Stephen Barker examines in Autoaesthetics the forming and writing of the self in various nineteenth—and twentieth—century novels. His tutelary spirit is Nietzsche, appropriately enough, and roughly half the book rhapsodizes on three central Nietzschean ideas. One, the Eternal Return, Barker rewrites as articulation, by which he seems especially to mean elaboration, a continued spinning out of something in textual or quasi-textual form. Another, the Overman, becomes etrangete, the strangeness or distance experienced by the subject as it beholds a fictive self. Finally, Will to Power is for Barker virtually synonymous with selfhood, this being the usage closest to Nietzsche's own. To buttress his theory Barker rounds up the usual poststructuralist suspects, early Derrida most importantly, and both his tone and his terms accordingly bespeak a perspective on selfhood deriving from the "new Nietzsche." Yet to readers aged enough to recall an old one, the Nietzsche preeminently mediated by Walter Kaufmann, Barker's ideas will sound more familiar than his vocabulary. Apparently without realizing it, he has reproduced the existentialist Nietzsche, prophet of heroic, alienated artistry. [End Page 437]
This is the Nietzsche who contributed to Modernism's project of artistic self-aggrandizement and to the warm reception given that project during the Cold War. More specifically, he is the philosopher who made us readers of modern literature feel proud self-pity as we identified with artist-like protagonists who always fell a bit short but who overcame that shortcoming by, as it were, becoming the triumph of the works—excuse me, texts—in which they appeared. In English the sacred book of this project is Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, interpreted as wholeheartedly endorsing Stephen Dedalus's desires (though not his achievement), and sure enough Barker winds up celebrating that novel at the expense of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
Barker mainly writes about Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Faulkner's "The Bear," and Fowles's Daniel Martin, explaining the selection only by noting that each is an instance of the Kunstlerroman. More specifically, each protagonist and each author can be viewed as an "autoaesthete," someone engaged in fashioning the self as if it were artwork. With Stendhal and Hardy this view leads to competent but not especially original readings, and with Fowles it explicates the book's manifest themes. Framing Faulkner's Ike McCaslin as an artist figure is a bolder move, but Barker's otherwise interesting case is compromised by questionable scholarship. For example, he reads "The Bear" as if it were an independent text and Ike McCaslin as if he did not appear elsewhere in Go Down, Moses.
The book deserves higher marks for enthusiasm than precise thinking, a problem apparent even in the title. By "autoaesthetics" Barker almost certainly means the process by which a self makes and remakes itself as a kind of artwork. Sticklers might argue that the word should then be something like "autopoeisis," to emphasize the making rather than the experiencing of the self/work. More important, the prefix is reflexive, so an autoaesthetics would experience itself, not an artwork or a self as artwork. Barker's failure to honor or even notice the distinction is unfortunately not untypical.