Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
‘Aesthetic’ is an uncomfortable word, coming late into English and, judging from some rather tetchy examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, taking a while to naturalize. Coined in German (from the Greek aesthesis) by the philosopher A. G. Baumgarten in 1735, the word encompassed both the concept of perception through the senses (now more evident in anaesthetic) and ‘the art of beautiful thought’. By the 1790s, it became particularly associated with Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason (1781) and Critique of Judgement (1790) contained influential discussions of aesthetics, the subjective self and the nature of sensory perception. Filtering into other European languages, the word has primarily come to denote ‘that which pertains to the appreciation of beauty’.
‘Aesthetic’ is thus highly relevant to travel writing, and in particular to texts which encourage the reader to appreciate a landscape or a scene – it speaks to the painterly aspects of the genre, and overlaps with the territories of the picturesque and the sublime. But the word also carries a chilly penumbra of detachment, since appreciation of beauty has long been associated with an intellectual, abstracted stance involving the ‘higher’ faculties of taste. A truly ‘aesthetic’ vision thus requires a distancing from the particular, the gross and the utilitarian; by the end of the nineteenth century, indeed, the ‘aesthete’ in pursuit of beauty is characterized as risibly abstracted from ‘real’ life. The inner tension of the word lies in an oscillation between proximity and distance – between the sensuous desire to encounter beauty and the intellectual need to frame it, critique it, hold it at arm's length. The added twist, of course, is that encounters with beauty, especially in travel writing, are frequently evoked through descriptions of intense emotional and even bodily response (tears, giddiness, the racing pulse) which seem the very converse of the ‘disinterested’ aesthetic gaze.
Although the word itself is virtually absent from the literary language of eighteenth-century English (it arrives through translations of Kant late in the1790s), debates about the nature of beauty and taste are so much a part of this period that it can be claimed as the cradle of the aesthetic in British thought.