Terrible Beauty: The Violent Aesthetic and Twentieth-Century Literature

November 28, 2020
Terrible Beauty: The Violent Aesthetic and Twentieth-Century Literature

If art is our bid to make sense of the senseless, there ishardly more fertile creative ground than that of the twentiethcentury. From the trench poetry of World War I and Holocaustmemoirs by Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel to the post-colonial novelsof southern Asia and the anti-apartheid plays of the South AfricanMarket Theater, writers have married beauty and horror. This"century of trauma" produced writing at once saturated in politicalviolence and complicated by the ethics of aesthetic representation.Stretching across genres and the globe, Terrible Beautycharts a course of aesthetic reconciliation between empathy andevil in the great literature of the twentieth century.The "violent aesthetic"--a category the author traces back toPlato and Nietzsche--accommodates the pleasure people take not onlyin destruction itself but also in its rendering. As readers, weoscillate between a fascination with atrocity and an ethicalimperative to bear witness. Arguing for the immersive experience ofliterature as particularly conducive to ethical contemplation,Marian Eide plumbs the aesthetic power and ethical purpose of thiscreative tension. By invoking the reader as complicit--bothstricken witness and enthralled voyeur-- Terrible Beautysheds new light on the relationship between violence, literature,and the moral burdens of art.