- Beauty and the Priest: The Use and Misuse of Aesthetics in The Damnation of Theron Ware
Critics have long characterized Harold Frederic’s novel The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) as the story of America’s putting away of childish things. Written during a decade when American society was part way through a social paradigm shift into the high gear of industrial modernity, Frederic’s novel clearly defines the moment it narrates in terms of transition. Into the past it casts away simple, straightforward religious faith, a universe naively conceived of as governed by a physical and moral order whose terms are set by a benign deity, and absolute social and ethical codes. Into the future it projects uncertainty, relativism, secular pragmatism, and the death of the soul. The book has thus been read as “a symbolic tale of America’s progress to disunity” (Ziff 214), or “the fall of intellectual America from innocence into knowledge” (Carter xvii). Because of this, scholars have often interpreted the novel as unreservedly bleak in its prognosis of American society, a “satiric bonfire” offering no hope of progress (Michelson 71), an antimodern lament that “neither science nor aestheticism can replace what it has destroyed” (Ziff 214).1
In this essay I will examine more closely the role of “aestheticism” and the aesthetic in Frederic’s novel, with the aim of addressing the claim (implicit in the work of those critics who see the book as wholly pessimistic) that, for Frederic, aesthetic experience had no value as a guide to ethical behavior. There is an important difference between the ethical possibilities of the flawed aesthetic theories that the novel convincingly debunks and those afforded by the literary aesthetics of [End Page 31] the text itself, which constitutes a determined attempt to transcend such models. If aesthetic experience still has a role to play in guiding our actions—if there is, as Elaine Scarry suggests, still a link between “beauty and being just”—then part of the project of the current scholarly return to aesthetics is to describe the ways in which such a link might function. That is, as Pamela Matthews and David McWhirter write, it must imagine an theory of art that, while “acknowledging the aesthetic’s entanglement in systems of power,” can “recover beauty’s still-surprising capacity, not to save, but to provoke us” (xxvi).2 Frederic’s novel is, I suggest, engaged in just such a project of provocation.
Previous treatments of aesthetics in the novel have largely made reference only to the character of the local It-Girl Celia Madden, a rich dilettante whose tastes are clearly a fashionable mish-mash of various European aesthetic movements.3 However, over the course of the novel, Frederic in fact engages with three different conceptions of what aesthetic experience is, rejecting each as flawed. One is characterized in Transcendentalist terms, a second is based on the idealism of European philosophy, and a third has its roots in the pragmatism of Frederic’s American contemporaries. Each of these conceptions, the novel suggests, fails to deal adequately with the fact that aesthetic experience involves a kind of non-rational “susceptibility” on the part of the subject (to borrow a term from George Santayana, who published the first full North American treatise on aesthetics in 1896, the same year as Frederic published Theron Ware). This, for Frederic’s characters, makes such experience a highly dubious guide to action. Over and over again powerful aesthetic experiences render characters in the novel dangerously susceptible to the truth of some fallacious proposition in a way that bypasses rational critical scrutiny. Since what is beautiful is not necessarily good, the text characterizes aesthetic pleasure as a deceitful variety of experience that leads its characters into terrible trouble.
By contrast, many people have undergone a very different kind of aesthetic experience while reading the novel. In 1970 Edmund Wilson wrote an appreciation of Frederic for the New Yorker, in which he describes the effect of reading the author’s most famous work. The book, he explains, effectively tricks the reader into empathizing with its protagonist, Theron Ware, before ultimately revealing him as misguided, conniving and deeply unsympathetic. Frederic...