Redding song Aretha recorded on Valentine’s Day 1967. Women, Black people, and Nature were all crying out for acknowledgement.
When the curtains opened in the Kennedy Center 48 years later to reveal Aretha Franklin in a floor-length mink with a glittering clutch purse in her hand, they didn’t herald a performance: they announced an epiphany. Swathed in her voluminous fur, she sat down at the piano and began to play. Carole King realized that she was witnessing the Platonic form of her song realized in our mortal world. President Obama wiped a tear from his eye; the audience rose to its feet, most of them singing or weeping or both. The young woman’s love song had become lower, as Aretha guarded her voice, and then she rose from the piano, dropped her mink to the floor, raised her arms and let loose a stratospheric “woman.” She needed no one to make her feel like a natural woman except her own divine gifts, and neither did Carole King; they communed across the theatre, at one with the public. Aretha later said she slipped off her coat because she no longer needed to protect her voice. At last, the natural woman could show forth: her art, her gift (for that is what auctoritas grants when it is a benefaction), and her freedom. Jed may not be a natural woman, but he understands. Art has that ability to make us feel deeply what others feel.
Ingrid Rowland is based in Rome, where she teaches for the University of Notre Dame.