To Relish the Sublime?

To Relish the Sublime?:Culture and Self-Realization in Postmodern Times

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Martin Ryle and Kate Soper reflect critically on the enduring ideal of ‘culture’ as the means of intellectual development, exploring the tensions and contradictions between it and the contemporary world of work, pleasure and consumption

More than 130 years from Matthew Arnold’s pronouncement that human beings 'must be compelled to relish the sublime', education in the humanities still relies on the ideal of culture as the means of intellectual development. In this distinctive and original work, Martin Ryle and Kate Soper explore the growing tensions and contradictions between this and the contemporary world of work, pleasure, and consumption.

While critical of the hypocrisies and elitism that can attach to notions of cultural self-realization, the authors nonetheless defend its overall educational and social value. Their wide-ranging discussion takes in critiques of philosophers from Kant and Schiller to Nietzsche and Marx, and includes historically contextualized readings of novels by Wollstonecraft, Hardy, Gissing, London, and Woolf. In their sustained defense of a conception of personal worth and self-fulfillment for its own sake, Ryle and Soper not only offer a powerful critique of the continuing dominance of work in contemporary society, but also provide a compelling alternative to the standard postmodern skepticism about the relevance of high culture.


  • The idea of culture as a means of self-realisation and an embodiment of universal values has been derided by most progressive critics for more than a generation, and by many reactionary ones too. But perhaps they have all been wrong. This well-informed study of history, politics and literature makes an eloquent case for reinstating it: a powerful and timely book.

    Jonathan Ree
  • In a time when culture is said to be ‘everything’, Ryle and Soper are prepared to say what culture is opposed to, and thus to salvage its scarcity and its value. Defending what culture can do for the stubbornly persistent self, their untimely meditation on politics and aesthetics announces the twilight of the Nietzscheans and the dawn, perhaps, of a new cohabitation of cultural politics with literary pleasure. Brave, subtle, and passionately intelligent, this book is a much-needed plea for belief in the culture to which we also demand more democratic access.

    Bruce Robbins