Rereading Walter Pater’s The Renaissance I’m struck how the sheer pleasure of reading the book breaks hard against the abundance of thought it provokes. It makes it difficult to decide if I should rhapsodize about the beauty of his prose or delight in the many connections his work has to other writers and thinkers both before and after him. Perhaps a little of both.
His aesthetic, as he describes it at the beginning of his essay on Giorgione, accounts for how he allowed himself the luxury of such a poetic style. For Pater, the all important element in a work of art is its impression. When he says, “in its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall” he frees himself to enter a painting or poem or the life of an artist and permit his own reactions to form the meaning. He can suggest the sound of poured water mixing with played pipes in Fête Champêter or the smile of the Mona Lisa “defining itself on the fabric of [Leonardo’s] dreams” and I take these in without any hesitation that they are not good scholarship since that is not the intention. Pater is not trying to get at some objective message or meaning, but at what it means to him to inhabit a certain space.
Pater argues that it’s neither the senses nor the intellect that art addresses, but the “imaginative reason.” I immediately understand this to correspond to what I call the sensibility. It is an odd organ of perception. But it is Pater’s effort to describe how this vague organ registers aesthetic reality that makes his descriptions so beautiful and why it is not accurate to understand him as simply a critic or hedonist. In fact, so many of his attitudes and ideas seem to foreshadow much in modernism and existentialism.
As I read him, I have strong but undefined feelings that he stands on the narrowest and subtlest bridge dividing what is Romantic from what is modern. Or that he breathes the air of both atmospheres without fully inhabiting either. Certainly, much of what is in the major existentialists and major modernists can be seen as the evolution of the Romantic stances, their natural consequence and end. When Blake asserts that the imagination is the Holy Spirit, there is no significant progress made when Stevens proclaims “God and the imagination are one.” When Keats said negative capability is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason,” he defined exclusively for artists what Camus would define as the absurd man. So when Pater describes Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin, it registers as more than an aesthetic disagreement, but a metaphysical one. That’s because Pater had already made a step toward that fragmented landscape of modern life. But he doesn’t seem to step fully into it or, if he does, he’s wearing some kind of protective armor, something that keeps his mind intact where later minds are in pieces. What Pater says of Goethe could be said of himself, “he defines, in clearest outline, the eternal problem of culture — balance, unity with one’s self.”
One sees his method of unity in how he portrays what the mind does to satisfy its need “to feel itself alive.” He said it “must see into the laws, the operation, the intellectual reward of every divided form of culture; but only that it may measure the relation between itself and them. It struggles with those forms till its secret is won from each, and then lets each fall back into its place.” This reaches back to Blake who said,
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise.
And it reaches forward to Simone de Beauvoir when she defines freedom as being “able to surpass the given toward an open future.” Between these two metaphysics of freedom, Pater defines his technique to give the intellect the completeness he said it demanded. However, this technique contains the seed of its own dissolution. In the very notion of the “divided form of culture” is everything that gives him his uniting focus and what transformed, for later minds, into a multiplicity that fragmented the psyche itself.
For Pater, there are discrete aesthetic moments offered to the intellect to construct its own unity, forms yielding definitions and boundaries of cultural discourse. But in the 20th century, the existentialists rejected the mere play of such forms. Again Simone de Beauvoir said, “We repudiate all idealisms, mysticism, etcetera which prefer a Form to man himself.” The divided object presented to the mind in the 20th century was not culture, but man himself, his fragmented psyche. As the poet George Oppen put it, “we have chosen the meaning, of being numerous.” The self no longer felt the unity it once did and could no longer contrive it. Walter Pater’s mentor, Matthew Arnold, exemplified this fragmentation quite dramatically. In fact, the teacher stood on the other side of that bridge dividing and distinguishing the Romantic sensibility from the modern one.
Pater was not driven, like his mentor, to proclaim, “I am fragments” because aesthetic appreciation was a uniting principle for him. He was not a hedonist, but an aesthete. In his famous conclusion to The Renaissance, Pater writes, “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, in this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendor of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.” It is staggeringly beautiful and poignant, another of the infinite renderings of carpe diem. But we see here the idealism Beauvoir rejects; we see Pater’s unity in gathering together these moments. He is the central self bringing his singular experiences into the whole of his guiding intelligence. And this divides him from the 20th and 21st centuries; this keeps him from being wholly modern. As close to the doorstep as he comes, he remains outside. But he is so wonderfully there, an almost reassuring figure — if only we could be more like him — the favorite grandfather of many artists and intellectuals, a source of wisdom too remote to follow but close enough to relish quoting.