Friday, December 4, 2015

A shrill music, a laughter at all things - Dionysian Walter Pater

Max Beerbohm’s “Hilary Maltby and Stephen Braxton” includes a joke that requires some readerly inference:

… when Braxton’s first book appeared fauns had still an air of novelty about them.  We had not yet tired of them and their hoofs and their slanting eyes and their way of coming suddenly out of woods to wean quiet English villages from respectability.  We did tire later.

There must have been so, so many of those things.  Walter Pater wrote one of them, his Imaginary Portrait  “Denys l’Auxerrois,” and provided the intellectual support for some of the others in several of the essays in Greek Studies (1894).  Dionysius was one of Pater’s subjects.  This mild, ascetic man and his theoretical bacchanals.

Denys is the god Dionysius in a degenerate medieval form.  He mysteriously appears in Auxerre as a child, becomes an organ-builder and musician, and leads the townspeople into frenzy.

The hot nights were noisy with swarming troops of disheveled women and youths with red-stained limbs and faces, carrying their lighted torches over the vine-clad hills, or rushing down the streets, to the horror of timid watchers, towards the cool spaces by the river.  A shrill music, a laughter at all things, was everywhere.

The vintage becomes, of course, especially good.  Wine snobs may sneer: sure, the vintage of Chablis!  Now, now.

But Pater is up on the latest scholarship, as he shows in Greek Studies, and his Dionysius is not the triumphant god of the Bacchae of Euripides but rather a true fertility god, flourishing but also dying with the seasons, so that it is not the unbelievers but Denys himself who is torn apart in a frenzy. 

The monk Hermes sought in vain next day for any remains of the body of his friend.  Only, at nightfall, the heart of Denys was brought to him by a stranger, still entire.  It must long since have mouldered into dust, under the stone, marked with a cross, where he buried it in a dark corner of the cathedral aisle.

Denys’s life and death are also pictured in a stained glass window that gets “Pater’s” attention, putting a frame around the story.  I have been in that very cathedral, I believe I have even heard the organ there, but no one pointed out the window or where the heart of a reincarnated Greek god was kept as a relic.

I might not have read Pater’s Greek Studies if I had not just read The Birth of Tragedy (1872).  Pater is less fanciful, or bold, than Friedrich Nietzsche.  In particular, he does not think Euripides destroyed tragedy but rather takes The Bacchae as a useful and genuine example of Greek religious expression.  He turns the Euripides play into another imaginary portrait, some mix of criticism, like a summary with commentary, and fiction, but with essayistic digressions.   He does the same for the myths of Demeter and Persephone and the Hippolytus of Euripides.  As criticism, it is odd, but enjoyable, personable.

The Renaissance is easily Pater’s best book, followed by the 1888 collection Appreciations, which I have barely mentioned, but further reading in Pater was rewarding, if often confusing.  Imaginary Portraits deserves a fresh look, but by whom, exactly?


  1. insightful explication; "peter pan", "the great god pan", "the story of a panic": some of the literary efforts engaging greek mythology. seemingly quite popular, as you say, in the victorian horror tree, with branches including "frankenstein", "dracula" and others...

  2. "Peter Pan"! I never noticed that! Geez. How did I not - anyway.

    I thought about mentioning Machen, but did not think of Forster. Forgot about Wind in the Willows, too. Well, that would be a different kind of post. Maybe one worth writing.

    I should try to find an article - a readable article - on this topic. Or even a book, if a readable book on the subject exists. The interaction between the scholarship and the imaginative work explained a lot.

  3. i mentally envision it as a progression of otherworldliness, or even as abstract thought of a certain kind beginning in the greek mythological world or before, up through the renaissance scholars, into elizabethan drama with all it's explicit horror and eventually to the gothic and into the romantic and even as far as virginia woolf and beyond. kind of a roll call list of spiritual or mythical creativity dealing with the unknown in ways related to each other through time. in large, to the purpose of understanding or attempting to describe reality and the human race's relation to it. whatdoyouthink?

  4. Mallarmé and Debussy were fauning in France then. Did people distinguish between fauns and satyrs then, or were they lumped together? Pan and satyrs turn up in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe. Saki was also keen on fauns. His cynical young men often turned to be fauns, if they weren't werewolves.

  5. I think Beerbohm is going after the fauns more than the satyrs. Satyrs are scary, fauns are cute. The stories about Pan are still read, the ones about fauns are dead.

    Saki maybe inverts this? And Mallarmé - as if I ever understand what he was doing.

    WHat is interesting in terms of Mudpuddle's progression is that the artists are responding to a wave of archeological discoveries and work in comparative religion that is trying to rationalize or systematize mankind's ideas about otherworldliness. The artists are pushing back - no, the gods are still here, we're all still bacchantes under it all.

  6. Thinking on, it qould be better to say that people in the stories think some of Saki's characters are fauns, but they turn out to be satyrs.
    What is the relaionship between fauns and satyrs? Are fauns domesticated satyrs - dogs compared with wolves? The older gods were coming back then, as christianity received hammer-blows of scepticism. Have you come across Richard Garnett's The Twilight of the Gods - what would result if Gibbon had started writing fantasy?

  7. The faun should be more of nature spirit, more pastoral. Dogs compared with wolves is not bad. The distinctions are easy to blur, though. Different aspects of our animal nature.

    I have been tempted by Garnett, looked at it but have never quite started it. If I do, and write about it, I need to quote your description - I doubt I will be able to come up with anything better than that.