Tuesday, July 14, 2009

THE RENAISSANCE by Walter Pater

Pater's Renaissance is one of my Bibles. Specifically, it's my Pentateuch. Joyce's Ulysses is my New Testament, Gravity's Rainbow my Apocalypse, Tristram Shandy my Apocrypha, Kafka my Koran, and A la recherche du temps perdu my endless Mahabarata. One of the most beautifully-written books in the English language, The Renaissance has an undeserved reputation for purple prose and an all-too-deserved one as the holy book of decadent aestheticism. "I wish they would not call me a hedonist," Pater once complained, "it gives such a wrong impression to those who do not know Greek." As we all know, however, the real reason we are discomforted by any description of ourselves is the possibility that it might give people the right idea. Pater was an aesthete, and his book is the first and best English-language manifesto of aesthetic life. Here's a taste (and just a taste) of what Pater is capable of:

On Pico Della Mirandola: "And yet to read a page of one of Pico's forgotten books is like a glance into one of those ancient sepulchres, upon which the wanderer in classical lands has sometimes stumbled, with the old disused ornaments and furniture of a world wholly unlike ours still fresh in them."

On Michelangelo: "A certain strangeness, something of the blossoming of the aloe, is indeed an element in all true works of art: that they shall excite or surprise us is indispensable. But that they shall give pleasure and exert a charm over us is indispensable too; and this strangeness must be sweet also--a lovely strangeness."

On Michelangelo's pietas: "He has left it in many forms, sketches, half-finished designs, finished and unfinished groups of sculpture; but always as a hopeless, rayless, almost heathen sorrow--no divine sorrow, but mere pity and awe at the stiff limbs and colourless lips."

On the Uffizi Medusa (also the subject of a poem by Shelley): "What may be called the fascination of corruption penetrates in every touch its exquisitely finished beauty."

On the proper use of philosophy: "Philosophy serves culture, not by the fancied gift of absolute or transcendental knowledge, but by suggesting questions which help one to detect the passion, and strangeness, and dramatic contrasts of life."

On aesthetic experience: "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. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch."

I could continue quoting Pater until my hands curl up like lobster claws, but that would only wrench more quotes out of the contexts in which they really must be read. In the long last chapter, Pater quotes Goethe on Winckelmann: "One learns nothing from him, but one becomes something." The same is true of Pater. If one reads him deeply and well, one might become an aesthete. The Renaissance is one of my 'essential' books. Every literate human being should own a copy.

2 comments:

kate said...

It's interesting to see a blog on the exquisite Mr. Pater, and you have chosen some great quotations from The Renaissance. The darker side of Pater's aesthetic emerges more in essays/imaginary portraits like A Study of Dionysus and Apollo in Picardy. You are probably familiar with these, but if not they are worth a look, as is Imaginary Portraits.

Best wishes, Kate

Tomás Ó Conghalaigh said...

I am pleased to have discovered the fabulous Walter Horatio Pater at a stage in my life when i still have the time and energy to give the study he deserves, and at the same time annoyed that i did not come across this book at a younger age.
a lovely strangeness indeed!