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  • Aesthetic Uncommon Sense: Early Modern Taste and the Satirical Sublime
  • Eric Byville (bio)

Sunt enim quidam, quibus morbi vitio mel amarum videatur

—Seneca, Epistles

. . . je ris dans les deuils et pleure dans les fêtes, Et trouve un goût suave au vin le plus amer . . .

—Baudelaire, “La Voix” (“The Voice”) (1866)

La matin, bien sûr, j’avais dans la bouche le goût amer de la condition mortelle.

—Albert Camus, La Chute (The Fall) (1956)

This essay applies Kantian concepts and the framework of Kantian philosophy to a body of literature that most people would consider distinctly un-Kantian—indeed anti-Kantian—but that I will try to define in terms of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory. The body of literature to which I refer is a mode of satire that is deliberately unpleasant and self-consciously bitter. In particular, I will reconsider Shakespeare’s place in the history of early modern aesthetics by examining the role that Troilus and Cressida plays in this tradition of aesthetically bitter satire, a tradition that perhaps culminates in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). Along the lines of recent scholarship called variously Historical Formalism or New Aestheticism, I will address simultaneously the theoretical concerns of Kant’s aesthetic philosophy and the empirical concerns of literary history.1 The point of convergence is my notion of uncommon sense.

Of course, the term common sense has been associated with artistic taste for centuries.2 Its definitive philosophical articulation is given in the Critique of Judgement, where Kant posits an “aesthetic” common sense as the [End Page 583] a priori ground of “judgments of taste” because such judgments presuppose that the pleasure in beauty is universally valid and communicable.3 While Kant thus maps out a grand empire of taste ruled by common sense, he leaves unexplored much of the gustatory territory that lies within the realm of the sublime, whose vast expanses of wilderness contain the area of bitter aesthetic experience that I suggest belongs to uncommon sense, or more specifically the satirical sublime. This area is uncovered in Notes from Underground, a work that reveals both how such aesthetic bitterness seems anti-Kantian and also how it nevertheless implies a paradoxical, masochistic form of aesthetic pleasure that partakes of the Kantian sublime. Thus, I will argue that the term aesthetic uncommon sense defines the powerful aesthetic appeal that bitterness exerts in the literary mode of the satirical sublime, a mode in which Dostoevsky is a late great virtuoso and of which Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is a prime early modern example.


Despite dismissing Kantian values by ridiculing the “beautiful and sublime,” Notes from Underground asserts that there is a valuable form of pleasure in the conscious experience of displeasure, which is precisely the structure of Kant’s sublime. For instance, in part 1 Dostoevsky’s narrator, the Underground Man, appeals to readers in an agonized crescendo that reveals his ultimate motive for addressing them in the first place:

Tell me this: why was it, . . . at the precise moment that I was most capable of becoming conscious of the subtleties of everything that was “beautiful and sublime,” as we used to say at one time, that I didn’t become conscious, and instead did such unseemly things. . . ? The more conscious I was of what was good, of everything “beautiful and sublime,” the more deeply I sank into the morass. . . . I didn’t believe that others were experiencing the same thing; therefore, I kept it a secret. . . . I used to gnaw and gnaw at myself inwardly, secretly . . . until finally the bitterness turned into some kind of shameful, accursed sweetness and at last into genuine, earnest pleasure! Yes, into pleasure, real pleasure! I absolutely mean that. . . . That’s why I first began to speak [End Page 584] out, because I want to know for certain whether other people share this same pleasure.4

This aria on the intermingling of pain and pleasure is formulated in terms of sweetness and bitterness. On one level the passage is a psychological analysis, an interrogation of the pathological pleasure the narrator takes in his own suffering. But on another level it is an aesthetic analysis, an articulation...


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