In the current version of the Modernism course I’m teaching, our focus moved from Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud to the founding thinkers in the modern social sciences including Simmel, Veblen, Le Bon, Frazer, as well as two early modern feminist writers; we have also spent a week on modern science (befitting a general education seminar at CWRU), reading essays by Darwin and then by Einstein and Heisenberg. Most of this occurred before we turned to the development of modern literature, music, and art. However, in these notes, I think it will be better first to discuss modern literature and then in later posts to turn to the array of other topics in the development of modernism. This post will attempt to discuss some of Walter Pater’s ideas as they influenced Yeats and other modern writers. It’s tempting to spend some time exploring Pater, for he offers a sort of Nietzschean aesthetic, but in the English language and in terms of English culture.
Pater was a ‘fellow’ and tutor at Oxford, and two of his students were among the most original writers of the late nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The celebration of aesthetic experience in the professor’s work clearly influenced each of these men. The point of Wilde’s paradoxes is often to assert the primacy of art and the pervasiveness of aesthetic artifice in either shaping or insulating us from life. And the greatness of Hopkins’ poems is to develop a language infused with the force of – and the tension between – his sensuous ‘aesthetic’ sensitivity and his fervent Catholicism. It was also Pater who invited Mallarmé to Oxford in 1872, to deliver his lecture on “Literature and Music.” The British modernist writers of the next generation were all young Paterians, including William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce (as well as T. S. Eliot).
A part of Pater’s description of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was placed by Yeats at the conclusion of his introduction to the edition he edited of the Oxford Book of Modern Poetry, and the poet transformed Pater’s prose into a poem, adding line breaks at the end of each phrase. The passage projects a breath-taking ambiguity, reminiscent of the tension in Hopkins between a sensuous aestheticism and religious images; here Pater evokes Mona Lisa as simultaneously an inhabitant of the region of evanescence and death (“dead many times…[she] has learned the secrets of the grave”), and a pagan goddess (“as Leda, [she] was the mother of Helen of Troy”), and a religious figure (“and, as St. Anne, [she] was the mother of Mary”) – this combination of the holy, the pagan, and the deathly presents the painting as an ambiguous aesthetic paragon, indeed (for “all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes”). The paragraph is part of Pater’s Studies in the Renaissance, with its chapters on the Italian masters, with its famous formulation that “all art aspires to the condition of music,” and with its infamous “Conclusion.” [Studies in the History of the Renaissance (6915)]
It is the “Conclusion” which had the most significant impact on the next generation of intellectuals in Britain. It begins with an analysis of experience as “a perpetual motion” of “moments.” Consciousness experiences these moments as a stream of “impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them” – in many respects his description parallels the new “modern” insights into the psychology of consciousness – for instance, William James’ idea of the “the stream of consciousness.” This self-conscious flux of “momentaneous” impressions is “ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice” has pierced; here one can see a sort of veiled Hegelian combat in Pater against the roles and mores of often hypocritical and euphemistic late Victorian culture. A sort of death of that insulated, obligatory Victorian self is suggested by him in his evocation of the evanescent flux and “tremulous wisp” of the self.
Pater’s imagery and syntax, with the suspense of its delayed or buried verbs, create a suggestive, even subversive air of instability and ambiguity. For instance: “it is with this…passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off – that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.” The “service” of the intellect “towards the human spirit” can be “to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation – for “every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone…some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” These sentences were seen as a subversive threat to the morals of youth, to the Victorian faith in the roles of “ladies and gentlemen.” As a result, the “Conclusion” was banned and not reprinted in the second edition of Pater’s Studies in the Renaissance (though it was restored in the third, a decade later). To live life with such intensity that “the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy:” such is Pater’s injunction, his call to experience the full range and intensity of human experience, the sensual and spiritual, the pagan and the holy. “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
“While all melts under our feet,” Pater writes, echoing Hegel’s description of self-consciousness, “we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colors, and curious odors, or work of the artist’s hand, or the face of one’s friend. 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, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.” Many interpretations are invited by this passage – it may seem a call to lead a sort of dandified life of surface refinements, yet that is the least insinuating of interpretations, for the “Conclusion” emphasizes the life of the passions, and its imagery seems to promote a passionately erotic or sensual responsiveness. No wonder that the teen-aged Lawrence, intent on throwing off the yoke of Victorianism, named his small circle of Paterians “The Pagans.” Seize the day, Pater almost seems to write, for “we are all under the sentence of death, but…we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.”
In the climax of the “Conclusion,” Pater describes how we may spend that interval – some “in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest…in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.” To achieve “a quickened, multiplied consciousness,” art is celebrated as offering the best means (now there’s a bit of Paterian syntax for you). “Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” In my next post, we’ll see how this high ideal of aestheticism is adapted by Yeats and other writers to modernity with its buffeting changes, its wars, and its commitment to experiment.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]