- Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism: Continuities, Revisions, Speculations ed. by Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer, and Christine Reynier
“CURSE WITH FORCE OF WHIRLWIND THE BRITANNIC AESTHETE.” So says Wyndham Lewis in BLAST, in one of the most conspicuous of the myriad feints by which many modernists worked to conceal their debts to Victorian aestheticism. In their new edited volume, Bénédicte Coste, Catherine Delyfer, and Christine Reynier add to work by scholars like Vincent Sherry and Rita Felski—to name only two particularly well-known voices among many others—in conceptualizing modernism as an elaboration on, rather than a repudiation of, the formal self-consciousness and the historical, sexual, and ideological preoccupations of the fin de siècle. The editors’ Introduction provides a useful overview of the relevant critical literature. Given, though, their evident awareness of the wealth of research on the topic, it is puzzling to hear them assert that “with aestheticism having disappeared from the historical and literary radar, the opposition between Victorianism and modernism has consequently solidified” (4). As their own bibliography attests, this is an overstatement. In fact, the literature is large and growing. Besides Sherry and Felski, a partial list of relevant critics includes Jessica Feldman, Cassandra Laity, and Douglas Mao, not to mention earlier important works “reconnecting aestheticism and modernism,” such as Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image (1957) and Perry Meisel’s The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (1980).
While there is in fact no shortage of criticism on modernism’s relationship to aestheticism, only about half of the fourteen essays in this volume are explicitly concerned with the topic. These mostly appear in the first of the book’s three sections, which reiterates the title: “Connecting Aestheticism and Modernism.” Tina O’Toole’s opening essay discusses the largely forgotten work of George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne Bright), whose short fiction from the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century explored Irish life in a vein not dissimilar to James Joyce’s Dubliners. Discussing tensions and perceived overlaps between the New Woman and the prostitute, O’Toole finds Egerton investigating the possibilities of (and the limitations imposed upon) the flâneuse. O’Toole’s focus on character types highlights one of the most important aspects of aestheticism’s career from the nineteenth century into the twentieth: it is often attached to a particular kind of personality, such as the dandy or the flâneur. And her emphasis on gender ideology reminds us that attention to what Felski has influentially called “the gender of modernity” remains indispensable to any account of aestheticism in modernism.
Elisa Bizzotto’s fine contribution makes the case that Arthur Symons ought to be more than a footnote to modernist literature. As she tells it, Symons is a crucial figure for everything from the popularization of Nietzsche among the British intelligentsia to the formulation of an “aesthetic system” anticipatory of T. S. Eliot’s famous account of the supposed seventeenth-century “dissociation of sensibility”—a “dissociation” much of modernism’s formal energies work to put right again. Bizzotto also finds Symons extending Pater’s version of the classicism/romanticism dichotomy, a project that (though she doesn’t say so) would go on to have major stakes for [End Page 882] T. E. Hulme and his circle. The remaining essays in this section round out the picture of aestheticist reception. Rainer Emig explores the modernist inheritance, by Eliot and Ezra Pound, of metaphors of waste and excess from decadence proper (his chapter makes a useful complement to Vincent Sherry’s important, recent book, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence [Cambridge, 2015]). Sandra Meyer provides an interesting account of Wilde’s reception in fin-de-siècle Vienna. And Lene Østermark-Johansen offers a compelling study of Woolf’s Orlando as influenced by Pater’s “Prince of Court Painters” in the Imaginary Portraits.
The second cluster, “Revising Assumptions about Aestheticism and Modernism,” opens with a truly excellent essay by Rebecca Bowler and Scott McCracken on...