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  • Aestheticism, Pater, Literary Theory
  • Bruce Bashford
Andrew Eastman . Aesthetic Afterlives: Irony, Literary Modernity and the Ends of Beauty. London: Continuum, 2011. ix + 257 pp. $120.00

This book falls under at least three headings: recent literary history, Walter Pater studies, and the history of literary theory. The first because Eastman argues that while modernism tended to dismiss Victorian aestheticism, it was more engaged with the aspirations and problems of the latter than it acknowledged: in his terms, Victorian aestheticism had an important, if partially hidden, "afterlife" in modernism. The second because Eastman uses Pater as his main Victorian theorist of the aesthetic; thus a central claim of the book is that Pater's influence on modernism has been underappreciated. The third because Eastman's discussion of Victorian aestheticism's continued presence in modernism focuses on the concept of Romantic irony.

The remaining phrase in Eastman's title, "the Ends of Beauty," the social and political purposes beauty might serve, puts his study in a specific strand of the history of literary theory: the defense of poetry tradition. As Eastman explains, from Kant's insistence on the aesthetic as an autonomous category, Romantic irony constructed an analogy: as the artwork is separate from the world, so the artist or the lover of beauty, the aesthete, is "distanced" from human life. This distance can be seen as a virtue, for instance, as the ability to transcend convention. But it can also be seen as a dangerous wrong turn; Eastman regards Hegel's denunciation of Romantic irony as a sterile withdrawal from human history and effort as nearly a definition of the concept. Defenses of poetry after Kant, having separated out the aesthetic, then typically reattach it to life, that is, claim that art benefits life. For Eastman, Victorian aestheticism lives on in modernism as a persistent problem: if the autonomy of the aesthetic is formulated in terms of Romantic irony can the aesthetic have a salutary effect on human life?

The book has an ambitious range. The initial chapter, principally on Pater's "The School of Giorgione," examines Pater's awareness of the problem the book will explore. The chapter's centerpiece is what Eastman calls a "new reading" of Pater's analysis of Titian's "The Concert" (Pater thought the painting was Giorgione's). In Pater's ekphrasis, according [End Page 406] to Eastman, the painting's visual field renders music palpable, creates an "acoustic space" that is communal in that persons, like the painting's figures, can dwell in it together. In his second chapter, Eastman links Romantic irony and vampirism, citing Kierkegaard's identification of the ironist as a vampire in his The Concept of Irony. This is an equation that runs throughout the book and has several dimensions. In this chapter, Eastman discusses the figure of the vampire in Pater's ekphrastic rendering of "La Gioconda," Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Vernon Lee's Hauntings. Then follow six chapters on individual authors: Henry James, Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Beckett, and Alan Hollinghurst. These chapters vary in scope: the chapter on Mansfield surveys her entire career while those on Waugh and Hollinghurst deal with single works, Brideshead Revisited and The Line of Beauty. In each chapter, Eastman wants to show that the author under discussion is, in fact, concerned with the attractions and dangers of aestheticism; under his exegesis, this concern often becomes a kind of story: so Mansfield initially embraces aestheticism and irony, rejects them in midcareer and later returns to aestheticism in a different form. In a final chapter, taking as his model Wilde's The Portrait of Mr. W.H., Eastman recounts his sighting in Italy of the "undead" Walter Pater—Pater as vampire—as the occasion to consider some contemporary versions of aestheticism, Zadie Smith's On Beauty for instance, and to reflect on whether beauty can ever fulfill its promise to make a better world.

This is an impressive range indeed. Other reviewers will be better qualified than I am to assess how much Eastman advances the scholarship on modernism as a movement, as well as that on the individual authors he treats. It does seem...


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pp. 406-410
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2021
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