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ENGL 609.64 - Decadent Materialism

Instructor: Dr. S. Forlini
Schedule: W 9:00-11:45

Course Description:

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Punch cartoons invariably depicted the Victorian aesthete as a physically depleted person engrossed in aesthetic contemplation of a beautiful object (a flower, a teapot, etc.) and neglecting other forms of sustenance such as food or contact with the outside world. By the end of the century, physician Max Nordau reads the aesthetes’ attraction to material things as symptomatic of the degeneration that he believes threatens all of civilization. The aesthetes are clearly singled out for their unusual (and apparently aberrant) object conduct, but what exactly is at stake in aesthetic things and sustained aesthetic attention? What motivates attempts to discipline the aesthetes’ seemingly queer object choices and practices of intense aesthetic contemplation? In this course, we will attempt to answer such questions by examining the writings and aesthetic practices of British Aestheticism and Decadence. In particular, we will explore the many permutations of the British “cult of beauty,” including the writings of aesthetic theorists such as John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget), and practices such as missionary aestheticism and lifestyle aestheticism. We will pay particular attention to the ways in which such theories and practices are grounded in scientific understandings of embodied experience and the evolution of the “aesthetic instinct”. We will also consider tensions between the Aesthetic Movement’s emphasis on the ethical and healthful benefits of refining one’s “aesthetic sense” and the moments in which Aestheticism becomes associated with Decadence, degeneration, and unfettered consumption. Finally, we will consider the legacy and continuing relevance of Victorian materialist aesthetics through the emerging field of “neuroaesthetics” and the recent “return to aesthetics” in the humanities. 


Participation: 20%

Presentation (Victorian Aesthetics): 20%

Presentation (Theory): 20%

Final Essay (15-20 pages): 40% 

Tentative Reading List:

Primary Readings:

Grant Allen, Physiological Aesthetics (1877)

J.K. Huysmans’s Against the Grain (1884, Trans. 2004 Penguin edition)  

Vernon Lee, “Art and Life” (1896)

--         “Beauty and Ugliness” (1897)

--         Belcaro (1882, selected essays)

--         The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics (1913)

--         Hauntings (1890)

William Morris, “Art and Socialism” (1884) and “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” (1884)

--         News from Nowhere (1890)

Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance

--         Marius, the Epicurean

John Ruskin, Excerpts from Modern Painters Volume 2 (1891 revised edition)

--         Excerpts from The Stones of Venice (1851)

Oscar Wilde, Selections from his College Notebooks

--         Intentions (1891, selections)

--         The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

--         Salome (1894)

Secondary Readings:

Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic (2000)

Anjan Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain (2014)

Dennis Donoghue’s Speaking of Beauty (2003)

Jacques Rancière’s Aesthetics and its Discontents (Trans. 2009) and The Politics of Aesthetics

(Trans. 2004)

Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999)

Coursepack including works by Peter de Bolla, Terry Eagleton, Regenia Gagnier, Diana Maltz, Douglas Mao, and G. Gabrielle Starr, among others