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.

The problem that every biographer of Pater has had is that Pater didn’t make much of a life out of these ideas either. By all accounts he did not cut much of a dash in the world; there is more perplexity and distaste than affection or admiration in the reminiscences of him that Donoghue reports. And there was a dismal lack, at least from the spectator’s point of view, of erotic or other adventures. He was physically unprepossessing, nice and rather remote: ‘an ugly pig’, as Arthur Symons put it, ‘though learned and charming too’. Pater seems to have believed, perhaps like some of his biographers, that without looks you can’t have a life. When Wilde was told that Pater had died, he replied that he did not know that he had lived. It was as though, even to his contemporaries, he was solely interesting for his writing. Unlike Flaubert, whom he admired, he had no Egypt. The style was the life, nothing else about him fascinated. Pater’s peculiar sentences became his character; all that was left of him, it seems, even while he was alive. ‘I think he has had – will have had – the most exquisite literary fortune,’ Henry James wrote to Edmund Gosse when Pater died in 1894, ‘i.e. to have taken it out all, wholly, exclusively, with the pen (the style, the genius) & absolutely not at all with the person. He is the mask without the face.’ For James, Pater’s biography is his style. But for many other people the ridiculous thing about Pater was that he had a biography without a life, a grand, unusual style uninformed by experience. As a person, Pater was often considered an unappealing mixture of the preposterous and the feeble; his writing has a talent for making people supercilious. But the derision itself – from his earliest reviewers to Eliot’s influential essay of 1930, ‘Arnold and Pater’, and even sometimes to Donoghue – is telling. So much animus spells some complicity. And some doubt about how to make sense of Pater, when he kept himself to his sentences.

Modern biographers, thwarted by the fact that nobody knows anymore what is of significance in a life, solve the problem by trying to include everything, though the contemporary fantasy of what everything is is rather predictable. Biographies are so long now not merely because we have more information, but because lives no longer have plots, they only have detail. Biography gives shape to a life, but a life doesn’t. When it comes to Lives – as Pater clearly realised in his Imaginary Portraits, and his own autobiographical writing – less is more. But when it comes to Pater’s life there has never been enough. Or no one has been sufficiently intrigued by the disparity that James, among others, remarked on.

For the critics of biography Pater would seem to be an ideal case: there is no discernible or apparently useful connection between what Pater did each day and what he wrote. He seems, Donoghue writes, ‘sentence by sentence, a textual self in the art of becoming’; and this makes him grist for the modern mill. There is nothing outside the text, certainly not a man who sits down to breakfast. And yet, paradoxically, all of Pater’s writing attests to the necessity and the enigma of the connection. All of Pater’s writing about art is an idiosyncratic mixture of the biographical and the autobiographical, as though for him they were always inextricable. There is no biography, he implies, without autobiography; but also, and more interestingly, there is no autobiography without biography. We make our lives, though often hermetically, out of the lives of others. None of Pater’s biographers have taken up his ironic, implicit invitation to join him to his sentences.

When it comes to biography – the connections, if any, between the man who suffers and the mind which creates, in Eliot’s lurid terms – Donoghue prefers a mystery to a possible oversimplification. ‘There is a relation between them ... ’ he affirms, conceding nothing, ‘but the relation is occult, it can’t be specified. The best reason for evoking the creative imagination is that the phrase indicates our sense of this opacity.’ As, one assumes, would the word ‘God’. Pater, like all real artists, made things up, Donoghue asserts; that is what it is to have an imagination. But when people stand up for mystery you can never be sure which laws they are laying down. Indeed, one of the things that characterises a genuine mystery, one might think, is its resilience. A ‘mind’ and its work would be virtually profaned, Donoghue intimates, if they were ‘explained or explained away by reciting the personal, domestic, social, economic and political conditions of its production’. Creative imagination or wholesale reduction seem implausible alternatives, calculated to pre-empt the interesting complexity of the issue. The imagination can also, of course, speculate without specifying, make useful or intriguing links without merely fixing the material. The injunction not to enquire into such matters seems pointlessly prohibitive. Good literary biographies, though rare, have been written. This is not one; but partly because, by Donoghue’s own admission, it is ‘a critical biography, a Brief Life’. But why include any Life at all if it merely gets in the way, if it is just an opportunity for false supposition?

As a biography of a person Walter Pater seems often cursory, and occasionally derisive of its subject. Pater, Donoghue writes, ‘remained the don who got a poor second’, lived in a ‘bashful little house’ with his ‘spinster sisters’; and valued them ‘for the civilised order they ensured while he entertained his undergraduates to hand-holding teas’. Donoghue makes as little as possible of Pater’s homosexuality; and he reproves him, not infrequently, as though he were a boy, ‘cheeky’, ‘insolent’ and never bold enough. As an account of a style – though not quite a biography of a style – Walter Pater is often brilliant and always engaging, even when Donoghue’s piety grates on one’s own. Much like Pater himself, Donoghue uses his subject for his own purposes; not least of which is a spirited and eloquent contemporary defence of art for art’s sake. Like all such defences it sometimes betrays the fastidious, precious enthusiasm that can make art sound like a monument to the most futile kind of moral superiority. At its best, though, Donoghue’s eloquence shows us the good senses in which art might be better kept to itself; and what it loses when treated merely as a substitute or a symptom – viz, everything that makes it different from a substitute or a symptom.

For Donoghue, art represents the possibility of other (secular) worlds. But his misgivings about art as a substitute religion are as severe as his commitment to art as a haven. (‘We should read literature in the spirit in which we enter a concert hall.’) Pater is an important puzzle for Donoghue because he assumes the supreme value of art, but with a quasi-religious fervour; and his own art of aesthetic criticism seems often to level, and always to exploit, its subjects; to convert them, as it were, to his own style. Pater’s writing celebrates idiosyncrasy, but avoids conflict – ‘Difference, yes, but not opposition’ is Donoghue’s motto for him. Pater’s ‘appreciations’ show an obtrusive disregard for everything other than Pater’s style. Irreverent towards conformities, his style consumes everything in its path. What he is interested in becomes an opportunity to perform more Pater. For anyone concerned, as Donoghue is, about the ethics of a style – the imperiousness of certain kinds of writing – Pater is a provocation.

Like Swift, Yeats and Emily Dickinson – the other individual writers Donoghue has devoted books to – Pater unavoidably invites the questions that have always inspired Donoghue as a critic. Are writers people who, because they cannot bear the world, make it their own, in words; or are they people who so cherish the world that they want to show us the very different things it contains? Are they megalomaniacs or midwives? (The obvious answer is: usually both, like everybody else.) But this is the distinction – with its inevitable theological implications – that has been at the heart of Donoghue’s remarkable critical project. What kind of god is the writer, an aesthetic narcissist or an aesthetic altruist? And what relationship, if any, does he have to God – competitive, complementary, humble etc? It is a question of ‘the rivalry’, as he put it in his Introduction to The Ordinary Universe nearly thirty years ago, ‘between the persuasions of the natural world and the structure of one’s own imagination, between Ordinary Things and Supreme Fictions’. In Pater the Supreme Fiction wins, but it is a style and not a myth.

Walter Pater becomes a remarkable book once Donoghue has got the determinedly Brief Life over with (it is a mere eighty pages in a book of over three hundred). What he calls ‘Pater’s quiet audacity’ is like a foil for his own more abrasive refinement. Pater’s shrewd refusals, his disavowal of the quotidian, confronts Donoghue with a new version of his own abiding aesthetic preoccupations. Though his writing has been impressively various, in successive books this conflict between the Ordinary Universe and the Supreme Fiction has been redescribed and theorised with a kind of stubborn eloquence. With Donoghue, unlike many other critics, passion has not shrunk to an obsession. His often brilliant close readings have been reassuringly unpredictable; but his surprises are always framed by an underlying contention. In Yeats (1971) he quoted Blackmur’s distinction between the erotic poet and the sacramental poet. ‘A sacramental poet,’ Donoghue commented.

respects the object for itself, but even more for the spirit which, however mysteriously, it contains ... such a poet is always willing to ‘let be’, he is merely the spirit’s celebrant. An erotic poet may respect the object in itself, but it is not characteristic of him to do so, and beyond the point of acknowledgment the only relevant spirit is his own and he is never willing to let be ... the object has helped him to define his power, and he is tender toward it for that reason.

In his wonderful T.S. Eliot Lectures, Thieves of Fire, Donoghue borrowed Adrian Stokes’s similar distinction between carving and modelling in sculpture, as a way of talking about both different ways of writing and different kinds of writer: ‘Carving is concerned with the release of significance deemed already to exist, imprisoned in the stone, and modelling is a more plastic process by which the sculptor imposes his meaning upon the stone.’ These are useful descriptions because they imply that the artist’s relationship to his or her medium is also analogous to a person’s relationship with others, indeed with everything that is not himself. The aesthetic, that is to say, becomes unavoidably ethical. The writer’s relationship to language – to what he seems to want to do with words – is a picture of a form of life.

The carver (Blackmur’s sacramental poet) says: ‘I’m not telling you, I’m showing you.’ Carvers are akin to scientists in so far as they claim simply to disclose what is already there. What they discover, though, is often something we then have to submit to (or worship) like a natural law or an essence. The risk for the carver is that he may be merely complying with the way things are supposed to be; by realising things as they are he leaves everything as it is. But then what could be more narcissistic, more grandiose, than the belief that one is in a position to recognise anything as it really is, the intrinsic essence of something (or someone)? The risk for the modeller (the erotic poet) is that he is an aesthetic entrepreneur: he can’t leave anything alone because everything must be used for profit. Nothing is sufficiently real, or satisfying, until it is transfigured by his desire. The carver is always telling us, but sometimes under the guise of showing us. As a critic Donoghue has always been a carver trying not to be a modeller; and the critic as modeller is often one of Donoghue’s targets (Walter Pater has a smack at Bloom). And yet it has been ‘erotic poets’ like Yeats and Stevens that Donoghue has been drawn to. Pater, the critic as artist, the modeller with the manners of a carver, is, therefore, a special case for him.

What exasperates Donoghue about Pater – and compels some of the finest criticism in this book – is that Pater tries to have it both ways; he has the shy modesty of the carver, and the arrogant obliviousness of the modeller. His modesty was a demand for submission. ‘If a church, or any other object were completely itself,’ Donoghue writes, ‘it seemed stolid, impenetrable, opaque to the imagination. Pater liked to find its certitude a little ashamed of itself and willing to entertain at least an occasional doubt or misgiving. He wanted the imagination to have a chance of gaining access to any matter.’ Donoghue is on the side of the imagination, but he is also mindful of what happens when nothing is acknowledged to resist the imagination. If it gains access to everything there will be nothing left. What Donoghue cares for is the imagination that can love whatever resists it; or can, at least, notice that there is resistance somewhere. In Walter Pater, though, you sometimes get the feeling that for Donoghue Pater would have been better off if he had just believed in original sin; as though he needed to locate recalcitrance somewhere, needed something to make a mockery of his wishes. When Donoghue writes that ‘Pater’s chief concern was his pleasure in feeling alive,’ you feel Pater is being mysteriously admonished.

Donoghue wants Pater to come clean and get his axes out (‘His tone was consistently urbane, as if the grinding of an axe was the last thing he intended’). On the one hand, Pater is ‘a witness to the charm of the intrinsic’, but only of moods and feelings and the transitions between them. On the other hand, and less to Donoghue’s taste, in Pater’s writing ‘the object doesn’t matter; what matters is the mind’s experience of pleasure in lavishing attention upon it.’ The indulgence of Pater’s determined disregard makes Donoghue droll with exasperation (‘One of the limitations of Pater’s essay on Vézelay is that he knew virtually nothing about the iconography of church architecture’). There is, it should be said, virtually nothing that Pater writes about that Donoghue knows virtually nothing about: indeed, judging by his corrections of Pater, he often knows more. What Donoghue refers to as Pater’s commitment to ‘those visionary artists who refuse to transcribe the data before them and insist upon the privilege of their own vision’ should have been a problem for him, as it is for Donoghue. It is clear that Donoghue wants Pater to be more troubled by his preferences and affinities, more bothered by his taken liberties (‘Pater does not bother with meanings that may be established by scholarship’). He is continually dismayed by Pater’s refusal of conflict, by the absence of drama in his writing. And yet when Donoghue’s indignation about Pater’s irresponsibility doesn’t get the better of him – and there is some wonderful commentary in this book, particularly on Diaphanéité, Plato and Platonism and Marius – he defines better than anyone else the unique paradox of Pater’s position: that he was antinomial without being oppositional. He found a way of being adversarial that wasn’t merely a relish for conflict. Pater didn’t go his own way because he was spoiling for a fight.

Donoghue’s Pater is this ‘antinomian’; he lived, Donoghue writes, ‘by inflecting the official life offered him’. ‘Inflecting’ seems just right, as Donoghue often is in this puzzling and puzzled book; it catches the way Pater modifies rather than confronts, the way he can be radical without apparently having an argument. Pater’s lack of reverence for antagonism – expressed in his almost total disregard for it – makes him, by definition as it were, difficult to place (‘He claims for his refusals just as much respect as everyone gives to conflicts and causes’). Compared with the forthrightness of Carlyle, or Ruskin, or Arnold, or Wilde, Pater seems very hush-hush. But Donoghue is never quite sure in this book whether Pater is exemplary or just lazy. He is certainly an exemplary aesthete: ‘An aesthete is an artist who considers what he can do by standing aside. What he does has its adversary merit in relation to the Victorian consensus on the moral value of work.’ It is Donoghue’s version of Pater as an asider – an insider as a middle-class Oxford don and an outsider as a uniquely bizarre writer, and a homosexual – that is the real interest of this book. ‘He would prefer,’ Donoghue writes, though he himself would not, ‘to live without categories or definitions, or aside from them.’ Pater is difficult to categorise as a writer because he was so uncategorical; so definitively vague.

It is almost as though Pater has allowed Donoghue to stand up for the virtues of aestheticism, while still being dismayed by its provenance, or even its necessity. He can only adopt Pater by resisting him, by making him out to be a slippery slope. ‘Aestheticism,’ he writes, ‘was one expression of the premonition, sad indeed, that most of life, in the forms in which it presented itself, could not be understood and yet must be lived.’ Walter Pater, among other things, is an irritated elegy for the contemporary death of aestheticism; and its severity is often as moving, and witty, as are its celebrations. Donoghue, though, does not tell us why it is quite so sad, nor why it should be otherwise.

For Pater, success in life was not to do with diligence or application: it was ‘to burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy’ of secular epiphanies. No flame, of course, has ever been able to do this, let alone any person. But what Pater was repudiating with these bold assertions was, in a sense, as important as what he was affirming. Careerism and routine and transcendence were his targets, with objectivity as a necessary casualty (consensus, Pater implies, is just a way of making and enforcing new habits). The idea of genius was so crucial for Pater because geniuses are people who break our habits for us. If it is the distinctiveness, the achievement of a style that, as Donoghue asserts, ‘is nearly all that literature from Pater to Stevens claims to achieve’, then Pater may, indeed, have given ‘modern literature its first act’. That style should be the thing, that the erotic poets should triumph over the sacramental poets, is for Donoghue a mixed blessing. But it is because Donoghue won’t let Pater be that he has written such an engaged, tetchy book.