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Walling out the world: Walter Pater and the problem of aesthetic historicism.

As his influence on thinking about a crisis of interpretation as the dominant intellectual problem of the late twentieth century has become more widely recognized, Pater has been held up as an exemplar of how to live in a state of textual, social, and historical indeterminacy. His critical procedures have been identified as aesthetic historicism and commended for showing us how to face up to our relation both to history and to the history of art. This essay argues that Pater's aesthetic historicism is not a successful resolution of the problem of historical indeterminacy, but an impulse to wall out a disturbing world and substitute the satisfying pleasures of an ideal history for the imperfections, frustrations, and conflicts of real history. That substitution, upheld by teachers and critics as purveyors of cultural values, reduces artistic expression to projection and art to packaging--a "rearranging of the details of modern life." As a pernicious consequence of this distortion, students are in effect pulled out of their own defining social contexts and asked to have their being in the elaborate projections of "autonomous subjects" who have failed to recognize and acknowledge the systems that support them.


Back in the nineteen-eighties when I was a graduate student puzzling over the reputed influence of Matthew Arnold as fin-de-siecle critic, I kept asking myself, how does one get from Matthew Arnold to Virginia Woolf? As far as I could tell, one didn't. Then, in a tutorial on Marxism and literature, Professor Victor Paananen read from the Conclusion to Walter Pater's Renaissance. I had never heard Walter Pater before. I had never heard of Walter Pater before. I said, "Who is that?--because I heard in that voice the voices of all the writers I had most loved to read, from Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster to D.H. Lawrence and American writers such as Thomas Wolfe and Eugene O'Neill. But at the time I had no term by which to identify those writers, or what they had in common. It was from Georg Lukacs, in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1962), that I got the name of Modernist for the writers to whom l had always responded, in effect, as twentieth-century Romantics.

Since the mid-nineteen-seventies and early eighties, more and more students of Late Romanticism and its Modernist transformation have become aware of Pater's pervasive influence. As Harold Bloom wrote in 1974, Pater "became the most widely diffused (though more and more hidden) literary influence of the later nineteenth upon the twentieth century." (1) In 1960, Wolfgang Iser was astute enough to observe,
 Although Pater remains deeply rooted in the nineteenth century, and
 so is usually classified as a Late Romantic, there can be no doubt
 that his work prefigured the problems that have become dominant in
 our time. And the parallels between his fin de siecle and our own
 fast-fading century make it all the more fitting that he should now
 emerge again from the shadows to which his aesthetic label has so
 long confined him. (2)

Pater has emerged from the shadows. And to the extent that the dominant problems of our time have been understood in terms of a crisis of interpretation resulting from the collapse of all cognitive frameworks or theoretical systems, a crisis that reaches beyond literary texts to human history and the empirical world itself, he has been seen as a crucial figure. He has not only been recognized for having, as Iser put it, "anticipate[d] a late-twentieth-century concern with the anatomy of interpretation," (3) but he has also been held up as an exemplar of how to live in the state of indeterminacy to which a legion of Postmodernists have concluded we are confined. More particularly, his discursive methods have been commended for showing us the mature way of facing up to our relation both to history and to the history of art.

In her book Transfigured World: Walter Pater's Aesthetic Historicism (1989), for example, Carolyn Williams commends Pater's aesthetic historicism as the consistent practice of inconsistency. Pater's aesthetic and historical criticism, Williams argues, teaches us how to cope with the epistemological problem commonly referred to today as "cultural relativism." The essence of the epistemological problem, of course, is the presumed loss of objectivity. Pater's solution to that problem is not a real solution; it is an "aesthetic solution." It does not restore objectivity, but only a "'sense of' objectivity" that is in fact an "aesthetic reconstruction." An "awareness of the skeptical dimension of historicism," Williams writes, "returns us to the aesthetic." Pater's "historical representations," then, constitute a "sort of perspectivism" that "concentrates on the present moment not as the ideal 'noua' but as the end point of a long history, the retrospective position from which the past may be totalized, its continuity may be constructed, and its differences may be gathered up into an identity." The consequence of "this sort of perspectivism" is a "'kind of inconsistency' in Pater's treatment of the ideal present moment," which becomes a figure both of "radical discontinuity" and of "retrospective totalization." "If the impulse toward 'modernity' may in several senses be considered the opposite of the impulse toward 'history,'" Williams argues, "Pater holds the two together in a radically conservative, dialectical relation." It is his "strength," she concludes, "to have practiced this 'kind of inconsistency' as well as to have theoretically examined its consistent practice." (4)

This confounding of opposites is typical of deconstructive techniques of interpretation. A reading, like a test, can only measure what it is designed to measure; what it cannot measure it does not record: The sum of its measurements is false. As Terry Eagleton reminds us in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983),
 What you have defined as a "literary" work will always be closely
 bound up with what you consider "appropriate" critical techniques:
 a "literary" work will mean, more or less, one which can be
 usefully illuminated by such methods of enquiry.... what you get
 out of the work will depend in large measure on what you put into
 it in the first place.... (5)

I would argue that Williams' reading capacities have been severely, and symptomatically, circumscribed by the critical technology she has opted to use. To establish that there is in Pater's aesthetic and historical criticism this "inconsistency" and that it becomes a figure both of "radical discontinuity" and of "retrospective totalization" by which Pater "holds the impulses toward modernity and history in a radically conservative, dialectical relation" is harmless enough. But to argue that it is Pater's "strength" to have "practiced this 'kind of inconsistency'" is to make a virtue of avoidance. To conclude so is to leave off precisely where the problem begins.

The problem is manifested in clearer and more insistent terms in the passage from Pater's Marius the Epicurean (1885) to which Williams' key phrase alludes:
 And yet, with a kind of inconsistency in one who had taken for his
 philosophic ideal the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of
 Aristippus--the pleasure of the ideal present, of the mystic
 now--there would come, together with that precipitate sinking of
 things into the past, a desire, after all, to retain "what was so
 transitive." Could he but arrest, for others also, certain clauses
 of experience, as the imaginative memory presented them to himself!
 In those grand, hot summers, he would have imprisoned the very
 perfume of the flowers. (6)

One must first remember that the reason Marius has taken for his philosophic ideal the pleasure of the ideal present is Pater's reductive view of the epistemological problem. Nothing can be known, Pater believes, but one's own perceptions, one's own aesthetic experience, to which one is thus confined and by which one is thus carried along, like a piece of flotsam and jetsam, in the stream of one's lonely consciousness, from moment to transitive moment. Having clarified that, one can begin to delineate the problem of aesthetic historicism in fairly simple and concrete language.

The longing to retain and arrest, "for others also," certain highly pleasurable but necessarily transitory qualities of experience that are felt so deeply and intensely at moments that they seem to approach the ideal--moments when actual experience coincides with what is oftener only imagined--is really quite common. The pleasure of eating an ice cream cone on a hot day, after all, has been described as heavenly. Most people discover, however, that the pleasure of eating the ice cream cone cannot be prolonged by making up yet another and another cone, since pleasure will give way to surfeit and discomfort. More important, most people do not mistake the heavenly sensation of eating the ice cream cone for reality. They may say, settling into a deck chair after mowing the lawn and enjoying every lick of a double-dip, "This is the life," but they do not conclude that "life is this" and yearn for a way to prolong that illusion. Paterian aesthetes do, and that is the problem.

Paterian aesthetes substitute art for the ice cream cone and, finding themselves at a loss between artistic experiences, since they have concluded that life is just the experience of art, seek to construct a continuous sequence of such experiences, which they then call the history of art. The "rule" that Pater "urges upon his readers," William E. Buckler writes, "is adopted from Sainte-Beuve and is as secular as it is practical: 'To confine themselves to knowing beautiful things at first hand, and to nourish themselves thereby as discriminating amateurs, as accomplished humanists.'" (7) In his 1960 monograph, translated in 1987 as Walter Pater: The Aesthetic Moment, Iser formulates the "rule" somewhat differently: "the individual does not need to set himself any goals or to make any decisions," Iser writes; "the only response required of him is an uncommitted enjoyment." (8) Iser's analysis of the problem is definitive and, therefore, inescapable. I will respond to it frequently throughout my discussion.

To the extent that aesthetes are successful in prolonging the illusion, they are exceedingly lonely people, always yearning for someone to enter their illusory world and share with them the pleasure of ice cream cones, macaroons, second movement crescendos, play of light and shadow, cool breezes, or whatever sensory phenomena have provided the basis for their heightened experience of the "ideal present," the "mystic now." But since few people are willing to sit, as it were, for another person's vision, even when the aesthete induces someone to come into his tableau vivant, he is usually disappointed. The intruder will not sit still, insists on talking at the moment of musical climax, fails to observe the particular angle of the shaft of light; in short, disrupts the fluid but stable form of the aesthete's vision and leaves him lonelier than he was before.

Since aesthetic pleasure has become an entirely subjective quality, aesthetic experience is subject to a Heraclitean flux. Shifts in mood, the passage of time, and a world of historical experience filling that passage of time will alter the perceiver's relation to some object or sensation. Still, one bite of a macaroon can release potent memories of the original experience. More to the point, then, what seems beautiful to one person may not seem so to another. Bel canto to one listener may be shrieking to another. Hence the great desire, often frustrated, for intimacy.

Similarly, on the other hand, the aesthete has trouble negotiating fields of consciousness and activity emanating from sources outside himself, especially since his sense of identity is of a piece with his aesthetic perceptions. "For Pater," after all, as Buckler remarks, "the highest function of art is to help us to become something, the ultimate aesthetic ideal to make life itself a work of art." (9) The aesthete does, in fact, sit for his own visions, becomes unsure of who or what he is on standing up and walking out of the field of consciousness in which the highly charged forms of his tableau have figured. The pleasingly cool breeze in someone else's environment may feel like a chilling draft to him, may even ruffle his hair and make him feel unkempt, blowing him off balance and threatening his composure. Not to mention the possible effects of a cross-town ride in heavy traffic on the color of his mood or the configuration of his person. Experiencing the insecurity of a life defined solely in relation to art, the aesthete is driven to seek ideal modes of being that transcend such annoying disruptions as soot, fumes, jostling conveyances, and unwelcome winds.

Iser quotes Dolf Sternberger's striking characterization of the aesthete's impulses:
 These rambling, errant and sensitive nerves, these senses, which
 ceaselessly grope for and follow contours and consistencies--cool
 and "heartless" gems, metals, the velvety or taut or thin and
 translucent skin of the female body--they search as if with a
 wishing wand for the hidden sources of a life that must be lived
 and perhaps also must be patterned on the far side of inherited
 conventions. (10)

Having made his way cross town to his hostess' drafty rooms, the aesthete is not likely to find scope for his sensual appetite in tea and cakes and polite conversation. Rumpled and discomfited, he is more likely to be thinking, in a vaguely troubled way, "This is not it. This is not what I had in mind."

So far the problem seems inconsequential enough, confined to a few gluttons whose fate, whatever it be, they must deserve. It gets bigger, however, when these same people substitute the history of art for human history itself, crown themselves emperors of ice cream, and deny that anything else is worthy of their attention--neither the lawn mower nor the lawn nor the person who mowed it. Harold Bloom notes, for example, that when Wallace Stevens "reduces to what he calls the First Idea, he returns to 'the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us,' but then finds it dehumanizing to live only with these appearances." (11) What one needs to remember is that the initial reduction--of human conditions to appearances--is even more dehumanizing, certainly to the person who is seen mowing the lawn or, as it may be, pushing the red wheelbarrow.

If an aesthete's life must be patterned on the far side of inherited conventions, as autonomous art it "cannot be subjected to any normative concepts," (12) Iser reminds us. Pater was a "dedicated student of history and philosophy," Buckler writes, "but in his valuation of things, they were, though indispensable, ancillary, subordinate in interest and importance to art's manifestations of the capacity of the human spirit to master its environment by creating for it an ideal form that was rooted in matter but infinitely more significant." (13) If art is hypostatized as the capacity of the human spirit to master its environment by devising a "scheme of some higher and more consistent harmony," (14) as Pater understands transcendence to mean, the "need to legitimise autonomous art," Iser explains, springs from the "instability of the aesthetic existence." (15) The aesthete seeks, then, in history and myth the hidden sources or types by which to pattern a life that must be lived on the far side of inherited conventions, ordinary appearances, normative concepts, and the actual environment in which he is situated. A tall order. But "to this end," Iser recognizes, Pater "mobilised the entire past":
 His invocation of history and myth sought to elevate the
 intensified moment into a life-line for the aesthetic existence,
 thus indicating a change in the function of legitimation. In the
 past, world pictures provided the orientation, whereas Pater sets
 out to justify both the transitoriness and the in-between state of
 the aesthetic existence by making the totality of the human past
 subservient to this end, thus inverting the idea of legitimation.
 Instead of providing a framework to which cultural and social
 activities have to be subsumed, legitimation now applies itself to
 private longings. (16)

For the aesthete, then, the pleasures of a now ideal history are all that really exists. And since the only acknowledged threat to his enjoyment of those pleasures seems to be his own aging and death, he becomes obsessed with the idea of life's brevity and the question of how either to pack as much pleasure as he can into so short a span or, somehow, to escape, transcend, or countermand its limits. Art is "conceived as the countervailing power to the temporality of human existence. Its basic definitions," Iser writes, "are given in negative terms owing to the fact that time and death are its frames of reference." (17) Its capacity, however, to "transmute the fugitive moment into enraptured ecstasy" makes it the "ultimate value of human existence." Thus it is "hypostatised," and the "slogan of 'art for its own sake' is meant to indicate that it is not subservient to any overriding reality. On the contrary, by constantly selecting from the pageant of existence the precious, the incomparable and the inimitable, it endows human existence with a seeming perfection which in reality it lacks." (18)

Unwilling or unable to contend with human existence as it is, fraught with imperfection, the aesthete turns away. Disgusted, frustrated, dissatisfied, he leaves his hostess' party, goes home to his rooms, and turns back to his art. His art creates a private paradise that no hostess' salon, however sumptuous or socially select, can match. In retreating to it, he renounces much, however, for if art "idealises secular life," "contains its own criteria within itself," and is "thus 'fulfilment everywhere,'" as Iser suggests, it is also fulfillment nowhere, in hypostatizing art as autonomous, the aesthete has cut himself loose, we recall, from inherited conventions, ordinary appearances, normative concepts, and the imperfect social environment in which he is situated. Though "not conceived as a form of protest by Pater," Iser comments, autonomous art does nevertheless "represent a detachment from and a contradiction to man's ordinary modes of existence, and those negative qualities are integral to a definition of art in the Paterian sense." (19)

How can the aesthete give expression to such an impulse without carrying the weight of normative concepts? For his first answer to that question Pater turns to history. "Art records the different phases of the individual's struggle for unity with himself and the world, and so," Iser suggests, "its history is a constant tailoring of the world according to the needs of human self-presentation, turning the world finally into an aesthetic phenomenon." (20) That answer is obviously problematic in at least two ways. In the first place, admission of the need to ground art in something outside itself undermines the claim of aesthetic autonomy. In the second place, history has undergone a precipitate conversion into art:
 As the claim of art's autonomy could not be sustained, Pater
 propped it up with history. This, in turn, made his perception of
 history lopsided. If history is meant to sanction the autonomy of
 art, it suffers a severe reduction by being confined to the history
 of art. This shrinkage of history bears witness to the fact that
 art as the ultimate is a claim that cannot be substantiated but
 only posited. (21)

Having cut himself loose from an imperfect world, the aesthete finds his existence extremely precarious, but he cannot recover in human history a firm foundation for his free-floating island of imagined perfection. "The search for earthly paradise in experience can only be successful by way of a Utopian fantasy that either negates or overcomes the menaces of reality." (22)

What I am calling the problem of aesthetic historicism may still seem inconsequential unless or until one adds that the same people who are ready to reduce history to history of art--a "constant tailoring of the world according to the needs of human self-presentation"--are in fact installed in institutions where they function as arbiters of cultural values and influential participants in the processes that determine, that is to say, set limits on, the actual lives of diverse members of entire societies.

One can catch a glimpse of what that in fact means in Buckler's quite sincere, not in the least ironic, description of Pater's Hellenism. It was, Buckler tells us, "metaphoric rather than literally historical." Already it is evident that Pater is not alone in his impulse to confuse art with history. Buckler's scrupulous discrimination between the two is, after all, a mere detail. It doesn't appear to modify the possibilities inferred. Pater's Hellenism, says Buckler, was "metaphoric rather than literally historical, an ideal representation of what modern man might make of his life if he accepted his earthly estate as what is and used his creative human resources to become what the example of the classical Greeks shows he can be." (23) Presumably, Buckler means to contrast modern man's earthly estate with the false expectation of a heavenly estate, but the fact that he doesn't notice the contradiction he is left with is indicative of the blindness fostered by this kind of idealist thinking. Modern man is encouraged to accept one estate and yet desire another. So, presumably, he can be a taxi driver yet be in the process of becoming a demigod. Or perhaps he can be an accountant yet think like a demi-god; sell insurance by day and be a demi-god by night? To borrow a phrase from Raymond Williams, it is time this bluff was called. (24)

It's the same bluff by which Positivists such as John Morley, editor of the Fortnightly Review and one of Pater's early publishers, conceived of the project of democratizing art. Franklin E. Court tells us that in 1887, when giving an address to the students of the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching on the "then controversial subject of the study and teaching of English literature,"
 Morley called their attention to the great need to bring literature
 and the other arts to the people, to the common man. "Our object
 is," he told the students, "--and it is that which ... raises us
 infinitely above the Athenian level--to bring the Periclean ideas
 of beauty and simplicity and cultivation of the mind within the
 reach of those who do the drudgery and the service and rude work of
 the world.... And it can be done without blunting or numbing the
 practical energies of our people." (25)

Court's approving comments confirm that he is not about to call the bluff. With Morley, he is quite ready to assess Pater's contribution to the democratization of art in positive terms:
 That Pater attempted to bring the merits of art down to the world
 of daily existence and to show the spectator or the reader, whoever
 or wherever he might be, how to savor the pleasure independently,
 on his own terms, without absolute pronouncements or the
 instructive prescription of the specialists, is Morley's most
 permanently valuable critical observation on Pater's contribution
 to the democratization of art. (26)

Morley's being the "only critic at the time who seems to have recognized that particular virtue in Pater's work" (27) tells us rather more about Morley's progressive social agenda than it does about Pater's procedure.

Court's commentary offers a convenient and very familiar example of the form Paterian aestheticism has taken in the institutions of higher education that have been the purveyors of bourgeois culture in capitalist democracies. "Morley was addressing himself," says Court, "to a timeless and particularly important objective of students and teachers of literature." (28) Periclean ideas of beauty and simplicity and cultivation of the mind can be brought within the reach of those who do the drudgery and the service and rude work of the world without blunting their practical energies. Data processors will have read a bit of Joyce. Dental technicians will have heard of Yorick's skull. Behavior treatment specialists will know that Robert Burns was once moved to write that his love was like a red, red rose. Such cultivation will be had for its own sake, allowing for a few flowers among the weeds of workaday life. Quality of life will be enhanced; substance of life will be unchanged--or, if changes come, they will originate in quite another sphere than the "timeless" world of art.

Students will be encouraged to refresh and ennoble themselves by occasional excursions into the artistic realm of wish--fulfillment. "When shall we set sail for happiness?" (29) asks Baudelaire. "There is no Frigate like a Book,/" writes Emily Dickinson, "To take us Lands away." (30) "Expression implies correction of the world," Iser observes, "and it will only reproduce those parts of experience that accord not with the patterns of outside reality but with the secret wishes of the expresser." (31) Aesthetic expression has become projection. The question is, whose wishes will be given expression and which expressions will be purveyed as timeless art, exposure to which is deemed ennobling? "What modern art has to do in the service of culture," says Pater, "is ... so to reflect it, that it may satisfy the spirit." (32) Art is packaging. "And what does the spirit need in the face of modern life?" The question is asked, again and again. From liberal humanists, the answer comes back, again and again: The "sense of freedom" [emphasis mine]. (33) Artistic production becomes a massive industry of denial, the real power of which is nowhere more evident currently than in television advertising. The world requires enhancement, correction. The details of modern life do not satisfy the spirit. The techniques of cultural production are so quickly applied to fill the gap, there is no room to stand back and ask, why?. What's wrong with the world, that it requires correction? Will rearranging the details fix it? Why does the spirit lack satisfaction? Why is its greatest need in the face of modern life a sense of freedom? Is mortality what the aesthete seeks to transcend, death the insurmountable limit in the face of which the modern spirit so tenaciously creates a sense of freedom? Pater writes:
 That the end of life is not action but contemplation--being as
 distinct from doing--a certain disposition of mind: is, in some
 shape or other, the principle of all the higher morality. In
 poetry, in art, if you enter into their true spirit at all, you
 touch this principle, in a measure: these, by their very sterility,
 are a type of beholding for the mere joy of beholding. To treat
 life in the spirit of art, is to make life a thing in which means
 and ends are identified: to encourage such treatment, the true
 moral significance of art and poetry. (34)

Yes, Iser argues, Pater's aesthetic procedure liberates the spirit from the burden of mortality. "Art removes the 'end' from life, in both senses, and by dispensing with all teleology it not only relieves the burden of finiteness, but also liberates those elements of life that would otherwise be only 'means' to the end." (35) If nothing is undertaken, presumably, nothing can be cut short, interrupted. If nothing is desired, nothing can be lost. From heightened experience we have come to art as renunciation of experience, sheer spectatorship, voyeurism.

All that is left to art is perceptual perspectives, with no normative concepts by which to make sense out of a whole so assembled. It is but a short step from that perspectivism to Ezra Pound's Vorticism, and Iser's description of that development is well phrased:
 The aesthetic attitude as an answer to the existing challenge was
 promulgated as the new horizon encompassing all the remnants of
 former conceptualisations of life. An atmosphere had to be
 distilled out of these fragments, formed neither by laws of dogma
 nor concepts of philosophy, but by the contingency of association.

The trouble with Vorticism, of course, as with Impressionism before it and Surrealism after, is that it "lift[s] appearances out of their defining contexts and so frees them from the normative interpretation imposed on them in different cultural periods," (37) not to mention different cultures and different social formations within and across cultures. Assemblages created by wrenching people, objects, symbols out of their defining social contexts have no validity outside the logic of the assemblage itself, a reductively subjective and random logic that reflects, nonetheless, the socially constituted consciousness of the assembler. "When all systems have fallen apart," runs the argument, the aesthete's "last chance of capturing the inner vision--even if only indirectly and cryptically--lies in the word." (38) Desire to "transcend the vulgarity of the world by artificial means" culminates in the "mannered style" that Nietzsche identified as the "hallmark of all literary decadence" and characterized as the "page as life at the expense of the whole." It is the means by which the "artist's manner triumphs over the nonsubjective world." (39)

But of course all systems have not fallen apart, certainly not the capitalist system that Maynard Keynes, at the height of the Modernist moment, stepped in to help save. The artist has chosen not to acknowledge them as binding, or defining. That he does not weary of the endless journey into himself is surprising, but he is entitled to the taedium vitae of such self-absorption; it is harmless. What is not harmless, is in fact objectionable, is the process by which teachers and critics, as purveyors of cultural values, perpetually appropriate what the "autonomous subject arrogates to itself" in the reductive page as life at the expense of the whole, "not only the richness of nuances sedimented in the word, but also the compelling stringency of logic and the fervent ardour of religion, in order to equate itself with the impact it is able to exercise." (40)

Somewhere along the line, Iser's argument has taken a mysterious turn. What began as a renunciation of ends so as to liberate oneself from the effects of "terminality" has turned into a means of arrogating possible meanings, logic, crypto--religious fervor, and power to depict, not what people should do--for they shouldn't, precisely, do anything--but what people should be. Teach people to desire to be something totally at odds with what it falls within their means to do and they will labor unceasingly to acquire the symbols of such being, without ever acquiring the power to do anything except harness their labor--power to the machinery of capitalist production. At the same time, one is wrenching the recipients of such education out of their own defining social contexts and directing them to have their being in the elaborate projections of "autonomous subjects" who have neglected to acknowledge the systems that support them.

The problem of aesthetic historicism, then, and the consequences of Pater's and subsequent literatis failure to break out of it, is a very big problem. The critical techniques deemed appropriate by a network of deconstructionist functionaries are not equal to it. A reading practice that allows one to substitute oxymora of dubious value--"radically conservative"--for meaningful articulations of the consequences of unresolved conflict does indeed provide "relief," simply folding the "relieved" conflict back into the discourse of scholarly observation. That procedure calls to mind Pater's conception of the essay as the "form of formlessness," a form that "deconstructs itself in order to represent open-endedness, unrelatedness and endlessness as facts of experiential reality." Like the essay so conceived, Carolyn Williams' is a "discourse simultaneously renouncing a discursive tackling of its findings, thereby casting doubts on the efficacy of discursive thinking." (41) The last best defense of this sort of academic discourse seems to be impotence rationalized as a strength. But it is not a strength of mind to be hobbled with inconsistency. Consistent inconsistency is not to be confused with dynamic dialectic. It contains tension. It does not generate change.

Crucial to a deeper analysis of Pater's discourse is a recognition of the implications of one of Pater's favorite metaphors: Economy, in particular, the economy of means and ends. Pater's aesthetic economy appoints style the most efficient means to an unimproved end: The grandeur of a world erected to contradict the existing world, a world transfigured by aesthetic vision; in short, the "grandeur of nothingness." (42) Pater's aesthetic economy, by which means and ends are identified, substitutes the artifact of contemplation, or aesthetic reconstruction, for the object of actual sight. The end is the means: Style. The relative spirit "registers an expansion of things and an obliteration of dividing lines," (43) Iser writes, but these are circumscribed by style, which effects formal unity.

Thus we arrive at the worst of all possible literary critical worlds: Indeterminacy within the closed system of the stylistic construction; meaningless form, form pregnant with potential meaning, but no outlet, no expectation of issue. The greatest feat of this aesthetic economy is that it elides, seals over, the necessity of action. It is, however, as precarious as it is apparently effortless. As the experience of Pater's fictional aesthetes attests, it is instituted at great cost. Using the askesis of a rigorous style to forge matter into art, the aesthete dies to the existing world in order to construct a transfigured world. The humanist, then, he who "possesses the complete culture"--and because it must be a scholar and scholarship has only been possible for men, it must be a "he"(44)--can dwell in that world, shrunk now, in the city that is its habitation, to the size of a house: "House Beautiful," as Pater imagined it. Thus the nightmare of history is transfigured and contained by the conservative aesthetic economy. Artifacts representing its ideal moments are installed in appropriate niches of the beautiful house, the views from which are framed by windows. (45)

But woe unto him who actually ventures out of doors. In Pater's 1887 imaginary portrait of that title, Duke Carl of Rosenmold, having clarified through much scholarship the terms of a renaissance in Germany, is trampled to death on the doorstep of his cottage retreat and the threshold of his new cultural order by a battalion of soldiers rushing forth to do battle in the war-torn life of the present. The moment was not propitious.

It is typical of the Paterian aesthete that he achieves internal harmony only by escape or transcendence and so is eventually shocked to discover his complete disjunction with the external order of things. The price of aesthetic success is confinement, and confinement breeds a terrible and constant anxiety. The price of living in an illusory world is a vague fear of anything and everything that might break into it, or shatter it from within. As Gilles Deleuze observes in his Foreword to Jacques Donzelot's The Policing of Families, "'Having a room of one's own' is a desire, but also a control. Inversely, a regulatory mechanism is haunted by everything that overruns it and already causes it to split apart from within." (46) Like a grain of sand in the oyster's shell, there is always the tension caused by the dim awareness of discrepancy between ideal and real, illusory and actual. Inasmuch as the aesthete figures in his own fictions, moreover, the insecurity of his mode of existence reaches deep into the recesses of his own psychosomatic life. It necessitates continual reassurance, continual denial, incessant reconstruction of the transfigured world. That tension is what drives the aesthete to go on making pearls.

The stylus of the aesthete's pen becomes not so much a finger in the dyke holding out the world as a magic wand with which he tries, obsessively, to fix the materials of his life and work--both "aestheticized." The impulse to fix leads to another obsessive impulse, a response to the isolation resulting from aestheticization: The impulse to intersect, to touch, to make contact with a world of people and activity out of which the artist has frozen himself. The hand that has fixed is the hand that longs to touch. But precisely because it longs to touch, to trace as it were the outlines of the world it has frozen out, it is rendered incapable of a genuinely creative literary activity. It desires to touch, not to engage with, the living forms it perceives. As a desire to touch what it has first stilled, it is not only fetishization, but necrophilia. Conversely, having removed himself from the impact of external forces that might threaten his fragile internal reconstruction, the aesthete foregoes fecundation and becomes sterile. Having identified means and ends, ritualistically making "sure of the flowers and the leaves," (47) he cannot produce fruit. The aesthete has sacrificed ends for means, can conceive no real ends: No outlet, "no exit," no future. Hence his decadent reconstructing of the past, on the one hand, his somewhat more shocking subliminal longing for violent penetration, on the other.

In Plato and Platonism (1893), Pater's defensive and compensatory desire for an order that will fix the flux becomes so obsessively rigid that it betrays itself to a more deeply repressed desire for violently intrusive sensation. Pater's sadomasochism is fully evident in the Lacedaemon chapter of Plato and Platonism. It is significant, however, that in Pater's last completed essay, "Apollo in Picardy" (1893), violent penetration exceeds Pater's apparent pleasure in the flogging routinely inflicted on the young men of Sparta. The aesthete is overwhelmed by disordered flashes of psychotic insight. Mind and body together are invaded, as Pater nears his own death, by forces that can no longer be shut out. Among them are wildly prophetic glimpses of the future. But the revelations are naturalistic and apocalyptic, and confined to the monastic cell of Prior Saint-Jean. To the end of Pater's work, the social world is eclipsed, and Pater's impulse to keep it walled out is overwhelmed by forces he cannot even bring himself to name.

Lansing Community College


(1) Selected Writings of Walter Pater, ed. Harold Bloom (Columbia UP, 1974), p. x.

(2) Walter Pater: The Aesthetic Moment, tr. David Henry Wilson (Cambridge UP, 1987), p. x.

(3) "Enfoldings in Paterian Discourse: Modes of Translatability," Comparative Criticism 17 (1995), 57 Iser's essay was written for the "Centenary Conference on Walter Pater and the Culture of the Fin-de-Siecle" held at the University of Kent.

(4) Transfigured World: Walter Pater's Aesthetic Historicism (Cornell UP, 1989), p. 284.

(5) Literary Theory: An Introduction (U of Minnesota P, 1983), p. 80.

(6) Marius the Epicurean: His Sensations and Ideas (London: Macmillan, 1910), Vol. 1, pp. 154-155.

(7) Walter Pater: Three Major Texts (The Renaissance, Appreciations, and Imaginary Portraits) (New York UP, 1986), p. 12.

(8) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 139.

(9) Three Major Texts, p. 4.

(10) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 32.

(11) Selected Writings, p. xii.

(12) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 4.

(13) Three Major Texts, p. 1.

(14) Walter Pater, "The Child in the Home," in Miscellaneous Studies (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 194).

(15) The Aesthetic Moment, p. ix.

(16) The Aesthetic Moment, p. ix.

(17) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 31.

(18) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 31.

(19) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 32.

(20) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 75.

(21) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 76.

(22) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 92.

(23) Three Major Texts, p. 7.

(24) See Raymond Williams' critique of idealized history in The Country and the City (Oxford UP, 1973), pp. 18-19. In discussing the pastoral tradition, he writes: "All traditions are selective: the pastoral tradition quite as much as any other. Where poets run scholars follow, and questions about the 'pastoral' poetry or the poetry of 'rural retreat' of our own sixteenth to eighteenth centuries are again and again turned aside by the confident glossing and glozing of the reference back. We must not look, with Crabbe and others, at what the country was really like: That is a utilitarian or materialist, perhaps even a peasant response. Let us remember, instead, that this poem is based on Horace, Epode II or Virgil, Eclogue IV; that among the high far names are Theocritus and Hesiod: The Golden Age in another sense.

It is time that this bluff was called. Academic gloss has made such a habit of tracing influences that it needs the constant correction of a Coleridge, to those who seem to hold, that every possible thought and image is traditional; who have no notion that there are such things as fountains in the world, small as well as great; and who would therefore charitably derive every rill they behold flowing, from a perforation made in some other man's tank' (Preface to Christabel)."

(25) Pater and His Early Critics (Victoria, British Columbia: U of Victoria, 1980), p. 81.

(26) Pater and His Early Critics, p. 81.

(27) Pater and His Early Critics, p. 81.

(28) Pater and His Early Critics, p. 81.

(29) See "Squibs XI," Intimate Journals, tr. Christopher Isherwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1983), p. 30.

(30) Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson's Poems, selected by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), No. 466, pp. 267-268.

(31) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 27.

(32) Walter Pater, "Winckelmann," The Renaissance, ed. Donald L. Hill (U of California P, 1980), p. 184.

(33) Walter Pater, p. 184.

(34) "Wordsworth," Appreciations (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 62.

(35) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 35.

(36) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 37.

(37) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 37.

(38) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 50.

(39) The Aesthetic Moment, pp. 51-52.

(40) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 54.

(41) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 19.

(42) Walter Pater, "Joachim Du Bellay," The Renaissance, ed. Donald L. Hill, p. 138.

(43) The Aesthetic Moment, p. 15.

(44) Walter Pater, "Style," Appreciations (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. 12.

(45) See Baudelaire's "Windows" in Paris Spleen.

(46) The Policing of families (New York: Pantheon, 1979), p. xvii.

(47) "Justify rather the end by the means," Pater writes in his essay on Wordsworth; "whatever may become of the fruit, make sure of the flowers and the leaves." "Wordsworth," Appreciations, pp. 61-62.
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Author:Brouwer, Marilyn
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Date:Sep 22, 1997
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