The Sublime Machine: Conceptions of Masculine Beauty 1750-1850

McGowan, Anthony J (1996). The Sublime Machine: Conceptions of Masculine Beauty 1750-1850. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis undertakes an investigation into the concept of personal beauty, insofar as it was applied to men, in the period 1750-1850. As a necessary first step the concept is defined. Two contemporary theories of beauty are rejected. The sociobiological attempt to incorporate an objectivist account of personal beauty into an all-encompassing evolutionary theory of human nature is shown to be incoherent, contradictory and implausible. The opposed, ultra-relativist, ‘feminist’ view, which represents beauty as nothing more than a device for the exploitation and subjugation of women, although given more credence, is also rejected.

In place of these, it is argued that beauty is a ‘mythology’, a system of interlinked narratives, of persistent archetypes and enduring themes, into which new ideas are periodically introduced and new conformations established. Despite these new elements the ‘meaning’ and the coherence of the concept are not lost - it remains possible to use the term in comprehensible way.

The main body of the thesis examines, through the work of a wide variety of authors, the meanings associated with male beauty in the specified period. Chapters are devoted to: the novels of Samuel Richardson; the art-historical writings of Winckelmann; the works of the anthropologists Blumenbach and Camper; the heroes and villains of Gothic fiction from Mrs Radcliffe to Charlotte Bronte; the doomed protagonists of Byron’s longer poems and dramatic works; and to the Leatherstocking novels of James Fenimore Cooper.

In each case the texts discussed are investigated to reveal two things: the extent to which they illustrate ideas of beauty current in society; and the influence they were to exert on the way in which beauty would be understood in the future. A number of common themes are identified running through the works discussed, in particular, the concept of the sublime, the influence of classical thought and artistic practice, and the relationship between beauty and race.

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