Aesthetic power: electric words and the example of Frederick Douglass

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Author: Paul Gilmore
Date: Dec. 2002
Publisher: University of Rhode Island
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,164 words

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In his 1845 Narrative, Frederick Douglass speaks of a slave's argument for freedom in The Columbian Orator as giving "tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance" (42). Later, after being "broken" by Mr. Covey, Douglass comments that occasionally, still, "a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul accompanied by a faint beam of hope" (58). These metaphors of flashing hopes and thoughts do not immediately have any specific referent, but with his description of the Christmas holidays acting as "conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity" (66), Douglass begins more clearly to evoke the discourse of electricity, and with his 1855 revised autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, he makes the allusion more explicit when he refers to these conductors as "electric" (291).

Douglass's allusions to electricity correspond with the increasing prominence of electrical technology and science, and especially the telegraph, in abolitionist visions of political and social transformation. In these moments, however, the electric flashes refer first and foremost to a deep emotion or desire that serves to link Douglass with his readers through what we might call sentimental electricity. Electricity, in this sense, becomes a figure of what Jane Tompkins has called "sentimental power," the belief as epitomized by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), that the power of an "electric word" (544), as she describes "liberty," lay in its ability to make people "feel right" (624). According to Stowe's sentimental project, "[a]n atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race" (624). In the antebellum United States, however, electricity, as a metaphor of mysterious, swift, shocking effects, figured not only sentiment and religious communion but also a closely related idea of aesthetic power.

While the claims of aesthetic ideology, in particular notions of art as a separate realm of cultural production and reception detached from the everyday world of economics, politics, gender, and race, have recently been demolished by a variety of theoretical schools, I will argue that Douglass turns to what I take to be at the core of eighteenth; and nineteenth-century aesthetic thought: the ideal of a realm of beauty where geography, history, and identity disappear in an ineffable, yet sensual experience, a bourgeois dream of reconciling the soul and the body, the self and other, freedom and necessity, human will and nature. Developed as a supplement to human reason, eighteenth-century ideas of the aesthetic, culminating in Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), envision the sensual experience of the beautiful or the sublime as bridging the gap between subjective reaction and universal law. With continental, British, and American Romanticism, the subjective nature of individual experience and consciousness was emphasized and celebrated in terms of the individual creator's imagination. Through the individual's relationship with nature and the notion of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A95914247