Pater, Walter

Assigned: Pater, Walter. “Preface” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (713-16); “Conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (716-19). Also read the editors’ introduction (711-13).

“Preface” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)

1. On 713 (“Many attempts have been made…”), Walter Pater sets forth what he believes constitutes the true work of aesthetic critics. Why is it a mistake, in his view, to spend much time trying to “define beauty in the abstract” or “find some universal formula for it”? What, then, is “the aim of the true student of aesthetics”?

2. On 713 (“‘To see the object as in itself…’”), how does Pater redefine Matthew Arnold’s dictum that the critic’s task is “To see the object as in itself it really is”? (Refer to Arnold’s formulation of “the critic’s task” or “the critical power”; Leitch 684-85.) For an aesthetic critic, what is the right way to fulfill Arnold’s imperative of accuracy in discernment? What are the “original facts with which the aesthetic critic has to do”? How has Pater turned Arnold’s objectivist formulation of the critic’s task into an impressionist program?

3. On 713-14 (“The aesthetic critic, then, regards…”), Pater explains that aesthetic critics will regard the objects of their study as “powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations” (713) within them. Once these sensations have been received, what do these critics then do with them—what is Pater’s “to do” list for critics in this regard, and how can they know when their “end [i.e., objective] is reached” (714) and the process of discernment and evaluation is complete? Finally, consider Pater’s rhetorical choices in the passage under examination: how do phrases such as “to distinguish, analyse, and separate”; “as a chemist notes some natural element”; and so forth modify what would otherwise be a straightforwardly subjectivist description of the critic’s engagement with works of art? Instead, what is the special quality—or “virtue,” as Pater would ask—of the critical approach that Pater himself is promoting? How is his “impressionism” grounded in a different concept of subjectivity than one finds in Romantic expressivist theory?

4. On 714-15 (“Often it will require great nicety…”), Pater offers some thoughts on William Wordsworth’s poetry to illustrate the aim of aesthetic critics when they engage with works of art. What, then, is “the virtue, the active principle in Wordsworth’s poetry” (715), and what is the aesthetic critic’s responsibility towards this quality in the great poet’s work? If you are familiar with Wordsworth’s poetry, does Pater’s description of its virtue match your own understanding of what makes that poet’s work unique? To what extent does your view differ from Pater’s, if it does? If you don’t know enough of Wordsworth’s poetry to make such a judgment, try to isolate and convey the “virtue” or “active principle” of some other poet or literary artist’s work.

5. On 715 (“The subjects of the following…”), how does Pater define the historical and cultural period we call “the Renaissance” in a way that greatly broadens the usual sense of when and where it began and ended, and what its true value was? In Pater’s view, what were the distinguishing qualities of the Renaissance, and how does his enumeration of these qualities differ from what many cultural historians would consider to be the main character and value of the Renaissance? In particular, what emphasis does Pater place on France’s role in the Renaissance, both early and late in its development?

6. On 715-16 (“But it is in Italy…”), how does Pater describe the fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance? In what sense, according to him, was this period in Italian history a time of great intellectual and artistic unity, one of history’s “happier eras” (716) in that regard? By contrast, how does Pater describe the more common path that a given generation or age’s “forms of intellectual activity” (715) take, sometimes to the detriment of society and creative individuals? Finally, what justification does Pater offer for including in Studies in the History of the Renaissance an essay on eighteenth-century art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann, whose life and work, strictly speaking, post-dates any commonly accepted end date for the Renaissance?

7. General question: In his “Preface” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater both explains what he means by “aesthetic criticism” and offers some excellent examples of it in his own chapters on Renaissance art and literature. Pater’s literary impressionism, with its strong emphasis on the sensibilities of the individual critic and on the formal or aesthetic “virtues” of particular works of art, will surely not meet with the approval of many critics today since the emphasis has shifted decisively towards social and political analysis and engagement: “cultural studies” is the paradigm for modern criticism. Still, what variety or varieties of twentieth- or twenty-first-century criticism among those you have studied do you consider at least somewhat affined with Paterian impressionism? In what does the affinity consist? How does the criticism you identify nonetheless differ from Pater’s?

“Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)

1. On 716-17 (“To regard all things and principles…”), how does Pater describe the “tendency of modern thought” (716)? In part, of course, he is referring to the scientific way of analyzing the forces and phenomena of the material world, but how does the initial epigram by the presocratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus (πάντα χωρεῖ καì οὐδèν μένει, pánta khōreí kai ouden ménei; “all things are in motion, and nothing abides”) as well as the precise language Pater uses in his opening formulation move us beyond science and into philosophical, and even cultural or social, territory? In the opening paragraph of the “Conclusion,” on what familiar sights, associations, and experiences does Pater focus the language of scientific objectivity in order to strip away our comfortable, habitual understanding of them? What is the emotional and intellectual effect of his using this rhetoric of scientific objectivity on such familiar human things?

2. On 717 (“Or if we begin with the inward…”), Pater trains his scientific rhetoric on “the inward world of thought and feeling.” How does he describe the process by which an individual’s perceptual apparatus isolates and breaks down the “flood of external objects” that make up what we call experience? The doctrine that properly describes Pater’s philosophical viewpoint in this paragraph is “solipsism”—the claim solipsists make is that the self in its isolation is all we can know or prove exists. How, then, does Pater describe the impressions and experiences of the individual mind in a way that prepares his readers for his startling reference to “that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves,” that he says scientific analysis cannot hope to follow or explain?

3. On 717-18 (“Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist…”), according to Pater, following the German Romantic poet Novalis, what is the “service” (717) of philosophy? How does this view differ from the aims of systemic philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (Leitch 425-63) and Georg Hegel (Leitch 545-63) in light of how we may have discussed those authors in class? At base, how is Pater suggesting that his readers should prioritize and order their “aesthetic lives,” so to speak? How, too, does he describe aesthetic experience in a way that lends it great intensity and focus? Why is it perhaps odd to hear a sentence such as, “Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end” (718 top), along with a few other bold sentences in the present brief paragraph, coming from an Oxford lecturer—how does Pater’s declaration run against the current of almost universally accepted notions about the very purpose of a university education?

4. On 718 (“To burn always with this…”), how does Pater the Oxford lecturer (he was a fellow of Oxford’s Brasenose College from 1864 until his death in 1894) define “success in life”? How does the metaphor of an intense, “gemlike” flame help us understand the nature or quality of the aesthetic experiences he promotes as the real point of life? How, in addition, do you interpret his remark that “our failure is to form habits”? Why are “habits” so destructive to Pater’s proposed quest to seeand feel with the requisite accuracy and intensity? To what extent does Pater find philosophical inquiry useful, and how does his rhetoric in this passage greatly privilege personal and artistic experience over studies of any kind of “theory or idea or system” that might compete with that experience for our attention?

5. On 718-719 (“One of the most beautiful passages…”), how does Pater combine his thoughts about aesthetic experience with the ancient Horatian imperative, carpe diem or “seize the day.” (The phrase occurs in Horace’s Odes 1.11: dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: / carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero; “while we talk, envious time shall have taken flight: / seize the day, and think as little as you can of the time to follow.”) In what sense, however, does Pater modify this focus on the pleasures of the moment by making the goal of the aesthetic life the attainment of “a quickened, multiplied consciousness” (719)? In other words, what hierarchy of experiences does this final paragraph imply for those who want to follow Pater’s advice and maintain the intensity and quality of experience he counsels as the aim of life?

6. General question: Walter Pater’s 1873 “Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance was influential in its time, and Oscar Wilde, the champion of the Decadent Movement of the 1880s-90s in Great Britain, was one of Pater’s students at Oxford’s Magdalen College. It is not difficult to place Pater’s aestheticism and literary impressionist criticism among the doctrines of the Aesthetic Movement that flourished in the UK from the 1848 inception of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and onwards for several decades. The “Conclusion” was also considered morally suspicious or unacceptable by some Victorian readers. What is it about Pater’s advice in this brief text that seems most likely to have sparked such controversy? To what extent does Pater (himself a reserved, very private man) seem to be counseling his mostly youthful male readership to live their lives in a way that their Victorian elders might not approve of?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Pater Extra: The “La Gioconda” passage from “Leonardo da Vinci” in Studies in the History of the Renaissance

1. To what extent does Pater, in describing Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait of Mona Lisa (“La Gioconda”), achieve “the aim of true criticism” that he sets forth in his Preface to Studies in the History of the Renaissance? Is Pater “seeing the object as in itself it really is,” or is he rather, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s witticism at Matthew Arnold’s expense, “seeing the object as in itself it really is not”? What do you see as constituting the value of Pater’s impressionistic “word portrait” of Leonardo’s enigmatic masterpiece? Explain. [Find an electronic copy of Studies in the History of the Renaissance and search within the chapter “Leonardo da Vinci” for the text string, “The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters.” In the 1873 edition, the name in the chapter title is spelled “Lionardo da Vinci.”]

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