Four Moments of Aesthetic Experience

Four Moments of Aesthetic Experience

Reading Huysmans, Proust, McCarthy, and Cusk

By Bryan Counter

Anthem symploke Studies in Theory

This book examines the novels of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Marcel Proust, Tom McCarthy and Rachel Cusk to reconsider aesthetic experience as it has been articulated in Western philosophy.

Hardback, 200 Pages


June 2025

, $110.00

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About This Book

This book examines the question of aesthetic experience in the novels of Joris-Karl Huysmans, Marcel Proust, Tom McCarthy and Rachel Cusk in order to propose a reconsideration of aesthetic experience informed by literature and philosophy in equal measure. The introduction suggests an alternative four moments (of aesthetic experience) to Kant’s four moments of aesthetic judgement, derived in part from my four literary authors respectively: curation, quietness, violence and disconnection. Taken collectively, the four moments show the danger of becoming too invested or interested in aesthetic experience, as well as patience and openness toward the creative act of writing. While these four moments are not meant as determinations, taken together, they offer a picture of aesthetic experience as involuntary, subject to chance and resistant to calculation on the part of the aesthetic subject. Besides contributing to the scholarship on each of the four novelists, this book advances a theory of the aesthetic that shifts away from the framework of judging objects to focus instead on experience and how it is articulated both within and beyond literature. It is here that the theory of aesthetic experience benefits from literature’s singularity: no one text or passage can serve as an example that would adequately circumscribe the field of aesthetic experience, just as no one philosophical example could, and yet the reflective nature of the literary text demands a rigorous look at aesthetic experience without the restrictions of a totalising philosophical system.
The two ‘negative’ moments – represented by Huysmans’s À rebours and McCarthy’s Remainder – besides ending poorly for the protagonists, wind up with a foreclosure of aesthetic experience. For Huysmans’s Des Esseintes, who attempts to sustain aesthetic experience at will via curation, the fantasy falls apart, leaving him ill and necessitating his dreaded return to society. For McCarthy’s unnamed narrator who is engaged throughout the novel with various projects of re-enactments, the story ends violently, with bloodshed and a plane hijacking. Theoretically, these novels provide a cautionary tale about the impulse to seek out and even domesticate the aesthetic object.
On the contrary, the two ‘positive’ moments – represented by Proust’s Recherche and Cusk’s Outline trilogy – each involve narrators and characters who are invested in the creative act of writing. Two particular critically underrepresented passages from Proust can help articulate the ‘quiet’ moment of aesthetic experience: without relying on works of art, they are theoretically compelling in their refusal to theorise themselves, unlike the more popular passages from the novel. Cusk’s novels present the moment of disconnection – that is, the sense of an experience being dislodged from any particular narrative or plot. And yet, each of the characters in question are creative writers, meaning that this everyday feeling of alienation tends to factor into a productive, artistic impulse.
In conclusion, these four moments are tied together as they pertain to the nature (and boundaries) of aesthetic experience in general. Just as Kant’s four moments of aesthetic judgement seem to be grouped in pairs – disinterest and purposiveness without purpose on one hand, and universality and necessity on the other hand – these four moments can be grouped and set apart to help reconsider what we mean when we talk about aesthetic experience.


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Author Information

Bryan Counter completed his PhD in Comparative Literature at SUNY Buffalo and currently teaches in the English departments at Western New England University and Framingham State University.


Anthem symploke Studies in Theory

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