Futile Pleasures: Early Modern Literature and the Limits of Utility

Futile Pleasures: Early Modern Literature and the Limits of Utility

Futile Pleasures: Early Modern Literature and the Limits of Utility

Futile Pleasures: Early Modern Literature and the Limits of Utility


Against the defensive backdrop of countless apologetic justifications for the value of literature and the humanities, Futile Pleasures reframes the current conversation by returning to the literary culture of early modern England, a culture whose defensive posture toward literature rivals and shapes our own.

During the Renaissance, poets justified the value of their work on the basis of the notion that the purpose of poetry is to please and instruct, that it must be both delightful and useful. At the same time, many of these writers faced the possibility that the pleasures of literature may be in conflict with the demand to be useful and valuable. Analyzing the rhetoric of pleasure and the pleasure of rhetoric in texts by William Shakespeare, Roger Ascham, Thomas Nashe, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton, McEleney explores the ambivalence these writers display toward literature's potential for useless, frivolous vanity.

Tracing that ambivalence forward to the modern era, this book also shows how contemporary critics have recapitulated Renaissance humanist ideals about aesthetic value. Against a longstanding tradition that defensively advocates for the redemptive utility of literature, Futile Pleasures both theorizes and performs the queer pleasures of futility. Without ever losing sight of the costs of those pleasures, McEleney argues that playing with futility may be one way of moving beyond the impasses that modern humanists, like their early modern counterparts, have always faced.


Simply, a day comes when we feel a certain need to loosen
the theory a bit, to shift the discourse, the idiolect which repeats
itself, becomes consistent, and to give it the shock of a question.
Pleasure is this question.

—ROLAND BARTHES, The Pleasure of the Text

Early in the Legend of Temperance, the second book of the 1590 edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Guyon, the Knight of Temperance, and his spiritual guide, the Palmer, stumble upon a fountain next to which a woman, Amavia, lies bleeding to death while her baby boy, later given the name Ruddymane, splashes around playfully in a gruesome mixture of the fountain’s water and his mother’s blood. Amavia tells Guyon that she stabbed herself because her husband, Mortdant, had fallen victim to the wiles of Acrasia, the Circean enchantress who presides over the Bower of Bliss, the legend’s supreme emblem of intemperate pleasure and the setting for its climactic events. After Amavia dies, Guyon and the Palmer bring Ruddymane to a castle occupied by three sisters; with Medina, the temperate middle sister, they ultimately entrust the baby. At the end of canto 2, Medina asks Guyon to tell his story, which he then proceeds to do, recounting the events that set him on his quest and led him to find Ruddymane. When he interrupts the story, claiming that it is “too hideous to be told,” Medina gently encourages him to continue:

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