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This article is taken from PN Review 201, Volume 38 Number 1, September - October 2011.

'Cost and Care': The Aesthete's Progress John Lucas

Johnson did not think much of connoisseurs. In his Dictionary of the English Language he gives the word in italics in order to demonstrate its French associations, and he defines a connoisseur as 'A judge; a critick: it is often used of a pretended critick'. He then quotes Swift: 'Your lesson learnt, you'll be secure / To get the name of connoisseur', where to sound the rhyme word fully requires an exaggerated twist of the lips. Not surprisingly, there is no entry for 'aesthete', because in 1755 the term didn't exist. According to the OED it first appears in the late nineteenth century and defines 'A person who professes a superior appreciation of what is beautiful; in British universities, a studious person (op.hearty)'. Aesthesis, though, originates a century earlier: 'The perception of the external world by the senses'. But value judgement - 'superior appreciation' - belongs to a later moment. 'Of or pertaining to the appreciation or criticism of the beautiful or of art... Of a person having appreciation of the beautiful; refined'. This, the OED says, takes hold in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

There are further definitions, but they needn't detain us. I once pointed out how the nineteenth-century use of the term 'refined' loads the term with meanings that try to justify class distinctions as 'natural'. Those who are refined are of purer blood than the rest. Hence, the description in Disraeli's Sybil (1845) of a character called Aubrey St Lys, ...

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