Provocation

Adam Phillips

  • Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls by Denis Donoghue
    Knopf, 364 pp, $27.50, May 1995, ISBN 0 679 43753 3

In a contemporary review of The Renaissance in the Pall Mall Gazette, the critic Sidney Colvin wrote that ‘the book is not one for any beginner to turn to in search of “information”.’ ‘Information’ was in inverted commas not because there were no facts or respectable opinions in the book, but because Pater did not seem to believe in information, as it was customarily understood in criticism of the arts. As most reviewers seemed to agree, he wasn’t doing something new, he was doing something badly. ‘In the matter of historical fact,’ Denis Donoghue writes, joining in, as it were, ‘Pater also took liberties, so many that it is a pity he did not derive more satisfaction from them.’ But Pater was satisfied not by getting it wrong, but by not having to get it right. It was his style to affirm invention over accuracy and, indeed, satisfaction over argument.

Pater was neither scholarly nor overtly confessional; and he seemed unembarrassed by what a work of art could do to him, or how it tempted him to write about it. His approach tended to be, in Donoghue’s arch but apt phrase, ‘free of empirical duty’. Matthew Arnold and Modern Science could give you the object as in itself it really was; could give you the best, the most reliable, salutary truths. What Pater gave you were his impressions and his style. And his style unashamedly competed for attention with what he was apparently writing about (‘Pater’s sentences,’ Donoghue writes, ‘ask to be read as if they wanted to be looked at, not merely to be understood’). The real interest for Pater was in what the art, and the life of the artist, could evoke in him; what he could use it to become. Or rather, to write; because it was only in sentences that Pater became himself. He was, in other words, at least as interested in himself as he was in the art or artists he wrote about. For those keen to humble themselves in front of Great Art – or, more important, Great Religion – this was something of an affront.

The ‘chief question’, Pater wrote in The Renaissance, that the critic must ask of the artist is: ‘What is the peculiar sensation, what is the peculiar quality of pleasure, which his work has the property of exciting in us, and which we cannot get elsewhere?’ The critic was not asked to describe the formal qualities of the work, nor its historical context: he was invited to describe his pleasure. This, of course, was a question, and an invitation, calculated to appeal to those young enough, or bold enough, to have confidence in their possibilities for pleasure. Pater assumed, at least in his writing, that pleasure and sensation – not to mention the peculiar – were morally good. So when The Renaissance was published in 1873 it was a scandal, at least in Oxford. Pater was a homosexual Oxford don who lived with his two sisters, and scandal was anathema to him. The subjects that he treated – Pico della Mirandola, Botticelli, Leonardo, Du Bellay, Winckelmann, among others – seemed harmless enough. But the book that Wilde would notoriously refer to as his ‘golden book’ was too timely to be the work of an innocent. ‘The’ was the misleading word in the title; Pater was proposing a renaissance of aesthetic values – the renaissance, during the Renaissance, of pre-Christian values – that was manifestly antithetical to the official versions of itself that Victorian England was promoting.

In flagrant disregard for the responsibilities of his academic position, Pater seemed to be encouraging the natural paganism of youth at a time in their lives when those privileged undergraduates – the ‘beginners’ Colvin covertly refers to – were supposed to be consolidating their faith in Christianity and the Empire. (‘Pater’s England,’ Donoghue writes, ‘is not the country as given; on that, he has little purchase.’) Pater seemed to be suggesting in his infamous Conclusion that we have nothing to redeem but our moments of pleasure, and nothing to do beyond the having of special, pleasurable experiences. Life was about intensity and not achievement, about meaning and not profit; diligence was bad faith. His ideas, such as they were, were not original, nor did he claim that they were. An elegant confection of pre-Socratic philosophy, German Romanticism and French aestheticism, his writing mocked the grander ambitions of Late Victorian England as much by the oddity of its style as by the old beliefs it claimed were being recycled during the Renaissance. To the champions of moral and material progress – the scientists and the political idealists as much as the divines and the cultural critics – Pater had written a heretical text. ‘Our failure is to form habits,’ Pater had written. You couldn’t make a society that was getting anywhere out of Pater’s ideas.

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