Date of Degree
Mary Ann Caws
Aesthetics | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America
This dissertation is intended as a correction to the almost universal contemporary assumption that beauty is either nonexistent or a tool of oppression, and that the arts should be judged less by their aesthetic value than their social, political, or moral dimensions. This dissertation will propose a fivefold argument. First, I will assert that the experience of beauty is real, pleasurable, and not in any way culturally determined, second, that beauty is the most significant and characteristic feature of art, third, that the rejection of the reality of beauty is motivated more by the fragility of the mass man’s ego than by honest appraisal of aesthetic experience, fourth, that all art is aristocratic in nature, and finally that there is a legitimate ground for the ontological reality of beauty. To that end I will examine, in the Introduction, both the arguments against the existence of beauty and its legitimacy in the analysis of art—which to different degrees over history have been eclipsed by moral, religious, and in our time, social and political considerations. Against these arguments I will employ both Kant’s notion of the aesthetic and his exploration of intersubjective appreciation of beauty, as well as Pater’s ‘hedonistic’ notion of aesthetics, which prioritizes pleasure in art, and which elevates an art that prioritizes aesthetic experience over that of referentiality or non-aesthetic considerations. In the first chapter, I will employ the myth of Narcissus in order to offer a hypothesis regarding the contemporary reaction to art. Using the thesis of Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses, I posit that the modern hatred of beauty finds its origin less in beauty’s illegitimacy but rather in an envy of beauty whose only palliative is the denial of beauty’s existence. In the next two chapters I explore the ideas of aestheticism through the prism of two of its most celebrated Anglophone proponents, Pater and his student Oscar Wilde. In Chapter 2, I perform a reading of Pater’s novel Marius the Epicurean in order to illustrate the pragmatic basis in the philosophy of pleasure that animates aesthetic experience, while in Chapter 3, through readings of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salome, and Henry James’ short story “The Author of Beltraffio,” I analyze the conflicting claims upon literary works to express either aesthetic or moral values. In the fourth chapter, I turn to a reading of Isak Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast” to argue the essentially aristocratic nature of art characterized by aesthetic excellence, the definition of aristocracy posited as an antithesis of the politicization of aesthetic experience described in chapter 1. Finally, in the fifth chapter, I make a philosophical argument for treating beauty and aesthetic judgment as though they are objective, arguing that the unfalsifiability of beauty is a condition characteristic also of moral considerations, and that just as ethical conduct is demanded by means of imperative, so too should the belief that beauty exists and can be judged.
Dagan, Amir, "Narcissus and Beauty: A Renaissance of Paterian Aesthetics" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.