The Pieces of a Shattered Esthetic

A very interesting set of ideas, Fred.

I have this theory that there was a thriving new esthetic coming together, across art forms of all sorts, before World War I, but that collapse of the 19th century political framework provided such a traumatic shock that it’s taken most of the next hundred years to recover from it—and that some of the recent neoclassical movements in painting and in music (of which genre literatures as they “mainstream” themselves are a major part) are a moderately sophisticated attempt to pick up the pieces of that shattered esthetic, constituting a “jump around” the High Modernist movement(s). Robert Heinlein seems to have been saying something like this quite deliberately in Stranger In a Strange Land: his mini-lecture about how to look at a Rodin sculpture is a dead giveaway (Rodin was one of the principal figures in the evolving esthetic of “The Moderns”). Certainly science fiction has been mainstreaming itself for the last thirty years or more—a process that could not occur without the active cooperation of the general readership. And as Northrup Frye noted, the prestige forms of one era frequently rise out of the subliterary forms of prior eras.

Turner Replies: I love your idea about the new esthetic that was forming before WW1. Perhaps it was aborted by the sheer massacre of the young men at the Western Front who would have have brought it to fruition and given Europe a new lease of creative life. The ones that stayed behind and the traumatized survivors created Modernism instead. And the women, like Virginia Woolf, disillusioned with the male madness of the war, began to look in new directions altogether–but they had to win the right to a decent education first.

Skwire Replies: There’s a major boom in women’s fiction between the two wars, much of which is resolutely entrepreneurial in its focus. This isn’t surprising, given the tragic loss of educated professional men and the attendant increasing numbers of women in the workforce, but it’s an under explored area–probably because it’s often work thats from the unjustly maligned genre of the romance novel *and* because it’s material that is written by and for women. I recommend the publications from the English press Persephone Books–with a particularly enthusiastic plug for Dorothy Whipple’s novel, High Wages.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Literary scholar Sarah Skwire asks us to revisit the western canon’s portrayal of business and commerce. Mainstream scholars and libertarians both seem to agree that the “great books” portray business in a uniformly negative light, but Skwire finds the evidence for this contention to be thin. She proposes a much more nuanced view, in which critiques of the market stand side by side with favorable depictions and even sound, encouraging advice for would-be businessmen. It’s time to get beyond the clichés about literature and commerce.

Response Essays

  • William H. Patterson, Jr. reflects on the origins of liberty, commerce, and literature as we have come to understand them today. He finds that all three have a common root in the European Enlightenment. History, however, often comes in cycles or waves, and the fortunes of all three have risen and fallen over time. He expresses the hope that each of the three “at-risk children of the Enlightenment” will flourish in the coming decades.

  • Frederick Turner offers a structural explanation for why literary scholars have been so eager to supply anti-commercial readings to the western canon. Literary criticism began among gentlemen; it then passed to the anti-commercial meritocracy of the universities. But alternate readings exist, and Turner even offers a startlingly pro-commerical reading of The Merchant of Venice.

  • Amy H. Sturgis argues that much of the apparent anti-market bias in literature stems from elitism. By excluding genre fiction, mainstream literary critics also exclude many thoughtful and provocative treatments of markets and their place in political economy. Often the excluded works are highly sympathetic to libertarian ideals. Fiction shapes public opinion, including public opinion about markets, and popular fiction by definition reaches more than any other kind.