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    The History of Beauty

    Part 3

    Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Week 12


    Week 9 -- March 5, 1996

    Required Reading:

    George Eliot, Adam Bede

    Related:

    Ismay Barwell, "Feminine Perspective and Narrative Points of View" in Hein/Korsmeyer pp. 93-104

    Realism and Beauty in the Novel

    Most of our considerations of beauty thus far have been based in a metaphysics; the ideal of beauty is informed by a supreme being or good that lies beyond experience. Consequently, ideals of beauty have been represented in language through figurative devices that are not reducible to reason or empirical understanding. Beauty has been the goal to which language, and especially poetic language points but, significantly, cannot capture. We have also noted the ways in which philosophers and artists -- literary and otherwise -- have used the figure of woman to represent the ideal of beauty. The image of a beautiful woman, supposedly, carries with it the connotative significance to inspire the viewer/audience toward the beautiful and the good -- the true. We have recognized the ways in which the female as object of beauty limits or genders the perspective of the viewer, and consequently challenges the notion of universality, which is so important to aesthetic judgment.

    Today's reading challenges the metaphysics of beauty in another way. George Eliot adopts an aesthetic of realism, suggesting that the beauty of the ideal does not exist, and that the representation of the real, in contrast, is more authentic -- true -- and thus morally superior. After you read the novel, consider the following questions. Keep in mind the ways in which the narrator and the narrative construct the beautiful.


    Week 10 -- March 19

    Required Reading:

    Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

    Recommended:

    Sheppard, Chapter 9, "Art and Morals" pp. 135-154

    Dandy and Decadent: The Immorality of Beauty

    Oscar Wilde brought the philosophies of Aestheticism, most notably of Ruskin and Pater, to their logical conclusion in his lived credo that life imitates art. His own aphoristic world-view is clearly represented in the classic novel of decadence, The Picture of Dorian Gray (PDG) In the novel, as in his life, the pursuit of the experience of beauty supersedes all other priorities, but beauty, as it is conceived here, is completely severed from morality. The ethical idealism embodied in the beauty of Ruskin and Pater is imprisoned in Wildean irony and paradox. Rather than find the referent for truth and beauty in a metaphysical reality or irreducible human nature, Wilde's concept of art and beauty is entirely self-reflexive. Art exists for art's sake, and not for a higher moral purpose. The pursuit of art and beauty is the highest pleasure, but it is not moral. In this way, Wilde's art -- the witty, urbane aesthetic novel of late-Victorian decadence overlying the sinister, erotic, double-life of corruption and vice -- represents the culmination of nineteenth-century discourses on beauty. PDG rejects the vulgarity of realism as it embraces and revises the sensuality and idealism of aestheticism with a cynical irony that looks forward to modernism.


    Week 11 -- March 26

    Required Reading:

    Friedrich Nietzsche, "The Birth of Tragedy" in Hofstadter and Kuhns

    William B. Yeats, Selected Poems

    • "The Stolen Child" (12)
    • "The Rose of the World" (25)
    • "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" (28)
    • "When you are old" (29)
    • "The Song of Wandering Aengus" (44)
    • "The Secret Rose" (54)
    • "The Arrow" (59)
    • "Adam's Curse" (61)
    • "No Second Troy" (68)
    • "Pardon Old Father's if..." (76)
    • "When Helen Lived" (84)
    • "The Realists" (93)
    • "To a Child Dancing in the Wind" (94)
    • "A Coat" (99)

    Beauty in the Post-Romantic Antinomies

    Technically we take a step back in chronology by reading Nietzsche's text here, but although "The Birth of Tragedy" was first published in 1872, the English translation did not appear until 1910. Yeats was introduced to the philosophy of Nietzsche in 1902, and therein discovered exciting affinities. Beauty no longer symbolizes a unity based in metaphysics; instead, in both Nietzsche and Yeats we find beauty as one force in the dialectic of life, which ultimately has a tragic view. The end of life is death, and no more. Art -- music for Nietzsche and poetry for Yeats -- offers the only meaningful protection and salvation from despair. Beauty becomes in these theories tangible and powerful, but forever embattled with the contrary forces also expressed in art. As you read the philosophy and poetry, consider how each writer conceives of art and what role and function it serves.


    Week 12 -- April 2

    Required Reading:

    Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (Chaps. 1-5) on Reserve

    Selected Poems: (Reserve: "Women Poets)

    Muriel Rukeyser "The Birth of Venus" (Reserve)

    Judith Wright "Eve to her Daughters," "Naked Girl and Mirror" (Reserve)

    Gwendolyn Brooks "The Womanhood," "Queen of the Blues" (Reserve)

    Denise Levertov "In Mind," and "The Mutes" (Selected Readings)

    Postmodern Aesthetic and the Recuperation of the Feminine

    The readings for this week bring our study full-circle. When we read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, we questioned the viability and power of universal beauty, what we can now identify as classical beauty (pace Plato, Burke, Kant etc.). Morrison and Walker decentered the hegemonic (ruling) notion of beauty by posing an alternative from a marginal perspective -- the valorization of the Other, the African-American, the funky, the everyday and the useful. Naomi Schor begins with the recognition that in contemporary culture the marginal or the insignificant has gained a powerful place in aesthetics, and she terms this alternative the "detail." She traces the history of the detail -- the concrete, the immanent, the factual, the real, the ornamental -- through the same aesthetic territory we have just covered, but where we have studied Burke, she discusses Reynolds; we studied Kant, she discusses Hegel; we studied Nietzsche, she discusses Freud. The detail is always for Schor bound up with the feminine and the female. While we learned how the detail, or the feminine, has been subjugated to the transcendent, universal notions of the ideal, she emphasizes the ambivalent place that the detail and the feminine have held in traditional Western aesthetics.

    Schor's text assumes a vast amount of particular knowledge, and she makes little attempt to synthesize matters for us. She intends this in part to demonstrate the liberating anarchy of a "detailed" analysis in comparison to the seamless, organic scholarship of the transcendent. However, it makes for difficult, if suggestive, reading. Try not to get too caught up in the details (unless, like Roland Barthes, you take pleasure in it) and aim to understand the broad drift of her arguments, as well as the pointed questions she raises. Toward that end I have identified some of the major ideas of relevance for our study.


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