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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.4 (2007) 677-683

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Denise Gigante
Stanford University
Multidisciplinary views of David Marshall's The Frame of Art: Fictions of Aesthetic Experience, 1750–1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). Pp. 259. $50.00. Winner of the 2005–2006 Louis Gottschalk Prize of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

The chief objective of David Marshall's thought-provoking and scrupulously researched book is to show how aesthetic experience, from the eighteenth century when this concept was defined as such, has blurred the border between fiction and reality. Not only do people in the theater feel themselves "transported" to the scene of action and call out in their momentary distress to actors on stage, but from a similar yet opposite perspective, when viewing remote natural landscapes, people see mentally through the "frame of art," or through the paintings, novels, poems, and other forms of representation that have conditioned how and what they perceive. It is hard to tell in which version of the story this author is most invested. On the one hand, it would seem the motivating factor of a history like this one would be to challenge the idea that we can compartmentalize, and thereby (too easily) marginalize, aesthetic experience as mere fiction, showing instead how it can and does become real. But a major payoff of the book is to reveal the many ways in which our experience of the "natural," whether of physical structures or of seemingly authentic emotion, is overlaid with layers of artifice, mediated, to varying degrees, through aesthetic representation. More particularly, for readers with a stake in literary and aesthetic history, the book makes clear the relationship between sensibility and the frame of art, suggesting that the former (like the picturesque, of which we knew something to this effect) hinges on the latter. Reading this book, one realizes how multiple forms of representation––of fictionalizing and framing––made the famous eighteenth-century construct of sensibility the hallmark of its age.

The book opens with a helpful overview of aesthetic experience as it has been defined and interpreted through critical history. Marshall wants to advance the [End Page 677] argument that "The Problem of Aesthetic Experience" (as he titles his introduction) is in fact a problem and to position it as "a kind of counterplot to the narrative about aesthetic experience that is typically associated with the eighteenth century" (2; cf. 13). Traditional narratives of aesthetic experience trace the sea change from neoclassical principles of correctness to subjective response that is the distinguishing feature of modern aesthetics based on taste. Literary scholars and aesthetic historians who have studied that trajectory through the growth of the philosophical categories of the sublime, the beautiful, and aesthetic disinterestedness include (to name a few) Walter Jackson Bate, Ernst Cassirer, Howard Caygill, Samuel Monk, Jerome Stolnitz, and Dabney Townsend. Marshall would rather situate his "counterplot" alongside the "countertradition" expounded by Ronald Paulson in The Beautiful, Novel, and Strange: Aesthetics and Heterodoxy (1996), though there are, as he acknowledges, other counterplots, based on other texts and employing other critical methods. His own approach takes the form of a literary history, which juxtaposes philosophical writings with works of fiction, particularly novels, and which is not strictly chronological. The methodology involves close reading, based on influence and interlocution between literary authors, philosophers, and artists, and it eschews the incorporation of "statistics or unpublished contemporary accounts about the experience of 'real people' with novels, paintings, home theatricals, and the like" (14). "It is my methodological and ideological prejudice, having been trained in the techniques of close reading and the skeptical strategies of literary hermeneutics," he notes, "that the text (and its reflections on representation and signification) can never be explained away, rendered transparent, or translated into a pure reflection of social realities" (203). If a bit defensive (and the claim need not, I think, be buried in a note), his rationale for the literary historical mode of proceeding and its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 677-683
Launched on MUSE
2007-09-06
Open Access
No
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