The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens
By John Plotz
Princeton University Press – £27.95
Music proceeds from sensations to determinate ideas, the visual arts from determinate ideas to sensations…. [Painting] can penetrate much further into the region of ideas, and in conformity with them can also expand the realm of intuition more than the other visual arts can do.
(Critique of Judgement)
But poets should
Exert a double vision, should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things as intimately deep
As if they touched them.
Elizabeth Barrat Browning
So begins the third chapter, ‘Visual Interlude I – Double Visions: Pre-Raphaelite Objectivity and Its Pitfalls,’ of this highly reflective, and altogether dense assimilation of the idea of two-minded, subliminal design. A book, which in all honesty, could be deemed to be several different books in one. That of the philosophical and the artistic; also that of the political and scientific.
Not to mention a literary contextualization of what binds these very varying strands together. Or, from the stand-point of being two-minded, not together.
Hence, Immanuel Kant’s nigh cut and dry assertion of there being an acute, artistic polarity betwixt music and the visual arts (music proceeds from sensations to determinate ideas, the visual arts from determinate ideas to sensations). The actual journey between one and the other – or at least the thinking that may inadvertently take place within said journey – is the fundamental premise upon which Semi-Detached – The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens is quintessentially based.
Beginning with the decline of romanticism and the inevitable rise of realism, along with John Stuart Mill’s ideas with regards social interaction and subjective perception, author John Plotz goes on to re-evaluate Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which embrace semi-detached states of the attention span as their (prime) subject.
In so doing, he wholeheartedly brings to bear that which takes place between one mind-set of compartmentalization and another.
Ho also discusses how realist writers such as Charles Dickens (hence the book’s sub-title), George Eliot and Henry James show how consciousness can be in more than one place at a time; how the work of William Morris demonstrates the shifting forms of semi-detachment in print and visual media. Yet if that weren’t enough, how Willa Cather created a form of modernism that connected aesthetic dreaming and reality!
So in all, these 243 pages (excluding a List of Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Notes, Bibliography and Index) certainly bequeath the reader with an abundance of metaphorical things to both think about and ponder over. The following being a most pertinent example: ”The innovative and unexpected ways that translucency (visual overlay of two realities on one another) and overtones (a form of aural overlay) structure both characters’ and readers’ experiences with Cather’s novel suggest […] a general property of fiction might also be understood as a curious development that overtakes and transforms late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novels […]. Making the case for Cather as a writer fascinated by moments or states of partial absorption means tracing her complex literary genealogy. Paradoxes abound […] (‘Overtones and Empty Rooms: Willa Cather’s Layers’).
As previously mentioned, Semi-Detached is akin to reading perhaps three books at the same time. As such, one needs to fully assimilate one aspect or argument before being intrepid enough to move onto the next. There again, we are talking about the aesthetic encounter with the likes of Cather and Dickens, Caravaggio and Kant.
Semi-Detached – The Aesthetics of Virtual Experience since Dickens is surprisingly confident, and given the subject matter, never, (n)ever dull. John Plotz has herein investigated a subject matter that surely warrants further investigation – of which this fine book is surely at the vanguard.