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literature

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Aestheticism  
 
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J. K. Huysmans

A seminal aestheticist text of the period was J. K. Huysmans's À Rebours (1884), published in English as Against the Grain although often translated inaccurately (but more suggestively) as Against Nature, a book that transfixed Oscar Wilde.

In its account of the dandiacal erotic practices of Duc Jean Floressas des Esseintes, the author established a link between aestheticism and decadent behavior. One striking passage in the novel--one that especially fascinated Wilde--is Des Esseintes's recollection of a homosexual exploit. Des Esseintes remarks that the event, having been homosexual, was different from all of his other exploits.

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Des Esseintes's seeming conversion to Catholicism in the book's concluding pages is less a rejection of aestheticist principles than an apotheosis of aestheticist belief, providing the hero with yet another avenue for the expression of his obsession with the rituals of self-devotion and the steady accumulation of ecclesiastical objets d'art.

One of the models for Huysmans's anti-hero was Robert de Montesquiou, who was also the prototype for Proust's Baron de Charlus. Chaste yet forever in the company of charming young men, aristocratic, haughty, and elegant, Montesquiou's sexual identity, so opaque yet charismatic, embodied many of the contradictions of aestheticism's sexual politics.

Possibly a model for Wilde's Dorian Gray, Montesquiou waged a crusade on behalf of beauty yet was known for personal acts of extraordinary viciousness. Perhaps his most fitting symbol (which can be found among Des Esseintes's collectibles in À Rebours) was his jewel-encrusted tortoise, which in Huysmans's novel has died as a result of its heavy burden of brilliant baubles.

Aestheticism in England

In England, Swinburne, Symonds, and Pater established a tradition of English aestheticism that threatened the Victorian belief, expressed most forcefully by Matthew Arnold, in art's requisite ethical and social dimension.

At a time when nineteenth-century social thinkers were establishing medical models for an understanding of same-sex behavior, these writers looked back to Greek and Renaissance civilizations for alternative historical examples of homosexual affection that had been tolerated and even encouraged.

In extolling earlier periods of high creative achievement, English aesthetes insisted that artists of genius by definition defied ordinary categories of correct masculine and feminine behavior, implying that all moral distinction must be subsumed to the search for the beautiful.

Swinburne declared that "great poets are bisexual, male and female at once," and in his poem "Anactoria" (1866), he presented a dramatic monologue in the voice of Sappho, in which the Greek poet declares that "There are those who say an array of horsemen, and others of marching men, and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth / But I say it is whatever one loves."

In the chapter "The Genius of Greek Art" in volume two of his Studies of the Greek Poets (1875), Symonds celebrates a return to an eroticized ideal of aesthetics as a guide to proper moral conduct. Symonds's posthumously published memoirs revealed the anguish of his life as a married homosexual, but during his lifetime he expressed his feelings toward other men through an exploration of the Greeks and their Renaissance devotees as precursors of aestheticism.

In his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885), Pater, a long-time bachelor and professor at Oxford, sketched a portrait of a susceptible aesthete who is drawn to a series of cults, among them Cyrenaicism, whose credo "from time to time breaks beyond the limits of the actual moral order, perhaps not without some pleasurable excitement in so bold a venture."

Pater created a storm of dissent with his notorious "Conclusion" to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), in which he urged his readers--in the chapter's most frequently quoted clause--"to burn always with this hard gem-like flame" and to discover happiness in the avid pursuit of sensations raised to the pitch of "poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art's sake."

Pater chose to excise the "Conclusion" from the book's second edition but brazenly reinserted it into the third edition. That Pater's initial audience was potentially impressionable young Oxford students augmented the Renaissance's reputation as a piece of propaganda.

The novelist George Eliot, for one, declared that Studies in the History of the Renaissance "seems to me quite poisonous in its false principles and criticism and false conception of life." Pater's sway over writers of the 1890s, however, was incalculable.

Oscar Wilde

Although Wilde downplayed Pater's influence on his work, Pater, Gautier, and Huysmans were of collective importance in helping determine Wilde's special brand of aestheticism.

Although Wilde is generally considered to be the fin-de-siècle aesthete par excellence, looked at as a whole his writings on aestheticism reveal a far more complex and even critical attitude toward a life devoted to artistic sensation.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), in portraying the cruelty and disintegration of a young aesthete, is scarcely a defense of aestheticism; as Wilde's biographer Richard Ellman noted, the aestheticist aphorisms that make up the preface function in dialectical relation to the main body of the book, which rapidly changes from breezy salon novel into dark cautionary tale.

The true Wildean aesthete in Dorian Gray is Lord Henry, who though married, is smitten with Dorian and attempts to lure him into a life devoted to art and hedonism. Dorian's descent into crime is thus an allegory of how Lord Henry's aestheticist axioms, taken to extremes, negate life, even one devoted to art.

Wilde's epigrammatic essays, particularly "The Decay of Lying" (1888), do, however, provide a coherent rationalization for aestheticism. Here Wilde claims that "All art is entirely useless" and "Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance."

Identifying two basic energies of art, Wilde asserts that artistic works exist in isolation from experience and that art is drenched in images, a recapitulation in Baudelaire's belief in an art composed of a "forest of symbols." Most important, Wilde insists that just as form determined content, art dictates life.

It is not, Wilde claimed, a given age that shapes art (as the literary historian Hippolite Taine had asserted) but art that shapes a given age. "The nineteenth century, as we know it," Wilde declares, "is largely an invention of Balzac," an idea polished into comic paradox in the playwright's remark that London had become foggy only after Turner had painted his misty London city-scapes.

Wilde's continual stress on the value of artifice and the insincere can be read not only as a defense of the "unnatural vice" of homosexuality but as a sophisticated appreciation of the way in which sexuality is neither unified, static, nor constant but contextual.

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