Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

A Fountain, a Spontaneous Combustion, and the Mona Lisa: Duchamp's Symbolism in Dickens and Pater

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

A Fountain, a Spontaneous Combustion, and the Mona Lisa: Duchamp's Symbolism in Dickens and Pater

Article excerpt

In linking together, seemingly through force of critical will, three heterogeneous aesthetic entities--an artwork, a symbol within a literary work, an interpretation of an artwork that most take as a symbol within a larger work variously seen as interpretive and literary--this article means to solicit not only the question of how these entities relate to each other but of what it means to consider Victorian literature through the perspective of postmodernism. Indeed, the answer to that second consideration also responds to the first question. If, following the model of various literary theories in their treatment of Victorian and other literature, one argues that various aspects of Victorian literature were really already postmodern, one calls the propriety of the term into question in a special way, because postmodernism has as an important part of its self-definition its complete break with what has gone before. (1) Consequently, a postmodern aspect of Victorian literature, hence something at least chronologically pre-modernist, could not arise from a break with the past and immediately would indicate that that aspect of the literature was not really postmodern at all. Any discovery of such an ostensible postmodern Victorianism would, upon this realization, lose at least some of its piquancy. On the other hand, applying a postmodern concept or model as a tool for understanding Victorian literature would seem to be a particularly arbitrary undertaking. Because postmodernism means to break with its past, the understandings it yields of events and objects that are part of the history leading to that break will be pre-determined by its theory of its own break. It will construct a history that both prepares for and ends with the break it defines for itself. And this will be true even if the break is a real one because, real or not, its cause will be a change in intellectual perspective, not a natural event. Any interpretation of Victorian literature and art will, therefore, already be implicit in that history and thus redundant at best. And even though I have been using the terms "postmodern" and "Victorian" in an inexcusably monolithic way, any more nuanced definition of the terms that even minimally preserved their historical elements would still fall prey to the same contradictions.

But the second of these paths, using an example of postmodern art as a microscope of thought, as Walter Pater, quoting Victor Hugo, would have it (189), will be the direction of this article. Its protection against the redundant conclusions of a reproducing microscope will be the arbitrary limitation of "postmodernism" to the questions raised about art by Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" and its heirs, thus removing from the term its historical implications while insisting on its aesthetic significance. I will, then, concentrate on the particular features of Duchamp's readymade as a model for reading the Dickensian symbol and the Paterian interpretation, or at least reading the causes of the critical responses to them. The first aspect common to Duchamp's "Fountain" and these two Victorian moments I hope will seem evident without much argument. They have all been, if for different reasons, critically scandalous. They have all called attention to themselves as excessive gestures, needing critical explanation, usually an explanation that explains them away. Excessiveness is not peculiarly postmodern, though. Duchamp's presentation of a urinal as an artwork, however, has a number of features that does recommend it as having retrospective explanatory power. First, in order to account for the significance of "Fountain," one needs to move beyond the usual understanding of it as little more than a conceptual joke that swallows up its own object. But, at the same time, to understand the value of the object, we have also to recognize that that value strangely tolerates a separation from the art object so extreme as to call into question whether "Fountain" has ever existed simultaneously as an artwork and as an actual object. …

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