Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Pater analyzes and reduces - What effect does it really produce on me?

Rummaging through the poets of the 1890s, and reading the letters of Oscar Wilde, I had one constant thought: “I need to read more Walter Pater.”  These Decadents and their Walter Pater.

Now I have read more Pater, four books on top of The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873), and I am baffled.  What seems to have happened is that Pater’s disciples pulled a handful of passages – more like lines – out of The Renaissance and built an aesthetic out of them.

To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life…  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.  (“Conclusion”)

And similar Greatest Hits of the Art For Art’s Sake aesthetic, not exactly out of context, but getting there.  For Pater himself was by temperament nothing like a decadent, a scholar more than an aesthete, an Epicurean of the ascetic kind.  He is devoted to nothing but beauty and pleasure, and what is more pleasurable than analyzing poetry?

What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me?  What effect does it really produce on me?  Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure?  (“Preface”)

We are almost all Paterian critics now – in my case, much more so than I had realized – but many of his descendants, knowing and otherwise stop here.  But Pater keeps going:

The aesthetic critic, then, regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature and human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind.  The influence he feels, and wishes to explain, by analysing and reducing it to its elements…  His end is reached when he has disengaged that virtue, and noted it, as a chemist notes some natural element, for himself and others…  (“Preface”)

So Pater is one of those critics who wants to be “scientific” somehow?  No, not remotely.  He is a sincere devotee of pleasure and beauty.  The chemistry business is just a metaphor.

Some of Pater’s rhetoric makes more sense set against Matthew Arnold’s guff about “objective” criticism, all of his bluster about “high seriousness” and understanding the “truth” of the artistic object.  Any given piece of criticism by Arnold has plenty of insights, but I find his rhetoric hard to take.  Pater, the “subjective” critic, is just as interested in the truth of the work of art, but is open about the process of aesthetic experience, the steps it takes to reach that truth.  Pleasure in one aspect of art pulls him, and me, in to others.  An exciting plot leads me to an interesting character who tricks me into thinking about an ethical question which directs me to the author’s rhetoric.

Arnold does this, too, everyone does.  Pater’s transparency does make clearer the possibility of other ways into a work of art, responses from other directions.  But everyone, in the end, is studying the object.  In practice, Pater’s criticism looks a lot like Arnold’s.  The “me” is hardly visible.

Or it is channeled elsewhere.  Pater uses a strange, original form for that purpose.  I will write something about it, something even more shallow and uncomprehending than this post.

The Renaissance is a great book, by the way, a great book about Renaissance art.  Just ignore everything I wrote here.  The Leonardo chapter, the Winckelmann chapter – so rich in ideas. 


  1. Very interesting. I have read only The Renaissance, and that many years ago. In The Practice of Reading, Denis Donoghue proposes a critical taxonomy by which contemporary critics follow either Wilde, Pater, or Arnold. I remembered this when I saw your comment that "we are all Paterian critics now" -- but digging out my old post on his book I find specific remarks only about Wilde and Arnold. Anyway, I wonder if he means the allusion in the same way you coin it here.

  2. Yes, I believe I do mean much the same thing as Donoghue. All right. Maybe I should read his Pater biography.

    By "we," I realize that I was thinking mostly of book bloggers and our more formal (but still pretty informal) colleagues at places like OLM. And of critics of the less theoretical / Wildean sort, like Denis Donoghue.

  3. Wasn't Pater a great favorite of Virginia Woolf? Well, whatever the answer to that question might be -- and I'll find out for myself with a little research -- your posting persuades me that I've been negligent: I have not ready anything by Pater since college. Damn! I better get motivated! Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Yes, there is a strong streak of Pater in Woolf's criticism, and even in her fiction. Maybe also some opposition to Pater, some argument with him. Maybe a lot of argument.

    And now I see that Woolf's tutor in Classics was Clara Pater, Walter's sister! How funny.