- Ascetic Aesthetics
Timothy Costelloe usefully characterizes the unique constellation of ideas canvassed by these three studies of eighteenth-century aesthetic theory and practice as “a search for some common feature or quality in the nature of things and/or the [End Page 117] structure of human beings, which, once discovered, might unlock the door to understanding aesthetic experience” (131). While recent years have witnessed a flurry of monographs dedicated to both eighteenth-century aestheticism and Enlightenment philosophy, few have thoughtfully attended to the transdiscursive circulation of aesthetic categories in contiguous areas such as republican politics, imperialist expansion, and leisure practice. Taken collectively, the three works considered here make a substantive contribution to such interdisciplinary developments, framing investigations of aesthetic experience within larger eighteenth-century epistemological questions concerning the origin of human cognition and the structural limits of human thought. Unlike some studies in the past, Gordon Campbell’s The Hermit in the Garden, Tony Brown’s The Primitive, the Aesthetic, and the Savage, and Timothy Costelloe’s The British Aesthetic Tradition refuse generalized homological connections between aestheticism and related knowledges, insisting instead on a rigorous attention to the specific argumentative parameters governing aesthetic theory and Enlightenment philosophy. The result is a bevy of suggestive and, indeed, dazzling observations on eighteenth-century modes of thought. Taken together, these texts delineate what we might identify as an aesthetics of ascetics, an understanding of aesthetic experience as a conceptual bridge suturing humanity’s engagement with the precognitive world that is grounded in the uniquely liminal status of the eighteenth-century hermit.
Campbell offers a fascinating account of the garden hermit from late antiquity to the present day. Placing an especial stress on the tradition of the Georgian hermit in England, Scotland, and Ireland, the initial chapters trace the ubiquity of the figure from Queen Caroline’s Richmond hermitage and Cobham’s Stowe hermitage in the early part of the century through to the hermit’s decline in the early part of the nineteenth century. In chapter three, Campbell extends his scope to provide evidence of not only imaginary hermits, whose “presence was indicated by furnishings, and temporary absence by objects such as eyeglasses or a book left on the table,” but also “corporeal hermits,” men hired to fill the requisite role by landowners whose artificial hermitages remained yet in desuetude (56). Aside from the novelty of such outlandish examples, what will be of particular interest to scholars of eighteenth-century cultural history are Campbell’s observations on the provenance of the garden hermit. That said, coupling Campbell’s genealogy with Brown’s suggestive discussion of the primitive and Costelloe’s meticulous accounting of the British aesthetic tradition does find The Hermit in Garden reluctant to address a much larger set of cultural questions posed by these eremitical icons.
While the theoretical register of The Primitive, the Aesthetic, and the Savage will invariably alienate certain readers (couched as it is in a fairly rigorous poststructuralist framework), Brown’s book offers an all too rare example of contemporary critical theory brought to bear on a meticulously historicized account of how eighteenth-century thinkers, confronted with the troubling difference of putatively New World cultures, sought to conceptualize non-European communities. Such a task presents the inescapable figure of the primitive as an epistemological aporia that breaches the “anthropological security,” or stable sense of self-in-the-world, of European subjectivity (xii). Over the course of his first three chapters, Brown explains how the challenge posed by thinking the primitive occasions the aesthetic, which is in turn acted out through the figure of the savage (xvii). Focusing on what he calls in his subtitle “An Enlightenment Problematic,” Brown laudably moves discussion of self–other relations beyond the strictly demarcated realms of race, nation, and culture into that...