Picture of Oscar Wilde, one of the foremost adherents of the aesthetic movement inspired by Walter Pater.
October 29, 2013


Walter Pater & the Renaissance
I'm afraid that this one is going to be a continuing post. The Story of Film is taking up a lot of my time, so I'll be doing periodic updates.

The first thing to keep in mind when discussing Pater's book on the Renaissance is that while the title is Studies in the History of the Renaissance is that the title is highly inaccurate. First off, none of the essays, as far as I've read, is a study. I would expect that to mean that he was examining one artist, or writer, or person in relation to another artist, writer, or person, or that he was examining the relations, cause and effect, influence, and so forth of one person or idea or movement on another person, idea, or movement. Instead what we get is a series of effusions which do not really attempt to fix relations. So it's not, to my mind, a series of studies. Secondly, while it does deal with historical personages, and to some extent movements within the Renaissance, it doesn't do so in any kind of orderly way that is remotely historical. Pater dropped the longer title when the second and subsequent editions came out, and simply called it The Renaissance. Pater was gay, an outsider in Victorian England, as the case of Oscar Wilde would demonstrate, and his views on religion, and on the medieval period may be colored by his gayness and the presumed repression of gays that he experienced. So when he says: This outbreak of the human spirit may be traced far into the middle age itself, with its qualities already clearly pronounced, the care for physical beauty, the worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the religious system of the middle age imposed on the heart and the imagination.”*

*Pater, Walter (2012-05-12). The Renaissance Studies in Art and Poetry (Kindle Locations 49-51). . Kindle Edition. It may well be colored by something other than a scholarly analysis of medieval art, life, and religion.

In his discussion of Aucassin and Nicolette there is a passage that clearly expresses the attitude of the Devil in Shaw's Man and Superman

En paradis qu’ai-je a faire? repondit Aucassin. Je ne me soucie d’y aller, pourvu qui j’aie seulement Nicolette, ma douce mie, qui j’aime tant. Qui va en paradis, sinon telles gens, comme je vous dirai bien? Ces vieux pretres y vont, ces vieux boiteux, ces vieux man- chots, qui jour et nuit ae cramponnent aux autels, et aux chapelles. Aussi y vont ces vieux moines en guenilles, qui marchent nu-pieds ou en sandales rapiecetees, qui meurent de faim, de soif et de mes- aises. Voila ceux qui vont en paradis; et avec telles gens n’ai je que faire. Mais en enfer je veux bien aller; car en enfer vont les bons clercs et les beaux chevaliers morts en bataille et en fortes guerres, les braves sergents d’armes et les hommes de parage. Et avec tous ceux-la veux-je bien aller. En enfer aussi vont les belles courtoises dames qui, avec leurs maris, ont deux amis ou trois. L’or et l’argent y vont, les belles fourrures, le vair et le gris. Les joueurs de harpe y vont, les jongleurs et les rois du monde; et avec eux tous veux-je aller, pourvu seulement qu’avec moi j’aie Nicolette, ma tres-douce mie.”*

*Here is Andrew Lang's translation from his version of Aucassin and Nicolette:

In Paradise what have I to win?  Therein I seek not to enter, but only to have Nicolete, my sweet lady that I love so well.  For into Paradise go none but such folk as I shall tell thee now: Thither go these same old priests, and halt old men and maimed, who all day and night cower continually before the altars, and in the crypts; and such folk as wear old amices and old clouted frocks, and naked folk and shoeless, and covered with sores, perishing of hunger and thirst, and of cold, and of little ease.  These be they that go into Paradise, with them have I naught to make.  But into Hell would I fain go; for into Hell fare the goodly clerks, and goodly knights that fall in tourneys and great wars, and stout men at arms, and all men noble.  With these would I liefly go.  And thither pass the sweet ladies and courteous that have two lovers, or three, and their lords also thereto.  Thither goes the gold, and the silver, and cloth of vair, and cloth of gris, and harpers, and makers, and the prince of this world.  With these I would gladly go, let me but have with me, Nicolete, my sweetest lady.”
Pater's aesthetic judgements seem to me to be somewhat dubious in many cases. For example, he denigrates Botticelli. Now a picture like Venus and Mars, a photograph of which is shown at the left, seems to me to be as great a picture as some by da Vinci or Michelangelo. Interestingly, Mars seems to be in the same state of repose as Michelangelo's Dying Slave. In both there seems to be an ecstatic swoon, and a somewhat effeminate depiction of the male figure.

Pater makes a recurrent use of the word sweetness in commenting on Michelangelo's poetry. Now I associate a lot of different words with Michelangelo, but sweetness isn't one of them.

Pater's conclusion is notorious for urging his readers to pursue art for art's sake. To live in short for aesthetic pleasure without regard to morality. Whether Pater meant that is disputable, but one thing that is notable about Pater is that while the book is small, under two hundred pages, a good deal of which is notes, and other ancillary matter, including added essays, in the Oxford World Classics edition, a great deal of it is words that are primarily emotional and evocative rather that words that are factual and descriptive. We get no detailed analysis of any of the qualities that make Botticelli a good painter, or a bad one, only a somewhat, in my view, squishy description of Botticelli and his work. Likewise with the conclusion. It's effusive and emotional, and the words move the spirit, but when you examine it apart from its emotional content there is very little of intellectual import there.

I started this in October, and it's now the middle of December (the 10th), and I've been sidetracked from reading the book in its entirety. I may finish it now that The Story of Film marathon is winding down. After that will be Christmas books, and maybe I'll go back to my idea of doing decadence, or maybe I'll try Kant again.