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The 'Literary', Aestheticism and the Founding of English as a Discipline IAN SMALL and JOSEPHINE GUY University of Birmingham THAT THE AESTHETIC MOVEMENT was instrumental in securing and propagandizing the idea of the self-sufficiency of literature—and thus its immunity from incursions from either political or moral spheres—is now a commonplace of literary history. And one of the consequences of the Aesthetes' valorizing of the non-utilitarian, iconoclastic elements of art is usually taken to be their opposition to all things professional. So Pater, as an Oxford don, set himself against some forms and tendencies of the "new" professional scholarship of the late 1880s and early 1890s. As Richard Aldington later noted, Pater's move to London in 1885 was a rejection of "the jealous professionalism of Oxford."1 Moreover one of the favourite butts of Wilde and Whistler was the status of the new professional classes in general, and particularly the professionalization of knowledge which took place with increasing rapidity in the last decades of the nineteenth century. So Lord Illingworth in Act III of A Woman of No Importance, for example, confides to his son, Gerald Arbuthnot, that "examinations are of no value whatsoever," a comment which makes specific reference to reforms which had taken place, on a fairly wholesale basis, in the British Civil Service and in English universities. And in Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon advises Jack to leave literary criticism "to people who haven't been at a University."2 Given this, the proposition that the work of the Aesthetes , and of Pater and Wilde in particular, was instrumental in establishing the preconditions for the founding of English literature as a discipline of knowledge in British universities appears to be contradictory as well as controversial. Yet their role was significant, and has not been given its due attention by either social or literary historians . There are two dominant accounts of the establishment of English as a discipline of knowledge. In the first it is seen as a marginal, and therefore a wholly unremarkable, aspect of a set of systematic univer443 ELT: Volume 33:4, 1990 sity reforms in Britain: of entrance qualifications, of written examinations , of standards of scholarship, of curriculum reform.3 The second kind of history, usually the work of recent British rather than American scholars, has emphasized the centrality of English Studies, but has done so in order to make a general political point about the ideological uses of the "humane" disciplines of knowledge in the years between 1880 and 1920. In this latter view, the institutionalization of English Studies is seen as instrumental in the construction of a form of national identity. Reduced to its bare bones, this argument holds that the discipline of "English Studies" was central in creating a notion of Englishness which in its turn was put to political uses.4 One of the major drawbacks of both views is the dissociation of the establishment of English as a discipline from literary culture generally. Fairly representative in this respect are the views of Peter Brooker and Peter Widdowson, who marginalize the role of figures such as Wilde and Pater. They argue that the drift and tenor of Aestheticism and the Decadence was towards a separation of art from contemporary cultural concerns: "[A]estheticism was [not] responsible for imperialist verse, but ... its self-conscious removal of art from a common public, its abortive antagonism to 'externalities' and its language of mood, dream and sensation were open to appropriation and completion in the service of received attitudes."5 In arguments such as these, the agency and the influence of the Aesthetic Movement is seen to be minimal, and even then, wholly negative. However, it is possible to maintain a completely opposite thesis: that the concepts of the autonomy of art and of literature developed by the Aesthetes were actually necessary preconditions for establishing the discipline of English literature. One reason for undervaluing the significance of the Aesthetic Movement for the development of English has been simple ignorance. Thus in his Critical Heritage volume on Pater, Robert Seiler fails to take any account of the intellectual influence (rather than the general popularity) of Pater, Wilde...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 443-453
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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