David Sweeney Coombs, “The Sense and Reference of Sound; or, Walter Pater’s Kinky Literalism” (pp. 487–514)

This essay explores the erotic possibilities of literal reading by strategically fetishizing the recurring figure of harmony in Walter Pater’s essay “The School of Giorgione” (1877) and his other post-Renaissance writings. I read Pater’s invocations of harmony literally with help from the scientific acoustics of the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, which achieved immense popularity in Britain at just the moment that Pater made his famous declaration that all art aspires to the conditions of music. Both Pater and Helmholtz understood perception as an act of reading bodily sensations in which reference—our attention to the objects we infer to be present in the world around us—constantly threatens to overwhelm our awareness of the sensations themselves. In his work on acoustics, however, Helmholtz singled out musical harmony as an experience uniquely susceptible to the mental effort to distinguish discrete sensations during the act of perception. Oscillating between sense and reference, harmony exemplifies the rhetorical logic of what Pater calls literal metaphors—figures whose figurative significance can be fully accessed only by taking them literally. The most emblematic of Pater’s literal metaphors is the Paterian figure itself, at once human form and trope. To take Paterian figures literally, this essay suggests, is to reimagine literal reading as a form of kink—a fetishizing of the sensory forces through which a figure affects and dominates us.

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