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Quaint, ExquisiteVictorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan$
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Grace E. Lavery

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780691183626

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: January 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691183626.001.0001

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Quaint, Exquisite

Grace E. Lavery

Princeton University Press

This chapter follows Michel Foucault's distinction between a “history of ideas” and a “history of thought.” It treats the aestheticism of the late 19th century as representing the social form of aesthetics itself. Here, the chapter argues that it was through the embodied and socially embedded practices of cultivating beauty that the exquisite limits of aesthetic thinking were formulated as a historical problematic. By this, the chapter contends that while British aestheticism's engagement with Japan plugged into the hole of Kantian subjective universal, by supplying a set of objects immediately, absolutely, and universally legible as beautiful, it also brought painfully close to home the narcissistic threat of the Other Empire. Thus, one essential element of the idea of Japan for Victorians was that, by the paradoxical virtue of being extremely far away, it could flesh out and formalize relations that were ruinously close.

Keywords:   aestheticism, cultivating beauty, aesthetic thinking, British aestheticism, Japanese craftsman, Oscar Wilde, J. A. M. Whistler

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