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Art's Undoing

In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism

Forest Pyle

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-6


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pp. 7-8


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

...More precisely still, this project began from what I felt to be the shortcomings of my previous book’s attempt to come to terms with what happens when Shelley’s last poem addresses the relationship between aesthetic and political judgment. Despite my attempts to use the...

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Introduction: “From Which One Turns Away”

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pp. 1-28

...This book is about something I am calling a radical aestheticism, the term that I believe best describes a recurring event in some of the most powerful and resonating texts of the British Romantic literary tradition. 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...

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1. “A Light More Dread Than Obscurity”: Spelling and Kindling in Percy Bysshe Shelley

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pp. 29-66

...Wilde characterized the “vital tendency” of Shelley’s poetry as “the democratic and pantheistic tendency.” I call it “politics.” This is the project that animates Shelley’s poetry; and politics is the term the poet would have been likely to use and that is inseparable from his legacy. I will examine several poems that are explicitly political in their subject matter, poems Shelley would have described as “wholly political.” But my principal focus in this...

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2. “I Hold It Towards You”: Keats’s Weakness

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pp. 67-104

...Once Again,” a sonnet Keats wrote in 1818 on a page inside his folio Shakespeare, a sonnet that both anticipates and recalls the experience of reading. The poem opens with a closing and a leave-taking: an address to the “Romance,” to the “serene lute,” to what we could call the poet’s own...

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3. What the Zeros Taught: Emily Dickinson, Event-Machine

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pp. 105-144

...What the zeros taught in the forceful opening line of one especially enigmatic Dickinson poem was “Phosphorus”: “The Zeros taught Us - Phosphorus - / We learned to like the Fire” (284).1 Something comes from nothing, and that incendiary teaching leaves us with the lessons of fi re. And as in so many Dickinson poems, the eruptive force that goes from the zeros to the fi re subsequently asserts its opposite, nullifying the initiating event...

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4. Hopkins’s Sighs

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pp. 145-170

...to the force of Purcell’s music: to be “lifted and laid” is to give oneself over to the “air of angels.” And precisely in the form of its passivity, the line is an aesthetic imperative, an announcement that the speaker will submit to the sensory apprehension of sound. Such a declaration of submission to the aesthetic runs counter to the project or vocation of Hopkins’s...

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5. Superficiality: What Is Loving and What Is Dead in Dante

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pp. 171-208

...no artist appears more appropriate than Dante Gabriel Rossetti for inclusion in a study of the aestheticism that emerges in the wake of Romanticism. “Five English Poets,” the late sonnet-sequence Rossetti composed on the topic of Romantic poetry, is arguably the most engaged Victorian...

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6. “Rings, Pearls, and All”: Wilde’s Extravagance

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pp. 209-244

...Oscar Wilde poses a new and singular challenge to my argument. In each of the previous chapters, the author’s implicit or explicit project is something other than aesthetics as such. In the case of Keats, for instance, it is the poetry of a “humanized” ethical regard; for Dickinson the project is the event of...


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pp. 245-302


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pp. 303-312

E-ISBN-13: 9780823251131
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823251117

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Cloth

OCLC Number: 867741170
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Art's Undoing

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Subject Headings

  • Art and literature -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Aestheticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism
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