Life as the End of Life: Algernon Charles Swinburne, Walter Pater, and Secular Aesthetics
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This thesis elucidates the relationship between the emergence of literary aestheticism and ambiguities in the status and meaning of religious doubt in late Victorian Britain. Aestheticism has often been understood as a branch of a larger, epochal crisis of religious faith: a creed of ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ and a cult of beauty are thought to have emerged to occupy the vacuum created by the departure of God, or at least by the attenuation of traditional forms of belief. However, the model of secularisation implicit in this account is now often challenged by historians, sociologists, and literary critics, and it fails to capture what was at stake in Swinburne and Pater’s efforts to reconceptualise aesthetic experience. I suggest affinities between their shared insistence that art be understood as an independent, disinterested realm, a creed beyond creeds, and secularisation understood as the emptying of religion from political and social spheres. Secondly, I analyse how Swinburne and Pater use the apparently neutral space created by their relegation of religion to imagine the secular in far more radical terms than conventional Victorian models of religious doubt allowed. Their varieties of aestheticism often posit secularism not as a disillusioning effect of modern rationality but as a primordial enchantment with the sensuous and earthly, prior to a ‘fall’ into religious transcendence. I explore their tendency to identify this ideal of the secular with aesthetic value, as well as the paradoxes produced by their efforts to efface the distinctions between the religious and the aesthetic. My argument proceeds through close readings that reveal how the logic of aestheticism grows out of Swinburne’s and Pater’s efforts to challenge and refashion the models of religious doubt and secularism established by a previous generation of Victorian writers – Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Stuart Mill, and Alfred Tennyson – and situates this shared revisionary impulse within larger debates surrounding the idea of secularisation.
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