Fallen eloquence: Mannerist aesthetics in twentieth-century American literature
Finch, David Zachary
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"Fallen Eloquence: Mannerist Aesthetics in Modern American Literature" explores how rhetorical excess underwrites both the aesthetic power and the claims to authority made by a key genealogy of American writers including Henry James, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. Drawing on the history of the visual arts movement of the late Renaissance, when Mannerism first emerged, I develop a modern mannerist aesthetic to account for the singularity of these writers who inhabit the otherness of language so artificially. In the context of the alienation experienced by subjects living under conditions of modernity, mannerist practice foregrounds the unnatural nature of language, the reification of discursive forms, and the authority of prescribed models, usages, idioms and customs. By exaggerating these norms to the point of distortion, the mannerist writer transforms language from a site of alienation to a site of conspicuous mastery. The hyperbolic and belated eloquence of the mannerist sensibility reveals "genius" to be the mythological result of a highly plastic operation. At the same time, mannerist virtuosity performs a negative capability that draws out the pure pleasures of linguistic materiality in a way that transcends the politics of style and presences the potentiality of the writer's agency. This definition of a trans-historical mannerist aesthetic circumvents the traditional binaries of modernism / postmodernism and romanticism / the avant-garde in order to show that a parasitic linguistic economy, in which imitation precedes originality, underlies the potency and the authority of this important group of writers.