Fateful Beauty: Aesthetic Environments, Juvenile Development, and Literature, 1860-1960

Princeton University Press
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When Oscar Wilde said he had "seen wallpaper which must lead a boy brought up under its influence to a life of crime," his joke played on an idea that has often been taken quite seriously--both in Wilde's day and in our own. In Fateful Beauty, Douglas Mao recovers the lost intellectual, social, and literary history of the belief that the beauty--or ugliness--of the environment in which one is raised influences or even determines one's fate. Weaving together readings in literature, psychology, biology, philosophy, education, child-rearing advice, and interior design, he shows how this idea abetted a dramatic rise in attention to environment in many discourses and in many practices affecting the lives of the young between the late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. Through original and detailed analyses of Wilde, Walter Pater, James Joyce, Theodore Dreiser, Rebecca West, and W. H. Auden, Mao shows that English-language writing of the period was informed in crucial but previously unrecognized ways by the possibility that beautiful environments might produce better people. He also reveals how these writers shared concerns about environment, evolution, determinism, freedom, and beauty with scientists and social theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Hermann von Helmholtz, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, and W.H.R. Rivers. In so doing, Mao challenges conventional views of the roles of beauty and the aesthetic in art and life during this time.

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About the author

Douglas Mao is professor of English at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production (Princeton) and coeditor of Bad Modernisms.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Princeton University Press
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Published on
May 3, 2010
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Pages
328
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ISBN
9781400832804
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Modern / General
Literary Criticism / General
Philosophy / Aesthetics
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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Douglas Mao
In this provocative and wide-ranging study, Douglas Mao argues that a profound tension between veneration of human production and anxiety about production's dangers lay at the heart of literary modernism. Focusing on the work of Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, Mao shows that modernists were captivated by physical objects, which, regarded as objects, seemed to partake of a utopian serenity beyond the reach of human ideological conflicts. Under a variety of historical pressures, Mao observes, these writers came to revere the making of such things, and especially the crafting of the work of art, as the surest guarantee of meaning for an individual life. Yet they also found troubling contradictions here, since any kind of making, be it handicraft or mass production, could also be understood as a violation of the nonhuman world by an increasingly predatory and imperialistic subjectivity. If modernists began by embracing production as a test of meaning, then they frequently ended by testing production itself and finding it wanting.

To make this case, Mao interweaves social and political history with readings in literature, the visual arts, philosophy, and economics. He explores modernism's relation to aestheticism, existentialism, and the culture of consumption, joining current debates on the politics of engagement and the social meanings of art. And he shows conclusively, in this elegantly written and consistently surprising work, that we cannot understand the theories and practices of modernism without addressing the question of the object and production's ambivalent allure.

Douglas Mao
Modernism is hot again. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, poets and architects, designers and critics, teachers and artists are rediscovering the virtues of the previous century’s most vibrant cultural constellation. Yet this widespread embrace raises questions about modernism’s relation to its own success. Modernism’s “badness”—its emphasis on outrageous behavior, its elevation of negativity, its refusal to be condoned—seems essential to its power. But once modernism is accepted as “good” or valuable (as a great deal of modernist art now is), its status as a subversive aesthetic intervention seems undermined. The contributors to Bad Modernisms tease out the contradictions in modernism’s commitment to badness.

Bad Modernisms thus builds on and extends the “new modernist studies,” recent work marked by the application of diverse methods and attention to texts and artists not usually labeled as modernist. In this collection, these developments are exemplified by essays ranging from a reading of dandyism in 1920s Harlem as a performance of a “bad” black modernist imaginary to a consideration of Filipino American modernism in the context of anticolonialism. The contributors reconsider familiar figures—such as Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Josef von Sternberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. H. Auden, and Wyndham Lewis—and bring to light the work of lesser-known artists, including the writer Carlos Bulosan and the experimental filmmaker Len Lye. Examining cultural artifacts ranging from novels to manifestos, from philosophical treatises to movie musicals, and from anthropological essays to advertising campaigns, these essays signal the capaciousness and energy galvanizing the new modernist studies.

Contributors. Lisa Fluet, Laura Frost, Michael LeMahieu, Heather K. Love, Douglas Mao, Jesse Matz, Joshua L. Miller, Monica L. Miller, Sianne Ngai, Martin Puchner, Rebecca L. Walkowitz

Glenn Beck
Douglas Mao
In this provocative and wide-ranging study, Douglas Mao argues that a profound tension between veneration of human production and anxiety about production's dangers lay at the heart of literary modernism. Focusing on the work of Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, Mao shows that modernists were captivated by physical objects, which, regarded as objects, seemed to partake of a utopian serenity beyond the reach of human ideological conflicts. Under a variety of historical pressures, Mao observes, these writers came to revere the making of such things, and especially the crafting of the work of art, as the surest guarantee of meaning for an individual life. Yet they also found troubling contradictions here, since any kind of making, be it handicraft or mass production, could also be understood as a violation of the nonhuman world by an increasingly predatory and imperialistic subjectivity. If modernists began by embracing production as a test of meaning, then they frequently ended by testing production itself and finding it wanting.

To make this case, Mao interweaves social and political history with readings in literature, the visual arts, philosophy, and economics. He explores modernism's relation to aestheticism, existentialism, and the culture of consumption, joining current debates on the politics of engagement and the social meanings of art. And he shows conclusively, in this elegantly written and consistently surprising work, that we cannot understand the theories and practices of modernism without addressing the question of the object and production's ambivalent allure.

Douglas Mao
Modernism is hot again. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, poets and architects, designers and critics, teachers and artists are rediscovering the virtues of the previous century’s most vibrant cultural constellation. Yet this widespread embrace raises questions about modernism’s relation to its own success. Modernism’s “badness”—its emphasis on outrageous behavior, its elevation of negativity, its refusal to be condoned—seems essential to its power. But once modernism is accepted as “good” or valuable (as a great deal of modernist art now is), its status as a subversive aesthetic intervention seems undermined. The contributors to Bad Modernisms tease out the contradictions in modernism’s commitment to badness.

Bad Modernisms thus builds on and extends the “new modernist studies,” recent work marked by the application of diverse methods and attention to texts and artists not usually labeled as modernist. In this collection, these developments are exemplified by essays ranging from a reading of dandyism in 1920s Harlem as a performance of a “bad” black modernist imaginary to a consideration of Filipino American modernism in the context of anticolonialism. The contributors reconsider familiar figures—such as Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Josef von Sternberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. H. Auden, and Wyndham Lewis—and bring to light the work of lesser-known artists, including the writer Carlos Bulosan and the experimental filmmaker Len Lye. Examining cultural artifacts ranging from novels to manifestos, from philosophical treatises to movie musicals, and from anthropological essays to advertising campaigns, these essays signal the capaciousness and energy galvanizing the new modernist studies.

Contributors. Lisa Fluet, Laura Frost, Michael LeMahieu, Heather K. Love, Douglas Mao, Jesse Matz, Joshua L. Miller, Monica L. Miller, Sianne Ngai, Martin Puchner, Rebecca L. Walkowitz

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