At Costanza Book Club, Pacifist Viking asserts that when watching tv or movies "what sticks in my memory are not necessarily the ideas, but the aesthetic of the work," but when it comes to literature, "I'm not sure how I read different types of writing differently. I'm not sure my mind is operating differently whether I'm reading literature (poetry, drama, or fiction), history, theology, philosophy, criticism, essays, any remotely serious writing: I'm not entirely sure there's a difference in the way I read."
This attitude toward reading is probably not uncommon (everything gets smashed together as "serious writing" and then mined for "ideas"), and the contrast between what PV looks for in visual media and what he looks for in books also betrays a no doubt common assumption about the "aesthetic": it's fine when it means noting "the beautiful image" in works no one would take seriously for their "ideas" to begin with, when pretty pictures and "colorful" characters can substitute for content in otherwise content-less entertainments, but where "serious writing" is concerned it becomes embarassing, "merely" aesthetic. Thus PV's rejection of aestheticism, whereby the "primary" focus becomes "on the aesthetic at the expense of the content."
To me it's telling that when insisting he does nevertheless have respect for the aesthetic qualities of literature, PV appeals to Paradise Lost as an example: "I adore Paradise Lost. I love the content and I love the ideas. But I also love the imagery Milton conjures. I love his poetry. I could spend a long time analyzing and discussing his art in the epic poem. It's a poem beautifully structured and containing many beautiful lines of poetry. It's a poem so rich in both art and content that I rather think it transcends any meaningful separation between the art and the ideas." Paradise Lost certainly is "a poem beautifully structured and containing many beautiful lines of poetry," but it's also a poem in which it's actually quite easy to separate the "art" from the "content," since few people who read the poem now can have much sympathy for its defense of Puritan theology--which is the only "idea" I can find in the poem-- as anything more than a historical curiosity. One loves Paradise Lost precisely because it is such an aesthetically powerful work despite its rather repellent "idea" of Christianity. It's the first work I think of when challenged to provide an example of a work of literature in which art trumps content.
PV doesn't want to let go of the belief that in literature one finds "education and edification." Perhaps this is why he is willing to leave it jumbled up with "history, theology, philosophy, criticism." Literature, like these other forms, is good for you, while the diversions provided by films and tv shows can be acceptably relegated to the "aesthetic." As I read PV's post, it seems to me that he has the most trouble separating prose fiction from the other kinds of "serious writing," perhaps because both poetry and drama exhibit their aesthetic natures somewhat more immediately. Prose fiction is less able to differentiate itself from the discursive methods of these other, non-literary forms; sometimes it imitates those methods directly. But this is no reason to collapse the differences between fiction and "history, theology, philosophy, criticism." Indeed, there's all the more reason to maintain the separation, to allow fiction to explore the possibilities of verbal art in ways that aren't so plainly visible.