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Aestheticism in Translation: Henry James, Walter Pater, and Theodor Adorno

Richard Salmon
Affiliation:
University of Leeds
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Summary

Truth still lives in fiction, and from the copy the original will be restored

Friedrich Schiller (tr. Thomas Carlyle)

Schiller's celebrated defence of the redemptive social value of art as autonomous aesthetic illusion (Täuschung, translated as ‘fiction’ by Carlyle) offers a suggestive proleptic commentary on the close relationship between late nineteenth-century aestheticism and a certain logic of translatability. Whilst this defence alludes to a familiar mimetic conception of the relationship between art and life—between the ‘copy’ and its ‘original’—it also enacts a striking defamiliarization of this paradigm by claiming for aesthetic illusion a truth which is lacking from its ostensibly reflected source. Art, Schiller would seem to say, offers a truth which is lacking from truth; only within the translated form of the copy is the language of the original preserved. Aesthetic illusion thus acquires autonomy from objects in reality not so as to abandon mimesis (not for art to become wholly separate from life), but, rather, in order to redeem it. The value of art for social critique resides precisely in its function as a repository for those hypothetically mimetic truth-claims (however ‘illusory’, in a negative sense, their embodiment) which can no longer be located within existing socio-historical conditions.

In aestheticist writings of the late nineteenth century, similar questions concerning the translation and/or transposition of ‘art’ and ‘life’, ‘original’ and ‘copy’, and ‘truth’ and ‘illusion’ are raised with even greater insistency than is apparent in Schiller, which is not to say that identical solutions are proposed to them. Oscar Wilde's calculated inversion of the mimetic dependency of art upon nature in ‘The Decay of Lying’ (1889) (‘Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction’) is only the most well-known and seemingly unambiguous assertion of the transpositionality of normative relations between binary oppositions often associated with aestheticism. Indeed, through its sustained and self-conscious interrogation of the boundaries between art and life, aestheticism might well be defined as an aesthetic of transpositionality par excellence; one in which the activity of moving across or between opposing positions within a single textual, discursive, or cultural domain is most intensively foregrounded.

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Chapter
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Translating Life
Studies in Transpositional Aesthetics
, pp. 277 - 296
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2000

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