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Reviewed by:
Joel Black. The Aesthetics of Murder. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1991. 276 pp. $40.00 cloth, $14.95 paper.

In his 1827 essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," Thomas De Quincey playfully proposes that murder should be examined from an aesthetic, rather than ethical or sociological perspective. He looks at the murderer's "style" and judges killings according to the precepts of taste. In The Aesthetics of Murder, Joel Black uses this aesthetic analysis of homicide to interpret nineteenth-century romantic literature which deals with murder. He then treats two [End Page 1007] contemporary events, John Hinkley Jr.'s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan and Mark David Chapman's killing of John Lennon, showing how both events were aesthetically mediated within a Baudrillardian hyperreality, where life and art become indistinguishable.

In the first of two parts, Black focuses on how De Quincey's aesthetic of murder is a satire of Kant's Third Critique. He shows the correspondence between De Quincey's aesthetic and Kant's aesthetic of the sublime. Black deals with the criminal as artist, the bourgeois replacement of the criminal-as-hero by the detective-as-hero, the fulfillment of De Quincey's aesthetic in Brian De Palma's films, the existential problematic of the acte gratuit, Bataille's connection between eroticism and murder, and Nietzsche's transvaluation of values. Throughout, Black deftly interweaves De Quincey's writings, demonstrating how murder is aestheticized by Romantic writers as well as later authors, directors, and painters, such as Robbe-Grillet, Hitchcock, and Magritte.

In the book's second section, Black examines how fiction and media affect and instigate actual instances of murder, suicide and assassination, showing how these acts are mimetic or cathartic phenomena. Here Black deals with serial and mass murder, gangs, John Wilkes Booth, Mishima, and Genet. He examines how Hinkley Jr. and Chapman used artistic representations as scripts for their crimes, intimating that people can more readily identify with the narrator of an autobiographical fiction, such as Taxi Driver, than with Arthur Bremer's diary.

However, Black never really explains why people can identify more readily with fiction than nonfiction: "Something about fictional discourse seems to invite readers and moviegoers to identify more closely with its narrators and characters than with those of nonfiction." He never develops ideas about what this nebulous "something" is. Also, in the second part, Black too facilely accepts Baudrillard's notion of the hyperreal, while continuing to use the Aristotelian language of mimesis and catharsis.

Overall, Black's book is a dazzling display of intertextuality. He successfully shatters the barriers between high and low culture, showing how they are imbricated. This work will appeal to Romantic theorists, Kantians, and cultural theorists. As a project that articulates an aesthetics of murder, the book is a worthwhile one and deserving of close scrutiny. [End Page 1008]

Scott Blackwell
Purdue University


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