Radical aestheticism describes a recurring event in some of the most powerful and resonating texts of nineteenth-century British literature, offering us the best way to reckon with what takes place at certain moments in texts by Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Rossetti, and Wilde. This book explores what happens when these writers, deeply committed to certain versions of ethics, politics, or theology, nonetheless produce an encounter with a radical aestheticism that subjects the authors’ projects to a fundamental crisis.
A radical aestheticism offers no positive claims for art, whether on ethical or political grounds or on aesthetic grounds, as in “art for art’s sake.” It provides no transcendent or underlying ground for art’s validation. In this sense, a radical aestheticism is the experience of a poesis that exerts so much pressure on the claims
and workings of the aesthetic that it becomes a kind of black hole from which no illumination is possible. The radical aestheticism encountered in these writers, in its very extremity, takes us to the constitutive elements—the figures, the images, the semblances—that are at the root of any aestheticism, an encounter registered as
evaporation, combustion, or undoing. It is, therefore, an undoing by and of art and aesthetic experience, one that leaves this important literary tradition in its wake.
Art’s Undoing embraces diverse theoretical projects, from Walter Benjamin to Jacques Derrida. These become something of a parallel text to its literary readings, revealing how some of the most significant theoretical and philosophical projects of our time remain within the wake of a radical aestheticism.
“Art’s Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism proposes a stunning
alternative to our habit of thinking of the work of art as an occasion for
heightened vision or temporary respite. Like the mind-blowing opening lines of
many of Dickinson’s poems, Pyle’s radical aestheticism undoes the apotropaic
function usually assigned to art and understands poetry not as a domain
offering and requiring protection from encroaching forces but as a darkness making event and as the ‘unwilled’ imposition of a sensuous apprehension. In this brilliant, beautifully written work of literary criticism that promises to leave its own readers exquisitely undone, Forest Pyle unthreads Shelley, Keats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Rossetti, and Wilde into figures, reflections, traces, and lines that, unlike the Medusa’s face, will never resolve themselves into a single, readable, and hence pierce-able image.”
University of California, Berkeley
A range of theoretical projects are considered in a survey recommended for any advanced literary analysis and philosophy holding.
“This is one of the most powerful and subtle books I’ve read on nineteenth-century literature in decades. It’s searching, meticulous, and wide-ranging as it pursues its novel, overarching thesis. Pyle brings into striking relief what is powerful and problematic in an important strain of nineteenth-century literature, setting its poetry in motion all over again.”