Date of Award

2019

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Comparative Literature and Literary Theory

First Advisor

Emily Steinlight

Abstract

The importance of history to Victorian culture, and to nineteenth-century Europe more generally, is readily apprehended not only from its historiography, but also from its philosophy, art, literature, science, politics, and public institutions. This dissertation argues that the discourse of aesthetics in Victorian Britain constitutes a major area of historical thinking that, in contrast to the scientific and philosophical historicisms that dominated nineteenth-century European intellectual culture, focuses on individual experience. Its starting point is Walter Pater’s claim that we are born “clothed in a vesture of the past”—that is, that our relation to ourselves is historical and that our relation to history is aesthetic. Through readings of aesthetic theory and art criticism, along with works of historiography, fiction, poetry, and visual art, this dissertation explores some of the ways in which Victorian aesthetics addresses the problem of the relationship between the sensuous representation and experience of the historical, on the one hand, and the subjects of such representation and experience, on the other. Through these readings, aesthetic modes of historical relation such as memory, revival, contrast, haunting, collection, and displacement are addressed as modes of subjectivation. The dissertation considers a wide range of more and less canonical texts by John Ruskin, George Eliot, Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and Marcus Clarke. While the dissertation focuses on texts written in England, it takes a transnational approach, situating these texts in the broader contexts of the European intellectual discourses with which they engage and of British imperialism, which is addressed in the dissertation’s coda through texts created in colonial Australia. By highlighting the role of the aesthetic in the formation of subjectivity as historical, this dissertation revises the image of nineteenth-century aesthetics as either ahistorical, formulating the pleasures of a timeless subject, or, conversely, deterministic, finding in art merely a reflection of larger historical processes. Instead, aesthetics emerges here as a discourse for the problematization of the historicity of subjectivity.

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