upper-class British usage of the word, than to appetite; here, then, is a theory of aesthetics that admits of desire.
Amit Chaudhuri: unpublished thesis on D H Lawrence (1993)
Man of many snipes, - I will sup with thee, Deo volente et diabolo nolente, on Monday night the 5th of January, in the new year, and crush a cup to the infant century.
A word of my progress. Embark at six o'clock in the morning, with a fresh gale. . . land at St Mary's light-house, muffins and coffee upon table . . . snipes exactly at nine, punch to commence at ten with argument; difference of opinion is expected to take place about eleven; perfect unanimity, with some haziness and dimness, before twelve. - NB My single affection is not so singly wedded to snipes; but the curious and epicurean eye would also take a pleasure in beholding a delicate and well-chosen assortment of teals, ortolans, the unctuous and palate-soothing flesh of geese wild and tame, nightingales' brains, the sensorium of a young sucking pig, or any other Christmas dish. . .
Charles Lamb to Thomas Manning
27 December 1800
CHARLES LAMB is looking forward to a wonderful dinner with lots of drink and talk, but he introduces a term - "unctuous" - that was current among his friends and which they applied to works of art they admired. Nowadays, this word is wholly negative - anyone described as "unctuous" or "oleaginous" is clearly unpleasant, like Dickens's "large, greasy, self-satisfied" Mr Chadband.
But for Lamb and his friends, a poem, painting, novel or play that was oily, unctuous, marrowy, juicy, was utterly admirable. They knew that the word traditionally carried the idea of deep spiritual meaning and also signified real enjoyment, acute pleasure. So they employed it as a term of the highest praise, just as kids now use "safe" of someone they really like and admire.
Unfortunately, unctuousness has had its day. As Chaudhuri argues in his brilliant study of Lawrence, Western critics use a restricted language which excludes the physically immediate senses, touch and taste, or admits them only in order to express disgust - eg "tacky". Quoting Jacques Derrida, Chaudhuri shows that because we only talk about "seeing" and "learning" in criticism, we wall off "sensation, collision, eroticism, and the surface"; we are governed in our appreciation of art by "distancing, clarity, logic, perspective, and the ideal". Thus we banish the body and exclude desire.
Is it possible to achieve a more integrated appreciation of art? Or must we be forever missing that "erotics of art" which Susan Sontag recommends? Which is a way of asking if it's possible to make critical prose aspire to the grace and movement of the human body. …