For a research project of the Institute of Medieval Studies, Sophia University, on ‘Medieval and Renaissance Concepts of Beauty’ I turned my back on promising but too demanding topics, such as Ficino’s retrieval of Plato and Plotinus, or the idea of Beauty in Michelangelo’s Rime, or Galileo’s literary criticism of Ariosto and Tasso, and instead chose to discuss the discovery and/or construction of Renaissance beauty in the Victorian age, with particular reference to the first English book on the subject, Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), revised as The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1877, 1888, 1891). This work has had a huge influence on the way the Renaissance is commonly imagined in the English-speaking world, and I suspect that historians and art historians view this influence as deleterious. European consciousness of the Renaissance is founded on the solid researches of Michelet and Burckhardt, while the English-speaking world tends to perceive the Renaissance through the lens fashioned by the coterie of aesthetes who first enthused about the period. The Renaissance is thus figured as an oasis of mindless ‘beauty’ at the edges of real history.
The Dragon on the Threshold
Pater one thought of as a rather weird, reclusive, flickering figure, a Des Esseintes sampling exotic sensations in Oxford quads, and uttering oracular dicta from a well of arcane cogitation. Nearer acquaintance showed him rather stolid in fact, not only as a man but even as a writer. To many the names of Ruskin and Pater suggest fustian effusions, romantic impressionism, ultimately boring. Doubt on that score may be allayed by Pater’s stimulating impact on critics such as J. Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, and Denis Donoghue. Something in his thought and his urbane, persuasive style retains the power to challenge us. I would locate it particularly in his representing the first advent on the English scene of the aesthetic doctrine of ‘art for art’s sake’ and also in the modernity of his demystifying outlook on art and its history.
At one time, students approaching Walter Pater (1839-1894) did not receive such encouragement. Rather, a dragon reared itself on the threshold: T. S. Eliot, in a 1930 essay, ‘Arnold and Pater,’ had authoritatively dispatched both of his predecessors (for so we now see them) as religiously, intellectually and morally unsound. The core of Eliot’s critique was theological. Arnold’s attitude is summarized as: ‘Get all the emotional kick out of Christianity one can, without the bother of believing it’ (434), which leads straight to the aesthetic dissolution of Christianity in Marius the Epicurean and De Profundis; Eliot no doubt missed the element of tragic depth of Wilde’s text. ‘The gospel of Pater follows naturally upon the prophecy of Arnold’ (436); ‘The degradation of philosophy and religion, skilfully initiated by Arnold, is competently continued by Pater’ (437).
It would be hard to deny that Arnold strikes a note of agnosticism that could be spiritually and intellectually enervating. Pater, dissimulating his boldness, goes further, propagating a naturalistic, historicist and relativist vision of all constituted religions, and cultivating an elusive religiosity of his own that may have been vaguely pantheistic. In his earliest writings Pater boldly pits Renaissance paganism against Christianity. In later writings he becomes an apologist for Christianity, drawing on Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870), and it is here most of all that Eliot takes issue with him. Paterian Christianity had a vogue among the aesthetes and decadents of the 1890s, but it also continued to percolate among literary thinkers throughout the years of Modernism. As the foremost Christian critic of his time, Eliot was duty-bound to unmask this as a meretricious ersatz for genuine faith.
The heterodoxy of Arnold and Pater is not redeemed in Eliot’s eyes by any intellectual strength: ‘I do not believe that Pater, in this book [Marius the Epicurean], has influenced a single first-rate mind of a later generation. His idea of art, as expressed in The Renaissance, impressed itself upon a number of writers in the ’nineties, and propagated some confusion between life and art which is not wholly irresponsible for some untidy lives’ (442). In a 1920 essay, Eliot had written: Pater appeals ‘to minds so enfeebled or so lazy as to be afraid of approaching a genuine work of art face to face’ (quoted, Court, 103). Admirers of Pater have replied to these somewhat invidious remarks with a barrage of tu quoque arguments. Was Eliot himself a deep connoisseur of the visual arts? Was his own life a model of tidiness? Did his display of intellectual snobbery not betray subconscious unease about chinks in his own intellectual armour? Did his strictures – Arnold had not ‘the power of connected reasoning at any length’ (431); as to Pater ‘being incapable of sustained reasoning, he could not take theology or philosophy seriously’ (440) – not rebound on his own head? Eliot was a brilliant and interesting thinker, but he too, it now appears, was weak on the very point of sustained, systematic reasoning. To judge on this score his doctoral thesis on Bradley, published in 1964, is difficult, in virtue of the opacity of its style; it is hardly a model of lucid and orderly presentation. The three longer essays which he wrote after 1930 – namely, After Strange Gods (1934), The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) – do not shine in comparison with Arnold and Pater, in terms of effective communication and coherent thought. Eliot had a wealth of atomistic insights and could often sketch an interesting line of reflection, but had no large-scale philosophic vision to convey to his readers. Monsman (159) points out that Eliot is wildly off the mark in claiming that Pater had no serious interest in theology or philosophy. It is true that Pater’s book on Plato won the admiration of Benjamin Jowett who had previously despised him, and that he was steeped in Coleridge and Newman, and positively feasted on Kant, Schiller, Fichte, and Hegel, read in the original German. Of Coleridge’s absorption in German Idealism he wrote: ‘He had the luck to light upon it in its freshness, and introduce it to his countrymen. What an opportunity for one reared on the colourless English philosophies, but who feels an irresistible attraction towards metaphysical synthesis! How rare are such occasions of intellectual contentment!’ (quoted, Shuter, 54). However, Eliot would reply to this that Pater sought ‘contentment’ rather than truth, and that he approached philosophy by cosy osmosis rather than athletic argument. Martindale (165) argues, rather lamely, that Pater ‘fuses thought and feeling as had Donne, at least in Eliot’s admiring account of him… Eliot’s essay on Pater is a remarkably peevish and disagreeable production; his real quarrel with Pater is over religion.’ Arnold and Pater were modernizers, sustained by the exhilaration of breaking fresh ground. The same can be said of Eliot the literary critic, but not of his vision of culture and society, which tends to flounder among reactionary attitudes. The armoury of Catholic orthodoxy played a compensatory role, giving him a religious vision that provided a macro-context which his essayistic musings were unable to concoct. (What of Four Quartets?, it may be asked. – Precisely.)
After the religious and intellectual strictures, comes the old theme of decadence, as Pater is said to be ‘inclined to emphasize whatever is morbid or associated with physical malady’ (439). This criticism seems to depend on a hazy stereotype, and Eliot touches on it only lightly, with no indulgence in homophobic innuendo such as dogged Pater’s career from the start; for even Eliot’s vision is reductive or borders on the fanatical he remains the liberator of English literary criticism from its inveterate parochial moralizing. The targets of his judgement, be they even Milton or Goethe, are struck with lightning from above, not snide shafts from below. Not all succumbed to Eliot’s anathematization of Pater. A riposte from Leonard Brown in The Sewanee Review, 1934, pointed out that Eliot ‘misunderstands his own literary history’ (Court, 150). The scholarly rehabilitation of Pater was launched with the 1940 thesis of Ruth C. Child.
Art for Art’s Sake
Charles Martindale reveres Pater alongside Kant and Schiller, and pits him against the sociological, politicizing, ideological approach to the arts that is so prevalent in the academy today. For Kant, ‘the job of the critic is not “one of exhibiting the determining ground of aesthetic judgements of this kind in a universally applicable formula,” since this is impossible’ (Martindale, 45), but rather the cultivation of reflective judgement by study of particular works of art. Kant secured the autonomy of aesthetic judgement from considerations of utility and morality. Pater’s play of reflection indeed enjoys a large freedom from the moral and utilitarian, even if in the end he feels obliged to draw a moral lesson from art, in the Epicurean homily that concludes The Renaissance. Making his own Théophile Gautier’s mantra, ‘art for art’s sake,’ Pater found himself free to let works of art speak to him, according to the laws of their own being – or rather, according to the laws of aesthetic experience.
That emphasis on experience makes Pater’s art criticism rather high-handedly subjective. Empathetic identification with the artist’s imaginative world yields its harvest of insights; but it falls short of the task of letting oneself be claimed by the work in its objective otherness. Martindale admits that Pater’s famous passage on the Mona Lisa ‘has little to do with Leonardo’s supposed intentions as they would be construed by a historicizing critic’ (47). But the obverse of this weakness is that he is able to make the old work come alive: ‘Pater takes an old picture by a famous master, and, in a singular act of judgement, makes its beauty “modern” again, indeed makes the work “the symbol of the modern idea” (R, 99)… Pater’s account can thus be seen, in Kantian terms, as a move to making the judgement of taste in a more detailed way and so to help establish its subjective universality’ (48). But Pater’s generalizing, globalizing, treatment of the whole oeuvre of an artist and his disciples, or of a whole period, or even of the whole history of humanity, has little to do with the subjective universality of the judgement of taste according to Kant.
Martindale claims for Pater the very virtues he is commonly thought to have spurned: ‘We might call Pater’s characterizations a kind of “thick description.” Sadly, few critics have had Pater’s imagination and precision…, so such criticism is currently as rare as it is precious’ (49). But Pater’s leaps of imagination do not go in the direction that this suggests. His essays do not build toward a richer intimacy with the works mentioned, but sketch instead a nimbus of significance around them. Thus the ravaged state of Leonardo’s Last Supper suggested to Pater the decay of the ages of faith: ‘This figure [Christ] is but the faintest, the most spectral of them all. It is the image of what the history it symbolises has been more and more ever since, paler and paler as it recedes from us’ (R, 95 and 233). (The second sentence, in the 1869 essay, is not omitted in the 1873 book publication as Martindale says, but only in the 1893 edition; see Williams, 99.) Martindale comments: ‘This response would be anathema to the historicist, but is perfectly acceptable both to the reception theorist and to the aesthetic critic’ (29l). I fear that it belongs, rather, to the kind of commentary that pegs ideas on works of art or literature instead of letting ideas grow from one’s close engagement with the texture of the work. Carolyn Williams takes a similar approach to Martindale, and exegetes Pater’s remarks as closely as if they were sacred scripture: ‘In the sense that Leonardo’s image of Christ “symbolises” the historical existence of a human Christ because it is painted in a more realistic, less stylized manner than previous images of Christ, the term is accurate, but in the sense that the faded image is made to stand for the modern process of secularization, “allegory” would be a more accurate term… The conjunction of symbol and allegory indicates Pater’s subjective identification with the object of his regard and at the same time indicates his disengagement’ (101-2). Pater’s speculation is already a few steps away from Leonardo’s painting, and the commentators further speculations on this speculation only take us further into a somewhat vacuous realm.
Denis Donoghue calls for a rehabilitation of Pater’s aesthetic principles: ‘I wish the doctrine could be given a second chance, now that we are admonished to regard a work of art as merely a disguised ideological formation and to attend to it as a detective interrogates a suspect’ (285). Indeed, ever since the tsunami of deconstructionism receded, literary critical journals have been awash in ideologies such as postcolonialism that tend to reduce works of art to their social context. Pater has become a prophet again to those resisting this trend. ‘The part of Aestheticism which should now be recovered, I suggest, is its concern for the particularity of form in every work of art’ (Donoghue, 288). ‘The work does not take any civic responsibility; it does not accept the jurisdiction of metaphysics, religion, morality, politics, or any public institution’ (289). Championing these elementary tenets of the aesthetic creed, Donoghue risks reducing it to the New Criticism of his student years. Art is a locus theologicus, a locus moralis, a locus politicus, and the tawdriness of recent critical discussion should not force us back into a formalist hothouse that ignores all these aspects of its power.
The Discovery of the Renaissance
Pater’s book on the Renaissance is a short collection of essays, most previously published – hardly, one would have thought, an adequate substitute for the substantial monograph with which a promising scholar takes his first bold step into the limelight of public attention. These delicate and dreamy pieces from the reclusive Fellow of Brasenose College, touching on such varied topics as Aucussin et Nicolette, Pico della Mirandola, Botticelli, Luca della Robbia, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Giorgione, Joachim du Bellay, Winckelmann, might have been expected to sink discreetly into the limbo of Victorian miscellanies. But the book had the great good fortune of filling a major lacuna and coming at just the moment when interest in its theme was at a peak. It also had the grace of timeliness in another, more enduring sense, for it turned out to be a major intervention in the field of art history, giving the Mona Lisa its mythic status that has made it the most viewed painting of all time, and thrusting the previously neglected Botticelli to prominence; or so Paterians claim, though Ruskin in an epilogue to Modern Painters in 1883 staked the counter-claim: ‘It was left to me, and to me alone, first to discern, and then to teach… the excellency and supremacy of five great painters, despised until I spoke of them, Turner, Tintoret, Luini, Botticelli and Carpaccio’ (4:355).
Pater may be the person most responsible for conferring on the word ‘Renaissance’ the resplendency it has in our usage. That word, invented by Jules Michelet in the 1840s, translates the Italian rinascita used in the 14th century to denote the revival of Classical learning, and again by Giorgio Vasari, a painter who was a disciple of Andrea del Sarto, in his Lives of the Painters (1550) to designate the revival of the visual arts beginning with Cimabue in the 13th century and culminating in the glories of what we call the High Renaissance in the 15th-16th centuries. To judge from the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.), the word ‘renaissance’ as the name of an artistic style first occurs in English in 1840, as a French borrowing, and the use of the word to denote the revival of arts and letters in the 14th-16th centuries, and then to denote that historical period itself begins in 1845.
In its purchasing policies in the mid-19th century Britain’s National Gallery favoured High Renaissance art, while academic painters such as G. F. Watts and William Dyce emulated Raphael and Michelangelo. Only with Michelet’s history of the Renaissance in France, in 1855, and Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, in 1860, did people begin to think of the Renaissance as naming a period in world history, indeed as the birthplace of the modern world, ending the long night of medieval obscurantism and laying the foundations on which the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution would further build. Michelet was concerned with the Renaissance in 16th century France; Burckhardt shifted the focus to 15th century Italy, which has remained, amid all subsequent debates about the reality, the dating and the nature of the Renaissance, a central point of reference.
The cult of Renaissance Italy pervades English literature in the 1850s and 1860s, as attested by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), composed in Florence, Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth (1861), Robert Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto’ (1855) and The Ring and the Book (1869), George Eliot’s Romola (1863), while the pre-Raphaelite movement centred on Dante Gabriel Rossetti put to the fore the art and literature of 13th and 14th century Italy. The time was ripe for a general survey of the Renaissance or for a theoretical consideration of its historical significance. Pater’s book filled the bill. To be sure, it was quickly pointed out, by Emilia Pattison, that the ambitious word ‘history’ in Pater’s title was misleading (he changed the title in subsequent editions). Far stronger claims to historical authority were lodged by John Addington Symonds in his seven-volume work The Renaissance in Italy (1875-86). On the theoretical front, Pater’s impressionistic criticism may seem futile to today’s scholars of Renaissance art, who follow Michael Baxandall in setting painting in its social and economic context, linking it to material activities such as dancing, gauging, surveying and calculating, and stressing the technical and physical aspects of composition. But as a riposte to Ruskin it had considerable impact. Moreover, the book became the Bible of the aesthetic movement, especially as taken up by Pater’s ardent disciple Oscar Wilde.
Pater’s 1876 essay on Dionysus (in Greek Studies) might be thought to reflect the influence of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy (1872) were it not that ‘Pater seems to have thought in these terms from his very earliest essay in in 1864’ (Monsman, 19). As to the Renaissance, Friedrich Nietzsche would make the Renaissance his touchstone of human excellence, seeing Renaissance virtù as an ethical quality of ethics free of morals, as real ‘distinction’ (Vornehmheit), and the Reformation as a barbaric regression. Instructed by Burckhardt, Nietzsche has a more solid grip on the strengths of the Renaissance than Pater does. Extending the Renaissance beyond any narrow historical bounds, Pater tends to make it a nebulous dream: ‘This outbreak of the human spirit may be traced far into the middle age itself, with its motives already clearly pronounced, the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the middle age imposed on the heart and the imagination’ (xxii-xxiii). ‘The word Renaissance, indeed, is now generally used to denote not merely the revival of classical antiquity which took place in the fifteenth century, and to which the word was first applied, but a whole complex movement, of which that revival of classical antiquity was but one element or symptom. For us the Renaissance is the name of a many-sided but yet united movement, in which the love of the things of the intellect and the imagination for their own sake, the desire for a more liberal and comely way of conceiving life, make themselves felt’ (1-2). The diction here is too pretty. Symonds’ recall of the more brutal aspects of Renaissance life was unavailing to bring Pater’s dreamy balloon back down to earth; in any case centuries of Protestant polemic in England had accustomed people to recall the Renaissance as a period of sexual and political corruption among popes and princes. So a split image lived on: on one hand, a ‘liberal and comely way of conceiving life,’ on the other amorality and corruption; the received idea of the Renaissance was a contradictory amalgam of these two distortions.
Pater does inject his image of the Renaissance with a pathos of revolt and revolution: ‘One of the strongest characteristics of that outbreak of the reason and the imagination, of that assertion of the liberty of the heart, in the middle age, which I have termed a medieval Renaissance, was its antinomianism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the time. In their search after the pleasures of the senses and the imagination, in their care for beauty, in their worship of the body, people were impelled beyond the bounds of the Christian ideal’(18-19). But this, too, is tepid and donnish. Pater actually relishes the Renaissance as a conflict-free zone. In contrast to the ideologically fraught periods of the Reformation,or the French Revolution, in studying the Renaissance one ‘is not beset at every turn by the inflexibilities and antagonisms of some well-recognised controversy, with rigidly defined opposites, exhausting the intelligence and limiting one’s sympathies… Here there are no fixed parties, no exclusions: all breathes of that unity of culture in which “whatsoever things are comely” are reconciled, for the elevation and adorning of our spirits’(R, 20-1). This bland vision overlooks the intellectual and political controversies of the late 15th and early 16th centuries associated with the names of Pico, Campanella, Machiavelli, Pomponazzi, Savonarola and so on.
Two traits of Pater’s character – his distaste for argument and conflict, and his deep-seated nostalgia for ‘home’ – find satisfaction in this utopian vision. As he dwells on his vision of Renaissance beauty and harmony, it swells to universal, ahistorical proportions, as if the Renaissance were an eternal attitude of the human mind. Not only does he trace its first stirrings to the 12th century, holding ‘that the Renaissance was an uninterrupted effort of the middle age, that it was ever taking place’ (R, 180); he co-opts ancient Greece fully, claiming that Botticelli gives us‘a more direct inlet into the Greek temper than the works of the Greeks themselves even of the finest period…, a record of the first impression made by it on minds turned back towards it, in almost painful aspiration, from a world in which it had been ignored so long’ (R, 46). Botticelli satisfies an imagination anxious to feed on the Greek ideal, unhindered by the fragmentariness, remoteness or difficulty of the ancient sources. The two planks of Pater’s studies – Antiquity and the Renaissance – fuse and become one.
It might be thought that the notion of Renaissance beauty must always have been uncontroversial. Viewing the masterpieces of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, what pilgrim today would think of cavilling? Are they not securely established as the pinnacle of Western art, incontestable, as Shakespeare is in literature or Mozart in music? Yet strange to relate, the first major commentary on these artists in English condemns them in no uncertain terms. John Ruskin (1819-1900) was Britain’s leading aesthetic philosopher, looming far above Pater in virtue of his vast knowledge, intelligence, productiveness, moral depth, and also, as in the case of Newman, by his mastery of a capacious Ciceronian style, lending sweep and authority to all his utterances. Pater’s style was paratactic, setting one impression alongside another in a way that frustrates the search for logical order and hierarchy (see Donoghue, 292-307). As such it is a corrective to the tendency of Ciceronian syntax to lend authority to any thoughts expressed in it and to project a vision of hierarchy that may be less solidly founded than the majestic advance of the sentence forces one to believe.
If Ruskin had used his great eloquence to enthuse about the new vision of the Renaissance found in Michelet and Burckhardt, he would have stolen Pater’s show. In fact, from his first visit to Italy in 1840, Ruskin was overwhelmed by the greatness of Renaissance art, and actually sings its praises more voluminously and knowledgeably than Pater. But there was always a certain critical ambivalence in his reception of this art. In the 1870s he was denouncing the period as one of artistic and moral decline. In Raphael’s great pictures in the Vatican he saw an impure mingling of pagan and Christian; even his first encounter with them confronted him with ‘a mixture of Paganism and Papacy wholly inconsistent with the religious instruction I had received’ (35:271). Leonardo, he writes ‘dissipated half his art-power in capricious ingenuities’; his pupil Luini ‘is a man ten times greater than Leonardo’; Luini ‘perceived and rendered the delicatest types of human beauty that have been painted since the days of the Greeks, while Leonardo depraved his finer instincts by caricature, and remained to the end of his days the slave of an archaic smile’ (19:129-30). This was written in 1865 and republished in The Queen of the Air in 1869, just when Pater was working on his essay on Leonardo.
As for Michelangelo, in an 1871 Oxford lecture, which Pater may have attended, Ruskin sensationally dubbed him ‘the chief captain of evil’ of the Italian Renaissance. If the years 1480-1520 brought ‘deadly catastrophe’ (22:82) to the world of art: ‘bad workmanship,’ ‘violence of transitional action,’ ‘physical instead of mental interest,’ ‘evil chosen rather than good’ (22:85-6), Michelangelo supremely illustrates these vices. ‘You are accustomed to think the figures of Michael Angelo sublime – because they are dark, and colossal, and involved, and mysterious – because, in a word, they look sometimes like shadows, and sometimes like mountains, sometimes like specters, but never like human beings’ (22:101-2). ‘All that shadowing, storming, and coiling of his, when you look into it, is mere stage decoration, and that of a vulgar kind’ (22:102). Referring to ‘the ghostly vitality of this dreadful statue’ (4:282), the Florence Pietà, he adds in a judiciously ambivalent note: ‘art was finally destroyed by the influence over admiring idiocy of the greatest mind that art ever inspired.’ In a further note added in 1883 he refers to the italicised words as ‘the earliest expression of my sense of the destructive power in Michael Angelo,’ but deplores what followed in the remainder as itself instantiating ‘admiring idiocy’: ‘an imaginative perception almost supernatural, which goes whither we cannot follow, and is where we cannot come; throwing naked the final, deepest root of the being of man, whereby he grows out of the invisible, and hold on his God home’ (4:283). Still, Ruskin never unsaid his initial profound admiration of Michelangelo (see 3:49-50, 218, 222), which is indeed the basis that gives him the freedom to be uninhibited in his criticisms.
Fresh from his first visit to the final masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, St Peter’s Basilica, Ruskin observed: ‘As a whole, St. Peter’s is fit for nothing but a ballroom, and it is a little too gaudy even for that… The exquisite feeling and glorious art brought out in every part and detail are so impressive that, were St. Peter’s dashed into fragments, I would give our St. Paul’s… for any one of them. As a whole, I repeat, it is meager without and offensive within’ (1:38). ‘It is nothing more than the pump-room at Leamington, built bigger’ (23:366). He refers to ‘the clumsy dulness of the façade, and the entirely vile taste and vapid design of the interior’ (35:271-2). Ruskin insists that this architecture is Roman and marks a clean and antagonistic break with preceding Gothic, Romanesque and Byzantine traditions, without yet being cognizant of Greek origins. The medieval traditions, Ruskin urges, are unjustly considered barbarous: ‘That they are, on the contrary, most noble and beautiful, and that the antagonistic Renaissance is, in the main, unworthy and unadmirable, whatever perfection of a certain kind it may possess, it was my principal purpose to show’ (11:45). Technical defects of Renaissance architecture are not the chief problem: ‘It is the moral nature of it which is corrupt, and which it must, therefore, be our principal business to examine and expose’ (11:46).
Yet the world of physical beauty, both in nature and in art, of which Ruskin was so refined and accurate an observer, was constantly undercutting his moralistic dogmatism, leading to a string of revisions and retractations. If the scientific prowess of Renaissance artists does not impress him, it is for quintessentially aesthetic reasons: science and art are of such opposite nature that ‘to advance in the one is, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, to retrograde in the other’ (11:47). Here Ruskin anticipates Pater: ‘Science studies the relations of things to each other: but art studies only their relations to man: and it requires of everything which is submitted to it imperatively this, and only this, – what that thing is to the human eyes and human heart’ (11:48). ‘The whole function of the artist in the world is to be a seeing and feeling creature; to be an instrument of such tenderness and sensitiveness, that no shadow, no hue, no line, no instantaneous and evanescent expression of the visible things around him, nor any of the emotions which they are capable of conveying to the spirit which has been given him, shall either be left unrecorded, or fade from the book of record. It is not his business either to think, to judge, to argue, or to know’ (11:49).
Pater adroitly positioned himself against Ruskin, following Stendhal’s advice that the best way to make one’s social début is with a duel. Behind the serene tone of Pater’s writing lies a triple revenge – that of the lowborn ill-paid don against the leisured scholar and traveler, son of a sherry-merchant; that of the marginalized homosexual against one who deplored homosexuality as a sad failing of the Greeks (Ruskin 20:91); that of the avowed aesthete against one who condemned the idea of art for art’s sake (Ruskin 16:268). Yet one could assemble from Ruskin’s writings a veritable breviary of aestheticism (see 9:72) and one could even see Pater’s entire creed as derived from his elder. Ruskin is not the precursor but the true founder of the religion of beauty, but in a sense wider than fin de siècle aestheticism. That is why the current, rather excessive, attention given to Pater needs to be regrounded in a fuller rediscovery of Ruskin, whose influence on Modernism was surely more extensive and profound. That it was more extensive is attested first of all by his role as the guide of generations of English and American visitors to Europe, who would have found little concrete assistance in Pater. That it was more profound may be gauged from responses and echoes in Henry James, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and above all by his impact on Marcel Proust.
In his late twenties and early thirties, Proust devoted himself to translating two works of Ruskin, The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies, using literal, occasionally inaccurate, translations made by his devoted mother. The prefaces and notes to these translations show him steeped in Ruskin’s oeuvre as a whole, and developing a philosophy of art which champions Ruskin’s values against sterile aestheticism. Douglas Ainslie recalled: ‘We often broached discussions on the respective value of Ruskin and Walter Pater. Proust, who had translated some parts of Ruskin’s work, did not want Pater to be set up against Ruskin. When I recounted that Pater had said to me one day, “I cannot believe that Ruskin saw more in the church of St. Mark than I do,” he shrugged and said, “It can’t be helped, we will never agree on English literature”’ (Proust 2007:xiv; Pater’s comment to Ainslie is also in Benson, 185). Proust offers a luminous characterization of Ruskin’s outlook, contrasting it to that of the aesthetes in terms that immediately recall both Pater and Des Esseintes – the protagonist of Huysmans’ À Rebours (1884), modelled on Robert de Montesquiou, who was to be the model also for Proust’s Baron de Charlus – with their ‘hedonistic’ and psychologistic cult of experiences and sensations:
For an age of dilettantes and aesthetes, an adorer of Beauty is a man who practices no other cult and who, recognizing no other gods, spends his life in the voluptuous contemplation of works of art. However, for reasons whose metaphysical nature exceeds the bounds of a simple study of art, Beauty cannot be loved fruitfully if it is loved only for the pleasures it gives. Just as the pursuit of happiness for happiness’ sake leads but to ennui, and as in order to find it we must look for something else, so too aesthetic pleasure is given to us in addition if we love Beauty for itself as something real existing outside of us, and infinitely more important than the joy it gives us. (Proust 1987:33; 1971:110)
To Ruskin, Beauty was ‘a reality infinitely more important than life, for which he would have given his own life’ (Proust 1987:33-4). ‘Those who see in him a moralist and an apostle enjoying in art what is not art are as mistaken as those who, neglecting the profound essence of his aesthetic feeling, confuse it with a voluptuous dilettantism’; his ‘religious fervor’ strengthened his ‘aesthetic sincerity’ and ‘protected him from any foreign encroachment’ (36). ‘Whether some of these conceptions of his supernatural aesthetic be false is a matter which, in our opinion, is of no importance’ (ib.). Yet as he proceeds, Proust begins to mark a distance from what he calls Ruskin’s ‘idolatry,’ his confusion of the values of art with extraneous associations, thus siding on this point with Pater and the aesthetes. Henry James, writing in 1872, speaks of ‘that critical corrective without which Ruskin is so erratic, and with which he is so profitable, a monitor’ (James, 840). The best preservative of Ruskin’s immortality, today, is to read him in the light of Proust, who both provides this ‘critical corrective’ at the deepest level and creatively develops Ruskin’s vision of Beauty in his own contemplations of nature and art.
Historicism and Relativism
Where Ruskin had taken pains to define ‘beauty’ and to define historical periods such as the Renaissance, and also to judge art and history from a firm moral and religious standpoint, Pater on all these fronts is a complete relativist. His suspension of dogmatic judgement and his yielding to the Heraclitean flux of subjective impression gave his writing a spell-binding quality that subjugated many youthful readers in the last three decades of the 19th century.
One of Pater’s earliest pieces, in Westminster Review, January, 1866, attacks Coleridge with massive confidence in the historicist outlook on religion, philosophy, and art. ‘To the modern spirit nothing is or can be rightly known except relatively and under conditions’ (quoted, R, 294). ‘Theology is a great house, scored all over with hieroglyphics by perished hands. When we decypher one of these hieroglyphics, we find in it the statement of a mistaken opinion… and we can trace the origin of the mistake. Dogmas are precious as the memorials of a class of sincere and beautiful spirits, who in a past age of humanity struggled… for a noble and elevated happiness. That struggle is the substance, the dogma only its shadowy expression’ (quoted, Donoghue, 176). It is the fate of historicists to be hoist in middle age with their own petard, for changing fashions sweep their views away too. The historicist and the relativist may then find a bitter-sweet confirmation of their outlook as they find themselves thus historicized and relativized. No doubt Pater became increasingly aware of the implications of his outlook, suavely expressed in a late work, Plato and Platonism, which begins by pointing out that even the simplest ideas are the product of historical evolution: ‘The most elementary act of mental analysis takes time to do; the most rudimentary sort of speculative knowledge, abstractions so simple that we can hardly conceive the human mind without them, must grow, and with difficulty’ (5). Plato is a very late thinker, and had already the sense that everything had already been said: ‘The world Plato has entered into was already almost weary of philosophical debate, bewildered by the oppositions of sects… In the Timaeus, dealing with the origin of the universe he figures less as the author of a new theory, than as already an eclectic critic of older ones, himself somewhat perplexed by theory and counter-theory’ (6).
In a strikingly modern articulation of the historicist perspective, Pater seems to be expanding Newman’s organicist account of the development of the Christian Idea in history (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845) into a more comprehensive and secularized vision:
A modern scholar occupied by this problem might observe that all religions may be regarded as natural products, that, at least in their origin, their growth, and decay, they have common laws, and are not to be isolated from the other movements of the human mind in the periods in which they respectively prevailed; that they arise spontaneously out of the human mind, as expressions of the varying phases of its sentiment concerning the unseen world; that every intellectual product must be judged from the point of view of the age and the people in which it was produced. He might go on to observe that each has contributed something to the development of the religious sense, and ranging them as so many stages in the gradual education of the human mind, justify the existence of each. The basis of the reconciliation of the religions of the world would thus be the inexhaustible activity and creativeness of the human mind itself, in which all religions alike have their root, and in which all alike are reconciled; just as the fancies of childhood and the thoughts of old age meet and are laid to rest, in the experience of the individual. (R, 25-6)
The pure experience of beauty is not a step outside the prison-house of historicism and evolutionism. Rather, to surrender to aesthetic sensation is to be swept up into the Heraclitean flux: ‘Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness. To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics’ (R, xix).
Taking up Arnold’s ideal of criticism – ‘To see the object as in itself it really is’ – Pater takes a turn to the subject: ‘the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s 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?’ (xix-xx). This is not a charter for lazy subjectivism or impressionism, but has a good basis in Kant and could be seen as anticipating phenomenology. ‘He who experiences these impressions strongly, and drives directly at the discrimination and analysis of them, has no need to trouble himself with the abstract question what beauty is in itself, or what its exact relation to truth or experience – metaphysical questions, as unprofitable as metaphysical questions elsewhere’ (xx). The blithe dismissal of metaphysics may be what prompted Eliot to think Pater had no serious interest in philosophy. ‘The function of the aesthetic critic is to distinguish, to analyse, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a picture, a landscape, a fair personality in life or in a book, produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experienced’(xx-xxi).The meaning is that we are to learn to be visionaries, to seize across the facts, legends and works genuine or spurious that cluster around a great name an irreducible imaginative essence.
A vision of the essence of a painter can broaden to a vision of the essence of a period or even of the ancient world, of which the painter’s apprehension is embodied in the work. Comparison and contrast of the aesthetic sensations elicited by individual works easily becomes a sweeping voyage across history: ‘Fair as the young men of the Elgin marbles, the Adam of the Sistine Chapel is unlike them in a total absence of that balance and completeness which express so well the sentiment of a self-contained, independent life. In that languid figure there is something rude and satyr-like, something akin to the rugged hillside on which it lies. His whole form is gathered into an expression of mere expectancy and reception’ (R, 59). The deliberate incompleteness of some works of Michelangelo – like the degraded state of Leonardo’s Last Supper – invites the viewer to such labours of constructive imagination: ‘He secures that ideality of expression which in Greek sculpture depends on a delicate system of abstraction, and in early Italian sculpture on lowness of relief, by an incompleteness, which is surely not always undesigned, and which, as I think, no one regrets, and trusts to the spectator to complete the half-emergent form’ (ib., 59). Pater identifies with Michelangelo as a figure who masters the visions of beauty of every age and is thrust into a spectral and marginalized position in his own: ‘So he lingers on; a revenant, as the French say, a ghost out of another age, in a world too coarse to touch his faint sensibilities very closely; dreaming, in a worn-out society, theatrical in its life, theatrical in its art, theatrical even in its devotion, on the morning of the world’s history, on the primitive form of man, on the images under which that primitive world had conceived of spiritual forces’ (R, 71).
The dreaming Renaissance of Pater is entertains a vision of the future as well as of the past: ‘The movement of the fifteenth century was twofold; partly the Renaissance, partly also the coming of what is called the “modern spirit,” with its realism, its appeal to experience. It comprehended a return to antiquity, and a return to nature. Raphael represents the return to antiquity, and Leonardo the return to nature. In this return to nature, he was seeking to satisfy a boundless curiosity by her perpetual surprises, a microscopic sense of finish by her finesse, or delicacy of operation, that subtilitas naturae which Bacon notices’ (R, 86). But just as he emphasized the sweetness rather than the strength of Michelangelo, with particular reference to his poetry (discreetly mentioning only Vittoria Colonna and not Tommaso Cavalieri as their addressee), so his admiration of Leonardo soon drifts to the realm of tender sentiment: ‘But among the more youthful heads there is one at Florence which Love chooses for its own–the head of a young man, which may well be the likeness of Andrea Salaino, beloved of Leonardo for his curled and waving hair’ (R, 91). Soon he modulates to the theme of art for art’s sake: ‘This solitary culture of beauty seems to have hung upon a kind of self-love, and a carelessness in the work of art of all but art itself. Out of the secret places of a unique temperament he brought strange blossoms and fruits hitherto unknown; and for him, the novel impression conveyed, the exquisite effect woven, counted as an end in itself – a perfect end’ (R, 92). The curious use of ‘self-love’ in this paragraph is an indication of how Pater psychologizes art for art’s sake, so that it becomes self-expression for the sake of self-expression, self-enjoyment. The brew is further enriched with another cherished theme, the rehabilitation of ‘pagan’ sensuality in an account of St. John the Baptist, ‘one of the few naked figures Leonardo painted… whose treacherous smile would have us understand something far beyond the outward gesture or circumstance’ and whose likeness to Bacchus in another painting ‘set Théophile Gautier thinking of Heine’s notion of decayed gods, who, to maintain themselves, after the fall of paganism, took employment in the new religion’ (R, 93). (All of this would apply a fortiori to the outrageously erotic portraits of the Baptist by Caravaggio, who had not yet been rediscovered.)
Intuition of Essences
Pater, as Kenneth Clark observes, was the first to formulate the ‘essence’ of painterly beauty (and perhaps also of the lyric poem), and is thus a major founding figure of modern aesthetics. At their core art and poetry are above and beyond any ideological interpretations. Pater is a pluralist in respecting the variety of the arts and of individual works of art: ‘the sensuous material of each art brings with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the forms of any other, an order of impressions distinct in kind’ (R, 102). Yet he also pursues affinities between the essences he identifies and between the different arts: ‘in its special mode of handling its given material, each art may be observed to pass into the condition of some other art, by what German critics term an Anders-streben–a partial alienation from its own limitations, through which the arts are able, not indeed to supply the place of each other, but reciprocally to lend each other new forces’ (R, 105). Hegel and Goethe had noticed this tendency of the arts to mingle, but Goethe found it pernicious; Pater’s remark is a transcription of Baudelaire, himself indebted to Wagner (see R, 388).
‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it’ (R, 106). The handling, the form must become an end in itself and thoroughly penetrate the matter. The consequence that ‘lyrical poetry, precisely because in it we are least able to detach the matter from the form, without a deduction of something from that matter itself, is, at least artistically, the highest and most complete form of poetry’ (R, 108) is one that the critical study of poetry has taken to heart throughout the 20th century. The idea is a natural fruit of the ‘art for art’s sake’ movement launched by Théophile Gautier, taken up by Baudelaire and propagated in England by Swinburne. The idea of the integration of matter and form, so that matter is entirely subjugated to and pervaded by form has foundations in Schiller.
The sentence Pater italicizes is one of his two or three most famous utterances. It has haunted generations of students of art and literature. But as we can see, it is not a witty flash, thrown off in a moment of inspiration, but the fruit of careful cogitation and wide reading in his predecessors. All of the ideas Pater expresses in these pages have deep roots in the history of aesthetic reflection since Kant. The oracular cast of Pater’s utterance, with the alliteration of ‘all art aspires’ (the ‘constantly’ is frequently omitted in casual citation), makes it memorable and fascinating. Some of the fascination is diluted when the remark is replaced in its original context, where its meaning becomes quite plain and almost prosaic.
‘Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception, to get rid of its responsibilities to its subject or material’ (R, 108). This consciousness was particularly keen in the Venetian painters: ‘By no school of painters have the necessary limitations of the art of painting been so unerringly though instinctively apprehended, and the essence of what is pictorial in a picture so justly conceived, as by the school of Venice’ (109). They were quintessential artists because they were unburdened by philosophical theory: ‘Exempt from the stress of thought and sentiment, which taxed so severely the resources of the generations of Florentine artists, those earlier Venetian painters, down to Carpaccio and the Bellini, seem never for a moment to have been so much as tempted to lose sight of the scope of their art in its strictness, or to forget that painting must be before all things decorative, a thing for the eye’ (110). The uncertainty surrounding attributions of works to Giorgione is embraced by Pater as a positive quality: ‘something fabulous and illusive has always mingled itself in the brilliancy of Giorgione’s fame’ (112). Trawling through the literature and his memories of seeing various paintings, Pater attains an imaginative apprehension, exhaled in his style, of a particular distinct aesthetic essence: ‘In what is connected with a great name, much that is not real is often very stimulating. For the aesthetic philosopher, therefore, over and above the real Giorgione and his authentic extant works, there remains the Giorgionesque also–an influence, a spirit or type in art, active in men so different as those to whom many of his supposed works are really assignable… Giorgione thus becomes a sort of impersonation of Venice itself, its projected reflex or ideal, all that was intense or desirable in it crystallising about the memory of this wonderful young man’ (116-17). Cultivating ‘epiphanies’ in the manner of the young James Joyce, he seeks in ‘the highest sort of dramatic poetry’ certain ‘significant and animated instants, a mere gesture, a look, a smile, perhaps–some brief and wholly concrete moment–into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects of a long history, have condensed themselves, and which seem to absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the present’ (118). In flights of fancy – ‘feeling for music in thought on a stringless instrument, ear and finger refining themselves infinitely, in the appetite for sweet sound; a momentary touch of an instrument in the twilight, as one passes through some unfamiliar room, in a chance company’ (119) – Pater seizes what he calls ‘the vraie vérité about Giorgione’ (121).
Pater’s effort to understand art from the historical, spiritual conditions out of which is was produced, makes him a soulmate of Johann JoachimWinckelmann (1717-1768). But Pater’s sympathies are rarely confined to the theoretical level; they spill over into that of temperament, as he strikes up a rather intimate acquaintance with the figures he admires from the past. He adopts Goethe’s view of Winckelmann as ‘an abstract type of culture, consummate, tranquil, withdrawn already into the region of ideals, yet retaining colour from the incidents of a passionate intellectual life,’ and as endowed with ‘an inexhaustible gift of suggestion, to which criticism may return again and again with renewed freshness’ (R, 141). Passion and suggestion are Pater’s forte too. The views attributed to Goethe here have very little to do with what Goethe actually wrote in his pages on Winckelmann; rather they reflect the thoughts that reading Goethe planted in Pater’s mind.
Pater relives Winckelmann’s thrilling discovery of Greek antiquity, a quintessential Renaissance experience: ‘We can hardly imagine how deeply the human mind was moved, when, at the Renaissance, in the midst of a frozen world, the buried fire of ancient art rose up from under the soil. Winckelmann here reproduces for us the earlier sentiment of the Renaissance. On a sudden the imagination feels itself free. How facile and direct, it seems to say, is this life of the senses and the understanding, when once we have apprehended it!’ (R, 146). For Pater, Greece and the Renaissance represent a mighty simplification. Sensual and imaginative freedom thrives in the smooth progress of a history of enlightenment. Delighted with his own vision of history as unfolding harmony, Pater purrs with enthusiasm, sharing in Winckelmann’s divinatory apprehensions: ‘Enthusiasm, – that, in the broad Platonic sense of the Phaedrus, was the secret of his divinatory Power over the Hellenic world’ (R, 152).
A homoerotic note has already been struck here, and where Ruskin would have held back and frowned, Pater bravely advances: ‘That his affinity with Hellenism was not merely intellectual, that the subtler threads of temperament were inwoven in it, is proved by his romantic, fervent [“fervid” in the 1873 text] friendships with young men’ (ib.). Goethe’s glowing association of Winckelmann with the same-sex friendships of Antiquity must have pleased Pater: ‘The passionate fulfilment of loving duties, the delight of inseparability, the abandonment of one to the other, the affirmed commitment for one’s whole life, the necessary accompaniment unto death astonish us in the connection of two young men; indeed we feel embarrassed when poets, historians, philosophers, orators pile up fables, incidents, feelings, reflections of this content and bearing. To a friendship of this kind Winckelmann felt himself born, not only capable of it but needing it in the highest degree; he experienced his own self only under the form of friendship, he knew himself only under the image of a whole to be completed by a third’ (354). Greece, the Renaissance, and scholarship like Winckelmann’s opened up ‘the intoxicating possibility, grasped instantly by Pater, Swinburne, and Wilde of legitimizing erotic loves between men’ (Dowling 1996:80). George Moore, notably in his Confessions of a Young Man (1888), adopted from Pater a ‘double-voiced rhetoric – art criticism for the masses, homoerotic self-affirmation for the minority’ (Frazier, 157). Today all of this is an object of intensive research, as marking a threshold in modern European consciousness of the variety of sexual orientation. As James Alison remarks, such a new discovery in the anthropological sphere, unlike discoveries in physics or chemistry, is disclosed ‘through and within pre-existing human relational patterns,’ which ‘doesn’t make the objectivity of the truth any less real, or the effects of a discovery of this sort any less striking.’ Pater’s literary fortunes have thriven on his modern identity as a self-affirming gay man, whose preoccupations that seemed so idle at the time are now taken as marking an important moment in the growth of human self-understanding.
Greek thoughts ‘were ever in the happiest readiness to be transformed into objects for the senses,’ whereas medieval art ‘is always struggling to express thoughts beyond itself’ (R, 163). In the Venus of Melos, ‘the mind begins and ends with the finite image, yet loses no part of the spiritual motive. That motive is not lightly and loosely attached to the sensuous form, as its meaning to an allegory, but saturates and is identical with it. The Greek mind had advanced to a particular stage of self-reflexion, but was careful not to pass beyond it’ (R, 164). It seems that Pater wishes us to return to it, abandoning centuries of what Hegel called ‘unhappy consciousness.’ He has nointerest in the Sublime, characterized by Hegel as the eloquent disparity between a form and the transcendent matter it points to. Though he knows something of the dark, Dionysian side of Greece, and of the tormented side of Leonardo and Michelangelo, he prefers to think of Greece and the Renaissance as smiling periods:‘So perfectly did the young Raphael infuse that Heiterkeit, that pagan blitheness, into religious works, that his picture of Saint Agatha at Bologna became to Goethe a step in the evolution of Iphigenie. But in proportion as the gift of smiling was found once more, there came also an aspiration towards that lost antique art, some relics of which Christian art had buried in itself, ready to work wonders when their day came’ (R, 180). Or is this stress on Heiterkeit a forced cheer, and is the dream of the Renaissance predicated on a sense of all-devouring death?‘There is, perhaps, a lifelessness encrypted in renaissance and its assertion of indefatigable vitality… Pater’s aesthetic rapture and his historicism alike achieve an encounter with death’ (Ohi, 5).
Perhaps part of the melancholy that attaches to Pater’s homesick evocations of the smiling Greek and Renaissance worlds comes from the way that he has psychologized the idea of art as an end in itself, Pater no longer sets the artist at the service of the work, with its imperious demands, but sets both at the service of ‘experience.’In the notorious ‘Conclusion’ of his book he writes: ‘Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?’ (R, 188). One thinks of an Edgar Allan Poe character morbidly counting his pulses as life expires. This inward-looking aesthetic idealism can hardly escape the charge of a self-centred individualism. ‘To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life… While all melts under our feet, we may well 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 artist’s hands, or the face of one's friend’ (R, 189). The tone of desperation struck in these lines recalls the livid, vampire hue that he casts on the Mona Lisa, even as she becomes a thoroughly modern compendium of all the ages, combining ‘the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias’ (R, 98-9). It is as if Pater spent his life brewing up a single dream out of all his reading, a dream extending from ancient Greece through the Renaissance to the exquisite sensations a belated, world-weary nineteenth-century scholar could enjoy. The Mona Lisa becomes the emblem of his dream, and in this sense ‘the symbol of the modern idea’ (R, 99).
Pater’s scepticism about theories is not purely epistemological; he objects to them because they distract from the task of drinking in experience and tending the imaginative flame. ‘What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy, of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own’ (R, 189). Condemned to death, ‘our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life… Only be sure it is passion – that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake’ (R, 190). Those closing words of the book set art entirely at the service of the exquisite intensification of experience. The striking ideological narrowness of these utterances is what made them the manifesto of the Aesthetic movement, no doubt blighting the lives of those who took them too seriously, as not only T. S. Eliot but also W. B. Yeats observed. On first meeting Yeats, Wilde praised Pater’s work: ‘It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trumpet should have been sounded the moment it was written’ (Yeats, 130). Yeats considered Marius the Epicurean ‘the only great prose in modern English,’ but wondered ‘if it, or the attitude of mind of which it was the noblest expression, had not caused the disaster of my friends’ (302). ‘Surely the ideal of culture expressed by Pater can only create feminine souls,’ Yeats writes, opposing to it the true culture of the Renaissance, which Pater had abducted and absorbed into his dream; Renaissance culture was masculine culture ‘founded not on self-knowledge but on knowledge of some other self, Christ or Caesar, not on delicate sincerity but on imitative energy’ (477). It may be asked whether the English-speaking world, because of Pater’s influence, has not succumbed to a reduction of the Renaissance to a reservoir of exquisite sensations. Pater may have been too successful in championing Michelangelo’s ‘sweetness’ and ‘lovely strangeness’ against Ruskin’s emphasis on his ‘strength’ (R, 57).
The Spirit of Giordano Bruno
While Gerald Manley Hopkins recalls Pater attacking Christianity for two hours on end, Edmund Gosse claims that in his later years Pater’s conversation was predominantly theological. Perhaps the most enthusiastic theological passage he penned, one rather neglected by the commentators, is the paean to Giordano Bruno with which the fragmentary novel Gaston de Latour concludes. The faceless protagonist has already met Ronsard (prematurely aged at 46, but standing for the springtime of the Renaissance) and Montaigne (whose scepticism augurs its twilight) and he has witnessed the St Bartholomew Day Massacre. Now, on Pentecost Sunday, ‘Gaston listened to one, who, as if with some intentional new version of the sacred event then commemorated, had a great deal to say concerning the Spirit; above all, of the freedom, the indifference, of its operations’ (137-8). Pater’s religion would indeed be that of a free spirit, adopting beliefs and attitudes according to taste.
Bruno in his youth ‘would feed his vanity by puzzling the good, sleepy heads of the average sons of Dominic with his neology, putting new wine into old bottles, teaching them their own business, the new, higher, truer sense of the most familiar terms, of the chapters they read, the hymns they sang’ (140). Pater himself may be aspiring to rewrite Christian tradition in his own key. He may associate Bruno’s ordeals with his own rejection by Oxford: ‘He would soon pass beyond the utmost possible limits of his brethren's sympathy, beyond the largest and freest interpretation such words would bear, to words and thoughts on an altogether different plane, of which the full scope was only to be felt in certain old pagan writers – pagan, though approached, perhaps, at first, as having a kind of natural, preparatory, kinship with Scripture itself’ (140-1). Bruno’s reading is like Pater’s own: ‘this curious youth, in that age of restored letters, read eagerly, easily, and very soon came to the kernel of a difficult old author, Plotinus or Plato, – to the real purpose of thinkers older still, surviving by glimpses only in the books of others, Empedocles, for instance, and Pythagoras, who had been nearer the original sense of things; Parmenides, above all, that most ancient assertor of God's identity with the world’ (141). Here we touch the core: pantheism. ‘The affinities, the unity, of the visible and the invisible, of earth and heaven, of all things whatever, with one another, through the consciousness, the person, of God the Spirit, who was at every moment of infinite time, in every atom of matter, at every point of infinite space; aye! was everything, in turn’ (141). With pantheism comes moral freedom: ‘A big thought! yet suggesting, perhaps, from the first, in still, small, immediately practical, voice, a freer way of taking, a possible modification of, certain moral precepts’ (141-2). The still small voice of conscience undergoes a remarkable deflection here, as Pater solicits traditional (sexual) ethics in a liberal sense.
On philosophical as on aesthetic themes, Pater cultivates a global impression, which can sometimes be an insight capture of the distinctive essence of a creator or thinker, but can more often seem just dilettantish vagueness. Bruno is perhaps a thinker who benefits from this vagueness: ‘God the Spirit, the soul of the world, being therefore really identical with the soul of Bruno also, as the universe shapes itself to Bruno's reason, to his imagination, ever more and more articulately, he too becomes a sharer of the divine joy in that process of the formation of true ideas, which is really parallel to the process of creation, to the evolution of things’ (142-3). The radical ethical consequences are suggested discreetly, and teasingly whisked away by the last four words of the following sentence: ‘That Bruno himself, in “the enthusiasm of the idea,” drew from his axiom of the “indifference of contraries” the practical consequence which is in very deed latent there, that he was ready to sacrifice to the antinomianism, which is certainly a part of its rigid logic, the austerities, the purity of his own youth, for instance, there is no proof’ (145). The (homo)erotic note is again struck: ‘Yet a nature so opulently endowed can hardly have been lacking in purely physical or sensuous ardours. His pantheistic belief that the Spirit of God is in all things, was not inconsistent with, nay! might encourage, a keen and restless eye for the dramatic details of life and character however minute, for humanity in all its visible attractiveness, since there too, in truth, divinity lurks’ (145-6). The timeliness of Bruno’s Eroici furori could suggest a parallel with that of Pater’s own maiden work: ‘Here was the needful book for man to read; the full revelation, the story in detail, of that one universal mind, struggling, emerging, through shadow, substance, manifest spirit, in various orders of being, – the veritable history of God’ (149). Of Pater could it be said, too, that his ideas gave him ‘a constant, inextinguishable appetite for every form of experience, – a fear, as of the one sin possible, of limiting, for one’s self or another, the great stream flowing for thirsty souls, that wide pasture set ready for the hungry heart’ (150). The alleged bad influence of the ‘Conclusion’ to The Renaissance seems to be recalled in the following: ‘It is not always, or often, that men’s abstract ideas penetrate the temperament, touch the animal spirits, affect conduct… Scruples of conscience, if he felt such, might well be pushed aside for the “excellency” of such knowledge as this’ (152). Bruno, like Pater, urges his readers to gorge themselves on experience: ‘Touch! see! listen! eat freely of all the trees of the garden of Paradise, with the voice of the Lord God literally everywhere! – here was the final counsel of perfection’ (152-3). Pater did not dabble in ‘Satanism’ in the flamboyant manner of Baudelaire and Huysmans, but he does rather daringly – though speaking in the persona of Bruno – adopt the serpent’s voice here, boldly contradicting Genesis.
The determined effort of Pater in his later years to add a religious superstructure to his aesthetic vision did not succeed in altering, for posterity, the image of himself he so memorably projected in his first book. Marius the Epicurean is a greater work, and the essential guide to Pater’s soul and style. But the second-century world there explored will always remain shadowy except to scholars. In the earlier work the magnificence of the object studied, still dazzling today, lifted the author above himself. Adopting the posture of messenger, interpreter, and dreamer of the glories of the Renaissance, he invited a fusion of their image with his own image as their lover. The intoxication that this performance conveyed was so potent that it has confused our thinking on the Renaissance ever since, making it difficult to disentangle a valid perception from the entangling folds of the Paterian veil.
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From English Literature and Language 46 (2009)