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Arthur Salvo, Columbia University, German Literature

Transformations of the Beautiful: Beauty and Instability in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century German Literature

 “Transformations of the Beautiful” examines the devaluation of beauty in aesthetic discourse—a problem that emerges during the mid-eighteenth century—and explores its reception in contemporaneous German literary texts. Whereas current research suggests that beauty’s relevance was threatened by the rediscovery of the aesthetic category of the sublime, my project complicates this issue by focusing on the role that philosophies of history played in beauty’s decline. Although the sublime offered an aesthetic alternative to the beautiful, I contend that historico-philosophical thought possessed a conceptual framework that rendered beauty’s relationship to the contemporaneous present problematic. Authors such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich Schlegel develop a model of history that situates the beautiful in classical antiquity and insists upon a historical rupture between it and modernity. Thus beauty becomes incongruent with, or anachronistic in, the modern (post-classical) era.

Beauty’s problematic status in modernity was also registered in literary discourse. Assembling a constellation of literary works by Winckelmann, Schiller, Goethe and Jean Paul that address the beautiful in terms of its temporality, historicity and instability, I demonstrate that these texts constitute instances in which literature confronts beauty’s precarious position. In my analysis of these texts I am particularly interested in isolating moments of transformation within the text—moments in which the beautiful is reconfigured—in order to understand how these literary texts seek to negotiate beauty’s instability. My reading of Winckelmann’s “Beschreibung des Torso im Belvedere zu Rom,” for example, shows how Winckelmann describes not the statue proper, but his own imagination of its restoration to a state of wholeness. Description thus becomes a means of counteracting the statue’s destruction by history and making its beauty visible to a contemporary viewer. Similarly, my chapter on Schiller illustrates how he repurposes the ancient form of the elegy in order to perform a task that befalls the modern poet: mourning the ‘pastness’ of beauty and simultaneously preserving it in poetic memory.

Organized by genre—description, elegy, the novel, and dramatic verse—each chapter of my dissertation examines how different literary forms respond to the crisis of beauty in modernity. In so doing, I show that literary discourse—far from simply replicating definitions of beauty found in philosophical aesthetics—reestablishes and reconfigures, stabilizes and destabilizes, the relationship between beauty and the present. “Transformations of the Beautiful” demonstrates that coming to terms with beauty, reimagining and reforming it, became an essential part of literary modernity’s own self-understanding.