Walter Pater, Sandro Botticelli
If we had not welcomed the arts and invented this kind of cult of the untrue, then the realization of general untruth and mendaciousness that now comes to us through sciencethe realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensationwould be utterly unbearable. Honesty would lead us to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
For most of us, the Victorian essayist Walter Pater survives chiefly as a kind of literary aroma punctuated by a handful of famous phrases. Having grown up with the astringent qualms of modernismwhich ostentatiously defined itself in opposition to the earnest aestheticism of writers such as Pater we are likely to find that aroma a bit cloying. Few serious modern writers indulged themselves in prose so effulgently purple as did Pater. His meticulous adumbrations of mortal things quickened into beauty by death will strike most contemporary readers as quaint, neurasthenic, or both. Perhaps the notion that All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music, as Pater wrote in The School of Giorgione, is sufficiently abstract and elusive still to occasion productive meditation. But the idea another of Paters nuggetsthat Leonardos Mona Lisa is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave seems little more than a set-piece of timid fin-de-siècle morbidity. Even the celebrated apothegm from the conclusion of The Renaissance, Paters first and most famous book, is troublesome: To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life maybe, but for most of us the scintillations will long ago have been quenched by too-frequent repetition.
It is a matter of some curiosity, then, that the well-known literary critic Denis Donoghue should have undertaken a critical biography of Walter Pater. Although he has written on a wide range of topics and figures, including Swift, Emily Dickinson, and the critic R. P. Blackmur, Donoghue is familiar to most of his readers as a champion of high modernism and its decidedly un-Pateresque ambitions.
At least, we might have thought them un-Pateresque. It is part of Donoghues purpose in this book to restore Pater to his place as an important, though largely unacknowledged, precursor of modernism. Pater, he writes, gave modern literature its first act. The major writers achieved their second and third acts by dissenting from him and from their first selves. It is not, Donoghue thinks, so much a question of influence as of presence. He sets out to show that Pater is a shade or trace in virtually every writer of significance from Hopkins and Wilde to Ashbery.
In addition to those just named, his roster of Paters literary heirs includes James, Yeats, Pound, Ford, Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Aiken, Hart Crane, Fitzgerald, Forster, Borges, Stevens, and A. R. Ammons. The first poem in Yeatss eccentric edition of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) is a versified snippet from Paters expostulation on the Mona Lisa. The mature T. S. Eliot would take sharp exception to Pater and everything he stood for; indeed, his essay Arnold and Pater, from 1930, is a locus classicus in modernisms attack on Victorian aestheticism; but early works such as Preludes, Portrait of a Lady, and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock are instinct with a Pateresque languor, brimming as they are with personages measuring out lives with coffee spoons while they come and go talking of Michelangelo.
Similarly, the early Stevens is full of Pateresque themes and aspirations. Pater certainly does not hold the copyright on the idea (as Stevens put it in Sunday Morning) that death is the mother of beauty. But taken in conjunction with complacent peignoirs, late coffee and oranges, and the holy hush of ancient sacrifice, the identification of mortality as the condition of beauty assumes a distinctly Pateresque coloring. Again, Pater was hardly the first to favor evocation over declaration; but his style of embracing intimation echoes plainly in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
If Donoghue is right, Paters presence is more than a collection of echoes and insinuations. Whatever we mean by modernity, he insists, Pater is an irrefutable part of it. His first published essay, on Coleridge, in 1866 sounds the distinctive, disabused note: Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the relative spirit in place of the absolute. To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under certain conditions. Then, too, Paters interest in French literature and German aesthetics helped to make English literature more cosmopolitan, more worldly. And the French element, especially, opened up exotic new avenues of feeling. In brief, Pater instigated for English letters something like what such writers as Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Huysmans, and Mallarmé did for the French. He made the forbidden, the outlandish, the silent a central literary preoccupationthough he did so quietly, with the greatest possible tact. If he was a lover of strange souls (Donoghues subtitle comes from Paters essay on Leonardo in The Renaissance), if strangeness and beauty was his favorite conjunction, it was for him a matter of discriminating delectation not abandonment. In this respect, he betrays a kinship with Mallarmé, who advocated painting not the thing itself, but the effect that it produces, and who once defined poetry as a brief tearing of silence. Paters route to exquisiteness was not through absinthe, hashish, sexual extravagance, or conscious blasphemy, but via a diffident voraciousness of appreciation.
Nevertheless, despite Paters enormous reserve, there is a direct line of descent from The Renaissance (which was first published in 1873) to Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and other such turn-of-the-century manifestations of arty decadence. Mario Praz was right (in The Romantic Agony, his classic study of the literature of decadence) to identify Pater as the forerunner of the Decadent Movement in England. Not for nothing did Pater expatiate on the fascination of corruption and the poetic aspects of a countenance tinged with a deathly pallor. Algernon Swinburne was not only a friend but also a spiritual brother. Especially in his early years, Pater liked to think of himself as a champion of pagan virtues. But an underside of pagan vices clings firmly to Paters prose. G. K. Chesterton perceptively noted the duality that accompanies the championship of paganism: A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty. He washes at dawn in clear water as did the Wise Men of the Stoics, yet, somehow at the dark end of the day, he is bathing in hot bulls blood, as did Julian the Apostate.
Donoghue duly registers this aspect of Paters legacy, but he shifts the emphasis: It was Pater, more than Arnold, Tennyson, or Ruskin, who set modern literature upon its antitheticalhe would have said its antinomiancourse. That is to say, Donoghue highlights those elements of Paters achievement that anticipate the critical, Romantic side of modernism: the side that exalted art as spiritual armor suited to a secular age and that found expression (for example) in Nietzsches dictum that we have art lest we perish from the truth. (Or Nietzsche againOnly as an aesthetic phenomenon is life and the world eternally justified.) As it happens, Pater claims us less through his ideas than through his sensibility, his style. He was not, Donoghue notes, really learned in the history of art or in any of the subjects he took upGreek myths, English poetry, Greek philosophy. Indeed,
he was not an original thinker: virtually every idea he expressed can be traced to a source in English, French, or German writers. He is a force in the criticism of these subjects because he devised a distinctive style of writing about them: the Pateresque, a new color in the palette.Donoghues book is an effort to define and nurture that new color, to recommend it anew as a compensation for the diminishments and losses of modernity. It is a measure of his eloquence that he succeeds in rendering the Pateresque at least momentarily plausible; it is a measure of the limitations of his chosen subject that that plausibility remains momentary, episodic.
Mr. Donoghue has segregated the biographical portion of his story in a brief life of some seventy pages at the beginning of the book. In some ways, it is remarkable that he was able to draw it out as long as he did. Pater extended his discretion even into the minutiae of his biography: his was a life notable above all for its lack of incident. We do, however, have the usual official signposts. We know that he was born Walter Horatio Pater near Stepney in 1839, the second son and third child of Richard and Maria Pater. A fourth child, Clara Ann, was born in 1841. Paters father, a surgeon who catered to the poor, died shortly after Claras birth at the age of forty-five. The family then moved to Enfield and, later, to Canterbury. In 1854, Paters mother died, leaving the children in the care of their aunt Elizabeth. Pater was educated at the Kings School, Canterbury, and then at Queens College, Oxford, where he read widely but took an indifferent degree in 1862. While at Oxford he studied with the great Platonist Benjamin Jowett and came under the influence of Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin. He also, like so many university students then and later, used his college years as an opportunity to shed his religious faith. By 1859, Donoghue reports, Paters attitude toward Christianity was frivolous. He was, for example, overheard to say that it would be great fun to take Holy Orders without believing a word of Christian doctrine. His effort to put this scheme into effect was prevented by a friend who wrote to the Bishop of London, acquainting him with the state of Paters beliefs.
In 1862, Paters aunt Elizabeth died, and he set up house in London with Clara and his elder sister, Hester. In 1864, he won a provisional fellowship to Brasenose College, Oxford. The fellowship was confirmed the following year, and Pater settled into the pattern he would maintain for the rest of his life. Cared for by his maiden sisters, he shuttled quietly between Oxford and London, made occasional trips to the continent, and devoted himself to reading, writing, teaching, and aesthetic refinement. His circle of friends included Edmund Gosse, Mr. and Mrs. Humphry Ward, the classicist Ingram Bywater, as well as the influential Oxford don Mark Pattison and his young wife, twenty-seven years his junior, who are generally thought to have provided George Eliot with her models for Mr. Casaubon and Dorothea in Middlemarch. Paters first visit to Italy, in the summer of 1865, was a revelation. He found in the Renaissance paintings he saw in Ravenna, Pisa, and Florence the imagery of a richer, more daring sense of life than any to be seen in Oxford. It was then that he began to associate the Italian Renaissance with freedom and abundant sensuous life. In effect, the Renaissance for Pater named not a historical period but a state of mind, a promise of fulfillment.
It is here, just as Paters career is about to begin, that things get difficult for the biographer. Like his image of Botticelli, Paters life was almost colourless. Donoghue notes that most people who write about Pater assume that he must have had more life than appears, since otherwise he would have to be deemed a freak of nature. But the record shows that by comparison with his grand contemporaries, he seems hardly to have lived. Thomas Hardy, meeting Pater in London in 1886, noted that his manner was that of one carrying weighty ideas without spilling them. Deliquescence was as much a theme in his life as in his work. There are, Donoghue notes, weeks or even months in which he seems to have taken his favorite theme of evanescence and drifted away. We assume that he is still alive, but the evidence for his breathing is meagre.
Although he was clearly homosexual by disposition, Paters fastidious naturewhat Christopher Ricks called his greed for finenessforbade anything so obvious as a love affair or a sex life. He was, as Edmund Wilson put it, one of those semi-monastic types that the English universities breed: vowed to an academic discipline but cherishing an intense originality, painfully repressed and incomplete but in the narrow field of their art somehow both sound and bold. In the event, Pater contented himself with a few passionate friendships and an ardent contemplation of youthful male beauty wherever it chanced to present itself. It was a great sorrow to him, a lover of elegance, that he was himself physically unprepossessing: bald, bulky, and bushy in his formidable mustachios. Nonetheless, beginning in 1869 Pater dressed the part of a dandy. Donoghue equips him with top hat, black tailcoat, silk tie of apple green, dark-striped trousers, yellow gloves, and patent leather shoes. Pater appears as Mr. Rose in W. H. Mallocks satire The New Republic (1877): a pale creature, with large moustache, looking out of the window at the sunset . [H]e always speaks in an undertone, and his two topics are self-indulgence and art. In 1894, the last year of his life, Pater was invited to meet Mallarmé, who was then lecturing at Oxford. Mallarmé taught English in a lycée; Paters French was excellent; but the two connoisseurs of intimation apparently thought it too vulgar actually to speak. According to one account, they regarded each other in silence, and were satisfied.
Pater was not entirely without gumption; only he tended to hoard it for his imagination. The infamous Frank Harriseditor of the Saturday Review, sexual braggart, and author of the pornographic fantasy My Life and Loves (four volumes)is notoriously an unreliable witness. But his anecdote about Pater has the ring of authenticity:
He seemed at times half to realize his own deficiency. Had I So-and-sos courage and hardihood, he cried once, Id have. Suddenly the mood changed, the light in the eyes died out, the head drooped forward again, and with a half smile he added. I might have been a criminalhe, he, and he moved with little careful steps across the room to his chair, and sat down.The problem with Harriss anecdote is that it traps Pater in his caricature. It may be true; but it is not the whole truth. Such stories make it difficult to understand the genuine boldness of Paters work: to appreciate, for example, the enormous scandal that The Renaissance caused when it was first published in 1873. Originally titled Studies in the History of the Renaissance, the slim volume consists of nine essays, some of which had been already published in one form or another, plus a brief preface and (in most editions) a conclusion. As Paters friend Mrs. Mark Pattison noted in an otherwise friendly review of the book, the title is misleading because the historical element is precisely that which is wanting . [T]he work is in no wise a contribution to the history of the Renaissance. Pater took the point. In subsequent editions it was called by the title we know today, The Renaissance; Studies in Art and Poetry.
Not that the change of title really addressed Mrs. Pattisons criticism. The book, another contemporary reviewer warned, is not for any beginner to turn to in search of information. Facts and historical accuracy are not the coin in which Pater traded. For him, history was a mine to be worked for the frisson of insight; a certain amount of poetic license only aided the process.
Perhaps the chief instance of poetic license concerned the term Renaissance. That Paters conception of the Renaissance was idiosyncratic is clear first of all from the topics that he aggregated under the rubric. The book includes essays on such bona fide Renaissance figures as Pico della Mirandola, Leonardo, and Michelangelo; his essay on Botticelli did much to introduce the relatively unknown painter to the public. But the book also includes pieces on the medieval philosopher and ill-fated lover, Abelard, and the eighteenth-century art historian and impresario for the glory that was Greece, Johann Winckelmann.
Pater notes that although interest in the Renaissance mainly lies in fifteenth-century Italy, he understands the term in a much wider scope than was intended by those who originally used it to denote that revival of classical antiquity in the fifteenth century. For him, the Renaissance is a distinctive outbreak of the human spirit whose defining characteristics include the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the middle ages imposed on the heart and the imagination. Thus it is that although Winckelmann (who had long been one of Paters culture heroes) was born in 1717, Pater concludes that he really belongs in spirit to an earlier age by virtue of his enthusiasm for the things of the intellect and the imagination for their own sake, by his Hellenism, his life-long struggle to attain to the Greek spirit. For Pater, Renaissance was shorthand for a certain species of aesthetic vibrancy.
It was not necessarily a wholesome vibrancy. Part of what made Paters debut scandalous was the hothouse atmosphere that he reveled in: the ripe, over-ripe sensorium that was so distant from the brisk admonitions of such pragmatic partisans of culture as Matthew Arnold. Paters fascination with violence and death, with the interpenetration of death and beauty, was part of that ripeness. In his essay on Michelangelo, for example, Pater tells us that that great artist, like all the nobler souls of Italy, is much occupied with thoughts of the grave, and his true mistress is deathdeath at first as the worst of all sorrows and disgraces; afterwards, death in its high distinction, its detachment from vulgar needs, the angry stains of life and action escaping fast. For Pater every genuine love was a kind of Liebestod.
But it was not only the atmosphere of Paters book that shocked readers. Even more important was the blithe, aesthetic paganism that was implicit throughout The Renaissance and that Pater explicitly set forth in his conclusion. Dilating on the splendour of our experience and its awful brevity, he recommended seizing the moment, regardless of the consequences: Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. Since a counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life, our one chance lay in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Neither morality nor religion figured in Paters equation. What mattered was the intensity, the ecstasy of experience. Consequently, we must grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artists hands, or the face of ones friend. For Pater, the measure of life was not its adherence to an ideal but the perfection of self-satisfaction. To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Pleasure, not duty, was the cardinal imperative. Life was not a continuously unfolding whole but a series of lyric moments: In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits.
Aesthetes embraced Paters expostulation. The young Oscar Wilde declared that The Renaissance was the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty. Others were not so enthusiastic. The Rev. John Wordsworth, a colleague of Paters at Brasenose, acknowledged the books beauty of style and felicity of thought. But he objected that the fundamental message of the book was immoral: I cannot disguise from myself, he wrote in a letter to Pater,
that the concluding pages adequately sum up the philosophy of the whole; and that that philosophy is an assertion that no fixed principles either of religion or morality can be regarded as certain, that the only thing worth living for is momentary enjoyment and that probably or certainly the soul dissolves at death into elements which are destined never to reunite.Nor were Christian clergymen the only critics of Paters hedonism. The book was widely regarded as an invitation to moral frivolity. George Eliot spoke for many when she wrote that it was quite poisonous in its false principles of criticism and false conceptions of life.
No one was more shocked by the scandal that The Renaissance precipitated than Pater himself. He did not abandon his aestheticsm. But he did attempt to modulate it. In the second edition of The Renaissance he dropped the conclusion altogether. Later, he restored it, but with cosmetic modifications and a note informing readers that he had worried that it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall. When The Picture of Dorian Gray was published, Pater took the opportunity to distinguish his version of Epicureanism from Wildes:
A true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of mans entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance, the sense of sin and righteousness, as [does] Mr. Wildes herohis heroes are bent on doing as speedily, as completely as they canis to lose, or lower, organisation, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development . Lord Henry, and even more the, from the first, suicidal hero, loses too much in life to be a true Epicurean.
Pater attempted to provide a portrait of the true Epicurean in Marius the Epicu- rean (1885), an overwrought, somewhat ponderous autobiographical novel that describes the spiritual journey of its hero from paganism to the threshold of Christianity. (Pater much preferred hovering on the threshold of commitment to actually embracing any definite faith.) According to Donoghue, the main reason [for writing the book] was to refute the charge, levelled against Studies in the History of the Renaissance, that he was a hedonist, an epicurean andthe implication was clearthat he instructed his undergraduates at Brasenose to live for pleasure alone. In fact, Pater did believe in living for pleasure alone. But he thought that careful discrimination among pleasures redeemed his aestheticism from vulgar hedonism or immorality.
Did it? In part. Pater would certainly have recoiled in horror from the crude narcissism and decadence that his work helped to inspire. But it is not at all clear that George Eliot was mistaken in castigating his false principles of criticism and false conceptions of life. Donoghue wishes to resuscitate Pater partly because he thinks that a Pateresque aestheticism encourages readers to deal with art on its own terms, as affording an experience valuable in itself. There are, he writes, some experiences which are best approached on the assumption that their value is intrinsic. This is certainly true. And it may be that Paters view of art, as Donoghue claims, can help to immunize art from ideology. Because he held that art has no moral design upon us, Pater would have had no patience with efforts to subject aesthetic experience to politicsor any other external value. In its primary aspect, he wrote in The Renaissance, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor.
Yet this is not the whole story. Donoghue writes that the purpose of art is to offer the distressed soul release, however temporary. This is not a new theme for him. In his book The Arts Without Mystery (1984), for example, Donoghue worried that our commitment to scientific rationality had drained the arts of their power to enchant and to kindle the imagination. He sought to reinstate mystery into the arts while at the same time distinguishing mystery from mere bewilderment or mystification. For Donoghue, the artist is most truly himself when he stands in an antagonistic or (one of his favorite words) antinomian attitude toward society. Yet this Romanticism is sharply qualified by prudence, the most un-Romantic of virtues. He understands that the main business of society cannot countenance the extravagances that the artistic imagination furnishes.
The arts are on the margin, and it doesnt bother me to say they are marginal. What bothers me are the absurd claims we make for them. I want to say the margin is the place for those feelings and intuitions which daily life doesnt have a place for, and mostly seems to suppress . With the arts, people can make a space for themselves, and fill it with intimations of freedom and presence.Pater would have agreed. What modern art has to do in the service of culture, he wrote in his essay on Winckelmann,
is so to rearrange the details of modern life, so to reflect it, that it may satisfy the spirit. And what does the spirit need in the face of modern life? The sense of freedom . The chief factor in the thoughts of the modern mind concerning itself is the intricacy, the universality of natural law, even in the moral order. For us, necessity is a magic web woven through and through us, like that magnetic system of which modern science speaks, penetrating us with a network, subtler than our subtlest nerves, yet bearing in it the central forces of the world. Can art represent men and women in these bewildering toils so as to give the spirit at least the equivalent for the sense of freedom?The real question, for Donoghue as well as for Pater, is whether that equivalent for the sense of freedom is anything more than illusion. Does Paters philosophydoes any thoroughgoing aestheticismreally leave room for intrinsic value as Donoghue claims?
In his preface to The Renaissance, Pater begins by seeming to agree with Matthew Arnolds famous definition of criticism, but he then slyly inverts Arnolds meaning:
To see the object as in itself it really is, has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever; and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing ones object as it really is, is to know ones own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly . What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? [T]he picture, the landscape, the engaging personality in life or in a book are valuable for their virtues, as we say, in speaking of an herb, a wine, a gem; for the property each has of affecting one with a special, a unique, impression of pleasure.For Pater, ones own impression trumps meaning. And it is a curious irony, as the critic Adam Phillips has observed, that although Pater insists on the value of discrimination and accurate identification of the critics impressions, his vocabulary is notably vague. Thus it is that he exploited the invitation of inexact words: sweet, peculiar, delicate, and above all strange.
Donoghue rightly notes that Pater looked at an object under the sign of pleasure, not of truth. He approvingly quotes another critic who spoke of the disjunction of sensation from judgment in Paters work. The Paterian imagination, he writes, seeks relations instead of duties. It follows that Pater practised consciousness not as a mode of knowledge but as an alternative to knowledge . One of the ways in which Pater was antinomian was in his being ready to think that understanding wasnt everything. Indeed, his chief concern was his pleasure in feeling alive. Aesthetic criticism in Paters sense deals not with objects, works of art, but with the types of feeling they embodied . Ontology is displaced by psychology.
Ontology is displaced by psychology: in other words, what matters for Pater are states of feeling, not truth. At the end of his book, Donoghue acknowledges the risks of aestheticism: triviality, exquisiteness, solipsism. An additional risk is losing the weight or reality of ones experience. T. S. Eliot criticized Pater for propounding a theory of ethics in the guise of a theory of art. What he meant was that Paters conception of aesthetic criticism offered not a principle of criticism but a way of life. At the center of that way of life is the imperative to regard all experience as an occasion for aesthetic delectation: a seemingly attractive proposition, perhaps, until one realizes that it depends upon a narcissistic self-absorption that renders every moral demand negotiable. The sense of freedom is indeed the essence of aestheticism; but it is the cold and lonely freedom of the isolated individual. This was something that Kierkegaard exposed with great clarity in his anatomy of the aesthetic mode of life in Either/Or. Donoghue tells us that the part of Aestheticism which should now be recovered is its concern for the particularity of form in every work of art. The problem is that although aestheticism begins by emphasizing form, it ends by dissolving form into the pleasurable sensations and pulsations that Pater so valued. In this sense, aestheticism is the enemy of the intrinsic. Donoghue criticized Eliots essay on Pater as extravagant and cruel. But Eliot was right: the theory of art for arts sake is valid in so far as it can be taken as an exhortation to the artist to stick to his job; it never was and never can be valid for the spectator, reader or auditor.
- Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls, by Denis Donoghue; Knopf, 361 pages, $27.50. Go back to the text.
- See my review of the book in The New Criterion for September 1984. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 9, on page 11
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