Richard Adelman, Idleness and Aesthetic Consciousness, 1815-1900

Richard Adelman, Idleness and Aesthetic Consciousness, 1815–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 248 pp. $84.00 PDF. £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781108424134

Richard Adelman’s Idleness and Aesthetic Consciousness, 1815–1900 is the second volume in a project concerned with the fraught relation between the concepts of labour and aesthetic contemplation in British literature, cultural theory, and political economy. In many respects, readers would benefit from familiarity with Adelman’s first book in which his discussion of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments exposed an internal fault line between two divergent ideas of human nature: on the one hand, our inherent inclination to work, and, on the other, our natural preference for states of repose and ‘the absence of exertion’ (Adelman, Idleness, Contemplation and the Aesthetic, 1750–1830 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 10). The present volume, described by the author as ‘an account of the complex ways in which Victorian culture inherited, and reassessed, the intellectual legacy of its early nineteenth-century and late eighteenth-century forefathers’ (9), finds these two ontologies continuing to antagonise and modify one another in the Victorian period. In his earlier study, Adelman had also traversed the various definitions of idleness in the Romantic period before settling upon one denoting the contemplation of aesthetic forms and natural scenes. Although Adelman begins his new book using Middlemarch’s Will Ladislaw to indicate the long association of aesthetic contemplation with idleness, it would have been helpful had Adelman spent more time dwelling on his sense of the capaciousness of idleness and the place of aesthetic contemplativeness within it, for his tendency to use ‘repose’, ‘idleness’, or ‘aesthetic contemplation’ as though they were synonymous may appear odd to readers. In other places, however, the author impressively weaves earlier discoveries and conclusions into this second volume.

The chapters in which Adelman closely reads a smaller range of authors are the most illuminating in this book – particularly the first chapter, in which poems by Shelley and Keats are examined. Adelman offers the poetry of these second-generation Romantics as a final hurrah for mostly affirmative literary depictions of aesthetic contemplation. For although in Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ there is a marked anxiety regarding the risks which beset the passively receptive mind, Adelman finds that the metaphysical dangers of self-disintegration, and doubts regarding the authenticity of the ‘moral knowledge’ won in passivity, are overshadowed for Shelley by the rewards of the ‘seemingly externally driven mental activity that occurs in aesthetic contemplation’ (27, 25). There is a similarly positive stance taken upon aesthetic repose in Keats’s work. Here, Adelman explores ‘negative capability’ as a model of contemplation with a radical political and social vision on its horizon: a negatively capable society in which humankind’s greatest achievement would be ‘the ability to not work and to not produce, but to be idle and to receive’ (44). Crucially, at the turn of the century, both Keats and Shelley are continuing to figure aesthetic consciousness as a natural and untutored state of mind, universally accessible to all.

In Chapter Two, Adelman traces a shift in the psychic landscape of the period – one in which contemplative postures begin to be appear in far more ambivalent form, especially in the work of contemporary economic commentators. While Ricardo and Malthus write of labour as an arduous and largely objectionable activity, a mode of being ‘precariously sustained’ in the face of the far more desirable condition of ease, passive forms of engagement with the world come, nevertheless, to connote species of ‘moral vice and useless dissipation’ (54, 62). Adelman concludes that inactivity – despite Malthus’s recognition of its value within modern commercial life – is regarded as a threat and a challenge to ‘competition, utility, economic advancement, and […] private property’ (62). Among these mid-century theorists, Adelman singles out John Stuart Mill as an outlier with strong allegiances to the Romantic poets who sustained him during the spiritual crisis of his youth. Adelman introduces Mill’s Political Economy as a work of synthesis – a mode of economic thought endeavouring to reconcile the moral and social benefits of contemplation with economic activity. Mill is exceptional, Adelman contends, in that he not only seeks to rescue idleness from its conflation with unproductive dissolution, but is also openly critical of an economic system which unfairly rewards an already torpid bourgeoisie with greater contemplative time, while condemning the working population of Britain to live without it.

Adelman represents Mill’s efforts to give equivalent weight in human life to the distinct undertakings of labour and contemplation as ill-starred. Chapter Three sees the Carlylean ‘gospel of work’ predominate the cultural scene to such an extent that the category of idleness is itself transformed ‘into an arena for diligent and arduous work’ (113). A little too summarily, Adelman surveys Carlyle as he absorbs the aesthetics of idleness into the concept of labour so that work now includes an ‘inward, meditative, spiritual disposition not strictly acknowledged in that term’ (92). But the capture of aesthetic experience by the ideology of labour reaches its apotheosis for Adelman in Marx, who posits ‘the work of artistic creation as the ultimate example of unforced, unrestricted human labour’, thereby fully expropriating aesthetic consciousness from the idle mind to root it in the activity of work (94). Adelman’s discussions of Carlyle and Marx give way to a survey of some key mid-century poems by Tennyson (‘The Lotus-Eaters’), Arnold (‘The Scholar Gypsy’), and Hopkins (‘Spring and Fall’), in which aesthetic contemplativeness divorced from an ideology of labour is positioned as the antithesis of rationalised consciousness and cast into a mythic, unrecoverable past. Adelman’s third chapter is hugely rich in the material it gathers, but this abundance feels, at times, as though it is preventing Adelman from giving greater attention to the more subtle and contradictory texts; certain points are also left tantalisingly underdeveloped.  

Adelman offers to offset the abduction of repose by the ‘gospel of work’ by attending to its apparent recovery in the cultural studies of John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and Walter Pater. These writers, Adelman argues, hoped once again to create a category of aesthetic idleness discrete from labour by contending ‘explicitly for the powers and pertinence of idle aesthetic contemplation’ (114). Yet the distinction to which they gesture finally lacks substance as each goes about representing aesthetic consciousness as an arduously cultivated, ‘laboured’ state of mind. What was once, for the Romantics and German Idealists, a democratic and innate faculty is now imagined, Adelman concludes, as the attainment of culture’s ‘apostles’, ‘requiring careful and regular attention, practice and work’ (128). Adelman sets the professionalization of aesthetic consciousness within the context of a civil unrest which tested ‘commitment[s] to the innate and egalitarian model of aesthetic capability’, but the strain between the breadth of Adelman’s survey and the depth of the discussion from which these texts and contents would benefit again feels pertinent here (185).

The subject of the book’s final chapter perhaps least rewards Adelman’s keen critical eye, for while Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ respond well to the author’s thesis that ‘the vampire narrative becomes the occasion to dramatize the triumph of diligent, social, moral labour over apparently solipsistic and transcendent idleness’, these texts don’t offer Adelman the knotty, aporetic positionings of a Das Kapital or Sartor Resartus (162). This is a lucidly written and very valuable study in an area of research that is growing ever more germane to our present lives; Adelman’s attentiveness to the social and political promise which resides within the vita contemplativa is particularly moving and welcome.

Adelais Mills, University College London