Art's Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
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.
incalculable opening, the “ﬂash” of possibility.24 “England in 1819,” for example, a sonnet that Shelley sent to Hunt with no illusions that it would be published, identiﬁes the institutions of the English state as a series of graves: An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King; Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who ﬂow Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring; Rulers who neither see nor fell nor know, But leechlike to their fainting country cling Till they drop, blind in blood,
could one believe in what can only appear to be the “frail spell” of the “thrilling vapour” of “an ever-shifting mirror”?39 Heidegger famously concludes “The Origin of the Work of Art” by declaring that Hölderlin is “the poet—whose work still confronts the Germans as a test to be stood.”40 If, as I believe, Shelley is the poet whose work still confronts the Anglophone poetic tradition as a “test to be stood,” it is precisely for the “confrontation” of his most radical aestheticism. “A Shape All
exploration of the ways in which the dissipating effects of this condition extend to the most assertive forms of language, the speech act of the command. When the poem bids its ﬁnal “adieu” to the “three ghosts,” it commands them to “fade” and “vanish”: “Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more / In masque-like ﬁgures on the dreamy urn” (ll.55–56); “Vanish, ye phantoms, from my idle spright, / Into the clouds, and never more return” (ll.59–60). The “fading” and “vanishing” to which the poem
plunge from the front” that “overturns” the reader with a “something” that “overtakes the mind” also serves as the best description of the sudden, disorienting, “overturning” and “overtaking” power of so many of her own initial lines. I want to consider the poetic mechanisms of the “plunge from the front” that cause this initial “overturning” and “overtaking,” poetic mechanisms that manufacture what feels like an event; and I want to examine the apparatuses F6123.indb 107 10/4/13 10:22:15 AM
subversive “underthought” overlook the ways in which the “catching” of theology and aesthetics is not only indispensable to its structure and effects, but is achieved only through its auratic qualities. At the same time, critics who emphasize the happy reconciliation enacted in the poem surely miss not only the poem’s violence, its explosive breaking and buckling, but the breathless effects of its Petrarchan addresses: “ah my dear,” “O my chevalier.” Of course, all readers know full well that the