- The Demise of the Aesthetic in Literary Study
Anumber of years ago at an MLA convention I was on a search committee interviewing candidates for a position in Victorian literature in our department. One of the candidates had done a dissertation on Christina Rossetti in which “Goblin Market” played a prominent role. As I recall, the candidate was putting forth a New Historicist or feminist argument about the poem, when one of my colleagues on the committee interrupted her with the question: “But is it a good poem?” The question took me by surprise, for I didn’t remember such a question having been asked of students in years. It dumbfounded the candidate. She had apparently never considered the question. The poem was there as an occasion for . . . I was about to write interpretation or analysis, but it would be more accurate to say: a placement in a particular discourse—historicist, feminist, deconstructionist, ideological. The candidate’s fluency about the poem came to a halt. She spluttered a few phrases about the power of the poem. She was unprepared to answer the question, having never been asked or taught to ask it by her teachers of any poem or novel or play that she had read.
We may not have been fair in our judgment of her. If we had been consistent and asked the same question of all the candidates, I don’t think we would have met with greater success. Our candidate’s disability was, indeed still is, built into the profession of literary studies at the present time. That aesthetic judgment is not one of the current professional practices is clear not only from its absence in the content of literary study but from the styles of the discoursers. No longer written [End Page 139] in a vernacular style, criticism has become a species of sociological prose once held in contempt by literary scholars: ponderous, abstract, obscure, ungainly, jargonish. There are practitioners of New Historicism, ideology critique, and deconstruction who write well, but who seem to regard their own gifts of expression as incidental, and are not in the least discomfited by the bad writing of others.
Style is not an incidental matter. Orwell made a compelling case for its political and moral significance. In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” he preaches the virtues of plain speech, the transparent and elegant style as a mark of self-honesty. (Transparency makes it difficult to conceal your ideas from yourself.) In Writing Degree Zero and subsequent writings, Barthes deconstructed, so to speak, the Enlightenment myth of transparency as a guarantor of honesty and truth. Reality was not as perspicuous to “natural” plain writing as the Enlightenment believed. Barthes’s own style (rich, inventive, personal, alternately perspicuous, and obscure) is that of an imaginative writer. I don’t want to adjudicate the differences between Orwell and Barthes, but I should note what may not be obvious: they have a shared aesthetic concern with style, a concern that has virtually disappeared from academic discourse.
It has become almost an embarrassment to speak in behalf of aesthetic value in the academy. One of the few unembarrassed exceptions is the voice of Harold Bloom whose jeremiad The Western Canon begins defiantly with an affirmation of the aesthetic against its demystifiers. “‘Aesthetic value’ is sometimes regarded as a suggestion of Immanuel Kant’s rather than an actuality, but that has not been my experience during a lifetime of reading.” 1 I take it that Bloom is saying that aesthetic value is an experience and not a theory. Indeed, if we insist on a theoretical justification of the aesthetic, we will end up speaking as does Barbara Herrnstein Smith of its contingent and subjective status (it is in the eye of the beholder and every beholder sees things differently) or we may find that the aesthetic is inescapably contaminated by political, moral, and philosophical interests. “Contaminated” perhaps, but as Bloom says, not reducible to these interests. It is useful to remember that aesthetics has been traditionally associated with the idea of disinterestedness. As Jerome Stolnitz remarks, we perceive beauty when it is the object of a “disinterested and sympathetic attention...