Victorian notable for how much of a Victorian he was…

Walter Pater, 1839-1894, was primarily an aesthete, much influenced by the previous week’s Matthew Arnold.

While Arnold was a widely-known and read cultural critic, Pater was less of a columnist, and made his living primarily as a professor on art and art theory, though he wrote some successful books as well.

A student of his, said that his lectures where an experience in “self-communion” he Pater essentially just talked to himself about art for an hour or so.

The service of philosophy,” he whispers, “ and of religion and culture as well, to the human spirit, is to startle it into a sharp and eager observation. Every moment some from grows perfect in hand or face; or some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us, – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.”

With this passage, Pater has his roots and his head in several different camps, I think, and several different time periods. Part of this is pure Victorian Romanticism – men glaring at gloomy skies and mountains, ships being tossed about in storms, a rugged landscape with a ruined greek temple in it, etc. I am tempted to cite a little bit of anti-urban industrialism in his writings as well, if only because he shows little interest in society or things emblematic of urban environments. Obviously, he loves ‘art’ and ‘culture’ but note that his language natural and physical. In some senses, he lives in a pre-indsutrial world.

But he also seems to be saying “live in the moment, bro.” If he were alive today, no question, we would know him as a hippy. In this sense, he live in our time as well; he rejects a theory of art to the like of “its beauty and that means Gothic, or that means Classical.” He does not tell us what is beautiful, but he tries to teach us how to see and experience for ourselves what art is and what it should be. In practical terms, he is not stuffy or snobby, he wants to spread how to appreciate art; which ultimately means how to live.

“To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to from habits; for habit is relative to a stereotyped world; meantime is is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.”

This brings me to my last point. The pace of the argument and the language that he deploys. The pace is unhurried, and unabashed in a way that could not be written today. To us it seems flowery, kitschy, forced. It is true that even for his day, this was probably a bit on the esoteric side, but this is a time when engineers wrote poetry and most Victorians had a definite sense that England was a latter day Roman Empire.

 

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