Victorian Modernism: Pragmatism and the Varieties of Aesthetic Experience

Jessica R. Feldman. Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiii + 261pp. $60.00.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff


“From the modernism that you want,” the poet David Antin has quipped, “you get the postmodernism you deserve.” It is an adage that applies nicely to Jessica R. Feldman’s argument: from the modernism that she wants, she gets the Victorianism she would have us think was central. Her “Victorian Modernism” (1837-1945) consists of four “critical “discourses– “sentiment, sublimity, domesticity, and aestheticism” (2- 3)—as they manifest themselves in the work of four exemplary Victorians, two British, two American (16): John Ruskin (“art critic”), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (“poet and painter”), Augusta Evans (“popular domestic novelist”) and William James (“scientist and philosopher”). James belongs here, so Feldman contends, because his Pragmatism, defined as the “anti-dogmatic, anti-metaphysical, anti-foundational, anti-positivist, anti-systematic” (2), subsumes the four categories cited above. Victorian Modernism, a.k.a Victorian Pragmatism, is thus a special way of understanding sentiment, sublimity, domesticity, and aestheticism. And it seems to cover such diverse cases as the fiction of Marcel Proust, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, and the satire of Vladimir Nabokov. Victorian Modernists, moreover, don’t distinguish sharply between “life” and “art,” and their works explore—here comes the magic number 4 again! –a “filigree of four major . . . strands”: “the artist herself, the actual worlds in which that artist participates. . . the work of art, and the audience” (4).

These terms– artist, audience, work, and the reality to which the work refers–—are familiar to us from the classic studies of Roman Jakobson and, later, Meyer Abrams, carried out more than fifty years ago. For Jakobson, the four terms were the poles that efined the dominants of literary criticism: the relation of work to “reality” (the mimetic), of artist to work (the expressionist), artist to audience (the affective), and concentration on the work itself (the formalist). Why, then, should these poles be somehow peculiar to Victorian Modernism? It is a question Feldman never answers. She is sensitive to the fact that “a rich critical literature reading Modernism across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” already exists. But whereas most such studies define the Modernist work as a form of resistance to “spiritual crisis,” and “exile from the homeland of certainty,” resulting in an “autonomous art,” Feldman defines the link between the Victorians and Moderns as, on the contrary, their concern for “tenderness, pleasure, beauty, playfulness, fascination” (4).

Seek and ye shall find. By limiting herself to a highly particular set of Anglo-American authors and wholly ignoring the roots of Modernism as they took hold on the Continent, Feldman is able to come up with a coherent picture of an aesthetic-cultural complex that we might call the sentiment-cum-sublime camp in later nineteenth / earlier twentieth century Anglophone culture. In the Introduction, Feldman’s exemplar of this complex is—and here she does choose a European– Proust, evidently because he was a disciple of Ruskin’s. Proust’s great novel is so rich and varied that one can find in it almost any emotion or aesthetic trait one is looking for. Foregrounding the quite untypical third-person narrative of Un Amour de Swanns (less than a tenth of the novel), Feldman finds her four categories: sentiment (Swann’s sympathy for Vinteuil), aestheticism (Swann’s profound love of art), sublimity (Swann’s recognition of Vinteuil’s genius) and domesticity (the emergence of Vinteuil’s art from the “richness of daily life in Combray,” 14). To characterize Proust’s great phantasmagoric novel as domestic will strike most readers as more than a little strange, especially since the richness of Vinteuil’s daily life in Combray features the rather Gothic moment where Vinteuil’s sadistic daughter, trying to please her lesbian lover, spits on her father’s portrait. The young Marcel, passing the Vinteuil cottage on one of his daily strolls, improbably witnesses this scene, which takes place at the open window.

Feldman’s Introduction thus creates more problems than the later chapters can effective solve, and one wonders why she felt she had to classify her authors, works, and literary phenomena so neatly. Fortunately, the subsequent chapters are more successful, for when the author gets away from the need to define Victorian Modernism and gives new readings of specific works, she is often quite interesting. Her Ruskin emerges as less the Victorian moralist or proto-Modernist aesthete than as a writer who fuses the rhetorics of domesticity and sentiment. “For all his fascination with architectural structure, Ruskin loves watery mixtures of things more than solid constructions” (18). For him, it is “in the ordinary and the local [that] our salvation lies” (31). Even Ruskin’s paeans to the great Gothic cathedrals, Feldman argues, are always related to his interest in ordinary dwelling places; indeed, his “scene of writing” is first and foremost “home,” wherever home happened to be. The sublime, accordingly, is deeply rooted in sentiment, the aesthetic entwined with the ordinary, the public with the private. People and buildings, moreover, begin to share qualities: the external surfaces of buildings have human faces even as the human body is an architectural form.

Feldman’s Ruskin is thus less eccentric, more accessible than the Ruskin to whom we are accustomed. A similar revaluation occurs in the case of Rossetti. Both in his paintings and his poems, Feldman suggests, the key to Rossetti’s art is “richness of arrangement” (67); in Monna Rosa, for example, the hawthorn pot is related not only to the woman’s robe and peacock feathers within the painting but also to his own collections, as “arranged” in his house and studio, his placement of the art work within the domestic interior of his sitting room (69). What sometimes strikes readers as excessive ornamentation can thus be justified as a feature of Rossetti’s ‘domestic sublime,” his feminization, as in Ruskin’s case, of particular settings and occasions so as to intermingle the aesthetic and the everyday, the inside and the outside, the “real” rose plant and the painted decorative stylized cluster of roses.

This is an appealing reading of Rossetti, but it should be remarked that Modernism—at least Modernism in any usual sense of the term—has conveniently disappeared. For where are these feminized arrangements of interiors in the work of Joyce or Eliot, Pound or Stevens? Feldman sometimes alludes to the latter but she cannot quite make the austere poet of “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction” a proponent of domestic collage. The skewing of Modernism comes to a head in Chapter 4, the chapter on Augusta Evans. Here I must plead ignorance for I have never read Evans, but, whether or not she was a disciple of Ruskin, as Feldman claims, Evans’s novel St. Elmo, which is Feldman’s Exhibit A, is by her own account such an oddly written “hodgepodge,” that one wonders why it is being discussed at all in a book on the domesticized aesthetic and the sentimental sublime. Evans, we are told, “explores the significance of silence; the fascination of the grotesque, the deadly, the diseased, and the over-wrought; the mirroring of characters; the counterpointing of plots; and the intricacies of self-reflexive narratives” (127). Her novel sounds like an interesting example of a popular form of decadence but what has happened to Modernism? Feldman argues that, like Ruskin and Rossetti, Evans is interested in the arrangements of interiors, in the complications and disturbances of objects in relation (134). It is a valiant case, but not likely to put Evans in anyone’s Victorian Modernist pantheon.

The weakest of the four author chapters, however, is, to my mind, the one on William James. The familiar themes come up: the entanglement of domestic and sentimental in James’s letters and journals, the connection of philosophical and personal in James’s philosophical writings. But here the reader familiar with James can’t help wondering what has happened to his central ideas, his actual arguments. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, Feldman argues, James “conflates the domestic and the aesthetic through a sentimental performance that, reaching outward to seek sublimity as it is experienced by real people at the margins of their consciousness, enacts the very philosophical position it purports to present scientifically” (180). This may well be the case but it places the emphasis on context—“genteel domestic and popular culture” (192)– at the expense of content. Indeed, every writer of the period, including William’s brother Henry, can, at some level, be “placed” in the domestic space in which he functioned, but that doesn’t mean this domestic space is the central facet of his or her work as Feldman would have us believe.

Between the four author chapters, Feldman places four fairly short “Meditations” on her four topics. The least convincing of these is the first, “Aestheticism and Pragmatism.” Trying to refute fin-de-siècle Art for Art’s Sake on the one hand, and Marxist aesthetic on the other, Feldman comes up with little more than the “realm of beauty that both respects and defies dichotomies” (62). The meditation on Domesticity is more successful; here, one might say, to play on her own emphasis on domesticity, Feldman is much more at home; the feminization of culture, together with Sentimentality (Meditation 3)—these constitute her sphere of interest. Indeed, her case for a sentimentalism that differs, on the one hand, from the Age of Sensibility, and, on the other, transcends the usual concepts of Victorian kitsch, is convincing; for Feldman the sentimental always fuses feeling and moral value and can hence be very effective indeed. And,in this context, Sublimity (the fourth Meditation) becomes part and parcel of Sentiment.

In conclusion, then, one wishes that Feldman had made less grandiose claims for her theme and had written more fully and about her beloved late nineteenth-century authors, especially women authors, with regard to the domestic or sentimental sublime. Modernism seems to be curiously alien to her concerns. Indeed, a more historical treatment of her subject would have shown her how and why the domestic became a more contested “discourse” in the twentieth-century. Two World Wars intervened, wars that play virtually no role in Victorian Modernism. The spatial, which Feldman studies so assiduously, also governs her own analyses with their constant resort to triads and quartets. Individual readings are often acute and original, but Feldman’s rigid methodology cannot come to terms with issues of periodization, ethos, and the larger aesthetic climate of the later Victorian era.