Discussed in this essay:
Kudos, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages. $26.
Transit, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $16.
Outline, by Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 256 pages. $16.
Jean Genet, the French novelist who spent his early years as a thief and a prostitute, once confessed to feeling a little throb of joy when he gazed on the faces of the people he robbed. The ugliness he saw there, an ugliness he had caused, aroused in him a “cruel pleasure”—a cutting, unrepentant thrill that was “bound to transfigure my own face, to make me resplendent,” he wrote in his autobiographical novel The Thief’s Journal. It was an unexpectedly aesthetic delight, and for Genet, as for Nietzsche and Henry James, Adorno and Nabokov—the great male theorists of aesthetic bliss—aestheticism’s seductiveness was not just its appeal to beauty but its exaltation of cruelty as the essence of art. “In aesthetic forms, cruelty becomes imagination,” proclaimed Adorno. “Something is excised from the living, from the body of language, from tones, from visual experience.” Good art was imitation; great art was highway robbery.