Tag Archives: aesthetics

Sir Walter Scott – Waverly (1814)

Important as, in many ways, the frist historical novel. It tells the story of Edward Waverly, a rich, quixotic Englishman who finds himself involved in the failed Scottish uprising of 1745. The subtitle, “tis sixty years since” pins down the specific time and place of the story, which toggles between ROMANCE AND HISTORY. Late in the novel, after the Scottish forces attempting to restore Charles Edward to the throne are virtually vanquished, Waverly reflects, “with a sigh, that the romance of his life was ended, and that its real history had now commenced” (414 Penguin). The play between romance and history is crucial, and Scott is self-conscious about the creation of a literary artifact that positions itself as a Romantic intervention into a history that has already been told, officially. Despite the radical possibilities of imagining history otherwise, the romance of Scottish Highlanders is represented in the text as a representation, a painting that Waverly treat as a health sublimation of passion that he can dis-identify with even while drawing from it as a resource for his life as rich, vaguely conservative Englishman.

This isn’t to say that Scott is entirely conservative, or an English nationalist. Throughout, he portrays a gallantry and chivalry that transcends the disputes separating the Hanoverian and Stuart interests. Waverly can recognize in Colonel Talbot a physiognomy of nobel bearing even though he is his enemy.

Towards the end of the novel, Scott will rather clumsily insert his theory of narrative development, arguing for the novel’s great powers of characterological description. Scott will typically pair up characters similar enough to evoke their differences. Thus two small town officials–the politician Melville and the clergyman Morton–are both shown to be sympathetic, well-meaning interpreters of the law, but one is pessimistic while the other is more optimistic with regard to intention and human nature.

Charles Waverly can be connected to the long line of quixotic protagonists, from Quixote himself, to Crusoe, Catherine Morland, all the way up to Lord Jim. The chapter called “castle-building” is a good place to start conversations about architecture in relationship to imagination and history.

Further, one could say that the whole novel si a way of making it possible for Waverly not to be held accountable for his experiences. The sheer amount of luck, money and political maneuvering that allows him to be both Scottish and English, rebel and conservative, beings to point to the moneyed foundations of aesthetic experience tout court (connecting all the way with Forster’s “islands of money” on which the Schlegel sisters sit).

Read Scott in contrast to Austen. The former came to be considered a somewhat sloppy entertainer, while the latter was exalted as paragon of formal control. The former is more content, fact-based, while the latter was psychological, critical. in the former, there is a proliferation of languages and styles, while in the latter there is just Austen’s steady and refined free indirect discourse. But both can be seen as critics of Romanticism in certain ways: Scott levies a pretty serious critique of individualism along with social and political uprising. This pairs with Austen’s critique of sensibility in the character of Marianne Dashwood, etc.

Martin Amis – Money (1981)

The novel is narrated by John Self, a American-British screen-writer/film-producer, as he self-destructs in the transatlantic flow of Hollywood money. In short, it ends up that the script he is working on, alternatively called Good Money and Bad Money, is the story in which he is playing a part; his friend Fielding Goodney turns out to be playing him all along; the movie doesn’t exist; he has signed tons of loans and debts, etc. In short, we are in a world of simulacra, with money itself standing in as ur-symbol of exchangeability.

“My head is a city, and various pains have now taken up residence in various parts of my face.” A curious endpoint to all that modernist angst about the individual in the urban. Amis turns turns the table: John Self exclaims, “I’m not allergic to the the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century” (89). The point here is that relationships to the world of consumer goods is no longer defined in terms of resistance and consumption, but only between different types of consumption. We are beyond the point where we can still define ourselves as autonomous creatures navigating an external world, but rather as creatures that have become characters in a world only partially of our making: Television is working on us. Film is. We’re not sure how yet. We wait, and count the symptoms. There’s a realism problem, we all know that. TV is real! some people think” (332)

Martin Amis notoriously appears as a character in the novel. In the tradition of Murphy, John Self and Martin Amis battle it out in a chess match at the end of the novel. Much like Lemuel at the end of Malone Dies, Amis asserts cool control over his character, eluding both his attacks, on and off the chess board. For winning, Amis requires one thing that Self has, but never says what: it become obvious that it is nothing less than his identity, his self-hood.

Interesting to put in dialogue with Philip Larkin’s poems: both the “The Importance of Elsewhere” and “High Windows.” The latter is more obvious: Amis takes the vulgarity of the opening lines and strains to make them lyrical; unlike Larking, who turns to Lyric and dramatizes its hollowness or inexpressively. In Amis, the “deep blue” air is marred with pollution. In the “Importance of Elsewhere,” Larkin comments on the ease with which one can defy national customs while traveling–in one’s own country, it is much harder to both gain objective stance and take the personal risk of resistance or critique. In Amis’ novel, the United States is a necessary elsewhere for defining the postmodern condition. Curious how this recapitulates earlier transatlantic anxieties as detailed by Alex Zwerdling in “Transatlantic Slinging Match.” In short: americans “use” the polis of Europe to produce Modernism, consolidating a “Europe” that subsumes any smaller differences. But in the post-modern these differences will again falir up, only to be subsumed again, one could argue, in the Blair-Bush years. And then we can move to McEwan writing about the 2003 Iraq war protest in Saturday.

Virginia Woolf – The Waves (1931)

Ongoing Post:

A curiously de-politicized Woolf, according to many. A novel that pushes the experiment of diffusive personality to such an extreme that “time and place” are obliterated almost completely. The title of the first draft was “The Life of Anybody,” pointing to the potentially formal qualities of art to wrench themselves from subjective content to the degree that any human can enter its structures. Yet the political reading has been offered by some: perhaps Woolf is toying with the idea of political collectivity, the potential for an individual to find meaning in larger wholes that are not immediately subsumed by identifiable institutions, or ossified into social groups with determinate programs. No matter how we read, it is clear that what binds the six characters together (it is a question whether this is critical or not) is their shared national, economic and racial coordinates. Perhaps Woolf is showing the sun set on the British Empire itself, as it self-destructs in and through its colonial enterprises. Rhoda does, after all, jump from the rock Gibraltar, the extreme edge of the british empire….

The opening lines disrupt traditional forms of representation: “The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it.” In the chorus-like interludes that punctuate the main narrative, these wrinkles, which grow into waves and  return to the vast ocean, take on a life that is meant to signify the “mirrors” tendency to move–i.e. the sea is not merely a reflection of the sky, but it has its own capacity to move: Despite the dispersal of identity, individual characters do take up different affective attitudes towards the interpenetration of subjectivity: Rhoda is inclined to resist any attempt to  shape her or overtake her…to her, the dinner party is a battle field of the social. She loves, envies, hates, etc. but she never “joins” her friends willingly. She “fears embraces.” Bernard, on the other hand, feels the violence of becoming separate, differentiated. He likes the formless.

The plurality of perspectives in The Waves gets subsumed under the single voice of Bernard in the final chapter. As the only straight British male in the group, he is the most conventional heir to literary authority. Further, he tells his story to an unnamed listener while on a boat to Africa, recalling the narrators of Conrad and Ford. This form of literary Imperialism counterpoints and imitates the political imperial project of Percival (who utters only the Everlasting “No” tied to destructive impulses, etc.). The argument could be made that the seemingly deracinated style of The Waves is only a stylistic effect of the suppression of plot and characters: the small-scale violence between consciousness, in language, etc. are connected to the political violence that make this sort of interpersonal dream possible at all. That is, we can read this text symptomatically because it seems to ask for it…. [Cf. Lacan, etc.]

That is to say, The Waves is not a poetic retreat, but something very much like Adorno’s Lyric, which in and through its attempt to express a utopian dream, dramatizes its impossibility.

TIME: Instead of the husk of time swallowing up Septimus, bernard experiences a “drop of time” on his head while shaving. Rather than shock precipitating time’s uninhibited victory, which obliterates psychological boundaries, the scene of Bernard’s shaving (shave, shave, shave) dramatizes habit’s uncanny ability to draw attention to those forms of time’s passing which escape habit’s ordering structures. “I have lost my youth,” he says to himself.

Philip Larkin – Poems (1955-1974)

Larkin, along with Amis, Conquest, Gunn, and others, were a group post-war authors christened “The Movement.” Conquest described their mantra as “little more than a negative determination to avoid bad principles,” which is an obvious continuation of Auden’s project: the destruction of error. Larkin’s paired down lyricism–a lyric stunted by discontent and a hyper-active reality principle–is clear in the tight but flexible verse forms, often with minute variations that do not draw attention to themselves. Ironically, Kingsley Amis’s rollicking Lucky Jim  was partially inspired by Larkin’s life, which points to the forms of severe restraint imposed on the expression of emotion–not so much fro the sake of restraint (a la Eliot and Pound) but because of the realization that lyric expressiveness is hollow.

This marks out his difference with Auden. Auden never attempts the honest transparency of Larkin’s expressive attempts (failing not because, like Prufrock, he cannot find the words and take the action, but because he finds the words and they still fail to matter), but holds in secret an identity protected at all costs from systems that might otherwise subsume it. Auden puts the self in question, but in secret: Larkin’s self-deprecation stages this questioning as it central image.

“Church Going” (1955) is a poem about, the way churches (synecdoche for institutional religion) no longer function to unify the basic stages of human life–birth, marriage, death–but how humans till return to these hollowed out skeletons compelled by the sense of a lost unity that needs repair. The speaker stops as a tourist, and failing to be satisfied as a tourists, asks, “What remains when disbelief is gone?” What stands between belief and unbelief? A difference worthy of Hardy poem–the speaker, like the one in Hap, Darkling Thrush and Neutral Tones, yearns for a substantial system that he can negate….but to no avail. Yet something very much like an objective “neediness of the world” (Adorno) persists over and above individual loss of faith:

And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to  be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie around.

If Church Going is commenting on a contemporary lack, then “MCMXIV” (1964), which translates into 1914, pinpoints the loss of innocence as World War I: “Never such innocence again,” the poem closes. The opening line, “Those long uneven lines,” refers to the lines of men waiting to be conscripted, which doubles etymologically with the act of writing itself (script). Throughout Larkin, this sense of lost innocence is repeated again and again; it correlates with the loss of structures that would order everyday activity. So, for instance, “The Importance of Elsewhere,” comments on the difficulty of ascending to an objective viewpoint in relation to “customs and establishments.” In England, “no elsewhere underwrites my existence.” The impossibility of appeal to something beyond.

In “High Windows” (1974), Larkin attempts to link the current generation of youth’s attempts to mark out its own possibilities and opportunities (the sexual revolution of the sixties) to his generation’s attempt to escape the dread of religion. But the particularity of these two experiences, divided by thirty years, cannot be related, or sublated into a universal idea that would explain how each generation acts. The entrance of the lyric voice in the fifth stanza is empty:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows,
The sun-comprehending grass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

The fiction of the lyric. The deep blue does not connect with broader network of religious symbolism, but merely signifies the lack of representation all together (shows nothing). “Sun-comprehending grass” marks out a pathetic fallacy for the 20th century.




T.S. Eliot – The Four Quartets (1936-41)

Ongoing post:

Frist the title–each poem is a quartet, but the whole thing is also a quartet of sorts. If the whole thing is a quartet, then the “four” is tautologous. Throughout the poem, Eliot will play with tautology, equivalence and difference: ends are beginnings, etc. Also, the “quartets” have five parts each, like the Waste Land. Could the think of the larger four as subsuming the individual fives: from synthesis and progress, to symmetry and order, etc.

Burnt Norton

“All time is unredeemable”: what “might have been” can only be registered as an echo in the rose garden–the past, present and future are one solid whole, which we cannot comprehend, but that nevertheless determines our existence. Past and Future press so hard one on the other that there is room “for little consciousness.” The presentness has a spatial analog–the stillness in the midst of a swirling world. This limited epistemological envelop comprises the limits of our language: poetry, for Eliot, is always too late, and words, once established, will never stay. Art, in other words, is subject to the processes of life and decay that our bodies are subject to.

East Coker

A more earthy section, that talks about seasons while trying out various styles of poetry (Olde English, Vorticists) before admitting that these are all just attempts that always fail. Living “entre les deux-geurres,” Eliot claims that every attempt at poety is a new and fresh attempt bereft of former accomplishments–“a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment.” Curious, given the resonance of  The Waste Land throughout. The past, even if does not stay put as a tool for use, reamins that from which we cannot escape even as we continue to lose it.

The Dry Salvages

Draws attention to the changes of the human–not the same when they leave the station, etc. Focuses on image sof water and the sea. Despite being composed while being bombed, the poem is surprisingly hopeful. Connect imagery of boat and drowning to the the “Death by Water” section (the poem that wasn’t written), but also to the image of the boat guided by the craftsman at the end of the Waste Land.

Little Gidding

Circularity and fire are brought together in this final poem, that connects with imagery from Burnt Norton. The image of stillness in the middle of a circulating world is born out as paradigmatic poetic practice. it maintains the tension that runs throughout the poem: between time utterly lost and time redeemed, etc.


humility of thought (cf. Heidegger)

stillness in circle (cf. Yeats)

circular exploration (cf. Molloy)

inter-penetration of the seasons (cf. The Waste Land)

experimental nature of all language (M-P, Ulysses, early modernism)

the little space for consciousness (between past and present)



Edmund Burke – “An Introduction on Taste,” in A Philosophic Enquiry (1759)

Page numbers refer to Oxford World’s Classics (2008)

The 1759 edition included an introductory section on the concept of Taste. Burke believes that we can derive a universal standard of taste by carefully observing the passions and the way external actions affect our bodies (the corporeal-erotic aspect of Burke is palpable). In the Preface to the second edition, he expresses hope that an analysis of taste will recur on the “severer sciences” and consequently inflect them with its graces, etc (6). Just curious because for Burke, taste becomes a very loss and usable term, accomplishing much of what Kant hoped it would, but by less complicated means.

TASTE: For Burke, taste is the faculty of mind that forms judgments about the works of imagination. Curiously, imagination will also be the thing that is affected, and he wants to bring together the imagination with reason. He begins by positing that everyone agrees about basic physical tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. And then moves to say that everyone agrees about their metaphorical applications (sweet and sour dispositions, bitter remark, etc.). In the biological sphere, someone claiming that honey is sour is considered wrong, but somehow “vitiated” or “mad” (14). The move to the metaphoric (a part from being the weak link in Burke’s argument) signals the move to the Imagination, for which he claims a congruence with the senses. In the imagination, our sensations get converted into representations. Yes, HUME is important here. And for this reason, Burke’s examples focus in differences in degree…how to judge a smoother or rougher table, while the relative beauty of these characteristics goes unquestioned.  Nevertheless, his tripartite definition of taste–immediate sensual pleasure, secondary representative pleasure of imagination, and the conclusions of reasoning faculty–point towards the sequences of both Kant and Schiller. The difference is that Kant will rigorously distinguish between the sensual and rational aspects of the human. For Burke, there is simply a process of degree. In Kant, there is chasm that needs to be bridged. Burke does offer his own curious categories: lack of sensibility leads to dull taste while lack of judgment leads to bad taste. Thus taste is not a faculty of judgment, but rather something which judgment, associated with reason, regulates (mark the difference with Kant). In fact, judgment can even impede taste, or what Burke sometime calls “the imagination.” But, paradoxically, the cultivation of taste can also recur on judgment, improving it.  The point here is that taste, in Burke, is not a separate faculty, but merely a mode or inflection of reason, understanding, or the imagination. Obviously Burke is less rigorous than Kant, but for this reason, he gets some good work done.




William Morris – The Lesser Arts (1877, 1882)

Originally a lecture with the title “The Decorative Arts,” given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London, 1877.

Opens with a sentiment consonant with News from Nowhere: neither laments the past, nor despises the present, nor despairs the future…but believes that all the current activity is merely life itself moving toward the betterment of mankind. The lecture explains why the decorative arts are integral to this historical process. In short, they “beautify the familiar matters of everyday life” (234). Morris draws no distinction between the forms of art and the forms of any human product: all must be either beautiful or ugly. Referencing Ruskin’s “Nature of the Gothic,” Morris claims that we should reject the “curse  of labor” thesis, and rather say that labor has become a curse only because of the artificial separation between art and work, which has degraded “the lesser arts” to mere mechanism and “the greater arts” to mere frivolous non-utility.

Morris is not calling for a return to a childish past, in which beautiful things were unconsciously made. Though history itself can be read in these quotidian forms, he does not call for a negative “unconscious intelligence” but rather a “new art of conscious intelligence” (241). Nature and History should be the teachers. Indeed, in 2102, Morris believes that the concept of nature will disappear all together, no longer able to be defined in contrast to a human that somehow would use it for ends exterior to it. History needs to be conceived from the dialectically mediated present. The restoration movement gets this wrong: they hypostasize a romanticized past and seek to patch over the real history that the centuries of “repairs” bear in themselves. [Curious dialogue could be conceived between Morris, Victor Hugo, Jude Fawley, and Jacob Flanders.]

Of course, this means that art loses its status as “useless” or “purposeless”: Morris writes, “nothing can be a work of art which is not useful.” His qualification isn’t enough to make this statement any less strange: “that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, ot which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate in a healthy state” (251). Simply put, the agreeable, the beautiful and the sublime are all lumped together, as is the mind and the body, work and rest, etc… Sympathetic to all this, but Morris needs to engage the history of aesthetics a bit more, perhaps. He also reverses the relation between taste and life. In Kant, the faculty of taste precedes the feeling life. In Morris, “Simplicity of life, begetting simplicity of taste…is of all matters most necessary for the birth of the new and better art we crave for; simplicity everywhere, in the palace as well as in the cottage” (251). One wonders whether the palace reference is a nod to Kant….