Vexed: On Resistant Attachment

At a moment when literary critics wonder whether the reflexive urge to “stand back” from an aesthetic object impoverishes critical encounters with works of art, Vexed asks: why suppose that distance, obstacles, and constraints impede aesthetic pleasure? On the contrary, Vexed proposes that critical guardedness intensifies rather than weakens aesthetic sensation.

“Vexed,” in this book, names both an affective state and a critical disposition. I characterize this state as one of resistant attachment: a state in which contradictory impulses vie for expression—for example, the desire to draw closer but also to flee. 

Literary incarnations of resistant attachment, I show, both model and solicit this critical disposition. Vexed, then, is about how attachment operates in literature, but also about how literature operates upon its readers. 

Each chapter of Vexed thus focuses on a literary text in which distance, obstacles, or negative feelings facilitate rather than impede attachment. In each chapter, resistant attachment exhibits itself in ways that model the phenomenological experience the artwork also solicits in its reader. In the examples I discuss—from Homer’s Odyssey to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—receptivity and resistance to aesthetic experience rub shoulders; the urge to rest vies with the urge to pursue; imprisonment enlivens as much as it stifles; love and hate are close cousins; distance fosters passion; and epistolary intimacy is predicated on inaccessibility.

At the same time, Vexed reflects on how literary criticism as a set of practices exemplifies resistant attachment. I propose that literary criticism’s protocols—its idioms, conventions, and postures, the very qualities that might seem impediments to attachment—are in fact expressions of and devices for generating attachment. Literary criticism’s constraints enable rather than inhibit a greater range of attachments, and a deeper receptivity to aesthetic objects. 

1 Stefano della Bella (Italian, Florence 1610–1664 Florence) Plate 6: a triton and a siren fighting at center, their legs as scrollwork, a swan to right, the grotesque head of an old man below, from 'Friezes, foliage, and grotesques' (Frises, feuillages et grotesques), ca. 1638-1643 French, Etching; Sheet: 2 9/16 × 4 15/16 in. (6.5 × 12.6 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Phyllis Massar, 2011 (2012.136.101.6)