Art's Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism
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Radical aestheticism describes a recurring event in some of the most powerful and resonating texts of nineteenth-century British literature, offering us the best way to reckon with what takes place at certain moments in texts by Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Rossetti, and Wilde. This book explores what happens when these writers, deeply committed to certain versions of ethics, politics, or theology, nonetheless produce an encounter with a radical aestheticism which subjects the authors' projects to a fundamental crisis.
A radical aestheticism offers no positive claims for art, whether on ethical or political grounds or on aesthetic grounds, as in "art for art's sake." It provides no transcendent or underlying ground for art's validation. In this sense, a radical aestheticism is the experience of a poesis that exerts so much pressure on the claims and workings of the aesthetic that it becomes a kind of black hole out of which no illumination is possible. The radical aestheticism encountered in these writers, in its very extremity, takes us to the constitutive elements--the figures, the images, the semblances--that are at the root of any aestheticism, an encounter registered as evaporation, combustion, or undoing. It is, therefore, an undoing by and of art and aesthetic experience, one that leaves this important literary tradition in its wake.
Art's Undoing embraces diverse theoretical projects, from Walter Benjamin to Jacques Derrida. These become something of a parallel text to its literary readings, revealing how some of the most significant theoretical and philosophical projects of our time remain within the wake of a radical aestheticism.
poesis (Dickinson), Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics (Hopkins), absorption and theatricality according to Michael Fried (Rossetti), Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zˇizˇek on the ethics of desire (Rossetti), and Georges Bataille’s notions of expenditure and sacriﬁce (Wilde). These diverse theoretical projects are not marshaled as authorities that might demystify the relationships between poetry and aesthetics in this tradition or reveal their ideological impulses. While I do indeed turn
understood By all, but which the wise, and great, and good Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel. (ll.76 –83) In Earl Wasserman’s unsurpassed reading of the poem, there is no essential difference between the “mysterious tongue” of “the wilderness” and the “voice” possessed by the “great Mountain”: both teach us the truth of Power, that it is “an inexorable force man cannot command or control” and that it “has no human concerns.”8 The lesson to be learned from the tongue and voice of Power is
arguments of the book revolves around the question of value, speciﬁcally the value of aesthetic experience and the value of the works of art that give rise to that experience. If my family did little to teach me about the worth of any poem’s representation of art and aesthetics, they have taught me everything I know and feel about the meaning of value. Early versions of some portions of the book were presented at annual meetings of the Marxist Literary Group’s Institute for Culture and Society,
for instance, the poet’s “deﬁciency in physical strength,” the sort of weakness that either made him susceptible to consumption or that was made manifest by the sickness that took his life. Once he had succumbed, we know that Fanny Brawne was keen to dispel the charge that Keats had displayed “weakness of character.”4 And then there is the equally notorious emotional weakness that has long been attributed to the poet who composed the great ode on melancholy, an inability to “control emotions”;
Carlos Williams— certainly as “humanist” a modern poet as the American tradition would produce—the alliance of poetics and mechanics, far from threatening, was regarded as demystifying and even liberating: “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” declares Williams in his 1944 preface to The Wedge. In a letter to Higginson in 1874, Dickinson expressed her own understanding of the relationships between the organic and the mechanical, between the work of the “wrinkled maker” and the