- Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man by Andrew Goldstone
Fictions of Autonomy is about a conflict between understanding literary form as autonomous—a law unto itself—or as always imbricated in the specificity of history. If we subscribe to the old religion of art, be it Wildean l’art pour l’art or Eliotic impersonality, we ignore the political. Yet extremist contextualism, so the dichotomy goes, risks missing the thing itself—the poem.
The problem is an old one. Goldstone revisits it out of a commitment to reading autonomy with more subtlety. Overlooked as moribund, naïve, and passé in modernist studies, ideas around [End Page 870] aesthetic autonomy, Goldstone contends, in fact reflect a central concern throughout twentieth-century literature. He challenges us to think about this: it’s no longer useful to attack autonomy as merely the reactive, elitist logic of our literary critical forbears, or to champion its antirealist or anti-representational tendencies as resistant to empirical research (Goldstone places Charles Altieri and Richard Lansdown in this bracket) (189). Nor is it enough to seek extraliterary correlatives for modernism’s aestheticist tendencies, “as though modernism needed to be saved from [itself]” (4). Goldstone characterizes such critical tendencies as rendering literature passively “responsive” to history, however politically motivated. (He names Jed Esty, Rebecca Walkowitz, and Douglas Mao as practitioners of the New Modernist studies that “still” grant aesthetics “direct political effects.”) Instead, as this book seeks to provide, we need a sociological history of the aesthetic concept that is attentive to formation but also to form. Goldstone mobilizes Pierre Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art here—particularly the idea that the aesthetic autonomy of literature is (in Bourdieu’s words) a “position to be made,” something to be “conquered” (9). Goldstone lays claim to autonomy in modernism as an entity frequently desired by writers, as well as a “confront[ation]” with social embeddedness—that is, with the fact that art can never be fully detached from the world and the history in which it is produced. However delusory, or embraced with full knowledge of its fictiveness, autonomy is a “mode of relation” (5, original emphasis). Like an etching that corrosively embosses a surface’s (societal) reverse, autonomy is always in relief.
Such a confrontational model explains the book’s structure. Goldstone modulates his Bourdieusian framework by turning autonomy from a purely thematic feature of literary history into a genus, the most significant “species” (80) of which forms four taxonomic branches and four comparative chapters. These are: 1) “Autonomy from Labor,” with a focus on the representation of (and barbed relation to) servants in Oscar Wilde, Philippe Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Henry James, and Marcel Proust; 2) “Autonomy from the Person,” with the surprising pairing of T. S. Eliot and Theodor Adorno via notions of impersonality, late style, the writings of each on Beethoven, and what Adorno calls “formal law” [Formgesetz] (68); 3) “Autonomy as Expatriation,” with an interrogation of the cosmopolitan, exilic, and non-communitarian writing strategies of Djuna Barnes and James Joyce; and 4) “Autonomy from Linguistic Referentiality,” with an assessment of the rhetorical figure of tautology and the book’s most interesting pairing: Wallace Stevens and Paul de Man—the critic Goldstone amusingly refers to as modernism’s “epigone” (174).
Tidiness smacks of schematics, of course, though the risk is mitigated by Goldstone’s commitment to sociological principles of understanding social-historical subjects in a Bourdieu-sian field of relation. When exploring the various vexatious glances toward servants in Dorian Gray or À rebours, for example, Goldstone turns to Theresa McBride’s history of nineteenth-century service in The Domestic Revolution (31) to root such decadent aestheticism in its dependence upon the real and lived subjects keeping house.1 His comparison of T. S. Eliot with Theodor Adorno invites a reconsideration of the easy idea that impersonality is reactionary, or that Adorno was (merely) an “irascible” and “aggravated” exile (though who exactly thinks so is unclear) (108). Goldstone’s readings...