Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures
Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard University Press, 2018
Hardcover. 279 pages. ISBN: 978-0674986466. $35
Reviewed by Catherine Bernard
Université Paris Diderot
The legacy of the critical wars that have been waged in the name of literature have, in the past twenty years, become an object of critical interest as such. As early as 2002, Jean-Michel Rabaté was wondering what the “future of theory” might hold; numerous volumes have since explored what new critical horizons might be in the offing, among which one might mention Julian Wolfreys’ New Critical Thinking. Criticism to Come published in 2017. The successive forms of literary “studies” have all aimed at uncovering literature’s complex task, its specific mode of address and the way it works upon our emotions, as well as our understanding of reality and of power structures. An important intervention in the debate has been Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique in which the feminist critic unpicked the logic behind what, to her, has characterized literary criticism since the 1960s and even before the rise of structuralism and post-structuralism, i.e. a hermeneutics of suspicion (the expression is Paul Ricœur’s) that teaches us to read with a suspicious mind, between the lines and behind the words. The Limits of Critique expanded on Felski’s previous reflexions on what critical reading might be “after suspicion,” an expression she introduced in a 2009 article.
In most of these recent debates on the future of criticism, the mechanisms and function of aesthetics have featured prominently, if only to probe literature’s capacity to look within and be self-reflexive even as it looks out and engages with reality and ideological structures. As its title makes clear, Timothy Aubry’s Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures confronts the issue frontally and foregrounds – we might say rehabilitates – aesthetics as the very locus of literature’s power. A mere defense of aesthetics would however yield little insight into the production of literary meaning and the main interest of Aubry’s essay lies in its capacity to read together aesthetics and hermeneutics, thus subsuming the accepted opposition between intuition and intelligence, readerly pleasure and critical understanding. In order to explore the specific logic of literary aesthetics the essay historicizes the place of aesthetics in the history of literary criticism, so doing embracing a vast tract of that history, from New Criticism to the advent of ideological readings of literature.
Along the five chapters of his essay, Aubry aims at tracing “the aesthetic unconscious”  of critical reading and the unavowed resurgence of aesthetics even in the most programmatically political readings. So doing, the essay offers an invigorating survey of the suppressed paradoxes of much of literary criticism, and discloses the lasting presence and influence of aesthetics: “while political and ideological questions have been the conscious focus of much literary scholarship over the past several decades, aesthetic pleasure has served as its unacknowledged motive” . Central to Aubry's argument is the necessity to override the simple tension between what might be considered as politically enlightened aesthetics and stale and politically unsound formal options: “it is necessary to resist the temptation […] to treat our different criteria as collapsible into one, to assume that a satisfying aesthetic effect necessarily entails a salutary contribution to the political sphere or that an attachment to a reactionary politics automatically makes a work unpalatable at all levels, including formally” . He intends thus to disentangle the aesthetic from the ideological while bringing to light the unavowed and often contradictory power of aesthetics in our experience of the literary including when literature is at its most political; he argues “for the aesthetic as a distinct experience and mode of evaluation” while “search[ing] for it in unlikely places, recognizing it as always enmeshed with other agendas, appearing under false pretences, often hidden or disguised within institutional projects or initiatives that claim a more practical purpose” .
The foundational moment of that history remains New Criticism and the essay loops back to it as to the unsurpassed moment that laid down the language of literary formalism. Not that Aubry’s essay should be read as in any way nostalgic of that age of formalism. New Criticism serves rather as a landmark in the history of criticism in reference to which later treatments of literary form are assessed. One of the invaluable merits of Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures lies in its clear-sighted evaluation of New Criticism’s legacy, and specifically its celebration of paradox as of the essence of literariness. But rather than embracing New Criticism’s belief in the autonomy of literature, Aubry historicizes the role and forms of aesthetics, by placing the distrust of aesthetic pleasure within the institutional context of higher education and its utilitarian turn. Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures may thus also be read as a history both of the place of the humanities in higher education and of the institutional implementation of critical tastes and priorities: “aesthetic criteria – the standards that dictate which sensations, perceptions, and modes of contemplation become a source of pleasure” are treated “as the product of contingent historical developments” , among which the necessity for university to cater to the job market remains no doubt the most influential one.
Chapter one – “The Intellectual Critics and the Pleasures of Complexity” – rereads New Criticism against the backdrop of that momentous institutional evolution, underlying that “the central goal of the New Critics was to establish a secure disciplinary setting that could insulate and nurture the careful reading of literature within an American social climate otherwise hostile to such ostensibly impratical pursuits”  as the reading and analysis of poetry. By elaborating a method towards the analysis of the unparaphrasable language of literature, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Cleanth Brooks aimed both at shielding literature from the dictates of utilitarianism and at perfecting a set of specialist skills that implicitly vied with the technical language of science. The very knowledge of literature was thus shown to be so unique that it could claim to offer an unrivalled access to reality and experience: “Poetry, in other words, represents phenomena that are by definition non repeatable and thereby produces a kind of knowledge resistant to verification via scientific methods” . The metaphor of resistance was to prove resilent since it has, Aubry argues in the rest of the essay, been one of the most powerful ones to understand the work of literature and of its ambiguities, thus establishing the lasting legacy of New Criticism. Just as crucially, it is the New Critics’ exaltation of poetry – specifically the Metaphysical Poets – and of its transfiguration of the banal that was, for Aubry, to pave the way for later critical emphases on the mundane or the overlooked, as was to be the case with New Historicism.
Chapter two – “Appetite for Deconstruction” – as might be expected, turns to deconstruction. The emphasis placed by deconstruction on the paradoxical nature of intelligibility, as evinced in Paul de Man’s, J.H. Miller’s or Barbara Johnson’s texts, seems to build on New Criticism’s heritage, even as it also aims at undoing linguistic power structures. Thus are the politics of deconstruction harnessed to a poetics of ambiguity and double entendre in which Aubry reads a suppressed aesthetic pleasure that does not say its name, the strategy of the deconstructionists serving “a less obvious agenda: namely finding a new justification for a particular set of aesthetic pleasures centered on irony, ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox” . A good case in point, according to him, is also Roland Barthes, whom he defines as “a forefather and fellow traveler of the deconstructionists”  and whose poetics of “radical liberation and revolt”  and textual pleasure should rather be read as literally also promoting a “guilty aesthetic pleasure”.
Chapter three – “New Historicism and the Aesthetics of the Archive” – turns to New Historicism and explores anew the hermeneutics of the everyday already adumbrated in chapter one. With their emphasis on archival research and recontextualisation, the New Historicists inflect New Criticism’s poetics of ambiguity, yet do not turn their backs on it, their “approach [being] shaped by an aesthetic of the rough, the fragmented, the myriad, the unpredictable and the opaque” . The emphasis on strangeness thus conceals an aesthetics of transfiguration that makes for readerly pleasure in ways that seem to directly echo the New Critics and that seems almost at odds with Stephen Grenblatt’s or Catherine Gallagher’s initial intent: “it is not merely that the New Historicists aestheticize history; history serves as the very means of smuggling back in the aesthetic values that the turn to history was purportedly designed to banish” . Recontextualizing the turn to history, Aubry also pertinently insists on the way literary criticism thus attempts to respond to the marginalisation of literary studies by indirectly appropriating the lessons of the New Critics: “What makes New Historicism such a persuasive advocate for English studies is its ability to apply and reapply the technique of close reading to a seemingly limitless range of situations and materials” .
Chapters four and five turn to case studies: Nabokov’s Lolita – “Lolita and the Stakes of Form” – and Toni Morrison’s Beloved – “Why is Beloved So Universally Beloved?,” two texts chosen for the way they seem to occupy symmetrical sites in the canon of contemporary literature. In both cases, Aubry is intent on showing how the ethics or politics of the text is inscribed in the very irresolution and paradoxes of form, such undecidability fostering an aesthetic pleasure whose status is itself undecided. Lolita offers possibly the best example of such a contradiction, with its laying bare of the ethics of self-satisfaction and its questioning of the reader’s own pleasure: “Lolita’s […] refusal to resolve questions about the moral consequences of aesthetic commitments, is arguably central to the act of valorization that it performs for literary scholars” . Almost symmetrically, Beloved’s self-reflexive approach to the task of fiction folds back its political aim onto its aesthetic workings. The unresolvable tension at the heart of Morrison’s work of mourning paradoxically activates responses that deny political closure; and yet, that very sense of indeterminacy itself may eventually, as the New Critics meant to prove, “discover in the work a unified purpose” .
One may at times harbour the impression that, in order to make his case, Aubry does not shy from making the antagonism between formalism and ideological criticism more radical than it in fact is; but the ambition of the analysis and its scope, as the rich bibliography shows, make of Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures an important addition to the current debate on the relevance of criticism and its capacity to renew itself and open new horizons. Its conclusion, which turns to the recent paradigm of readerly solace, as very recently analysed in David James’ essay Discrepant Solace (2019), testifies to the capacity of literary criticism to relentlessly rethink the work of writing and the ever-changing varieties of pleasure it elicits in the reader. Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures will give invaluable food for thought to anyone who wants to ponder the intricacies of the critical wars that have been fought in defense of the literary, but also those who want to understand the state of literary studies in contemporary academia. Both invigorating in its capacity to address important and complex theoretical issues, and often exhilarating in its embrace of critical complexities, it offers one of the most illuminating syntheses on the recent history of literary criticism to date, one to be reckoned with if one wants to understand the “stakes of literary form” as well as of its ideology.
FELSKI, Rita. “After Suspicion.” Profession, 2009: 28-35.
————. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
JAMES, David. Discrepant Solace : Contemporary Literature and the Work of Consolation. Oxford: University Press, 2019.
RABATÉ, Jean-Michel. The Future of Theory. Blackwell Manifestos Series. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
WOLFREYS, Julian [ed.]. New Critical Thinking : Criticism to Come. Edinburgh: University Press, 2017.
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