Battle_of_Anghiari_jp60.jpg (66201 bytes)

The Battle of Anghiari ( after Rubens' drawing of the lost painting by Leonardo ), acrylic, 37" x 48," $10,000

 


 

 

COMMENTARY

This essay appeared in Three Victorian Views of the Italian Renaissance by Richard Titlebaum ( New York & London, 1987 )

 

The Aesthete: Walter Pater and the Italian Renaissance

Sed nil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere

Edita doctrina sapientum templa serena;

             Despicere unde queas alios, passimque videre

             Errare, atque viam palanteis quaerere vitae.

             ----Lucretius 1

     John Ruskin and Walter Pater belonged to those two opposite hemispheres of the globus intellectualis which John Stuart Mill so aptly distinguished in his twin essays, "On Bentham" and "On Coleridge." Placing the figures of Bentham and Coleridge in the broadest historical perspective, Mill perceived in the empiricism and idealism of the two thinkers a permanent division in the human mind itself. Coleridge’s endeavor to penetrate by means of metaphysics to the noumenal world seemed to Mill but a variation upon a perennial philosophical enterprise. Coleridge would have been the first to agree. His Biographia Literaria is spiced with names that make up a pedigree. Jacob Boehme, Plato, Plotinus, Schelling, Berkeley: the manner in which Coleridge employs these names throughout the pages of his autobiography suggests the earnest attempt on his part to establish a legitimate lineage behind his own idiosyncratic brand of idealism, Ruskin, himself an idealist, who believed, however ambiguously, that nature mirrors the mind of God, may never have gone to the lengths of Coleridge to intellectualize the principles behind his philosophy; but what unites the two men, at least in their criticism of art, is the fact that Coleridge’s attempt to explain the human imagination as part of a metaphysical Great Chain of Being— his effort notably to demonstrate that Shakespeare’s imagination encompassed a moral universe that is inherent in nature herself-- is duplicated in Ruskin's writings on Turner.

     Ruskin, as an art critic, is probably best remembered today as the defender of Turner. That Turner’s landscapes are now heralded as the precursors of abstract expressionism must appear especially paradoxical in the light of the fact that Ruskin's defence of Turner, besides being a discussion of the True and the Beautiful stated in idealistic terms, celebrates Turner's knowledge of the minute "facts of nature." Turner’s late landscapes, whose animistic evocations of a tumultuous nature are now compared to the sophisticated doodles of Carel Appell and Franz Kline, are lauded as examples of verisimilitude to nature.2 While conjuring up the old ghost of mimesis, Ruskin became perhaps the greatest modern exponent of the doctrine. Ruskin, in fact, is the only art critic of near genius to take the idea of mimesis seriously enough first to study nature and then to evaluate artists according to their actual knowledge of nature. Modern Painters, throughout the labyrinth its five volumes, argues that Turner—- like Ruskin-- knew more about clouds and rocks than did Leonardo and Claude and that, therefore, the explosive light of Turner’s canvases is closer to the "facts of nature" than the somber chiaroscuro that characterizes many of the paintings of the Old Masters. Turner’s superiority to the Renaissance painters, so incontestable to Ruskin, arose not only from his more thorough knowledge of nature but also from his more highly developed imagination-- an imagination not thwarted, as Leonardo's or Claude's was, by a conversion to the rationalism of the Renaissance. The paintings of the Old Masters, or, at least, those paintings in which nature is present, are schematic constructs of the mind rather than imaginative evocations of reality. The imagination of Turner, however, by virtue of the range and the penetration of its vision, was God-given. Turner, pronounced Ruskin in a typically youthful effusion, was:

glorious in conception--unfathomable in knowledge-- solitary in power-- with the elements waiting upon his will, and the night and the morning obedient to his call, sent as a prophet of God to reveal to men the mysteries of His universe, standing like the Great Angel of the Apocalypse, clothed with a cloud, and with a rainbow on his head, and with the sun and stars given into his hand. 3

Hyperbolic, indeed; but Ruskin's conception of Turner resembles very much Coleridge's of Shakespeare, for Turner's opalescent swirls of paint appeared to Ruskin to embody as much of a direct insight into the structure of nature as Shakespeare’s heroes signified to Coleridge examples of the moral hierarchy of man. In their portraits the Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo or Tintoretto, may have seen more deeply into the discrepancies of human character, but no one, according to Ruskin, either during or after the Renaissance, rivaled Turner’s grasp of the relationship of the sea to the air or of mountains to valleys. Turner's imagination was in in contact with Being itself-- Being as it is apprehended the imagination. This central assumption of Ruskin’s and of Coleridge's—- that the imagination can comprehend ultimate reality or Being-- represents a variation upon the romantic attempt to substitute the imagination for reason as an organ of knowledge and as a key to Logos. It is the collapse of Pater's belief in Logos that marks the essential difference between him and Ruskin and that places Pater, if certainly not in Bentham's philosophal camp, then at least in the cultivated garden of Bentham’s epicurean ancestors.

     No two men of like interests were ever so different as Pater and Ruskin. From his own copious utterances about himself and the voluminous reports of his biographers, virtually everything about Ruskin is known to us: his disastrous marriage; his passion for Rose la Touche; his catatonic states; his apotheosis of Turner; his road building project; his London tea shops for the indigent and oppressed and his evening art schools for the ambitious poor; his walks and his hobbies; his houses, their interiors decorated by a host of Turners and even a Raphael; his socialism and political conservatism; his authoritative father and Bible-reading mother; his fortune of several hundred thousand pounds all largely given to charity, yet replenished by the sale of his books; the full cast and gallery of his friends and correspondents, ranging from Carlyle and Rosetti to Charles Eliot Norton and Lady Hamilton— all this, and considerably more, creates a memorable and unforgettable character, who looms even larger on the horizon when placed beside the elusive and enigmatic figure of Walter Pater, the few dominant facts of whose life— friendships with the poet Hopkins and the aesthete Jackson, a tutorship at Oxford and trips to the Continent, notoriety as Mr. Rose in W. H. Mallock’s New Republic and an honorary degree from Edinburgh—- seem meager by comparison, indeed. Pater's character was so quiet, so gentle, seemingly so indifferent to the public attention Ruskin relished that he resembles, at least in his intellectual isolation and in his devotion to literary craft, the great philosophical poet Lucretius. The image of Lucretius polishing his hexameters in his Italian garden has its parallel in that of Pater's Oxford seclusion, where his chief delight was the composition of fine prose: prose unlike that of any other writer of the time-- prose whose classical dignity mirrors Pater’s vision of himself as a High Priest of Culture. Pater represents the quintessential Oxford of his century: the Hellenism of Jowett and the Christianity of Pusey, the culture of Arnold and the historical sense of Froude, the exclusiveness of the Senior Common Room and the solitude of the gardens and towers of "the last enchantments of the Middle Age."

     If the paths of Pater and Ruskin ever crossed at Oxford, while the former was a tutor at Brasenose and the latter held the Slade Professorship, no record of such a confrontation survives, only the remark Pater once made to Douglas Ainslie, "I can't believe Ruskin could see more in St. Mark's at Venice than I do!"4 When we consider how much St. Mark's meant to Ruskin, Pater's criticism seems to reflect less envy of Ruskin's superior reputation as the authority on Venice than a much more basic antagonism afflicting his mind. Certainly, in purely quantitative terms, it is impossible to measure whose sensitivity was the greater-- whether Ruskin’s eagle eye perceived more than Pater's quiet glance. One thing, however, is certain: the essential difference between them, at least in their criticism of Renaissance art, arises from their attitudes towards epistemology-- towards those large areas of abstract thought that define the possibilities and boundaries of human knowledge.

     In 1869, when Pater was thirty-one, there were, according to David Masson, two dominant intellectual influences at Oxford, "the one, in more or less cordial alliance with Comte's positive philosophy; the other, the more theoretical philosophy which connects itself with the names of Kant and Hegel."5 The date is most appropriate since only three years before Pater had published in the Westminster Review his maiden essay, "Coleridge" an essay whose anti-metaphysical and, moreover, anti-Christian sentiments, though later modified for inclusion in Appreciations, fall in line with the position of the Comtian School. That Comte's philosophy proved attractive to many radical English minds of the time is perhaps best illustrated by J. S. Mill’s still highly readable book on the founder of modern sociology; but whereas it was Comte's methodology and politics that especially fascinated Mill's catholic and scrupulous intelligence, it was the Frenchman's revolutionary vision of history that supplied Pater with a set of categories by which to accommodate himself to the attacks against Christianity that, like a deluge, were inundating England from the Continent. Comte, it will be remembered, divided intellectual history into three stages corresponding to the development of man himself. In his Cours de philosophie positive, Comte rejected religion and metaphysics as pursuits that belonged to the childhood and adolescence of the race. In any civilization there are, in Comte's view, three stages of intellectual growth. In the first, the primitive projects his fears upon the universe, peopling it with spirits, gods, and demons; in the second, the philosopher substitutes an abstract metaphysical entity for the Creator; but, in the third, modern and enlightened man abandons these fruitless phantasmagoria and turns to nature herself, resigning himself to positive and relative knowledge gained from a scientific study of facts rather than deceiving himself by pretentious and shadowy metaphysical speculations. It would not take much effort to imagine the impact Comte must have had on Pater, who, himself raised as an Anglican and destined for the priesthood, was still smarting at Oxford from such controversial publications as Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu and Renan’s la Vie de Jesus, both of which contributed to Pater’s loss of religious faith-- Pater, who, so eagerly devouring the latest books from Germany and France, filled the pages of his Coleridge essay with perceptive obiter dicta about the condition of modern knowledge.

     The Coleridge essay established Pater’s membership in liberal-thinking Oxford. The cult of Hellenism, which held sway over the tinkle of teacups in Oxford common rooms, counted Pater among its most loyal devotees. Hellenism versus Christianity: this is the actual theme of the essay; for, Pater claimed, Coleridge represented only the latest notable expositor of Christian other-worldliness in its philosophical form, and, an enemy of Pater’s own brand of Hellenism, Coleridge comes under gentle attack for his espousal of the mysteries. Hellenism can have nothing to do with such arcane flirtations as Coleridge's; and, true to fashion among liberals of the 1860’s, the fear of a reactionary ascetic Catholicism that was also to haunt J. S. Mill made Pater transform the history of Christianity into the scapegoat of his essay. He speaks of a conflict between faith and reason that began at the Renaissance. Reason with "its deep wide-struck roots in the world as it permanently exists" reawoke in the fifteenth century and ever since has been in conflict with faith. But reason must prevail. In a true Comtian manner, Pater sketched the incompatibility of faith's handmaiden, theology, with modern thought, and he concluded in essential agreement with the Higher Criticism, that dogmatic theology must be studied historically. But even more important than the repudiation of theology in the Coleridge essay is the statement that the "tendency" of "Kant's critique is to destroy the rational groundwork of theism."6

     In his essay, "Winckelmann and his Century," Goethe remarks that no scholar can ignore with impunity the philosophical movement begun by Kant. The importance of Pater's early Coleridge essay— which elevated Goethe himself into a hero-- lies very much in its attitude towards the Kantian revolution. Whether Pater, who was elected to a fellowship at Brasenose not for his scholarship but for his acquaintance with Schelling's transcendental idealism, actually understood Kant is debatable. What is certain is that Pater subscribed to a myth about Kant, a myth disseminated by Heinrich Heine and popularized in England by Thomas DeQuincey. The Kantian critique, wrote DeQuincey with chagrin in 1836, "destroys by wholesale, but it substitutes nothing... all its doctrines are negative... all its truths are barren… Man is an abject animal if the limitations which Kant assigned to the notions of his speculative  reason were as absolute and hopeless, as, under his scheme of understanding and his genesis of its power, too evidently they were." And DeQuincey adds: "I belonged to a reptile race."7 The myth that Kant had destroyed metaphysics, or, in terms of the early Coleridge essay, the "rational groundwork of theism," continued throughout the years to be one of Pater abiding convictions. Twenty-four years after the publication of the first Coleridge essay, at a time when his biographers insist that he had undergone a reconversion to Christianity, Pater was still most emphatic about his sentiments. "After Kant’s criticism of the mind," he notes in 1890, "its pretensions to pass beyond the limits of individual experience seemed as dead as those of old French Royalty. And Kant did but furnish its innermost theoretical force to a more general criticism, which had withdrawn from every department of action underlying principles once thought eternal.8 It was Pater’s belief that, despite Kant's own attempt to reestablish metaphysical principles by means of the will, and despite Hegel's later absolute idealism, the age-old philosophical axiom that the rationality of the mind resembles, is akin to, and can know the rationality of the universe was now dead. A chapter had closed in the history of the human mind. "Over… The Critique of Pure Reason," lamented Heine, "we may write Dante’s words: 'Abandon all hope!’"9 To Pater truth was no longer located in rational verbal abstractions, as it had been to Plato, to Spinoza, to Hegel. The perennial faith that mind could comprehend Logos had fallen prey to the subjective prison of the mind's own categories. The inability of the intellect to concern itself any longer with Logos, or with what Kant called the "noumenal," was, claimed Pater, the central intellectual fact-- the "mental story"-- of the nineteenth century.

     Nor was Pater incorrect. The laceration that cuts into the mind of the nineteenth century as a result of the Kantian Revolution and its subsequent theological and religious skepticism produced a thousand wounds. The cries of anguish still call out to us from the pages of Arnold and Nietzsche. But one may search in vain for a more incisive description of the philosophical causes of this anguish than the following obiter dictum of Pater's, which, by virtue of its portrayal of the paths taken by many of the religious skeptics of the past century, has no equal. In its inimitable analysis of the reasons for the rise of aestheticism-- aestheticism, which became but one of the many substitutes for the col1apse of Christianity amongst portions of the European intelligentsia—- this passage describes the plight of Huysmans, of Flaubert, of Yeats, of Wilde, and of Pater himself:

( after Kant ) More energetic souls would recover themselves, and find some way of making the best of a changed world. Art: the passions, above all, the ecstasy and sorrow of love: a purely empirical knowledge of nature and man: these still remained, at least for a pastime in a world of which it was it was no longer proposed to calculate the remoter issues…The Desillusione, who found in Kant's negation the last word concerning an unseen world... might seem cut off from certain ancient hopes, and will demand, from what is to interest them at all, something in the way of artificial stimulus. He has lost that sense of large proportions in things, that all embracing prospect of life as a whole... Deprived of that exhilarating yet pacific outlook, imprisoned now in the narrow cell of its own subjective experiences, the action of a powerful nature will be intense, but exclusive and peculiar. It will come to art, or science, to the experience of life itself, not as to portions of human nature's daily food, but as to something that must be, by the circumstances of the case, exceptional; almost as men turn in despair to gambling or narcotics, and in a little while the narcotic, the game of chance or skill, is valued for its own sake. The vocation of the artist, of the student of life or books, will be realized with something-- say! of fanaticism, as an end in itself... The development of these conditions is the mental story of the 19th century.10

     In this swan song of fin-de-siecle disenchantment, Pater summed up the intellectual dilemma of his life. What Goethe once said of his own writings, that they represent one long confession, may also be said of Pater’s essays and fiction. They are the confessions of a divided mind. For Pater, we must insist, was a philosophical idealist manque. His fascination with Coleridge, with Plato, with Spinoza; his teaching of Schelling’s transcendental idealism at Oxford, indeed, so incongruous in the light of his own animosity towards metaphysics; the whole emphasis of one of his imaginary portraits, "Sebastian van Storck," the story of a dreamer for whom, significantly, "all was but conscious mind;" his elaborate and ponderous meditations in Marius the Epicurean on the Beata Urbs of the Stoics and the will as a source of transcendent vision: all of this, especially when coupled with his life-long but abortive endeavor to establish a viable doctrine of aesthetic naturalism, has the earmarks of an illicit obsession and dramatizes the palpable split in his mind. For Pater was too much convinced that mind is ultimate reality and that Christianity requires metphysical principles to abandon entirely a preoccupation with that noumenal world which to Plato and to Coleridge was reality itself.

     Indeed, Coleridge, of all of Pater's near contemporaries, posed the greatest intellectual threat. Mill was able to regard Coleridge with dispassion because the poet's idealism was so remote from his own manly utilitarianism. But in Coleridge’s "discontent, languor, and homesickness" Pater perceived a kindred soul whose misguided thirst for the Absolute epitomized not only one major dislocation of the modern age but also a perennial psychological type. It is because Pater saw himself as having an affinity to this type, however partially so, that a curious dialectic is present in his attitude towards Coleridge. That Coleridge's passion for the fixed and inmutable in philosophy only continued a spiritual pilgrimage begun by Parmenides seemed to Pater proof of an abiding obsession of the human mind. Every generation has its idealists, he claimed. Recognizing a residue of an obsession for the Absolute in himself, he wrote about Coleridge with charity and sympathy, all while believing, as he was to argue more systematically almost thirty years later in Plato and Platonism, that the quest for the One, for the Absolute, for the true substance behind the veil of appearances amounted to "zero." It was a "mere algebraic symbol for nothingness." What the modern age (and Pater) had urgent need of—- and this was to be the "message" of The Renaissance-- was not Coleridge’s illusory Absolute, but the naturalism of the Greeks, that healthy attachment to life found notably in Goethe’s humanism.

     The ideal of naturalism was more easily desired than attained, or even defined. For the question that Kant had raised in Pater's mind was the very problem of knowledge: what the intellect can actually know. Though much of Pater's life was spent answering this question, Kant's philosophy in all probability only sustained, rather than fostered, Pater's innate subjectivism. It would not be rash to see in the description of the hero of Marius the Epicurean something of a self-portrait:

He had lived much in the realm of the imagination and became betimes, as he was to continue all through life, something of an idealist, constructing the world for himself in great measure from within, by the exercise of meditative powers. A vein of subjective philosophy, with the individual for its standard of all things, there would always be in his intellectual scheme of the world and of conduct, with a certain incapacity wholly to accept other men's valuations. 11

If Kant’s critique of the limitations of the mind only accentuated Pater’s tendency towards subjectivism, imprisoning him, as he confessed in the "Conclusion" to The Renaissance, inevitably within his own perceptions, neither did Hume's radical empiricism provide Pater with a satisfactory alternative. Hume’s philosophy of an atomistic self, as well as his stress upon impressions as the root cause of knowledge, only thrust Pater philosophically back into the privacy of his own ego. Pater, who yearned to locate reality in the physical world, paradoxically defined the supreme reality as the sum of his own impressions. Herein then lies the paradox of Pater’s mental world: as much as he tried to be an empiricist, he always remained half of an idealist, accepting the authority, indeed, the supremacy of his own mental impressions, yet refusing, unlike Coleridge, to hypothesize mind as the essential or divine "stuff" of the universe-- an age-old psychological mechanism Pater depicted with less than sympathy in the hero of his imaginary portrait, "Sebastian van Storck." Montaigne's motto, "Que scais-je?" runs like a refrain throughout Pater’s writings because the paradox in his mind was never resolved. When the mystic—- the ultimate idealist-- searches into his mind, he finds traces of God; when Pater looked into his mind, he found, as we shall see, only fitful impressions.

     Yet a tendency towards solipsism never deterred Pater from making pronouncements about the globus intellectualis. The world may have seemed to him an intoxicating illusion. The fabric of his own mind may have resembled the flickering instability of a kaleidoscope. But, despite his gnawing skepticism, it was still possible for his intellect to master and order a library of books. Books, unlike people and events, were intelligible to Pater. In the library he was King, High Priest, Critic. Books revealed to him that a revolution had occurred in the intellectual world. This revolution provided him with a partial exit out of the trap of radical skepticism. With deceptive simplicity he summed up the modern-- one is tempted to say, the Comtian-- revolution in a paragraph:

Modern thought is distinguished from ancient by its cultivation of the "relative" spirit in place of the "absolute." Ancient philosophy sought to arrest every object in an eternal outline, to fix thought in a necessary formula, and the variety of life in a classification by "kinds" or genera. To the modern spirit nothing is, or can be rightly known, except relatively and under conditions. The philosophical conception of the relative has been developed in modern times through the influence of the sciences of observation. These sciences reveal types of life evanescing into each other by inexpressible refinements of change. A faculty for truth is a power of distinguishing and fixing delicate and fugitive details. 12

     Pater’s reference to the influence of science may be dismissed as a kowtowing to intellectual fashion, but in the entirety of his writings no idea has greater importance than the "relative." For Pater represents a classic example of a skeptical mind, appalled by the chaotic flux of his own sensations, turning to art and history as an escape from the spectacle of a thousand refuted dogmas and so-called immutable ideas. "The scholar," he insisted correctly, "is nothing without the historical sense."13 But for Pater the historical sense actually supplanted the study of philosophy itself. Pater, who had one of the most subtle philosophical minds of his generation, conspicuous for the refinement of its discriminatory powers, became the historical eulogist of philosophical systems, showing how each was the product of an age or a temperament. The historical study of philosophy became for him a kind of ritualized game in which sophisticated mosaics of prose are symmetrically arranged in order to elucidate an idea, a movement, or even an age. Original thought succumbed before a series of pronouncements upon the Zeitgeist set in a prose whose highly knit sentence structure cannot be refuted or argued against. Feeling superior to philosophy itself because philosophy was only an historical phenomenon subject to "conditions" and possessing no ultimate truth, Pater chose as the subjects of his fiction and essays eras of profound transition—- the ages of Plato, of Lorenzo, of Montaigne, of Marcus Aurelius—- because in the poignant attempts on the part of these historical periods to reconcile tradition with innovation he perceived the central historical problem of his era: how to preserve the idealism in ethics and art that was the great heritage of Christianity in a period when the philosophical assumptions behind this heritage were judged by most advanced thinkers to be only the product of historical circumstances.

     From his window at Oxford-- and it was an Oxford, it should be remembered, which was still largely monastic-- Pater drew his own peculiar map of the historical world. What repelled Ruskin-- the squalor of the cities, the smoke of industry, the spread of railroads-- seemed to bother Pater not at all. For this reason his vision of history was narrow. Had he not lived in the bosom of a great empire, such monumental detachment and such an Olympian sense of security as characterize his essays and fiction would have been impossible. "I am quite tired," he once remarked, "of hearing people for ever talking of the causes which led up to the French Revolution; I don’t want to know."14 To Pater history was not a picture of struggling humanity, still less a record of "crimes, follies, and misfortunes," and certainly not a class war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but a series of Parnassian summits of art and philosophy. To Ruskin, who viewed life sub specie aeternitatis, the guiding force and ultimate meaning of history lies in man’s arrogance and God's punishment of sin. Such a view was alien to Pater, who, heavily influenced by Hegel, as well as by Comte, located the meaning of history in the Zeitgeist. The serpentine power of the Zeitgeist displayed itself most authentically and for the first time in the religion, philosophy, and art of Greece: "The supreme artistic products of each generation form a series of elevated points, taking each from each the reflection a strange light, the source of which is not in the atmosphere around and above them, but in a stage of society remote from ours. This standard takes its rise in Greece, at a definite historical period." 15 Before the altar of Clio, where was deposited the idol of Litterae Humaniores Pater became the High Priest of Culture. The purpose of Pater's historical studies, especially of The Renaissance, was to establish, as well as reinterpret, under the guise of the "relative spirit," a literary and artistic canon, to trace the perennial conflict between naturalism and idealism, to indicate that the heritage of Greek humanism might possibly supplant the wayward and misdirected obsession of mankind with philosophical abstractions, such as the Absolute, and, lastly, to establish for himself an intellectual tradition which could, if not supplant, then at least cushion by art and song the theological collapse of Christianity in his epoch.

* * * * *

     Upon its publication in 1873, The Renaissance established Pater's reputation as a Levite of Culture, earning him the admiration of Oxford undergraduates and the apprehension of their dons. Influenced by Arnold's and, above all, by Goethe's humanism, The Renaissance, with its celebration of naturalism, is one of the most sustained and elevated rejections of the entire tradition of idealistic philosophy. The metaphysical position Pater only sketched in the Coleridge essay now became the basis for a doctrine which supplanted Christianity and which aligned Pater with such philosophical forbears as Heraclitus and Hume. Although the volume is a work of criticism, "aesthetic criticism," as Pater called it, what is most remembered is the famous "Conclusion." It prompted one of Pater’s Oxford colleagues to write:

I cannot disguise from myself that the concluding pages adequately sun up the philosophy of the whole; and that the philosophy is an assertion that no fixed principles either of religion or morality can be regarded as certain, that the only thing worth living for is momentary enjoyment and that probably or certainly the soul dissolves at death into elements which are destined never to reunite. 16

Such chagrin from the clergy was understandable; for there is no more eloquent a repudiation of any form of dualism than in the seven short pages of the "Conclusion." Here Pater's obsession with the flux of the senses and the incarceration of man within his own symbolic systems are used as a justification for an aesthetic doctrine of carpe diem. What the entire school of philosophical idealism attempted to establish, and what each member of this school, from Parmenides to Hegel, affirmed and restated and reaffirmed—- namely, that the sensual world is an illusion; that only the unseen domain of God is real; and, finally, that knowledge, scientific or otherwise, confined to sense data is chimerical— Pater’s "Conclusion" brands as a fiction.

     Pater, to vindicate his position of philosophical naturalism, turned both to the authority of science and to the epistemology of Heraclitus. Above the first page of the "Conclusion," there is to be found a Greek epigraph which, loosely translated, states that "Heraclitus said that everything passes away and nothing remains."17 The significance of the quotation is self-evident. One of the great skeptics of his generation, Pater, by identifying himself with Heraclitus, who was the first notable exponent in history of a philosophy of flux, imparted to his naturalism an aura of tradition as venerable as the lineage of idealism that Coleridge had established for himself in Biographia Literaria, and he implicitly criticized any potential objection that naturalism was but the fashion of the moment, a mere expression of modern science or of contemporary British empiricism. Against the argument that naturalism was intellectually untenable or morally pernicious, Pater insisted that it is a philosophical position recurrent throughout time and that it satisfies the needs of a specific temperament. "Coleridge," wrote Pater in his early essay on the poet, "thinks that if we reject the Supernatural, the spiritual element in life will evaporate also, that we shall have to accept a life with narrow horizons, without disinterestedness, harshly cut off from the springs of life in the past."18 The aim of The Renaissance is to demonstrate that this assertion is not true; for to Pater naturalism, which originated in the higher Hellenic culture, that "sharp edge of light" penetrating the gloom of "Chthonian divinities," and which reemerged during the Italian Renaissance in an explosive burst of affirmation towards life, was able to supply the only adequate substitute for the unhealthy preoccupation with the noumenal world which defined in his mind not only the entire school of philosophical idealism but also much of Christianity itself.

     Though unmistakably influenced by Darwinian ideas of process and change, Pater's description of the place of mind in nature resembles the skeptical side of Heraclitus' epistemology rather than any one specific formulation of the nineteenth century. In the outside world, Pater perceived not what the scientist interprets as mathematical law, still less the harmony of nature, but the buzzing instability of Heraclitus' vision of the world in which events have the character of "perpetual motion" and of "waste and repairing." Likewise, in his own psyche, Pater discovered that the "whirlpool is still more rapid, the flame more eager and devourning." More skeptical than Heraclitus, and even more so than Hume, Pater, in the "Conclusion," reduced the mind to a fitful stream of solipsistic impressions, a prison-box, in which the ego loses that transcendental affinity, that cosmic centrality, that divine spark, which is the essence of idealism:

If we continue to dwell in thought on this world, not of objects in the solidity with which language invests them, but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them, it contracts still further; the whole scope of observation is dwarfed to the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience, already reduced to a swarm of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of these impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.19

Such an analysis of the human condition, encouraged by its author's innate subjectivism and corroborated intellectually by an idiosyncratic emphasis upon one aspect of the Kantian critique, led finally, though not without despair, to a position that echoes the witticism of the German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel: "What is the best thing the rat can do when caught in a trap?—- eat the bacon!" There is probably no more famous and no more misunderstood passage in Pater’s writings than the last three paragraphs of the "Conclusion." Its meaning cannot really be grasped without seeing its relationship to Pater’s humanism, which represents his mature answer not only to Coleridge's objections to religious disbelief but also to the dilemma of radical skepticism as well.

     Pater’s humanism has often been compared to Matthew Arnold's, and, especially, in their Hellenism and in their passion for human and artistic perfection—- a preoccupation so distant from Ruskin’s emphasis upon the need to acknowledge in art the fallen, fragmented nature of man—- their views were remarkably similar. In "Literature and Science," Arnold defended with eloquence the study of what is often pejoratively dismissed as "belles-lettres" and described the subordinate position the sciences should take in the "House of Man." Arnold believed, like Pater, that the compelling duty of civilized man is to realize what Plato called the "Good Life," and that this ideal cannot be attained by a scientific analysis of nature. If Arnold refused to compromise his humanistic principles by joining Macaulay’s bandwagon of progress and science, he yet possessed the catholicity of view to recognize, again like Pater, that the domain of truth had passed in his age, as a result of German Higher Criticism, from the hands of the theologians to those of the scientists. At the same time, he argued that if "the truth shall make you free," human nature still demands answers to questions of conduct, always disturbing the mind's tranquility, and requires poetry and art to satisfy its sense of beauty. In his program of culture, Pater included not only literature, but the fine arts as well. If his scope was wider than Arnold’s, his ideal differed on one essential point. "Culture," said Arnold, "which is the study of perfection, leads us….. to conceive of true human perfection as a harmonious perfection, developing all sides of our humanity; and as general perfection, developing all parts of our society."20 Unlike Arnold, Pater never entered into the market place for fear of sullying his hands. He belonged to that cast of mind, aloof, detached, aristocratic, which envisions perfection as purely a personal matter. Arnold saw culture as a force both to elevate and to bolster the status quo of Victorian society; but Pater saw in culture not a potential remedy for social blight or liberal excesses, but an escape from them. Too much of a skeptic to believe that culture could refine the many, Pater viewed perfection as the prerogative of a few select souls withdrawn from the common activities of life.

     In answer to Coleridge's charge that skepticism would lead inevitably to anarchy, Pater insisted that the ethical ideals of both religion and culture are identical: they produce the same mental attitudes. Pater, whose view of human nature reduced mankind, at least on the spiritual level, to a handful of psychological types, believed that all inward life manifests itself in a few simple forms and that culture cannot go very far before the "religious graces reappear in a subtilized intellectual shape"21 These graces, which are found both in religion and culture, are contemplation and detachment. "That the end of life is not action but contemplation—- being as distinct from doing… is, in some shape or other, the principle of all higher morality."22 This sentiment lies at the heart of Pater’s attitude towards life, towards art, and, implicitly, towards the Renaissance. The aim of great art, he argued, contradicting the classical doctrine of dulce and utile, is not to teach lessons, nor to enforce rules, nor even to stimulate men to noble rules, but to withdraw the thoughts for a little while from the "mere machinery" of life.

     It is here, in his split between life and art, that Pater echoes a line of thinking initiated by Kant in The Critique of Judgment-- Kant, whose argument that aesthetic pleasure is "the one and only disinterested and free delight," lies behind the philosophies of many of the great aesthetes of the past century: Villiers de I’Isle Adam, who said, "As for living, we will allow our servants to do that for us;" Huysmans, whose aristocratic hero, Des Esseintes, imprisoned himself in a Palace of Art and a Mansion of Sensations in order to escape from a tawdry commercial world; Wilde, whose summa aesthetica, "The Critic as Artist," preaches the contemplation of art as the supreme ideal in life. The aesthete—- and Pater is preeminently an aesthete-- makes an absolute division between the rhythm of life and the cultivation of art, usually not only confusing their proper spheres, but, what is even more egregious, attempting to metamorphose life into art, or nature into art, or one art into another art. The aesthete-- the ultimate bourgeois, because his aim is to imitate the life style of a decaying aristocracy—- has as his animating principle the search for refined sensations. Like Wilde, he may wander in vain from the light to the dark side of a cultivated garden, never able to decide for himself whether he is for God or for Satan, for good or for evil, for mankind or for himself-- trapped because his vision of life as a secluded garden excludes from his vista most of life outside his carefully chosen milieu. The aesthete, like Pater, is obsessed with seeing, with burning with a "hard gem-like flame" because all he can trust are, indeed, his own sensations. "What is this song or picture, this engaging personality…to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure?" 23—- this is Pater's central question in the "Preface" to The Renaissance. More so than Ruskin, Pater was an aesthetic visionary; and for impassioned contemplation, for beholding for the sake of beholding, for the treatment of life in the spirit of art—- a cultural ideal which offered to Pater a solution to the discomforts of skepticism—- there was no more notable example, so he claims, than the humanism of Goethe.

     It is impossible to read The Renaissance, especially the essay on Winckelmann, without sensing Goethe's presence always in the background. He was to Pater what Aristotle was to Dante: il Maestro di color che sanno. It was Goethe's example which could provide the inspiration for misguided souls to travel from the wilderness of decayed belief to the green pastures of a New Hellenism; for Goethe epitomized "in clearest outline, the eternal problem of culture—- balance, unity with one's self, consummate Greek modelling·"24 The naturalism with which Pater hoped to replace "diseased" idealism he had detected as early as 1866 in Goethe’s humanism. Goethe’s reconciliation of romanticism and classicism, as well as his uncanny ability to combine the distractions of politics with a devotion to art, illustrated dramatically to Pater the unique example of a modern writer shaping his life according to the Greek ideal of perfection. "Breadth, centrality, with blitheness and repose, are the marks of Hellenic culture. Is such a culture a lost art?"25 The modern age, conspicuous for its "disabused" souls, its "self-pondering" poets, like Browning, who out of necessity turned to "the world within," of course could not recapture the Hellenic Ideal, that singular and irrecoverable moment in history, in all of its mint perfection. Not even Goethe had succeeded entirely in such a task. But Goethe, by virtue of his insight, had redefined the meaning of culture in such a way that the Hellenic Ideal, which was so elusive, so unobtainable, and yet so desirable, still possessed meaning for the "elect spirits" of the age, even for a disciple of the Heraclitean flux itself:

Im Ganzen, Guten, Wahren, resolut zu leben:-- is Goethe’s description of his own higher life; and, what is meant by life in the whole-- im Ganzen? It means the life of one for whom, over and over again, what was once precious has become indifferent... With a kind of passionate coldness, such natures rejoice to be away from and past their former selves, and, above all, they are jealous of that abandonment to one specific gift which really limits their capacities."26

     "When I arrived in Italy," wrote Goethe in 1787, "I felt reborn; now I feel re-educated." Goethe's trip to Italy, which is recorded in his celebrated diary, The Italian Journey, illustrates both in its aims and in its accomplishments the ideal of Bildung or culture which Pater found so congenial in his hero. Goethe’s admission that his journey was made "to discover myself in the objects I see," was expanded, while in Rome, into a testament of faith whose central idea Pater obviously took to heart:

While living this year among strangers, I have observed that all really intelligent people recognize, some in a refined, some in a gross way, that the Moment is everything, and that the sole privilege of a reasonable being is to behave in such a manner... that his life contains the greatest possible sum of reasonable and happy moments. 27

In Goethe’s advocacy of the sensual moment, tempered by learning, Pater found a justification for his own gospel of culture. Pater has been called one of the "Last of the Romantics;" and in his advocacy of a life of dramatic and novel experiences-- "experience for its own sake"-- he resembles, at least in the "Conclusion," Faust’s immersion of himself in every facet of human activity. An enemy of all forms of dogmatism, Pater renounced even philosophy itself except as a means "to rouse, to startle us to a life of constant and eager observation." Yet neither Pater's life nor his doctrine was really Faustian. As a follower of Heraclitus, seeing in the world only incessant change and dissolution, he may have encouraged grasping at any exquisite passion or contribution to knowledge. But it was an advocacy of passion purely disinterested-- far removed from the hedonism of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam or Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. In a universe constantly changing and perpetuating itself, the mission of culture was "to set the spirit free for a moment." Like Schopenhauer, Pater envisioned not action but aesthetic contemplation as a delivery from the cosmic flux. "Art comes to you," he proclaimed at the end of The Renaissance, "proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for these moments’ sake."28 It was for this reason that Pater equated perfection with "being" and not with "doing." The ideal of Apollonian detachment, which as a result of Kant's influence developed into a dogma of German aesthetics, until it fell prey to Nietzsche’s Dionysian hammer, was the abiding principle of Pater’s existence and of his idea of culture, as well as the key to his approach to the Renaissance.

 

 

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     When we consider the mind of Pater in all of its various facets— a mind supremely skeptical, locating its reality in sense impressions and ideas and perceiving in the arts and history an escape from the anguish of religious disbelief; a mind, feminine, cloistered, given to reverie, the life-long occupant of libraries and museums, and largely indifferent to politics; a mind that saw itself above all as a guardian of Western culture—- when we contemplate such a mind in its entirety, it is no surprise that Pater turned to the essay as his favorite mode of expression. For the essay enabled Pater, whose catholicity was so much more narrow and delicate than Ruskin’s, to roam at random through the by-paths of the Renaissance, focusing only on what pleased his sensibilities, without having to subject himself to the discipline of a weighty treatise. The form of the essay perfectly suited Pater—- Pater who found it so difficult to "calculate the remoter issues." Aestheticism arises in part from a narrowing of philosophical horizons. The aesthete is an egotist. When he does not wear his heart upon his sleeve, he regards the world as a mirror whose only function is to reflect his own obsessions. The aesthete is trapped— "cabin’d, cribb’d, and confin’d"-- within his own ego, his philosophy but variation upon Schopenhauer's dictum that "The world is my idea." The question posed in the "Preface" to The Renaissance, "What is this song or picture, this engaging personality ……to me?"-- an aesthetic question which must be seen as Pater's alternative to the elephantine inquiries of Modern Painters-- reveals how much he was concerned with his own self. Yet it is proof of his greatness that the question resulted in considerably more than fanciful musings and whimsical appreciations.

     Seldom has a volume been more unsuitably titled than The Renaissance. To be sure, its full title is Studies in the History of the Renaissance-- the word "studies" being indicative of what Pater meant when he once described himself as an "historical student," not an historian. Thus each of the essays resembles more the outline of a sketch than the concreteness of a painting. Pater was the student-- the scholar-- of other people's writings. Theses have been written about his borrowings from Hegel and Michelet, from Goethe and Heine, from Renan and Vasari, to name only the more celebrated figures whose books Pater ransacked for small details to fit into the mosaic-like essays of The Renaissance. Indeed, the Paterian essay is unique in the annals of English literature. It has neither Hazlitt's mighty intellectual power nor Arnold's genius for sustained argument. If the delicate vignettes of The Renaissance have any forbears at all, they are the essays of Lamb and DeQuincey, though such a comparison must appear far-fetched because Lamb's cult of sensibility and DeOuincey's proclivity for digression show none of Pater's high pontifical devotion to culture. The Paterian essay, it must be remembered, was the expression of an Oxford don-- a don who was timid in personality and, at the same time, radical in intellectual commitments. In its characteristic technique of shifting from a discussion of its ostensible subject matter to a subtle philosophical or historical exegesis, the Paterian essay has a curious parallel to the practice of medieval commentators, who disguised their original ideas in critiques of canonized authorities. The essay, "The School of Giorgione," which may be taken as typical of Pater’s indirect method of publicizing his favorite ideas, contains twenty-five paragraphs, only twelve of which can be said to be about the painter or his imitators. What is memorable about the essay is not the few comments about Giorgione but the assertion that all art aspires to the condition of music.

     Now that The Renaissance has been itself enshrined as one of the canonized fathers of the modern literary sensibility, it is almost impossible to conceive without a prodigious leap of the historical imagination how radical the book was in its day-- radical, however, not because its conception of the Renaissance revolutionized the Victorian view of that period but because its mood and atmosphere, no less than its quietly stated ideas, illustrated to such sensitive Victorian puritans as Bishop Wordsworth what Kant meant when he argued (as did Plato) that once pleasure is accepted as the ultimate good in life, discrimination between pleasures collapses and moral anarchy inevitable follows. That Pater himself recognized such an implicit danger in The Renaissance was responsible, partially, for the deletion of the "Conclusion" from the second edition, the more lengthy elaboration upon his philosophical views in Marius the Epicurean, and his dissociation from his erstwhile disciple, Oscar Wilde, who adopted The Renaissance as his "golden book." "A true Epicureanism," Pater wrote in his review of Dorian Gray, "aims at a complete though harmonious development of man's entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance, the sense of sin and righteousness... is to lose, or lower, organization, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development."29 Yet, despite Pater's own reservations about Dorian Gray, the frantic hedonism of the "Conclusion" appropriately caps the atmosphere of the nine essays.

     With great insight Fichte once remarked, "The kind of philosophy a man chooses depends upon the kind of man he is."30 It is because Pater no longer thought it possible, or desirable, to "calculate the remoter issues" that there is visible in the dynamics of his mind a persistent, yet futile, struggle to surmount what Kierkegaard has called the aesthetic stage of life. The aesthete may rise to moral concerns, asserts the Danish theologian. He may be capable, as Pater was in Marius the Epicurean, of showing great sympathy towards human pain and suffering, but the aesthete can never by himself leap to the religious sphere. He is never capable of that grand overall philosophical view found, for example, in Ruskin. And, as a consequence, the aesthete, literally stuck in a psychological trap, turns as a refuge to the world of beauty. Moreover, if the aesthete is also a frustrated homosexual, as Pater without question was, beauty becomes of supreme importance, more important even than the religion for which he yearns. "He who is unable to love," said Hermann Broch in a relevant comment, "who is unfit for love’s communion, he must rescue himself from his bridgeless isolation by means of beauty."31 And, even more important, if the aesthete is also a near-solipsist, like Pater, even his comments about beauty very often are merely the projection of his own tormented preoccupations. Such a tendency towards projection is visible in many of Pater's essays. The Botticelli essay, which characterizes the paintings of the artist as the product of a visionary who was given to moods and sympathies, culminates in what can only be considered Pater’s view of his own philosophical position-- of his groping endeavor to define a position somewhere between outworn idealism and gross empiricism: "So just what Dante scorns as unworthy alike of heaven and hell, Botticelli accepts, that middle world in which men take no side in great conflicts, and decide no great causes, and make great refusals. He thus sets for himself the limits within which art, undisturbed by any moral ambition, does its most sincere and surest work."32 One must admit, this is a description of a Robert Elsmere, not of the creator of the Venus Rising from the Sea in the Uffizi.

     The mark of large literary power, such as Shakespeare's or Tolstoy's, is the ability to empathize with totally different minds. Of this power Pater possessed very little. Not empathy but projection was the dominant characteristic of his mind, as well as of his fiction. The content of Marius the Epicurean, which is subtitled His Sensations and Ideas, reveals that the novel is less about tangible people than it is a course in Oxford Greats. There are no Natashas or Iagos in the novel, only a few pallid historical portraits, Pater's ideal male Cornelius, and Pater himself. Likewise, Pater's Imaginary Portraits- of Watteau, a contemporary of Pater's reputed ancestor, the painter Jean Pater; of Sebastian van Storck, a Dutch pantheist without any of Spinoza's serenity; of Duke Carl of Rosenmold, an eighteenth-century Prince Goethe-- dramatized his lifelong endeavor to identify himself by means of coherent images. He who is obsessed with the problem of self-identity at the age of forty or fifty is either an artist or a neurotic. Yet Pater's need to identify himself gave him great insight into the dynamics of the mind. This insight reveals itself especially in the aesthetics of The Renaissance. Comte, it must be remembered, had provided Pater with enough of a dash of positivism for him to be suspicious of abstractions, such as Ruskin's. What Santayana once said of Ruskin echoes Pater's objections to abstract definitions of beauty in the "Preface" to The Renaissance: "When a man tells you that beauty is the manifestation of God to the senses, you wish you might understand him, you grope for a deep truth in his obscurity, you honor him for his elevation of mind.........Yet reflection might have shown you that the word of the master held no objective account of the nature and origin of Beauty."33 Just as Pater's fiction is a projection of his ideal image of himself, so also his conception of beauty is a projection. To him beauty was entirely a matter of subjective personal reaction to the impact of things upon the senses, not the invention of a divinity, as it was to Ruskin.

     But beauty is a wily beast. The supreme moments that other men have felt at the helm of state or at the head of an army Pater enjoyed in the realm of art. Art provided him with ecstasy. In the library he may have been king; in the museum he was Argus. In his moments of aesthetic bliss, Pater experienced something akin to mysticism. His rational ego, no longer harassed by the problem of identity, fell momentarily asleep, and he discovered one of the great secrets of artistic creativity, a secret he revealed in his essay on Giorgione: that creativity comes when the ego stops thinking of itself and allows the mind in all of its amplitude simply to see. "Art," he wrote in "The School of Giorgione," "is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception, to get rid of its responsibilities to its subject or material."34 Pure perception: in this phrase there is visible, if not the origin, then at least the reflection of one of the cardinal dogmas of modern painting: the dogma, adhered to by artists as different as Cezanne and Pollock, that pure perception in the mind can be faithfully reproduced in paint. Pure perception, the first stage the mystic takes on his voyage to the complete obliteration of the ego and to ultimate bliss, enabled Pater to experience ecstasy. "The hard gemlike flame" of ecstasy, the phrase multitudes have dismissed as a fin-de-siecle purple patch, was a reality to Pater, a legitimate aesthetic experience of his mind—- an experience which Schopenhauer, the apostle of detachment, celebrated as the only escape from the tumultuous flux of the universal Will:

If, raised by the power of the mind, a man relinquishes the common way of looking at things… …if he thus ceases to consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither of things, and looks-simply and solely at the what; if further, he does not allow abstract thought, the concepts of the reason, to take possession of his consciousness, but, instead of all this, gives the whole power of his mind to perception, sinking himself entirely in this, and lets his whole consciousness be filled with the quiet contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether a landscape, a tree, a mountain, a building, or whatever it may be…if thus the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject out of all relation to the will, then that which is so known is no longer the particular thing as such; but it is the Idea, the eternal form, the immediate objectivity of the will at this grade; and therefore, he who is sunk in this perception is no longer individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; but is pure, willless….. timeless subject of knowledge.35

     Pater’s ecstatic experience of pure perception led him to postulate the condition of music as that which all other arts try to emulate. This proposition is, of course, absurd, an example of the aesthete's attempt to intermingle the arts, to create symphonies of blue and sonnets in yellow. The painter who provided Pater with the greatest ecstasy, Giorgione, is himself described as the artist whose works best approximate the ideal condition of music, in which form and content coalesce. As incorrect as Pater was in regard to attributions and dates, "No other writer," remarked Berenson, "has distilled and transvased the essence of Giorgione as perfectly as he has."36 To Pater the purity of Giorgione’s paintings did not arise ex nihil but was an inevitable product of the Venetian mind, which was "unperplexed by naturalism, religious mysticism, philosophical theories, it had no Giotto, no Angelico, no Botticelli." 37 Venice, the aesthete's paradise, demanded, according to Pater, only decorations, adornments for the wall, "a thing for the eye." All this Giorgione supplied— Giorgione, whose paintings, though indescribable, inspired rapturous word pictures from Pater:

And when people are happy in this thirsty land water will not be far off; and in the school of Giorgione, the presence of water-- the well, or marble-rimmed pool, the drawing or pouring of water, as the woman pours it from a pitcher with her jeweled hand in the Fete Champetre, listening, perhaps, to the cool sound as it falls, blent with the music of the pipes—- is as characteristic, and almost as suggestive, as that of music itself. And the landscape feels, and is glad of it also-- a landscape full of clearness, of the effects of water, of fresh rain newly passed through the air, and collected into the grassy channels; the air, too, in the school of Giorgione, seeming as vivid as the people who breathe it, and literally empyrean, all impurities being burnt out of it, and no taint, no floating particle of anything but its own proper elements allowed to subsist within it.38

     Of all the essays in The Renaissance, "Leonardo Da Vinci" is the most perfect, the most exquisite, and the most characteristic of Pater's mind. That the structure of the essay resembles the form of a passacaglia and fugue and that its mood is in C minor shows not only that Pater himself was enamoured of music but that he was indebted to DeQuincey-- DeQuincey who in his "English Mail Coach" and "Suspiria de Profundis" showed Pater how to stamp the forms of music upon the architecture of prose. In the essay, Pater introduces Leonardo in a minor chord as a figure of mystery who "seemed to his contemporaries to be the possessor of some unsanctified and secret wisdom."39 Leonardo, like Pater himself, "a lover of strange souls," becomes as the essay develops the subject of a legend, a man who broods "over the hidden virtues of plants and chrystals," who creates Medusas that possess "the fascination of corruption," and who is "clairvoyant of occult gifts." The description of Leonardo culminates in what could be said of Pater himself: "Out of the secret places of a unique temperament he brought strange blossoms and fruits hitherto unknown."40 Together with the biographical detail, there is a second or lesser theme to the essay: the Renaissance itself. In a prose of hypnotic incantation Pater conjures up an atmosphere of reliquaries, pyxides and ambries that could have been imagined only by an aesthete-run-wild. The Renaissance, an age of scientific visionaries, "seeking in an instant of vision to concentrate a thousand experiences," inspired the "magician Leonardo to create out of the amalgam of his mind "the seventh heaven of symbolic expression," the Mona Lisa which Pater describes as follows:

The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years man had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed? All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and molded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the Middle Ages with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Hellen of Troy, and, as Saint-Ann, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modem idea." 41

     Like the last section of DeQuincey’s "English Mail Coach," the Mona Lisa passage weaves into one closely knit tapestry of symbolic prose a dozen strands of thought found in the rest of the essay. It is both the culmination of Pater's vision of Leonardo and one of the central passages of The Renaissance. For if Leonardo’s chief problem was "the transmutation of ideas into images," the Mona Lisa passage enabled Pater to bring together into one coherent image Leonardo’s multi-faceted obsession with the occult. The ambition of Renaissance science to coalesce a myriad experiences into "one instant of vision" sits upon the countenance of La Gioconda. But, even more significant, the Mona Lisa passage, no less than the Leonardo essay itself, demonstrates that Pater's Hellenism, his yearning for the healthy sensuality of Goethe, was inadequate to combat his own fascination with corruption and death. Pater's vision of the Renaissance is divided between the realms of Hellenism and aestheticism: between the ideal of culture and the reality of sensibility,

     The Mona Lisa passage, which Yeats elevated into the locus classicus of symbolism, has a dozen literary antecedents, such as Gautier’s "Caerulei Oculi" or Swinburne’s "Cleopatra," but in its apotheosis of la femme fatale, no less than in its vision of history, the passage may very well have owed its inspiration to DeQuincey's "Suspiria de Profundis." That DeQuincey’s conception of literature as "power" encouraged Pater to create a prose style redolent of his "unique temperament" is visible in the subjection of fact to sensibility in The Renaissance, but that DeQuincey's obsession with dream and reverie as a source of quasi-transcendental knowledge lies behind the deification of La Gioconda as the archetype of history may not be immediately evident. For what, in the last analysis, is the Mona Lisa passage about? The literal-minded have dismissed Pater's reveries over the painting as an example of his critical method run amok, without realizing what Yeats with his immense powers of intuition immediately perceived: that the passage is an archetypal symbol. If DeQuincey's tragic indulgence in opium had any fruitful effects, it was in his ability to tap the archetype of the anima. In "Suspiria de Profundis," DeQuincey conjured up out of his opium dreams a triad of mysterious and exotic women, clothed these symbols in an atmosphere of crypto-mythology and in a language of religious incantation that have a generic resemblance to Pater's picture of Mona Lisa as the Medusa of history. What Quincey perceived in his reveries, what Yeats later presented as a philosophy in The Vision, is implicit in the Mona Lisa passage itself: the belief held in common by mystics, theosophists and gypsies—- by Plato, by Nietzsche, by Sankhara-- by the illuminati of all ages-- that the doctrine of metempsychosis is a fact of nature. History for Pater is, indeed, a kind of metempsychosis. Fond of Heine's myth of the submerged Hellenic gods, Pater translated the myth in his essay on Pico della Mirandola and retold it in "Denys L’Auxerrois." The classical gods re-emerged during Renaissance after having lived as Christian devils. Then began the great war that spelled the weakening and then the decline of Christianity. Nothing fascinated Pater more than this war. This war was the Italian Renaissance, and Mona Lisa was her supreme symbol-- she who smiles so mysteriously—- she who has witnessed all things—- she who has been Leda and Saint Anne. From the smile of Pater’s Mona Lisa was born the beast of Yeats’ "The Second Coming."

     In the nine essays of The Renaissance, the antagonism between naturalism and idealism, which was one theme of the early Coleridge essay, re-emerges under the guise of a liberal philosophy of history as the victory over the less palatable idealisms of Christianity of the Hellenic Spirit, of culture, and, moreover, of life itself. Michelet's epochal celebration of the Renaissance as the reawakening of mankind from a long slumber—- the first step, as he put it, to the triumph of the French Revolution—- loses with Pater the political connotations that were so central to the philosophes of the Enlightenment, as well as to so many of their nineteenth-century offspring. In Pater is visible the fatal divorce between politics and culture that eventually led to a thousand ivory towers. To Pater the Renaissance was, above all, a period which incarnated "a many-sided but yet united movement, in which the love of the things of the intellect and the imagination for their own sake, the desire for a more liberal and comely way of conceiving life, make themselves felt, urging those who experience this desire to search out first one and then another means of intellectual and imaginative enjoyment."42 Gone from Pater's vision of the Renaissance is any sense of the age as at all political: the idea of culture replaced such fervent revolutionary enthusiasms as Michelet's; gone, too, are Ruskin's Evangelical revulsions: the ldeal of culture, having been divorced, though not entirely, from puritanical moral concerns, can live quite comfortably with "the brilliant sins" of the Renaissance. At the court of Lorenzo, in the love affair between Heloise and Abelard, in whose century there flourished, according to Pater, a veritable Renaissance in miniature, in the genre paintings of Giorgione, there existed a "worship of the body" and a "care for physical beauty" which signaled the repudiation in Europe of otherworldliness. Hellenism was reborn.

     The Renaissance whose love of the beautiful, according to Pater, inspired a veritable resurrection of life, stands out, especially in the essay, "Pico della Mirandola," also as the precursor of the modern liberal mind. If the essay treats Pico with a mixture of admiration and condescension, it is because Pater, the spokesman for the "relative spirit," regarded the intellectual climate of his age as having invalidated the legitimacy of Pico’s philosophical investigations. In Pico’s effort to reconcile Christ and Homer-- an ambition shared likewise by Raphael—- one major aspect of the Renaissance Zeitgeist, its infatuation with classical antiquity, reached fulfillment. But viewed in the light of modern scholarship, Pico's futile intellectual labors assume, like the Renaissance itself, a much larger significance. For the Renaissance was "in many things, great rather by what it designed than by what it achieved;" and, characteristically, Pater added, "much which it aspired to do, and did but imperfectly or mistakenly, was accomplished in… the eclaircissement…or in our generation."43

     If the Leonardo essay argues that the Renaissance turned its most typical artist towards nature and into himself, then the Winckelmann essay reveals still another facet of Pater's vision of the past. In the essay, "Two Early French Stories," Pater arbitrarily pushed the origins of the Renaissance back to Abelard; in the essay on Winckelmann he extended the period to the eighteenth century. No case can really be established that Winckelmann, a German neo-classicist of the Aufklarung, belonged to the Renaissance. Yet from the details of Otto Jahn's Life of Winckelmann Pater in the first third of the essay ingeniously evoked his hero's yearning for the culture of Greece. The essay paints a portrait of a humanist born out of his time, whose infatuation with Hellas duplicated the fervor of a Niccolo de' Niccoli. It is the sentiment of the Renaissance that Winckelmann above all embodies and that justified the inclusion of the essay in The Renaissance. Just as the artists and the connoisseurs of the cinquecento thrilled at the rediscovery of Laocoon or the Torso, Winckelmann found in the sensuous perfection of classical sculpture a surrogate for the gray nourishment of Christianity. There exists no better description of Winckelmann's devotion to the antique than his own words: "I believe that imitating the Greeks can lead us to become wise more quickly, since in their works we find not only the essence of whatever is beautiful throughout nature, but also the extent to which even the highest forms of natural beauty can be wisely and boldly transcended."44 Yet what interested Pater in Winckelmann was not the theorist, who, finding baroque art unpalatable, sought for the sublime in Roman reproductions of Scopus and Phidias, but the passionate lover.

     The essay is a masterpiece of paradox. Ostensibly about the German humanist, the essay digresses to discuss in Hegelian terms the evolution of art as an example of the evolution of the human mind. While bestowing upon Winckelmann membership in the Parnassus of humanism, the essay calls into question the possibility of humanism itself. No mechanical literary analysis can sufficiently describe how the subtlety of Pater’s genius employs the art of digression to embellish his subject. At one point, after discussing Winckelmann’s discovery of antique sculpture, Pater interrupts his narrative to sigh: "Here, surely, is the more liberal life we have been seeking so long, so near to us all the while. How mistaken and roundabout have been all our efforts to reach it by mystic passion, and monastic reverie; how they have deflowered the flesh; how little they have emancipated us."45 To react cynically to this passage by seeing in its aestheticism only a sublimated homosexual fantasy would do a disservice to Pater’s humanism. If the "Conclusion" espouses a humanism based upon the moment, the Winckelmann essay adds a further dimension. For while describing Winckelmann’s humanism, his passionate devotion to one ideal, Pater asks whether the ideal which is to govern the humanist is to be one or many, whether the humanist can best fulfill himself by being what is commonly called a specialist or a dilettante. With Pater the problem must have been pressing, but the essay contributes no resolution.

     Western humanism since the Renaissance has been essentially an upper-class luxury. For humanism to flourish it must have large sums of money to support its libraries and galleries and museums. Its ideal of the good life, separated from the masses, may have given way in our time to bourgeois humanism; but in its classic formulation—- at the courts of Lorenzo de' Medici and Federico da Montefeltro, in Castiglione's il Cortegiano and Sidney's Arcadia, in Milton's idea of a university, in the circle of Alexander Pope, at Weimar and I Tatti, in the common rooms of Oxford—- humanism with its dominant ideal of self- cultivation has often been tainted by the selfishness of the upper classes. Pater's humanism suffers from this defect.

     "The road to perfection," he remarked, "is through a series of disgusts;" but his humanistic ideal of perfection, modeled as it was upon Goethe's, leads but to a static narcissism or, at best, to a mellow sympathy with humanity’s travail. It was Nietzsche who said in 1885: "The historical sense….. It is only the nineteenth century that knows this sense as its sixth sense."46 But Pater’s historical sense because it lacks the grand ideal of empathy with all of humanity, which is the legacy of nineteenth-century historicism, could sympathize in The Renaissance only with the aristocratic values of the past. And, indeed, Pater’s vision of the Renaissance, at the heart of which lies his sense of affinity with the humanism of the quattrocento, has a narrowness of scope which its literary art cannot disguise. The humanists of The Renaissance were often in search of an ideal: Leonardo's led to the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa; Pico’s to an abortive reconciliation of Homer and Christ; Winckelmann's to the "noble simplicity and silent grandeur" of antique sculpture. But their search lacks the element of love. Pater’s Renaissance humanists, as he portrayed them, are very often as tragic as they are twisted, as lonely as they are selfish, in their devotion to self-cultivation.

     That The Renaissance celebrates the aristocratic ideal of self-cultivation does not detract from its importance and greatness as a book. Marxists might argue that Pater’s aristocratic values represent merely a schismatic’s metamorphosis of upper class Christianity. Freudians might argue that Pater’s aestheticism, especially in its philosophical formulation, articulates only the gossamer sublimation of a frustrated id. Both of these criticisms are valid. But the opinion that the values of The Renaissance are class-oriented or sexual in nature is irrelevant when one considers that the book contains values at all. For today when the humanities are being dehydrated by the Goddess Positivism and her daughter Analysis, to have values at all, and to speak up for these values, as Pater did in The Renaissance, is to be almost an anachronism. (c)

                              FOOTNOTES

 

l. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura ( Cambridge, Mass, 1966 ), p. 84.

2. See especially Lawrence Gowing, Turner, Imagination and Reality ( New York, 1966 ) and Hilton Kramer, "True Father of Modern Painting," New York Times Magazine, March 20, 1966, pp. 30-1.

3. Ruskin, Modern Painters I, Part II, Sec. I, Chap. vii, par. 6.( First Edition ).

4. Quoted in George Painter, Proust, the Early Years ( Boston, 1959 ), 1, 315.

5. Masson, "Study and Opinion at Oxford," Macmillan's Magazine, XXI ( Nov., 1869 ), 184.

6. Pater, "Coleridge's Writings," Westminster Review, LXXV ( Jan., 1866 ), 128.

7. "Thomas De Quincey, The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson ( Edinburgh, 1889-90 ), II, 81-2.

8. Pater, Miscellaneous Studies ( London, 1910 ), p. II. All references to Pater's works are to the Library Edition( London, 1910 ), unless otherwise stated.

9. Frederick Ewen, ed. The Poetry and Prose of Heinrich Heine ( New York,1948), p.713.

10. Miscellaneous Studies, pp. 11-12.

11. Pater, Marius the Epicurean, 1, 24-5.

12. "Coleridge's writings," p. 107.

13. Pater, Appreciations, p. 16.

14. Arthur Christopher Benson, Walter Pater ( London, 1906 ), p. 189.

15. Pater, The Renaissance, p. 198.

16. Edward William Watson, The Life of Bishop John Wordsworth ( London, 1915 ), pp. 89-91.

17. The Renaissance, p, 233.

18. "Coleridge's Writings," p. 126.

19. The Renaissance, p. 235.

20. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy ( New York, 1899) pp. xiii—xiv.

21. "Coleridge's Writings," p. 126.

22. Appreciations, p. 66.

23. The Renaissance, viii.

24. Ibid., p. 228.

25. p. 227.

26. pp. 228-9.

27. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Italian Journey, trans by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer ( New York, 1962 ), p.403.

28. The Renaissance, p. 239.

29. Pater, Uncollected Essays ( Portland, Maine, 1903 ), p. 127.

30. Quoted from Ernst Cassirer, Rousseau, Kant, and Goethe ( New York, 1963 ), p. 2.

31. Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil trans. from the German by Jean Starr Untermeyer ( New York, 1965 ), p. 150.

32. The Renaissance, p. 55.

33. George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (. New York, 1896 ) P. 9.

34. The Renaissance, p. 138.

35. Quoted from Israel Knox, The Aesthetic Theories of Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer( London, 1958 ), p. 231.

36. Bernard Berenson, Aesthetics and History ( New York, 1948 ), p. 213.

37. The Renaissance, p. 140.

38. Ibid., pp. 152-3.

39. p. 99.

40. p. 117.

41. pp. 124-26.

42. p. 2.

43. p. 33.

44. p. 184.

45. p. 186.

46. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil ( New York, 1955 ), p. 148.