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Beauty and the Priest: The Use and Misuse of Aesthetics in The Damnation of Theron Ware

This essay examines the role of "aestheticism" and the aesthetic in Harold Frederic's novel _The Damnation of Theron Ware_ (1896), with the aim of addressing the claim (implicit in the work of those critics who see the book as wholly
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  Beauty and the Priest: The Use and Misuse of Aesthetics in The Damnation of Theron Ware C ritics have long characterized  Harold Frederic’s novel The Damnation of Theron Ware  ( 1896 ) as the story of Amer-ica’s putting away of childish things. Written during a decade when American society was part way through a social paradigm shift into the high gear of industrial modernity, Frederic’s novel clearly defines the moment it narrates in terms of transition. Into the past it casts away simple, straightforward religious faith, a universe naively conceived of as governed by a physical and moral order whose terms are set by a benign deity, and absolute social and ethical codes. Into the future it projects uncertainty, relativism, secular pragmatism, and the death of the soul. The book has thus been read as “a symbolic tale of America’s progress to disunity” (Ziff 214 ), or “the fall of intellectual America from innocence into knowledge” (Carter xvii). Because of this, scholars have often interpreted the novel as unreservedly bleak in its progno-sis of American society, a “satiric bonfire” offering no hope of progress (Michelson 71 ), an antimodern lament that “neither science nor aes-theticism can replace what it has destroyed” (Ziff 214 ). 1  In this essay I will examine more closely the role of “aestheticism” and the aesthetic in Frederic’s novel, with the aim of addressing the claim (implicit in the work of those critics who see the book as wholly pessimistic) that, for Frederic, aesthetic experience had no value as a guide to ethical behavior. There is an important difference between the ethical possibilities of the flawed aesthetic theories that the novel convincingly debunks and those afforded by the literary aesthetics of  Arizona Quarterly Volume 64 ,  Number 3 , Autumn 2008 Copyright © 2008   by Arizona Board of Regents issn 0004-1610 tom perrin  32 Tom Perrin the text itself, which constitutes a determined attempt to transcend such models. If aesthetic experience still has a role to play in guiding our actions—if there is, as Elaine Scarry suggests, still a link between “beauty and being just”—then part of the project of the current schol-arly return to aesthetics is to describe the ways in which such a link might function. That is, as Pamela Matthews and David McWhirter write, it must imagine an theory of art that, while “acknowledging the aesthetic’s entanglement in systems of power,” can “recover beauty’s still-surprising capacity, not to save, but to provoke us” (xxvi). 2  Freder-ic’s novel is, I suggest, engaged in just such a project of provocation.Previous treatments of aesthetics in the novel have largely made reference only to the character of the local It-Girl Celia Madden, a rich dilettante whose tastes are clearly a fashionable mish-mash of vari-ous European aesthetic movements. 3  However, over the course of the novel, Frederic in fact engages with three different conceptions of what aesthetic experience is, rejecting each as flawed. One is characterized in Transcendentalist terms, a second is based on the idealism of European philosophy, and a third has its roots in the pragmatism of Frederic’s American contemporaries. Each of these conceptions, the novel sug-gests, fails to deal adequately with the fact that aesthetic experience involves a kind of non-rational “susceptibility” on the part of the sub-ject (to borrow a term from George Santayana, who published the first full North American treatise on aesthetics in 1896 , the same year as Frederic published Theron Ware ). This, for Frederic’s characters, makes such experience a highly dubious guide to action. Over and over again powerful aesthetic experiences render characters in the novel danger-ously susceptible to the truth of some fallacious proposition in a way that bypasses rational critical scrutiny. Since what is beautiful is not necessarily good, the text characterizes aesthetic pleasure as a deceitful variety of experience that leads its characters into terrible trouble.By contrast, many people have undergone a very different kind of aesthetic experience while reading the novel. In 1970  Edmund Wilson wrote an appreciation of Frederic for the  New Yorker , in which he describes the effect of reading the author’s most famous work. The book, he explains, effectively tricks the reader into empathizing with its protagonist, Theron Ware, before ultimately revealing him as mis-guided, conniving and deeply unsympathetic. Frederic’s stratagem is, for Wilson, “unpleasant” ( 128 ), and the novel is made “repellent” by    Beauty and the Priest 33 it, despite its many strengths ( 125 ). “I doubt whether,” he writes, “a great novel can be written around a central character who, having once been made sufficiently attractive for the reader to share his emotions, is in the end so abjectly humiliated” ( 128 ). 4  This reading hits upon what is most srcinal about Frederic’s technique. In part by fostering a strong readerly identification with the protagonist (empathic identifi-cation being, according to Bertolt Brecht, a failsafe way of generating aesthetic susceptibility—or, to use Brecht’s term, “trance”), Frederic’s text lulls its readers into making a positive assessment of the charac-ter of Theron Ware ( 193 ). But this process is not allowed to proceed unchecked. Instead, the other characters turn violently against Ware (aided by a narrator who has been imperceptibly distancing himself from Ware over many pages), shattering the reader’s “trance,” and forc-ing a critical re-evaluation of his or her reading experience.There is, therefore, a crucial difference between the kind of aes-thetic experience described by the novel, and that undergone by its readers. For characters in the novel, the moment of aesthetic suscep-tibility is always also a moment where some contentious principle can be categorically affirmed—this is just what makes it so dangerous. Yet for readers of the novel, identification with Theron Ware and plea-surable participation in his moments of aesthetic enjoyment end up having just the opposite effect: at first appearing to provide moments of ethical teaching, they ultimately reveal their own fraudulence. The reader is brought down to earth with a bump as Theron’s damnation is revealed: he matures not into a cultural and intellectual sophisticate, as we imagine from the early part of the novel he might, but into an idiot, a “barkeeper” (Frederic 298 ), a “donkey trying to play lap-dog,” a “little nasty boy” ( 322–23 ). Our hero turns out to be a clown, his appar-ent progress a “pratfall into the twentieth century” (Garner 34 ). Any investment in Theron has been misplaced. The moral of the story is thus not pronounced by the author at a moment when the reader stands carried away by beauty and morally susceptible; it is rather precisely that one ought always to beware of becoming aesthetically carried away at all, lest one be duped into becoming a moral fool like Theron Ware. The novel is not invested in bypassing the reader’s critical faculties, but rather in pointing out how they have been suspended, and thereby restoring them.  34 Tom Perrin Frederic’s novel is, I suggest, less interested in completely debunk-ing the notion that aesthetic experience is related to ethical action than it is in refining and updating such a relation. In fact, the book’s project seems to prefigure that of much twentieth-century aesthetic theory. Like later works employing Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt  or varia-tions on it, Theron Ware  is engaged in strategically deploying aesthetic effects while at the same time critiquing them, with the aim of utilizing aesthetic pleasure to foster critical caution. In this way, I suggest, The Damnation of Theron Ware  begins to imagine what today’s scholars have referred to as the concept of a “critical aesthetics” ( Critical Aesthetics  2006 ).In the first half of the novel, Theron Ware is implicitly committed to a garden variety of Transcendentalism. Early on, Ware lays out his understanding of an aesthetic theory in keeping with such a philosophy. He characterizes aesthetic experience by its highly particular, acultural quality. It is, Theron believes, entirely non-semiotic in nature. After arriving in his new parish and his new house, Theron and his wife feel discouraged by the state in which the previous minister has left the garden, full of “broken barrels and packing-boxes, and a nameless débris of tin cans, clam-shells, and general rubbish” (Frederic 13 ). However, lifting his eyes to the landscape, Theron looks instead at “the green, waving tops of the elms on the street beyond”:How lofty and beautiful they were in the morning sunlight, and with what matchless charm came the song of the robins, freshly installed in their haunts among the new pale-green leaves! Above them, in the fresh, scented air, glowed the great blue dome, radiant with light and the purification of spring. ( 13 )“It seems to me,” Theron remarks, “that we never  feel  quite so sure of God’s goodness at other times as we do in these wonderful new morn-ings of spring” ( 13 ). This kind of aesthetic experience, whereby the subject moves from a formal appreciation of nature to knowledge of the goodness of God, recalls Theron’s copy of “Paley’s Evidences” with its famous argument from design, which posits that man can work his way logically from the observance of the orderly workings of the natu-ral world to a rational proof of the existence of God ( 14 ). 5  Yet, at the same time, Theron’s experience differs from that described in Paley. His
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