This is the week – well, a week – in which I write about authors no one cares about, burning off any interest generated by my previously untranslated César Aira story (actual interest generated: none). This is all leading up to Henry James, to The Portrait of a Lady. But now, Marius the Epicurean (1885).
As a novel, a total failure. Walter Pater had no gift for character or story, and as a result Marius was hard to read and will be harder to remember. A young Roman explores a range of ethical systems, not just the Epicureanism of the title, before dying as a kind of non-Christian Christian martyr. Characters include every celebrity of the time – meaning people I had heard of: Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Apuleius (a translation of the Cupid and Psyche section of The Golden Ass is inserted into the book), and Lucian, who stars in a fine, amusing Lucianic dialogue.
The novel is a hybrid, and should perhaps be more read than it is for that alone, since hybrids are in vogue now. But how many readers at this point will care which ethical system Marius adopts? Especially when the choice is an idealized, aestheticized early Christianity.
He has a strong apprehension, also, of the beauty of the visible things around him; their fading, momentary graces and attractions. His natural susceptibility in this direction, enlarged by experience, seems to demand of him an almost exclusive pre-occupation with the aspects of things; with their aesthetic character, as it is called – their revelations to the eye and the imagination; not so much because those aspects of them yield him the largest amount of enjoyment, as because to be occupied, in this way, with the aesthetic or imaginative side of things, is to be in real contact with those elements of his own nature, and of theirs, which, for him at least, are matter of the most real kind of apprehension. (Ch. 16)
The passage perhaps makes Pater seem even less readable than he really is. I need two more lines:
As other men are concentrated upon truths of number, for instance, or on business, or it may be on the pleasures of appetite, so he is wholly bent on living in that full stream of refined sensation. And in the prosecution of this love of beauty, he claims an entire personal liberty, liberty of heart and mind, liberty, above all, from what may seem conventional answers to first questions.
In other words, aesthetic concerns are ethical concerns, and are just as real as any other aspect of reality. Even the turn to the early Church at the novel’s end is based on an aesthetic response to the service and music and iconography (see Chapter 23), much like the aestheticized defense of Catholicism Chateaubriand makes in The Genius of Christianity (1802). For Pater’s Marius, his interest in Christianity is ethical because it is aesthetic.
I do not know if anyone else was thinking, when I was messing around with the English poets of the 1890s, “this dude needs to read more Pater,” but that is certainly what I was thinking, and here we have 500 words demonstrating that I have been reading more Pater.