- Fateful Beauty: Aesthetic Environments, Juvenile Development, and Literature, 1860-1960
Fateful Beauty examines a series of texts "united by a sense that to be a person is . . . to be an organism in an environment" (256). An erudite and exhaustively detailed work of intellectual and cultural history, it follows the career of a central idea: the power of environment to shape a developing consciousness, and to shape it in unregistered ways. That concern links important strands of Victorian and modernist aesthetics to the social contexts that saw their emergence—often in surprising ways—and, by demonstrating an abiding concern with the formative effects of beauty unperceived, reconsiders Victorian and modernist understandings of art's moral valence. The concept of environment—and [End Page 762] the "developmental unconscious" (45)—leads Douglas Mao to a persuasive retelling of literary history, of the relation, for instance, of English aestheticism to Romanticism, modernism, and (especially compellingly) naturalism. At the same time, Mao shows how his central writers—Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Theodore Dreiser, James Joyce, Rebecca West, and W. H. Auden—reacted in different ways to the political, ethical, and aesthetic questions raised by an environment's power to form.
These differences respond to various pressure points in each corpus, and the affiliations and divergences are often surprising. From a Victorian standpoint, the account of Wilde's relation to Pater is particularly engaging. Recovering Wilde's early preoccupations with materialism, Mao eschews the strange critical habit of comparing their relative merits (which, depending on who is deemed "better," renders Wilde an intellectual featherweight or Pater a bore) and restores both the traces of influence and the complexity of their philosophical divergences. In addition to literary history, Fateful Beauty illuminates social and cultural history, placing literary accounts of beauty in the context of a huge range of other discourses—of juvenile delinquency, social degeneration (and progress), and child-rearing, for example—and in the context of a richly detailed understanding of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century science. The "science" of Pater's "Conclusion" takes on an illuminating specificity as Mao ranges among a series of scientific preoccupations linked to formation and environment. The breadth is staggering, and, amid this detail, the account remains remarkably lucid.
It is perhaps uncharitable to ask what is lost by the encyclopedic range—more than uncharitable, in fact, since my pretensions to evaluate it, anyway, are exhausted in the mere gaping vague admiration of its scope. It would be bizarre to ask a writer to know less, but there are, nevertheless, moments where the erudition seems to produce an artificial unification as individual texts only weakly resist the homogenization threatened by so compelling an overarching narrative. There are some very beautiful readings—most striking, for me, is of Auden's "In Praise of Limestone" (1948)—but the energy of the text is directed less toward readings than toward placing texts in sociohistorical and intellectual contexts. "We might therefore consider Dorian Gray," he writes, "both a product and an allegory of the nineteenth century's engagement with the developmental unconscious, its fixing of attention on chemical or quasi-chemical transactions by which experience subtly configures the self" (95). A powerful resituating of the novel's central identificatory commerce in relation to a wider intellectual context, it leaves to others more detailed readings of the many specific passages (the varied modalities of influence, but also the prose they occasion and the narrative energies that structure them in a plot) that might spell out the consequences of that context. It is fruitless—and presumptuous—to tax a book with failing to be what it never designed to be, and the strength of the book is not in the little picture but in the big. I wonder, though, if the book's genealogy of the concept of environment—after all, the intellectual underpinning of much historicist work—might have led it to reflect on its own strategies of contextualization.
Likewise, there were moments where I thought that the larger context of intellectual...