That it has given a new sense, that it has laid open a new organ, is the highest that can be said of any critical effort.
I had no idea what to expect from these essays. The only reason I became aware of Pater was because a copy of this book was sitting on the bathroom floor in my friend’s father’s house. Since my friend’s father is a successful painter, I naturally took note of a book about art so intimately placed. Much later, after finishing Burckhardt’s famous analysis of the Renaissance, and with my trip to Rome looming, I decided that I would finally see why a painter sought out this book for his bathroom inspiration.
Pater was an idiosyncratic fellow, and these essays certainly reflect that. Some of the topics he covers are expected: Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Others are more surprising: Joachim du Bellay, a Frenchman who wrote a defense of the French language; two medieval French stories about love and adventure; and Johann Winckelmann, the 18th century German classicist. Clearly, Pater’s conception of the Renaissance was far broader than Burckhardt’s, who considered the Renaissance a strictly Italian affair. Also broad is Pater’s conception of criticism: for him, it is not merely a vocation, but an entire philosophy of life.
I am referring specifically to the famous “Conclusion” that is tacked on to the end of these essays. In it, Pater puts forward a whole aesthetic philosophy of life: Everything is in flux; both matter and mind are temporary; the only thing we have is the moment; and since death may come at any time, and will come inevitably, the only rational response is to enjoy this moment as best you can. Now, some thought that Pater was advocating hedonism, but that is far from the case. He was, rather, an aesthete; and for him, “enjoying the moment” meant finding the most beautiful shade of green in a field of grass, or observing the play of light on a windowpane—that sort of thing. The ability to be constantly, delicately, indefatigably absorbed in one’s senses, and yet have the focus and taste necessary to select from these perceptions the most lovely, is what Pater meant with his famous suggestion to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame,” which for him is “success in life.”
At times, the age of these essays showed. This was most conspicuous in Pater’s essay on Giorgione, in which he bases his whole appreciation on one painting, elevating it to the height and epitome of Giorgione’s aesthetic—a painting which is now believed to be by Titian. But for the most part, the essays have retained their force and interest. Indeed, you may not realize how original this book was, since it anticipated and shaped so many of our attitudes about art and the Renaissance. To pick just one example, Pater’s discussion of the Mona Lisa, dwelling on her mysterious smile, certainly helped spur on our fascination for that work.
Nevertheless, I am unsure whether Pater actually deepened my appreciation for the Renaissance works he discussed. This is due, I think, to his ideal of the critic: to be acutely sensitive to the power of art, and to be finely discriminating of what is more or less beautiful. Sensitive and discriminating Pater certainly is. (Several times I wondered if he passed out while writing his essays, since, judging by his breathless and insistent tone, he was always to be right on the cusp of a brilliant epiphany or a transcendent experience. It must have been exhausting.)
But notice was is lacking from his ideal of the critic: to analyze, to discuss, to inform. The critics who have most helped me appreciate art are those who taught me about the painting the artist; who showed me what to look for, how best to situated the painting within a certain context; in short, who pulled me into the world of the painting. But since Pater holds up sensitivty and discrimination as ideals, he is faced with the problem: how does one communicate those qualities, which are personal, to somebody else? To do this, he resorts to writing long rhapsodies, reveries, aesthetic ecstasies about the works under consideration. These passages are almost uniformly brilliant, often breathtaking. Nevertheless, it felt more like watching Pater look at a painting, overhearing the thoughts and associations the painting inspires in his brain, rather than learning how to appreciate the painting myself.
I cannot finish this review without discussing Pater’s prose. He is considered to be one of the great stylists, and this reputation is well deserved. The man was such a brilliant writer that it often seemed irrelevant what he was writing about; he could write an essay on the underside of a mosquito and it would be good literature.
This is not to say that he has no limitations. Most conspicuously, he has not even a trace of the epigrammatic. If a point can be made in ten words, Pater will give you fifty, though those fifty will be as finely crafted as a Baroque statue. His sentences never arrest you or stop you short, but rather overwhelm you, burying you under a pile of clauses, metaphors, images, until you’re short of breath and so dazzled that it seems someone has shone a flashlight in your eyes. Comparisons with Proust and Woolf, especially the latter, come readily to mind; but Pater has a manic insistence that makes his writing uniquely urgent.
Another limitation is that Pater seems incapable of that kind of easy grace, that effortless virtuosity, which many of the greatest writers display. Rather, his prose strains every nerve, exerts every muscle, panting and sweating as it pushes itself onward. This impression is, apparently, an accurate one: According to Wiki, he obsessively polished, tweaked, and rewrote his works, until every word, every sentence, every paragraph was just to his taste. This makes his prose like a super-ornate jewel, breathtaking in its designs, its symmetries, and its technical daring; yet for all that rather delicate and precious, and inevitably a bit ostentatious.
I will leave you with a passage from his essay on Michelangelo:
And of all that range of sentiment he is the poet, a poet still alive, and in possession of our inmost thoughts—dumb inquiry over the relapse after death into the formlessness which preceded life, the change, the revolt from that change, then the correcting, hallowing, consoling rush of pity; at last, far off, thin and vague, yet not more vague than the most definite thoughts men have had through three centuries on a matter that has been so near their hearts, the new body—a passing light, a mere intangible, external effect, over those too rigid, or too formless faces; a dream that lingers a moment, retreating in the dawn, incomplete, aimless, helpless; a thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.