Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls by Denis Donoghue. Knopf, 364 pp., $27.50.
June 18, 1995        

Walter Pater and Friedrich Nietzsche both lived fifty-five years (almost the same fifty-five years, in fact); both were raised by, and later in life were surrounded by, female relatives; both had large mustaches; both were notorious as sensualists, though neither seems to have had an actual sexual experience; and both were rather high-strung (a bit of an understatement, this last). Beyond these incidental resemblances, they shared a predicament: the decline of theological and philosophical orthodoxy in the late 19th century, too far advanced to ignore but too recent to take in stride. In response, both embraced the religion of art. But while Nietzsche was a thundering prophet, Pater was a retiring monk. Quite possibly they would have abhorred each other -- co-religionists often do. Yet the famous Conclusion to Pater’s The Renaissance is -- all necessary qualifications notwithstanding -- one of the most compelling expressions imaginable in a few pages of one plausible version of Nietzscheanism.

The Conclusion is also among the most influential half-dozen pages worth of English prose. James, Yeats, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, and Stevens all felt Pater’s presence, usually as a temptation or a cautionary example. “Pater,” according to Denis Donoghue, “is a shade or trace in virtually every writer of any significance from Hopkins and Wilde to Ashbery. ... It was Pater, more than Arnold, Tennyson, or Ruskin, who set modern literature upon its antithetical—he would say its antinomian—course.” Modern English literature, Donoghue ventures, “starts with Pater”.

Walter Pater is partly a biography and, in large part, a critical study. Pater is often considered (like Nietzsche) to have had virtually no life apart from his writings, bu Donoghue makes the most of what there was. Pater pere, a doctor, dies in 1842, when Walter was two-and-a-half; his mother twelve years later. An aunt took in the children ans sent Walter to a decent school, from which he won a scholarship to Oxford. He studied Greek with the celebrated Jowett, attended Mathew Arnold’s lectures, considered ordination despite being an agnostic, and eventually won a permanent fellowship in a not-very-distinguished Oxford college. He sighed over Greek statues and athletic undergraduates, and suffered over his looks: “I would give ten years of my life to be handsome,” he complained. Growing a luxuriant mustache did not do the trick.

In the mid-1870s the two chief external events in Pater’s life occurred. The Rennaissance, which was published in 1873 and seemed to espouse a pagan sensualism, aroused a tempest in the Oxford teapot, with a few waves even in London. Outwardly Pater was ironical: “I wish the newspapers would not call me a ‘hedonist.’ It produces such a bad effect on the minds of people who don’t know Greek.” But he was worried enough to make substantial changes in the second edition.

The next year, a talented and flamboyant undergraduate, to whom Pater had apparently written compromising letters, was suspended on suspicion of homosexuality. The Oxford authorities rebuked Pater, too, though quietly; still, he was shaken. According to one of his biographers: “Pater’s whole nature changed under the strain... . He became old, crushed, despairing, and this dreadful weight lasted for years.” Donoghue treats Pater’s sexual torments almost too briskly, even a trifle mockingly, but I suppose that’s better than tedious psychologizing or ideologizing -- what a contemporary “queer theorist” would have made of Pater’s life doesn’t bear thinking of.

Why is Pater where modern literature starts? Partly for epistemological reasons: Pater displaced attention from the object to the subject, from inherent properties to contingent impressions. In the almost equally famous Preface to The Renaissance he writes:

“To see the object as in itself it really is,” has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever; and in aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s own impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realize it distinctly."

That opening phrase -- “to see the object as in itself it really is” -- is from Matthew Arnold; and as Donoghue comments, “the effect of Pater’s swerve from Arnold is to define ‘aesthetic criticism’ by releasing it from the criterion of truth and the rhetoric of mimesis. The mainstream of criticism ever since has been, in this sense, “aesthetic.”

Partly also for moral reasons. Pater championed (discreetly, to be sure) “antinomianism” in art: its “spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the time” and its “sinister claim for liberty of heart and thought.” Here, too, his legacy to 20th-century modernism is obvious.

Pater’s modernist paternity has clearly aroused complex feelings in Donoghue, who is theologically and philosophically orthodox. Digs at poor Pater are plentiful, and such praise as there is is usually pretty faint. Various utterances of Pater’s are dubbed “pedantic,” “desultory,” “absurd,” “insolent,” “brash,” “rotten,” ‘spiritually pretentious,” and so on. Donoghue’s irritation with his hero is pervasive and palpable.

All the more remarkable, then -- stirring, really -- is his conclusion:

"Should I feel misgiving ... about the fact that the modern literature I most love has come from Baudelaire, Pater, and Mallarmé rather than from Newman, Arnold, and Ruskin? Yes, or at least I do. I think I appreciate the risks -- triviality, exquisiteness, solipsism -- entailed by Aestheticism. On the other hand, I regard as disastrous Arnold’s proposal ... that poets, novelists, and critics should take up the services that priests were allegedly no longer able to sustain, or rather the emotional residue of those services. ... It is hard to say what a poetic sense of literature entails. But the best hope of practicing it is by showing aesthetic values -- form, style, tone, pleasure, exercised in achieved conditions of freedom -- as fundamental to the literature we care about, carry around with us, and hear whenever silence allows us to hear. In his subdued way, Pater is where these ladders start."