In this Book

Art’s Undoing is about radical aestheticism, the term that best describes a recurring event in some of the most powerful and resonating texts of nineteenth-century British literature. A radical aestheticism offers us the best way to reckon with what takes place at certain moments in certain texts by P.B. Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, D.G. Rossetti, and Wilde when aestheticized representations reach their radicalization. This aesthetic radicalization has profound consequences not only for the specific texts in which it occurs but for our understanding of the ambitious literary project undertaken by each of these writers and, finally, of our conception of the legacy of this literary tradition. This book explores what happens when these writers, deeply committed to certain versions of ethics or politics or theology, nonetheless produce the encounter with a radical aestheticism in their own work. These are the sites and occasions at which the authors’ projects are subjected to a fundamental crisis. A radical aestheticism offers no positive claims for art (either those based on ethical or political grounds or on aesthetic grounds, as in “art for art’s sake”): it provides no “transcendent or underlying ground” for their validation. In this sense, a radical aestheticism is the experience of a poesis that exerts such a pressure on the claims and workings of the aesthetic that it becomes a kind of black hole from which no illumination is possible. The radical aestheticism encountered in these writers is that which in the course of 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, as combustion, as undoing. It is, therefore, an undoing by and of art and aesthetic experience, one that leaves this important literary tradition in its wake. In order to grasp the nature and consequences of this radical aestheticism, I turn to Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura (Shelley, Hopkins), Roland Barthes’s accounts in his late work of “the third meaning” and the indolence of aesthetics (Keats), Jacques Derrida’s notion of the “event-machine” and Giorgio Agamben’s account of an originary poesis (Dickinson), Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics (Hopkins), absorption and theatricality according to Michael Fried (Rossetti), Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek on the ethics of desire (Rossetti), and Georges Bataille’s notions of expenditure and sacrifice (Wilde). These diverse theoretical projects become in the course of the book something of a parallel text, one that reveals how some of the most significant theoretical and philosophical projects of our time remain within the wake of a radical aestheticism.

Table of Contents

  1. Title Page, Copyright
  2. pp. 1-6
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  1. Contents
  2. pp. 7-8
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  1. Illustrations
  2. pp. ix-x
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  1. Preface
  2. pp. xi-xvi
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  1. Introduction: “From Which One Turns Away”
  2. pp. 1-28
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  1. 1. “A Light More Dread Than Obscurity”: Spelling and Kindling in Percy Bysshe Shelley
  2. pp. 29-66
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  1. 2. “I Hold It Towards You”: Keats’s Weakness
  2. pp. 67-104
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  1. 3. What the Zeros Taught: Emily Dickinson, Event-Machine
  2. pp. 105-144
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  1. 4. Hopkins’s Sighs
  2. pp. 145-170
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  1. 5. Superficiality: What Is Loving and What Is Dead in Dante
  2. pp. 171-208
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  1. 6. “Rings, Pearls, and All”: Wilde’s Extravagance
  2. pp. 209-244
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  1. Notes
  2. pp. 245-302
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  1. Index
  2. pp. 303-312
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