In Lorrie Moore's masterpiece of climate fiction, A Gate at the Stairs (2009), the college-matriculating protagonist Tassie describes her mother's love as "useless," because she fails to prevent her son from dying in Afghanistan.1 As the plot unfolds, Tassie becomes a surrogate mother herself, eventually describing her own maternal love as "useless" (317). In other eras, literary mothers whose love fails might have found themselves on critical couches, invited, along with their daughters, into the domains of psychoanalytic theory. But Moore was writing in the era of "post-critique," a moment when scholars questioned the urge to search compulsively past the surface for deeper meaning a moment in which, as Jennifer Fleissner has aptly put it, "the object has returned, announcing, scandalously enough, that it may in fact be what it seems."2 And indeed nothing in this novel particularly compels a return to Sigmund Freud or his heirs as a way to plumb mothers' uselessness. Is A Gate at the Stairs, then, a post-critical novel? Moore's jokey moves toward flatness might suggest as much: "That's a load of crap," someone yells halfway through the novel, and Tassie thinks, "I've seen a load of crap" (157). During an inane discussion among academics, Tassie overhears, "This is such bullshit" and informs the reader, "I had seen bullshit. I had seen chickens run after it and eat it warm" (190).

But Moore does not endorse Tassie's literalization, instead presenting it as a habit of mind to overcome. Tassie informs us that her mother, Gail, left lists of chores for her children on Post-it notes when they were growing up. Tassie transforms this practice, sticking the little squares to the frame of her mirror with poetry on them: "I'm no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills its own mirror to reflect its own / Effacement at the wind's hand" (74). Hardly flattening mothers, as we shall see, Moore ties them to beauty in A Gate at the Stairs, encapsulating the drama that for Freud emerged as the prime unconscious referent in Tassie's citation of these lines from Sylvia Plath's "Morning Song." Moore does not bring Plath into her novel to cast Gail in Tassie's Oedipal drama, nor does she produce the mothers of A Gate at the Stairs as creatures of post-critical surfaces. Instead, she deepens her fictional world by allegorizing the aesthetic in the idea that mothers must ultimately be useless, turning to Plath in order to present Gail in terms of the beautiful poetic image of mothers as elemental origins subject to "effacement" in molecular transformation. When, towards the end of the novel, the almost-adult Tassie likens Gail to a "gale," the idea that human development entails the effacement of mothers who yet exist everywhere who become, ultimately, something like air is rendered explicit (284).

In the Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant distinguishes the aesthetic from that "which pleases only as a means" and is therefore "good for something."3 The aesthetic has no "purpose" he says, and in this it is more valuable than objects that "only" please instrumentally, or, as a "means."4 Moore invites us to consider the beautiful uselessness of her fictional mothers in relation to Kant's ideas by depicting the Critique as one of the books Tassie reads over a warm Christmas break. In what follows, I will take Moore up on this invitation to argue that in both A Gate at the Stairs and her earlier story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in the Peed Onk," Moore reignites Kant's idea that the aesthetic is useless in order to challenge ideas about the literary produced in English departments while she was writing. During the 1990s and 2000s, as the air conditioners cooling Moore's classrooms worked overtime, she dedicated herself to exploring how climate change might inform her task.5 As we shall see, we find in Moore's fiction a suggestion that the end of the world is a bad time to kill off the aesthetic. Moore indeed produces links in A Gate at the Stairs between instrumental beauty and a broader commitment to use that is destroying the planet.

Bringing Kant into A Gate at the Stairs as a projected guide for analyzing it was a cheeky move. Moore published A Gate at the Stairs in 2009, not a hospitable time for psychoanalytic reading or any version of "critique" but hardly Kant's moment either. 2009 in fact saw the publication of two groundbreaking works of literary criticism whose widespread institutional influence suggests as much: Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of the Creative Writing Program and "Surface Reading: An Introduction," by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus. I am going to show in what follows that Moore's useless maternal emerges as a rejoinder not to either of these works specifically, of course, but to the ideas of the literary entailed in them, those circulating when Moore was writing. As we shall see, Moore's metafiction takes academese as a foil, folding into her narrative a rejection of literary interpretations that dismiss the idea of an aesthetic as such. This rejection is enabled by the irony Moore injects into her work, her humorous skepticism about how academics might receive the aesthetic. There are traces of the ideas that crystallized in "Surface Reading" and The Program Era in Moore's fiction, that is, but they are incorporated to be rejected, brought in to be undone by an aesthetic that neither makes itself available on surfaces nor reduces to the referentiality of campus novels.

For McGurl, American fiction written in the years following World War II yields a strikingly stable referent: "the program." The postwar American novel, he argues, "cannot help pointing towards the unglamorous institutional practicalities of literary life in the postwar U.S. and beyond."6 In this, the campus novel is not simply a subgenre: "insofar as the discipline of creative writing conjoins the project of authentic self-expression with the 'machinery' of the program, I'm not sure that the term isn't applicable to postwar fiction as a whole."7 McGurl's formidable book traces "the fate of U.S. literary modernism after World War II," locating in its postwar incarnation traces of literature's newly bureaucratized, scientific context. Where "the discipline of creative writing conjoins the project of authentic self-expression" with "machinery," modernism looks different, transforming into "autopoetics," a "tendency," as McGurl defines it, to "involuted self-reference in these aesthetic formations" that emerges in new incarnations of modernism: "high cultural pluralism," "technomodernism," and "lower-middle-class modernism."8 These aesthetic expressions within "program era fiction" are, in McGurl's study, instances of modernist form altered by the "science-oriented universities of the Cold War Era."9 The novel's forms, in McGurl's argument, came to be constrained by postwar authors' interface with Cold War university practices and protocols. Flannery O'Connor's fiction emerges, for example, as subject to a "masochistic aesthetics of institutionalization," her "classic style," he says, a "literary version" of "homeostasis, as when a thermometer registers the heat it has triggered as too high and temporarily shuts the heater down."10 Although homeostasis is a point of comparison here, the derivation of O'Connor's version of modernist style from scientific process is not incidental but rather compelled by the identification of the university's presence in her form.

Neither the author's "masochism" nor her institution would be sought in the "post-critique" world that Fleissner describes. In one of the most potent articulations of this tendency, "Surface Reading: An Introduction," Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus advocate for a new kind of reading that eschews depth entirely. Best and Marcus convey skepticism about what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called "paranoid" reading, and in the name of "accuracy" and "truth" affirm a practice that echoes Kant's idea of a non-instrumental aesthetic:

We think, however, that a true openness to all the potentials made available by texts is also prerequisite to an attentiveness that does not reduce them to instrumental means to an end and is the best way to say anything accurate and true about them.11

Best and Marcus explain further that they "want to ask what it might mean to stay close to our objects of study, without citing as our reason for doing so a belief that those objects encapsulate freedom."12 Reading the textual object by adhering to surfaces does not "encapsulate freedom" for Best and Marcus, but is "itself a kind of freedom."13 Best and Marcus decline to note allegiances between Kant and their ideas in the "Manifesto," preferring instead to explore the idea that attention to surfaces is the way for literary critics to achieve this freedom.

"What had I learned thus far in college?" (263), Tassie asks herself. In the answer to this question, literary ideas hatched in universities come under Moore's ironizing whip: "Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney," Tassie concludes from the "Intentional Fallacy": "the creation itself had a personality and hopes . . . and little winks and dance steps" (264).14 Moore allegorizes the novel's institutional notions in order to undo their importance, ultimately performing this operation to affirm aesthetic depth. Back at her parents' farm after her brother's death, away from school, Tassie transforms a tennis court that has long been overgrown with weeds into a "sanctuary," making a "reading device" there by hanging the pages of books from a string she ties across the posts that once held the tennis net (296). Dousing herself with insect repellant by spraying it into the air and walking through the cloud like "cologne" Tassie lies down face-up on the court and reads poetry by Rumi and Plath, as well as recipes from a cookbook (289). Reading the "flattened and unstrung" pages of her assorted texts, Tassie explains that "the shade of these words" creates a "magical tent." Moore depicts Tassie's sanctuary as affording freedom, imperfect though it may be, from a world whose destruction is framed in terms of its uses. Her reading area on the tennis courts is a "sanctuary from the bobcats and graders" of nearby land developers:

When I grew weary of Rumi, I put up Plath, whose brisk, elegant screams I never grew tired of, until I did, and then desiring something different yet again I began to hang recipes of things, carefully dismantled from old cookbooks my mother no longer wanted. I would study their notation, their confident sorcery, their useful busyness. They were the opposite of poetry except if like me you seldom cooked and then they were the same. (289)

Whereas the events of 9/11 reverberate symbolically all over A Gate at the Stairs as dangerous invasions into Tassie's everyday existence, the ethnic suspicion 9/11 generated is presented in this scene as having shifted instead of racism it is eros (Tassie falls in love with an Islamic terrorist), and here that change is expressed as absorption into Islamic poetry under the "magical tent" outside of the world's imperative to use. Alongside poetry by Plath and Rumi, moreover, in this space cookbooks lose their "useful busyness." Close reading renders cookbooks useless, and this makes recipes the "same" as poems. The physical tent describes the mental space poetry in this sanctuary affords the withdrawal into uselessness is construed as a "freedom" that separates Tassie from the bobcats and their use of the earth. While it must be acknowledged that Tassie finds this uselessness in acts of repurposing finding new uses for the obsolete tennis courts and the paper from her books even those strain at uselessness. The tennis court is penetrated by bug "repellent," for example, and this is surely a sign of Tassie's inability to remove herself fully. But just as Tassie transforms recipes into poems, she wears the repellent as "cologne," producing as aesthetic even bug spray. As the toxin regrettably works in coordination with bobcats, we are meant to understand, so too the attempted withdrawal into the useless poetry of recipes must be imperfect.

A Gate at the Stairs has been described as "neo-Victorian," and indeed Moore's novel ends with a rewriting of the line that appears towards the end of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Jane's acquiescent "Reader, I married him" becomes the badass postfeminist Tassie's "Reader, I didn't even have coffee with him."15 But the Victorian novel is only one of many genres that make up A Gate at the Stairs. Along with Kant's Critique and Disney, Moore weaves in snippets from pop songs (Tassie enjoys the British band Cream and Diana Ross), menus, James Joyce's fiction, cookbooks, and the Bible. The absence of an organizing canon, the material pastiche: it is tempting to resort to Fredric Jameson here, and to describe Moore's combinatory logic in his terms as producing postmodernist form.16 I want to suggest instead that the various styles and genres in A Gate at the Stairs coalesce into a sense of formal autonomy into something like the "magical tent" affording Tassie a space of withdrawal and that Moore in fact uses them to re-create a sense of the aesthetic, one whose apparent opacity has been codified as modernist but that strains against any institutional codification at all.17 John Guillory argued that the "difficult" literary form canonized by New Critics and championed by T. S. Eliot creates spaces of "withdrawal" within the literary.18 Neither "neo-Victorian" nor postmodern, Moore's narrative produces something else again, something that affords this kind of withdrawal but imperfectly, with flashes of literalism. In this sense, we might understand A Gate at the Stairs as part of the turn in the early 2000s that Walter Benn Michaels identifies as "neo-modernist."19 Rather than a modernism formulated and constrained by the Cold War "institution," as McGurl's arguments would lead us to conclude, Moore's transformation of non-canonical and even non-literary texts into useless aesthetic objects asks readers to consider fiction in relation to Kant's idea that beauty is non-instrumental. This is a version, perhaps, of what Guillory described as "Kant's autonomous aesthetic."20 Whether or not literary critics buy it, Moore projects this aesthetic into spaces not available on surfaces, producing a new version of modernism not easily assimilated to the institutional "fate" assigned to it by McGurl.

Just as Moore depicts the campus in order to show that A Gate at the Stairs is not a campus novel, she portrays surfaces to produce ways past them. Moore thematizes her pull towards modernist autonomy by associating useless reading in A Gate at the Stairs with the depth found in Joyce's fiction, depicting Tassie's emotional development forward as a foray backward through literary history. Tassie's bildung takes place, that is, on a trajectory from her contemporary attachment to surfaces toward a Joycean symbolic register characterized by depth. Home for the holidays, "flopped across my bed in my old room," Tassie explains, the idea of reading Joyce, into whose work she delves along with Kant's Critique, comes to her through a humorous randomizing homophone: "Christmas music from the radio downstairs, playing through all twelve days of it, wafted up: 'Rejoice, rejoice,' sounded like 'Read Joyce, read Joyce' and so I did, getting a head start on my Brit Lit" (64). The link between this inane line in the Christmas carol and Joyce's work is just one way that Moore calls attention to the unsatisfying nature of the flatness characterizing Tassie's world. As noted, we also find Tassie transforming idioms into forms of literal reference, when, midway through the narrative someone yells, "That's a load of crap," and Tassie thinks, "I've seen a load of crap" (157). During a pointless discussion about race among academics, one character says, "Well, that's hogwash," and Tassie informs the reader, "I had once seen a hog washed" (190). A "crock" (199) and "bullshit" (200) get the same treatment: "I had seen quite a few crocks in my life"; "I had seen bullshit." Homophones and the literal produce surfaces as hard ends from which Moore depicts Tassie as seeking escape in the depths of "Brit Lit."

Moore depicts the literal that ensnares Tassie as enforcing indelible links to the overheated, dying world throughout A Gate at the Stairs. The move from this contemporary tendency to a deeper symbolic terrain in modernist autonomy is enabled by "books that were rabbit holes of escape." (64) It is a move to the depths of Joyce from the dead end of the literal, which Moore suggests is more important to life at the end of the world than attachments to surfaces would suggest. A few years after Moore wrote A Gate at the Stairs, The New Yorker's Kathryn Schulz pointed out that the term "rabbit hole" had come to be linked to distractions of the internet, and although in this passage Moore clearly refers to Lewis Carroll's The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, Tassie is also subject to "rabbit holes" enabled by computer searches.21 We find her "aimlessly roam[ing] the Internet" [sic] in the novel, "click[ing] this and then that" (124) eventually coming across an obituary written about another person with her exact name (161). It is as if the dimensionality Carroll creates for Alice has for Tassie collapsed has become available but in her own death, the only alternative reality on offer here in this world whose limit is anxiously reproduced in surface-y jokes. Moore returns Tassie from the nowhere of internet rabbit holes to literary ones, replacing her plunge into distracted information with a better one into fictional depth a different space through a different "gate."

Moore affords her reader an "escape" into literary depth right along with Tassie. As Tassie reads Joyce in her old room, Moore's sardonic narrative becomes notably less jokey. The world around Tassie appears unironically beautiful, as the landscape of her farm transforms into an aestheticized version of itself that bears no resemblance to the literalizing "bullshit" that characterizes her flat environs.22 The "sky purpled," Tassie reports, "and roaring bursts of light seemed briefly to set fire to the snow as if it were the dusty landscape of a moon" (64). Although Moore reveals no specific work by Joyce, the snow that "at last did pile up" outside of Tassie's window in this scene recalls Joyce's "The Dead," which ends with a more seasonally appropriate snowfall (64). Joyce's narrator explains that the protagonist Gabriel's "soul swooned slowly" while imagining snow as it piles up on the "spears of the little gate" and "falling faintly through the universe."23 There is a Gabriel in A Gate at the Stairs, too: a four-year-old whose extravagantly negligent mother Sarah Blink allows him to be left on the side of a highway and killed by oncoming traffic. Both this preventable tragedy and the belated snow surrounding Tassie connect the novel's literalizing symbolic mode to the inability to move forward as the extinction of the planet looms. Reading Joyce produces a "rabbit hole" away from this futureless experience that contrasts internet searches. Paradoxically, so does the Joycean portrayal of climate change. Bringing Joyce into her novel allows Moore to create a conduit from one Gabriel to another from the dead child to Joyce's character. Climate change rendered in aesthetic terms produces the earth as "the moon," similarly conveying Tassie to another plane. Moore distinguishes these plunges from those enabled by the internet clicks that remind Tassie that there is no future that she is already dead portraying symbolic depth as allowing for a sense of futurity that refuses literalism's ends. In this sense, the aesthetic emerges as comfort. The image of a snowy lightning storm on a moon-like earth is clearly peculiar to climate change. But as a contrast to the dead version of Tassie arrived at through clicks of the finger, this version of escape presents beauty even in imminent ends detracting from the sense of death that produces it by creating a comforting limitlessness in beauty. Here, in the refusal of ends, we find Moore trafficking in Kant's notion of infinity in the sublime. From the "tree as a measure of the mountain," Kant argues, one moves to the "earth's diameter," and then to the "known planetary system." From here, we move to "the Milky Way; and the immeasurable host of such systems, which go by the name of nebulae . . . holds out no prospect of a limit."   Kant notes that there is no end to the expansion, for in "the aesthetic judging of an immeasurable whole, the sublime does not lie so much in the greatness of the number, as in the fact that in our onward advance we always arrive at proportionately greater units."24 It is the "gate" at ends, we might say, through which Moore presents both Joyce's "The Dead" and the earth's terrifying beauty as leading Tassie an "advance" in which literalism's limits lead Tassie to "proportionately greater units."

I have already noted that Tassie describes Gail's love as "useless." As it turns out, however, although Tassie's quip engages the broader alignment in the novel between mothers and a comforting useless beauty, Moore presents Gail as a failure. Moore's mothers are frequently authors, and so they are capable of enabling the sort of aesthetic that expands beyond hard limits into infinity. Not Gail. With this unloving mother who is also nearly blind, Moore literalizes the inability to see past limits that characterize contemporary life. Tassie describes her mother's inability to see as itself visible in the "kaleidoscope of blood vessels burst, petunia-like, in her eyes, scarlet blasting into the white from mere eyestrain" (9). Moore associates Gail's blindness both with her bad mothering and with her tendency to instrumentalize beauty, for example in the way she misreads her husband Bo's cultural capital as capital when they first meet. The son of a college president, Bo had lived in a house with columns: "she thought there'd be money . . . but she hadn't realized there was none: the house was owned by the college" (54). Her blindness is linked as well to a confusion about the flowers around the "old brick house" on the farm they eventually buy. Although it has a "falling-apart shed and barn," we discover, the house also has "flowerbeds gorgeous with pansies and impatiens":

she didn't understand that those particular flowers were annuals, and so she waited for them to return the next year, feeling dashed and betrayed when they didn't. Another mirage! But eventually she learned to plant her own. And for a while she was a pro. Until she got too tired. That was when she installed mirrors in the flowerbeds, slowly learning the art of mirage herself. (54)

Both domiciles are adorned with beautiful objects one with columns, the other with flowers but Moore depicts Gail's experience of them as a failure of the aesthetic. Gail experiences the columns as bound up in her judgments about the potential for the raw economic means they promise. The collegiate columns live in the world of use, that is, as indications of her future husband's class status rather than as beauty for its own sake. She experiences the beauty of the flowers around her brick house as a compensatory version of the columns; her surprise at their death suggests she expects permanence from them that she had expected from the columns. The failure of the flowers to deliver on permanence when they die recalls the failure of the columns to deliver on the economic permanence they appear to indicate the guarantee of class status. Thus, Gail cannot experience beauty except as instrumental, and the suggestion is that, as useful, beauty devolves into "mirage."The flatness of the flowers reflected in the mirrors signifies this instrumentality, their depthlessness linking Gail with a failure of aesthetic depth.

These are the terms Tassie learns from Kant anyway, "flopped across her bed in her old room": that instrumentalized beauty is inferior to the aesthetic. Gail's failure to eschew use is perhaps why her blindness is presented as a seen quality, a sign that depth has been exchanged for flatness. Flowers provide Kant with a potent example of the aesthetic; they "depend upon no determinate concept, and yet please."25 But here, the flowers end up a bloody wound on the surface of Gail's eyeball. The "petunia-like" blood vessels offer readers a way to see Gail's blindness to the flowers as a mirage of a flower an image of a failed aesthetic object. Her inability to see signifies the failure of the aesthetic object, connects her to it in a full inversion an anti-autonomy. Where it is demanded that beauty is "good for something," Moore suggests, the aesthetic reduces to the literal, becoming in that reduction a mark of blindness. And, returning to the image of mothers as beautiful "effacement" of clouds, we note here that Tassie's use of Plath refutes Gail's reductions. The Post-it notes construe the Plath lines as mirrors of the mother's flat "to-do" items as they render Tassie the mirror image of her effaced mother. Citing Plath can be understood as Tassie's attempt to efface Gail's flatness by becoming in the reflection aesthetic depth. This relation allegorizes the shift from the surfaces to depth in Moore's fiction.

McGurl's frame might lead one to object that A Gate at the Stairs is after all a campus novel and that any notion of the aesthetic it promulgates can be explained away, along with O'Connor's sentence structure, as an expression of the university system. Moore is a program author if there ever was one, after all; she received her MFA at Cornell University and wrote A Gate at the Stairs while teaching at the University of Wisconsin. Tassie's courses in college include wine-tasting and yoga for credit, and the Joycean aesthetic she experiences can only come to her through "Brit Lit," Moore's name for what has become of Joyce in the program. And in fact, there are all kinds of ways that A Gate at the Stairs seems to affirm McGurl's diagnosis. For example, when towards the end of the novel Tassie asks rhetorically, "What had I learned thus far in college?" (263), the answer that comes is a glib account of the relation, to which I have already referred, between New Criticism, deconstruction, and Walt Disney:

I had also learned that in literature perhaps as in life one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself. The creator was inconvenient God was dead. But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent. In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney. The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings! (263-264)

We find this reflexive relation between Moore's fiction and ideas hatched in university English departments in Moore's story, "People Like That are the Only People Here," published ten years prior in her collection Birds of America.26 In the earlier work, we find a creative writing instructor portrayed as a Marshall Field's manager spewing creative writing truisms: "I mean, the whole conception of 'the story,' of cause and effect . . . is just a laughable metaphysical colonialism perpetrated upon the wild country of time" (BA 222). Moore presents this mashup of creative writing advice and literary criticism, delivered by the store manager to a traumatized author-mother, who is trying to craft a story out of her baby's recent cancer diagnosis, to clarify what McGurl describes as the reach into fiction of the program and the economic regime it ultimately feeds. The portrayal of the author as mother here is meant as a block to that reach, to produce some part of human experience as off institutional limits. The useless beauty in A Gate at the Stairs performs the same function; creates a space beyond Derrida and Walt Disney.

The mother in "People Like That" tells her husband that she cannot write the story:

Sweetie, darling, I'm not that good. I can't do this. I can do what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. I can do screwball outings with the family pet.... I do the careful ironies of daydream. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built. But this? Our baby with cancer? (BA 223)

Although the mother describes the baby with cancer as "narrative slop" that "cannot be designed" (BA 223), however, what the story offers is precisely design. "How can it be described? How can any of it be described?" (BA 237), asks the mother in "People Like That." Part of the problem, part of what makes the story hard to tell, is that it is the mother, with the "mind-wrecking chores" of motherhood, "the same ones over and over again" (BA 217) ("you need a brain for that?," she asks) who must tell it. "The narrator," she explains, "is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler's mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say" (BA 237). "All that unsayable life!" the Mother explains, "That's where the narrator comes in. The narrator comes in with her kisses and mimicry and tidying up. The narrator comes in and makes a slow, fake song of the mouth's eager devastation" (BA 237). Telling the story may be bound up with the institution, Moore suggests, but as a project involving "kissing" and "tidying up," it is also something else here, a "mind-wrecking" chore of motherhood, but one that offers a glimpse into what is "unsayable," even if from the vantage of a necessarily diminished narrative. In ironizing the creative writing program as a limit, that is in presenting the institution as bureaucratic and small Moore aligns herself with the ideas McGurl makes explicit. But she does not thereby advance the idea that the aesthetic can only be understood in bureaucratic terms. McGurl's readings leave the impression that everything related to creative writing, including creativity itself, should be understood in reduced terms, as expressed by the program and its science- and class-based interests. There is "a deep continuity," says McGurl, "between creativity and R&D, and nowhere more so than on the campus."27As "centers of basic and applied research," he notes further, modern universities "lend aid to the development of the local, regional, and national economies they inhabit, doing their bit for the unending project of capitalist 'creative destruction.'"28 Moore affirms these limits, but in pointing to spaces beyond them, to something she calls here "all that unsayable life." Without disputing the idea that universities serve capitalist ends, we can look to Moore to ask a question that McGurl ensconced, as Moore was, in a university whose commitments might just as easily emanate from literary scholarship as from a novelistic aesthetic declines to ask: what might campus novels produce outside of those ends?29 Moore asks readers to understand the "design" as only part of the story, producing something at a remove from its hard limits something like the earth as the "dusty landscape" of a "moon." One way to put this would be to say that in Moore it is the mother who dramatizes the possibility of infinite beauty, that move from limited measures to "proportionately greater units."We have seen that Gail's tendency to instrumentalize beauty registers her failure in this regard. She fails as a mother, with her "indifferent reserve" (9), and this indicates her inability to enable comfort in infinite beauty. Where her mother fails, though, Tassie succeeds, even if only as a babysitter. The toddler in Tassie's charge, Mary-Emma, is adopted by Sarah Blink, negligent mother of the dead Gabriel. Sarah is just adopting Mary-Emma when Tassie starts the job, but social workers eventually remove the child from Sarah's home because they find out about the negligence charge that Sarah had omitted from her adoption application. Midway through A Gate at the Stairs, we find Tassie holding Mary-Emma against her bare breast: "though she was too old," Tassie explains, "when her bedtime arrived, I lifted my shirt and bralessly rocked her to sleep in the upholstered glider in her room, both of us falling asleep there" (145). Mary-Emma is the only African American character central to events in the novel. In this room, Tassie creates an escape for her from bad-faith conversations about race by white academics: "Contentious shards of discussion floated upward like dust shaken from a rug," Tassie notes. "It had all begun to sound to me like a spiritually gated community of liberal chat" (186). Sarah does not want Tassie to teach Mary-Emma to sing "I Been Working on the Railroad," because, as she tells Tassie, "subject-verb agreement" is an "issue when raising kids of color" (222). I want to suggest that the image of Tassie offering her non-lactating breast to the two-year-old who does not need breast milk is like the cookbook pages in the "magical tent" she creates at the end of A Gate at the Stairs, and like that space beyond to which the mother in "People Like That" points as well. Just as the useless "kissing" in "People Like That" indicates the "unsayable" beyond "design," the simulated nursing reaches toward useless experiences of beauty outside of the program, outside of its bureaucratizing and class-based interests. Babysitting is Tassie's college job, so in some ways Moore extends McGurl's point to suggest that even mothering is a function of the program. Where McGurl helps us understand nursing as a campus activity, however, Moore uses it to project us towards a space beyond the campus, aligned with both Tassie's close reading of cookbooks and "unsayable life."

Tassie bonds with Mary-Emma more successfully than Sarah ever manages to, and toward the end of the novel, Tassie explains that she "had never stopped unconsciously to seek" Mary-Emma, "riveted by little girls who would be her age in stores or malls and parks" (317). Tassie imagines that all the mother figures in Mary-Emma's life, including Sarah, must still look for her as well:

A little girl with four women wondering after her, looking for her, sort of, without her even knowing. That was love of the most useless kind, unless you believed in love's power to waft in from a burning sky to the unseen grass it had designated as its beloved, unless you believed in the prayers of faraway nuns, unless you believed in miracles and magic, rapture and dice and Sufic chants and charms behind curtains and skillful clouds at smoky, unfathomable distances. (317)

The novel's parodic tone here is like Moore's use of the literal in the rest of the novel; it creates a limit preventing the simple acceptance of "belief" in a transcendent space characterized by "love's power" to remedy the "burning sky." "I've seen bullshit," we recall Tassie telling us. Perhaps we can describe these limits in terms of Henri Lefebvre's musings about the everyday. "Genuine Anguish," he argues, "the anguish of a lost child, or a primitive man lost in the jungle, of a being who feels utterly weak and helpless in the face of nature, such anguish escapes us."30 The everyday is by definition limited, Lefebvre indicates, constrained by a prior restriction on authentic feeling, the paradigmatic example of which is lost children. Lauren Berlant has described everyday hope as "cruel optimism."31 But this passage at the end of A Gate at the Stairs describes something else, since the enigmatic consolations listed as the conditions for a maternal love that would be useful are funneled into Tassie's pessimistic inability to have them, and more broadly into an ethos of secular disbelief that places them out of reach. Although Moore's ironic stance thus prevents "belief" in any sort of faraway design or cause whether "rapture," "dice," or "miracles" her prose does invite us to imagine something else. A Gate at the Stairs is not optimistic in the cruel way Berlant means, but in a more promising way, imperfectly projecting something outside of the everyday, outside of the campus an aesthetic beyond hard ends, a transcendence legible in the beauty of "skillful clouds at smoky, unfathomable distances."

These clouds recall the cloud in Plath's "Morning Song": "I'm no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills its own mirror to reflect its own / Effacement at the wind's hand." (74). In Plath's poem, mothers are crucially pointless. To be a mother is to selflessly get out of the way to "reflect" that which effaces you. In connecting these "skillful" and "distant" clouds to the mother in Plath's poem, Moore indicates that the "kissing" and "tidying up" of narrative also comes along with the loving beauty of this "effacement." The mother's love is the residual, transient experience of beauty left by a disappearing cloud. Moore mines the idea of the mother as paradoxically both required and useless to define authorship under a "burning sky." I want to suggest that both the mother and authorship enable Moore to affirm forms of aesthetic beauty apparently foreclosed by their institutional genesis. Moore's presentation of maternal erasure is a defense of the aesthetic. In narrating the importance of useless maternal love to vulnerable children, moreover, Moore mocks the idea that literature should be useful.

"I feel like I'm always writing politically, in some way," Moore says in a 2014 interview.32 To make the case for a useless aesthetic is hardly to retreat into the apolitical. On the contrary, it is to acknowledge the importance of a comforting infinity in a limited life. Rita Felski's observation that women, relegated as they have been to the everyday, find themselves "outside, and in some sense antithetical to, the experience of an authentic modernity" is apropos here.33 As Moore reasserts the aesthetic, she too can be said to seek restoration of the relevance of mothers to realms that exceed the everyday. At the dawn of the American Century, Lionel Trilling called for a "straightforward prose, rapid, masculine, and committed to events," and it is hard not to read Moore's maternal aesthetic in climate change as a response to the masculinist ethos Trilling articulated in 1950.34 As American potency wanes, Moore affirms that fiction still matters to humans. What we need, however, is not "masculine" prose "committed to events," but prose that resembles the "kisses" and "tidying up" of mothers narratives offered up in the effort to save sick babies. Is there a use implied in Moore's aesthetic after all? A feminist affirmation of beautiful non-use? Trilling argued that when readers know "a story for a story," we become aware that the author must "contrive" and "invent" to create it, and that the author is thus a "symbol of liberty."35 Perhaps by producing rabbit holes away from use, Moore hopes to create an experience that contradicts "bobcats" so that readers can know something of existence without imminent ends.

Looking back on my own work over the years, I note that my own reading practices are rooted, at least in part, in what I learned from reading Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts. Freud's willingness to cede to artists--"Before the problem of the creative artist, the analysis must, alas, lay down its arms"--is perhaps an instructive here. 36Anahid Nersessian and Jonathan Kramnick argue that form can only be grasped if we adopt a "literary disciplinarity without apology." Sandra Macpherson, as well, calls for a "turn away from history without shame" that does not "hold form, and formalism, accountable to history" as "ransom."37 Like these later articulations of form's value, the 2009 works under examination offer ways to think past the hagiography surrounding all things STEM in the first decades of the twenty-first century: McGurl's in identifying tangles of institutional influence in form, the "Manifesto" in focusing attention on form as that which gives literature meaningful specificity. Moore adds to reclamations of literary value the suggestion that literary form might be good for nothing, demonstrating that the post-critical stance is not adequate. I think literary critics ought to take this point, and with Freud, acknowledge that artists are onto something we can't explain away. That literary beauty might have value beyond use can be understood as an offering to literary critics. We could do worse than looking to literature to find evidence of its worth.

Florence Dore is professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is author of Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll (Columbia University Press 2018) and The Novel and the Obscene: Sexual Subjects in American Fiction (Stanford University Press, 2010), and the editor of The Ink in the GroovesNovelists and Musicians on Literature and Rock 'n Roll (Cornell University Press, under contract). She has published articles at Nonsite.orgPublic Books, L.A.R.B., and Contemporary Literature, and is also a musician finishing her second record (Daniel 13). She released Perfect City (Slewfoot Records) in 2001.

In This Issue

Part 1

Introduction: Formalism Unbound
Timothy Aubry and Florence Dore

Good for Nothing: Lorrie Moore's Maternal Aesthetic and the Return to Form
Florence Dore

On Philosophical Imagination and Literary Form
Yi-Ping Ong

"Now can you see the monument?" Some notes on reading for "form"
Gillian White

Transformation and Generation: Preliminary Notes on the Poetics of the Memphis Sanitation Strike
Francisco Robles

The Sight of Life
Sarah Chihaya

Beyond Desire: Blackness and Form
Amber Jamilla Musser

Part 2

Form contra Aesthetics
Timothy Aubry

Zadie Smith's Style of Thinking
David James

Queer Formula
Joan Lubin

Formalism at the End Times: A Modest Account
Danielle Christmas

Furnishing the Novel, Feeding the Soul: Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Benjamin Widiss

Notes on Shade
C. Namwali Serpell

Afterword: Form Now: as Limit and Beyond
Dorothy J. Hale


  1. Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs: A Novel, 1st ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 60. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. []
  2. Jennifer L. Fleissner, "Romancing the Real: Bruno Latour, Ian McEwan, and Postcritical Monism," in Critique and Postcritique, ed. Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 99. []
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, ed. Nicholas Walker, trans. James Creed Meredith, Revised edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 39. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. I am less interested in finding a historical cause for fictional negotiations with climate change than I am in exploring them, but certainly worries about warm winters and melting circulated in the decades during which Moore wrote these works. See "2009: Second Warmest Year on Record; End of Warmest Decade," Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet, accessed September 21, 2020; and "'Global Warming Stopped in 1998'-Only If You Flagrantly Cherry Pick," Grist, November 8, 2006. []
  6. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 3. []
  7. Ibid., 230. []
  8. Ibid., 32. []
  9. Ibid., 4. []
  10. Ibid., 128. []
  11. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, "Surface Reading: An Introduction," in "The Way We Read Now," ed. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, special issue, Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 16. []
  12. Ibid., 15. []
  13. Ibid., 15, 16. []
  14.  William K. Wimsatt, "The Intentional Fallacy," Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 468-88. Tassie does not refer to this essay by name, but the reference is clear. The passage begins with the reflection that "I had learned that in literature perhaps as in life one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself" (263-264). []
  15. Susan Civale, "'Reader, I Did Not Even Have Coffee with Him': Lorrie Moore's Adaptation of Jane Eyre (1847) in A Gate at the Stairs (2009)," Studies in the Novel 48, no. 3 (2016): 343-363. []
  16.  Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991). []
  17.  For more on the opacity of modernist forms, see Richard Godden, Fictions of Capital: The American Novel from James to Mailer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); Mark Goble, Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). Goble argues that modernism's apparent opacity is at bottom penetrated by media forms. For a discussion of modernism in relation to autonomy, see Charles Altieri, "Why Modernist Claims for Autonomy Matter," Journal of Modern Literature 32, no. 3 (Spring 2009): 1-21. For a challenge to the idea that the aesthetic is an "ideological support of the modern capitalist state," see Jonathan Loesberg, A Return to Aesthetics: Autonomy, Indifference, and Postmodernism (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2005), 1. []
  18. Guillory, Cultural Capital, 165. []
  19.  Walter Benn Michaels, The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). Michaels identifies "neo-modernism" in photography, poetry, and a few novels that include Maggie Nelson's 2005 Jane: A Murder. In all, he identifies a shift away from the indexical and towards "perfect" versions of aesthetic "totality" disconnected from the world. He focuses on photography by Viktoria Binschtok, Phil Chang, Liz Deschennes, Arthur Ou, and Brian Ulrich. Michaels. See also Sean McCann, "The Soul of Man Under Neoliberalism: Walter Benn Michaels and the Salvation of Modernist Art," Politics/Letters Quarterly (blog), May 28, 2018. McCann explains of Michaels' view of these artists: "They were trained to be postmodernists. They reinvented modernism." Sean McCann offers a potent critique of this reading, arguing that the evils of class will not be revealed by a neo-modernist work of art: "however beautiful it might otherwise be, a photograph with a black blotch on it will not show me inequality any more than a kitschy one will successfully hide it if I wish to see the truth." McCann argues that Michaels's idea of neo-modernism is descended from Kant; Kant's aesthetic is valuable, in McCann's reading, because it allows us the "free ourselves from interest and determination and in so doing achieve a perception of freedom and justice that transcends the injustice of the empirical world." The refusal of what would come to be called "kitsch," McCann argues, as well as the affirmation of a class motivated definition of "high art," was at the root of the notions Michaels inherits from Kant. The exchange between Michaels and McCann is instructive to my own sense that while freedom in the Critique may indeed be understood to move towards an idea of liberation that can be ultimately joined to politics, Kant seeks a less instrumental idea of the aesthetic. McCann, "The Soul of Man Under Neoliberalism"; Walter Benn Michaels, "Form and Class: A Response to Sean McCann," Politics/Letters Live, July 1, 2018; Sean McCann, "A Reply to Walter Benn Michaels," Politics/Letters Live, July 10, 2018. []
  20. Guillory, Cultural Capital, 25. []
  21.  Kathryn Schulz, "The Rabbit-Hole Rabbit Hole," The New Yorker, June 4, 2015. []
  22.  For an analysis of jokes as limits in Moore, see Robert Chodat, "Jokes, Fiction, and Lorrie Moore," Twentieth Century Literature 52, no. 1 (2006): 42-60. Whereas one might see Moore's jokes as "alternative worlds," he argues, the jokes are "set off by" what he calls "a fundamentally realistic framework" (52, 58). I take him to mean that the jokes keep to the limits from which I am suggesting these "rabbit holes" afford escape. []
  23.  James Joyce, Dubliners (Clayton: Prestwick House, Inc., 2006), 168. []
  24. Kant, Critique of Judgment, 87. []
  25. Ibid., 39. []
  26.  Lorrie Moore, Birds of America: Stories (New York: Vintage, [1998] 2010). Hereafter cited in the text as BA. []
  27. McGurl, The Program Era, 20. []
  28. Ibid. []
  29.  Does declining to ask this question count as cultural capital? The same question could be asked in relation to Walter Benn Michaels, who reads the formal autonomy in the "neo-modernist" works he analyzes as registering the indifference of the neoliberal economic structures bolstering income disparity. In A Gate at the Stairs, we find a construal of such views as themselves potentially bureaucratic as instrumental and thus insufficient models for understanding literary beauty. Timothy Aubry raises the question whether Marxist literary criticism, for example the ideas in Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, is itself cultural capital. See Timothy Aubry, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018). Aubry is interested as well in tracing literary value occurring outside of academic settings. See his Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011). []
  30.  Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, trans. John More (London: Verso, 2008), 125. []
  31.  Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). []
  32.  Charles McGrath, "Lorrie Moore's New Book Is a Reminder and a Departure," The New York Times, February 17, 2014. []
  33.  Rita Felski, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 81. []
  34.  Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: New York Review Books, 2008), 271. My sense of links between Moore's fiction and Trilling's humanism grew out of one of the many wonderful conversations I have been lucky enough to enjoy with Jennifer Fleissner. []
  35. Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, 270-271. []
  36. Sigmund Freud, "Dostoevsky and Parricide," in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, vol. 21 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1976), 177[]
  37.  Jonathan Kramnick and Anahid Nersessian, "Form and Explanation," Critical Inquiry 43, no. 3 (2017): 650-69; Sandra Macpherson, "A Little Formalism," ELH 82, no. 2 (2015): 385. []