Vanishing Point: The Drive to Failure in Romantic Representation

Willett, Michael D. Vanishing Point: The Drive to Failure in Romantic Representation. 2012. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

Adviser: Nicholas Halmi

As the modern academy continues to remake the literary canon--to determine whether such a thing should even exist, and if so, along what lines it should be formed--the notion of artistic quality has come under scrutiny as we try to determine, amid a glut of media and a world of distractions, what artworks are worth saving, and what value, if any, is there in studying artistic failure. Within studies of British Romanticism, the notion of failure has emerged as a topic of particular, and recurrent distinction. Failures of historicity abound (Mcgann, McFarland), as do failures of attention (P. Melville), failures of revolution (Duffy, Foot), biographical failures (Bloom), mental failures (Burwick), and failures of certain poems to finish (Levinson, Rajan). What all such studies neglect, however, is the performative aspect of such failures: that, when aesthetic disaster occurs within a work, rather than within a biography, they can be considered motivated, part and parcel of the work’s meaning-making. The present work groups and explains aesthetic failures under the aegis of the theatrical. I argue that they are not accidental, but authorized and intentional, and as such, are not crippled the burden (of the past, of history, etc.) but are instead formalistic showcases of defeat that discourse on, and mean to transcend, poetic limits.

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