In Search of the Lost World: The Modernist Quest for the Thing, Matter, and Body

by Tsaiyi Wu (Shanghai Normal University)

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Against the tendency to conceive modernist experimentation as defined either by subjectivity or by its eradication, Tsaiyi Wu argues for the attempt to exceed the human as itself a project of aesthetic self-cultivation. Offering exciting readings of writers from Baudelaire to Woolf, “In Search of the Lost World” makes an eloquent, distinctive contribution to important debates in literary studies.

Professor Jennifer Fleissner
Indiana University Bloomington

A champion for the obscurity and extravagance of the material world, Tsaiyi Wu however gives aesthetic values to the various mediations through which human consciousness apprehends it. Art objects, in particular, are material things that act upon us—giving voice to the “yearning toward the material world” that is a central feature of modernist art and modeling for us a spectrum of ontologies that respect the primacy of matter over mind.

Professor Jacob Emery
Indiana University Bloomington

In Wu’s many-sided study of modern art, she discovers a unified reach beyond the human skull and dives into the great lost world of true material beauty. In this book, one will be brought into a meditation on the dreams of stones, unrequited love of inorganic objects, crystallization of aesthetic sensations, and also leave challenged to see freshly how art objects recreate our relationships with the world.

Micah Tewers
Artist, filmmaker, lecturer

From a historical perspective, the book studies how modernist artists, as the first generation who began to rethink intensively the legacy of German Idealism, sought to recreate the self so as to recreate their relationships with the material world. Theoretically, the book converses with the topical de-anthropocentric interests in the 21st century and proposes that the artist may escape human-centeredness through the transformation of the self.

Part One, “Artificiality,” begins the discussion with the fin-de-siècle cult of artificiality, where artists such as Theophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, J.K. Huysmans, and Gustave Moreau dedicate themselves to love stony sphinxes, marble statues, and inorganic appearances. The cult of artificiality is a mischievous subversion to Hegel’s maxim that inwardness is superior to matter. In the cult of artificiality, art is superior to nature, though art is no longer defined as immaterial imagination but rather reconfigured as mysterious appearances that defy signification and subjugate the feeling heart.

Part Two, “Auto-philosophical Fiction,” discusses the genre where the artists (Marcel Proust, Walter Pater, and Virginia Woolf) set philosophical ideas in the laboratory of their lives and therefore translate their aesthetic ideals—the way they wish to relate to the world—into a journey of self-examination and self-cultivation. In Pater’s novel 'Marius the Epicurean', the hero explores how a philosophical percept may be translated into sentiments and actions, demonstrating that literature is a unique approach to truth as it renders theory into a transformative experience. Exploring the latest findings of empiricist psychology, the artists seek to escape the Kantian trap by cultivating their powers of reception and to register passing thoughts and sensations.

Together, the book argues that de-anthropocentrism cannot be predicated upon a metaphysics that presumes universal subjectivity but must be a form of aesthetic inquiry that recreates the self in order to recreate our relationships with the world.


I. The Field of Conversation
II. The Research Question
III. The Historical Footing

I. Pygmalion’s Statue
II. A Dream of Stone
III. Spirituality of Dandyism, and of Cosmetics
IV. The Style of Inorganic Things
V. Huysmans’s Artificial Paradise
VI. Summary of Part One

I. Empiricist Psychology
II. Receptivity and Memory
III. Pater’s Imaginary Portrait
IV. Proust's Irony
V. Woolf’s Universal Sensation, and Her Problems with Writing
VI. Remembrance of the House
VII. Summary of Part Two



Tsaiyi Wu received her PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature at Indiana University Bloomington in 2019 and is now a lecturer at the Center for Comparative Literature and World Literature at Shanghai Normal University. Her research focuses on modernist interests in mysterious materiality, fleeting sensation, and bodily memory. Her articles have been published in journals including 'Philosophy East and West', 'Open Philosophy', and 'International Comparative Literature'.

French and British modernism, de-anthropocentrism, aesthetics of the self

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Book Title

In Search of the Lost World: The Modernist Quest for the Thing, Matter, and Body





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Publication date

May 2023