- Fictions of Autonomy by Andrew Goldstone
What is gained for a work of art, and what is lost, in claiming that it is autonomous of worldly concerns? This pair of questions motivates Andrew Goldstone’s fascinating new study of modernist literary writing, which playfully expands on Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art to navigate beyond the impasse at which literary autonomy so frequently arrives. On the one hand, we have Adorno’s (or, less palatably, Pound’s) voracious formalism; on the other, the pessimistic determinism of many cultural materialist narratives—though, perhaps because this latter position somehow feels pervasive, it is difficult to think of scholars of whose work it would be an adequate account. But cultural determinism, Goldstone thinks, is an expression of critical bad faith in any case. Witness, for example, the virtuosic pragmatics of Franco Moretti, whose critical demystification insists on describing cultural phenomena as aggregations of form, to avoid abandoning to mere data any possible payoff. And witness, too, “close reading” ubiquitously exhibited as the USP of literary departments struggling to assert their own institutional autonomy, even and especially at a moment when the critical momentum seems to be pushing away from symptomatic, paranoid, deep, or otherwise intrusive reading practices. But Goldstone is no naïve autonomist, either, arguing that such a position risks a pedantic literalism that assumes modernists really thought their work had nothing to do with the world around them. Rather, he compellingly argues that modernist autonomy is not a supremacist ideology aimed at obliterating histories of labor, suffering, or contingency, but seeks instead a relative, and relatively minor, expression of collective independence. One needn’t be a Kantian to sympathize with writers trying to access a social space where the rules of the world might be thought, and felt, differently—and Goldstone’s tone, throughout his marvelously stylish prose, projects a critical, but generous, reassurance.
In addition to its crystal-clear expression and the eloquent precision of its own close readings, what makes Fictions of Autonomy sing is its author’s capacity to group authors in ways that somehow feel both intuitive and original. Adorno’s “lateness” graciously intersects with much of T. S. Eliot’s poetic career, preoccupied as the poet was with both the decay of his own body and with the need to assert a poetic personality that might better resist the depredations of time and tradition. Here we find an extraordinary, and wholly persuasive, collocation of Wallace Stevens and Paul de Man as fellow enthusiasts for the curious logical form of tautology, Goldstone not only uniting Harvardian New Criticism with its contestants from the Yale school, but (building on François Cusset’s admirable historiography) placing the [End Page 266] American event of “French Theory” within the capacious frame of modernist literary exceptionalism. I was less convinced that James Joyce and Djuna Barnes shared a model of cosmopolitanism, but was delighted nonetheless that the institutional forms to which Goldstone pays such close attention crisscross that other modern (and modernist) form, the nation state, and that important questions concerning the ethics of modernist cosmopolitanism are placed close to the heart of the drive to autonomize cultural production. An elegant chapter on Wilde’s complex relationship to domestic labor dispenses with the callow consensus that Victorian aestheticism merely abjured the problem of work in the pursuit of shinier pleasures.
I wondered whether the more capacious “modernity” might more aptly delimit the temporal claims that are explored here than does “modernism,” and whether Romanticists or Victorianists might not feel that the autonomizing forces of Blackwoods, the Cornhill, or the Germ are given too short shrift. While the author claims that he is interested only in “the meanings of modernist practices in their contemporary contexts” (11), the reader of Fictions of Autonomy is taken briskly from one microperiod to the next, left with the impression that Goldstone’s 1890s are categorically distinct from his 1900s. Is “modernist” really distinguished from “aestheticist” substantially? I would be interested to know whether aestheticism presupposed postmodernism—as Lyotard claimed to think—or vice versa; else whether Wildean...