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The solitary aesthete

For my last ‘post’ I posed a question about equality and diversity in aesthetics. Equality and diversity thrives in art as much as the creative instinct expresses itself in people; wide, high and long. But when our own appreciation of art and form, our aesthetic sense, is projected outwards it can become insular and singular. And we may say, why not? Aren’t people entitled to like what he or she likes based on feel and sensibilities.

But a strong, a dominant, as my friend put it, aesthetic sense does not always allow us to engage with the worth, the soul, the unutterable ‘ness’ of everything. A headstrong aesthetic sense might prevent one experiencing the full diversity of life. And what would life be if it were spent in total concord with everything we heard, touched, looked at and interacted with in every way? What would a life be without the raw edge of disagreement, the jarring of the senses, the looking-twice at some horror of colour and form; how would we move forward in ourselves?

A strong aesthete, it seems to me, seeks to create a utopia, where everything they interact with is… just so. And then, for them, how nerve-jangling to be in the world that does not fit with the vision, the rough-hewn humanity, the sprawling industry, the dirty clothes and the ‘monstrous carbuncles’. The aesthete necessarily removes from the world, and in the remove loses the necessity that drove the sense in the first place, until you have a vanishing of the one into the other. A subsuming of an artistic expression into a strong aesthetic sense and no need, whatever, for either. And in the end, the world is the poorer for it.

In truth, for many persons, his great, his most touching sign will have been his aloofness wherever he is. He is an aesthetic solitary. His beautiful, light imagination is the wing that on the autumn evening just brushes the dusky window. It was a faculty that gave him much more a terrible sense of human abysses than a desire rashly to sound them and rise to the surface with his report. On the surface – the surface of the soul and the edge of the tragedy – he preferred to remain. He lingered, to weave his web, in the thin exterior air. This is a partial expression of his characteristic habit of dipping, of diving, just for sport, into the moral world without being in the least a moralist.

Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne first published 1896
Literary Criticism Volume One: Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers

Vanishing Point, by David Plowden (copyright)