Walter Pater is considered by many as one of the great British art and literary critics of the nineteenth century and his importance can be compared with that of Coleridge, Lamb, De Quincey, Arnold and above all Ruskin. Of all these, he is perhaps that critic which has had the most importance for twentieth-century criticism and poetry. We can find traces of him in many of the great authors a long way into high modernism. Yet the most obvious heir to Pater’s theory was, of course, Oscar Wilde, who, as reported, almost always carried The Renaissance with him as his personal bible, and even when he went to prison for his homosexuality, The Renaissance was the first book he received (Levey, 21).
However, it is important to note that Wilde’s criticism was a radicalization of Pater’s aesthetics which Pater himself could not always approve of. But also Pater’s own aesthetics can be seen as a radicalization of, for example, Matthew Arnold. Arnold had asserted that the “aim of criticism is to see the object as it really is.” (Bloom, 1) Pater was able to take this further into a more subjective perspective where it was the impressions of the critic that counted, as he expresses it in The Renaissance: “the first step toward 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.” (The Renaissance, xxix)
Of course, Wilde with his wit and eloquence, brought this to a grand statement which in a sense ended the argument: “The primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not” (Bloom, 1). This suggests that Pater is to be found in the middle of this gradual radicalization, and his criticism can be characterised as an impressionistic mode of reception that has not entirely discarded the object, yet the object cannot be understood without the beholder’s own impression.
My thesis is that there is an understated erotic sensitivity in The Renaissance which arises from the rhetoric of the text. Walter Pater is a critic who endures philosophical illogicality and self-contradiction; who remains shameless on one level of rhetoric, but immediately upon entering the level of recognition of the real circumstances (the body) he becomes shy and understated and, in consequence, much more seductive.
History of the body
The experience of The Renaissance is closely connected to the impression of the physical body, which is in focus through Pater’s work and is crucial for the development of Pater’s account of the Renaissance. Pater formulates it in the following way: “This outbreak of the human spirit [in the Renaissance] may be traced far into the middle ages itself, with its motives already clearly pronounced, the care for the 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 (The Renaissance, xxxii) In his idiosyncratic empiricism, it is the experience from watching or reading about the body that gives the critic insight into a work of art, because art (in the Renaissance) essentially is the representation of the body. Yet, in Pater’s aesthetic theory, the body of the critic is also a way to gain knowledge about the world and a way to understand art, as Pater says about Winkelmann’s reception of Hellenic art: “This enthusiasm (from art), dependent as it is to a great degree on bodily temperament, has a power of reinforcing the purer emotions of the intellect with an almost physical excitement” (The Renaissance, 122)
Art has the ability to create a direct physical impact on the beholder, and we could say that Pater’s idea about getting pleasure from gazing at art is everywhere closely connected to the concept of the pleasure of the body. He seems to require from the critic that he has a “bodily temperament,” which means that the critic has to deploy the receptivity of the physical body when he contemplates art. In my interpretation, Pater essentially understands the pleasure of art as an erotic mood, which I will attempt to reveal in the following part of this essay.
Before proceeding, it would be worth noting that from Pater’s perspective the body is not only a mode of receptivity, but it also has importance for the expression of an idea. It is mainly through the body or the representation of the body that the Renaissance artist expresses himself and his ideas. Art is literally the embodiment of the idea and art is the external manifestation of the inward idea in sensual form. Pater clearly puts emphasis on the sensual part, and for him the idea is not absolute. It is rather the relative spirit of the time or the Zeit-geist which has manifested itself in the particular work of art. The idea of an absolute and transcendental knowledge is replaced by an awareness of the immanent, as Pater formulates it: “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 contrast of life”(The Renaissance, 148)
In Pater’s aesthetic theory, the outward has taken precedence over the inward, and the body is a way to externalize the aesthetic mood, and make it an outward phenomenon. One has to grasp the physical world before one can capture the idea, and the idea is only a servant of the sensual. Yet he has not discarded the idea entirely; the idea is still a way to enrich the aesthetic experience of the body. Pater has in a sense pointed out the physicality of thought in art, and how ideas in art never can be totally separated from their sensual manifestation.
Philosophy of the flesh
The reason for Pater’s “anti-philosophical’ aspirations could have their origin in the hedonism that he directly or indirectly utters in his text. Roland Barthes has in his book The Pleasure of the Text explained how the concept of pleasure always is re-action against intellectualism. Barthes’ text has in many ways affinities to Pater’s text; they are both dealing directly with the pleasure that arises from reading or beholding art, and both texts have at the same time a clear ‘reader-response’ approach towards the their art object. Barthes formulates the contradiction in the following way: “On the right, pleasure is championed against intellectuality, the clerisy: the old reactionary myth of the heart against the head, sensation against reasoning (warm) “life” against (cold) “abstraction”: must not the artist, according to Debussy’s sinister precept, “humbly seek to give pleasure”? On the left, knowledge, method, commitment, combat, are drawn up against “mere delectation” (Barthes, 22-23).
The Renaissance seems to display the same contradictions: it also vacillates between sensation and abstraction without deciding where to belong. It does not come to any synthetic conclusion between pleasure and philosophy, but they do seem to be reconciled practically. Pater is using philosophy pragmatically to build up his aesthetic attitude, as he expresses it: “Philosophical theories or ideas, as point of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. ‘Philosophy is the microscope of thought.’”(The Renaissance, 153). Philosophy is a tool that serves the development of the aesthetic sentiment, but it also contributes to the elaboration of a representation of the body which is everywhere present in The Renaissance. In a way, the body is the foremost rebellion against speculative idealism and repressive religion. The focus on the body is a revolutionary practice in the Renaissance, and it signifies freedom for the worshippers of the body, as Pater expresses it:
“One of the strongest characteristics of that outbreak of the reason and the imagination, of the assertion of the liberty of the heart [.…] was its antinomism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the time. In their search after the pleasures of the senses and the imagination, in their care for beauty, in their worship of the body, people were impelled beyond the bounds of the Christian ideal; and their love became sometimes a strange idolatry, a strange rival religion” (The Renaissance, 16).
The representation of the Renaissance body is a reaction against metaphysical systems. This suggested that pleasure is a way to collapse the rigid Christian idealism of Middle Ages. For Pater, the focus on the body is a return to a more natural representation which can refute romantic absolutism.
Pleasure of the text
To comprehend Walter Pater more fully, we must analyse just how the text ‘pleasures’ its reader, and how the text essentially seeks to reproduce the pleasure from Pater’s own contemplation of art. In this matter, I use some of Iser’s thoughts in his essay, The reading process: a phenomenological approach, where he stresses the importance of gaining pleasure from a text while reading it. Here, Iser tries to understand the dynamism of a text and the mechanism behind a literary work when it captures its reader. Iser says in this essay: “Indeed, it is only through inevitable omissions that a story will gain its dynamism. Thus whenever the flow is interrupted and we are led off in unexpected directions, the opportunity is given to us to bring into play our own faculty for established connections, for filling in the gaps by the text itself” (Lodge, 216).
Though, Iser is clearly speaking of the “story” in this quote, it can still be helpful for us in our understanding of Pater’s literary technique and how he seduces us with it. But before going any further it is important to mention that there are at least two perspectives on pleasure in connection to Pater’s text: on the one hand we have Pater’s own pleasure from contemplating art, and on the other hand we have our own pleasure from reading Pater’s text. This is again a distinction between the text in itself and us as readers; however, in Pater’s case it is important to notice that we as readers are fundamentally in the same situation as Pater himself: we cannot understand Pater’s pleasure without understanding our own pleasure.
From Iser we understand that the pleasure is very much connected to the unwritten part of the text, and it is through omissions and gaps that pleasure from reading arises. It is only when we are not told everything that we suddenly become attentive. This can be related to the concept of the body, as Barthes suggested in The Pleasure of the Text, where he argues that it is the body in the text which gives the reader pleasure, and it is also through our own body we as readers “understand” the text. While thinking about literature, Barthes says: ”Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no “erogenous zones” (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve);it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.” (Barthes, 9-10).
Of course, Barthes proceeds to compare our desire to know the end of the story with the hope to see the sexual organ. Perhaps, this is not directly the case in The Renaissance, but there is always an implicit desire to see the body, and perhaps therefore indirectly a desire to see the sexual organ. Desire is the main dynamism in The Renaissance and it is very closely connected to the concept of pleasure.
I will now turn to an example from Pater’s text where he describes his own impression from seeing the body, but as we will notice it is more refined than just looking directly at the body; this may be because of the time in which it is written (the Victorian age), but it is also a veiled attempt to seduce the reader, as I will argue in the following. The passage is taken from Pater’s Botticelli essay where he describes the painting of Venus rising from the sea:
“What is strangest is that he carries this sentiment into classical subjects, its most complete expression being a picture in the Uffizii, of Venus rising from the sea, in which the grotesque emblems of the middle age, and the landscape full of its peculiar feeling, and even its strange draperies, powdered all over in the Gothic manner with a quaint conceit of daisies, frame a figure that reminds you of the faultless nude studies of Ingres. At first, perhaps, you are attracted only by a quaintness of design, which seems to recall all at once whatever you have read of Florence in the fifteenth century; afterwards you may think that this quaintness must be incongruous with the subject, and that the colour is cadaverous or at least cold. And yet, the more you come to understand what imaginative colouring really is, that all colour is no mere delightful quality of natural things, but a spirit upon them by which they become expressive to the spirit, the better you will like this peculiar quality of colour. […] The light is indeed cold – mere sunless dawn; but a later painter would have cloyed you with sunshine; and you can see the better for that quietness in the morning air each long promontory, as it slopes down to the water’s edge. Men go forth to their labours until the evening; but she is awake before them, and you might think that the sorrow in her face was at the thought of the whole long day of love yet to come. An emblematical figure of the wind blow hard across the grey water, moving forward the daintylipped shell on which she sails, the sea ‘showing his teeth’ as it 36 moves, in thin lines of foam, and sucking in, one by one, the falling roses, each severe in outline, plucked off short at the stalk, but embrowned a little, as Botticelli’s flowers always are ”(The Renaissance, 37-39).
Whether or not Pater expects his readers to know the painting, it is still strange that Pater never mentions the nakedness of Venus. He only says that it reminds him of the nude studies of Ingres, but he never describes how she looks; how her body is represented; the closest he gets is by mentioning the expression of her face. It seems like Pater deliberately overlooks the nakedness of Venus, and this gap in his description is even stranger, when he loses himself in description of the colour and the surroundings. At first, he pays close attention to draperies, their design, and how it alludes to the time in which the picture is painted; then he proceeds to mention the sunshine, the sea, and finally the flowers. Meanwhile, he mentions nothing about the body of Venus, which is unavoidably there in the middle of the picture.
Yet the more the body disappears the more it appears in the imagination of the reader, and the more powerful the image of body becomes. This method of looking a little bit away to what has affinity to the body, makes the reader more eager and curious. One gets the impression that it is too dangerous to contemplate the naked body directly, and it has therefore to be described by what is in its immediate vicinity. One of the peculiarities in Pater’s descriptions is that it almost succeeds for him to animate the picture because we are led to imagine Venus’ innermost feelings. All the time Pater is projecting his own impression into this painting, and he constantly focuses on the physical appearance, but he continually omits the most important feature: the body.
Obviously, this is in keeping with Iser’s description of the dynamism of a text, where the reader is intrigued by omission, the gap, and the hole. The allusion to an erotic meaning of the gap, as suggested by Barthes, is not surprising when we read this passage, and we could say in continuation of his thoughts that what exactly goes on in this description of the painting is “appearance-as-disappearance.” The erotic mood is of course unmistakably underlined by the ending description of the foam, and the water sucking in the roses.
In my analysis of the eroticism of The Renaissance, it is important to interpret how Pater describes the relation between human beings in a work of art. Pater appears to understand the meeting of people (especially male to male encounters) as erotic. For instance, when he describes Michelangelo’s Creation of Man from the Sistine Chapel, we get a clear impression of how Pater perceives the meeting of Adam and his creator as an erotic encounter:
“Fair as the young men of the Elgin marbles, the Adam of the Sistine Chapel is unlike them in a total absence of that balance and completeness which express so well the sentiment of a self-contained, independent life. In that languid figure there is something rude and satyr-like, something akin to the rugged hillside on which it lies. His whole form is gathered into an expression of mere expectancy and reception; he has hardly strength 38 enough to lift his finger to touch the finger of his creator; yet a touch of the finger-tips will suffice” (The Renaissance, 48).
Again, Pater moves the perspective a little bit away from the body itself to something more peripheral to the figure, (which the painting also wants you to do). Instead of describing the body, he focuses on the two fingers and let them represent the whole body. The fingers as phallic symbols are obvious, and they can be seen as an indirect substitute for the sexual organ, but this alone does not explain how Pater succeeds in establishing this encounter as significantly erotic. Before going any further it is worth noticing the bizarre allusions to the pagan satyrs. They are especially strange when we consider that this picture is situated in the most important church of Christendom.
However, ancient Greek culture had a special significance for many scholars at Oxford at the time, and particularly for the homosexuals (See Linda Dowling; Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford). Ancient Greece was regarded as a place where the erotic relationship between men was unproblematic, normal, and legalised. This is also underlined in the essay on Winkelmann where Pater suggests that one can grasp the Greek spirit only if one also has the ability to contemplate the beauty of men. The description of the painting in the Sistine Chapel has to be seen within this context. But the satyr also alludes to hedonistic aspect of Pater’s aesthetic perspective. Satyrs were known from Greek mythology as goat-like creatures who lived the forest in sexual promiscuity and by Pater’s use of them in his description, he succeeds in projecting a kind of sexual pleasure into Adam. The body of Adam is, of course, not mentioned with its proper name but referred to as “the whole form.” In spite of this Pater succeeds in animating Adam as a figure full of reception and expectancy, which explicitly alludes to the sexual desire. Pater translates the physical appearance into something emotional, and it is especially when the body is understood emotionally that it becomes erotic. Not before the body of the painting is animated can it represent the divine desire that Pater seeks to find in the image. But the erotic element is only fully comprehended when we interpret the main motive in Pater’s description: the touch of the two finger-tips.
What makes this an erotic encounter is obviously the “touch” where the two bodies suddenly become close to each other, and it is through this closeness which aspires to contact that the erotic arises. This can be understood as a transgression both on the level of the physical but also on the level of the sacred. On the physical level, it is the almost impossible touch of two bodies that succeeds as an erotic fulfilment whereby the bodily solitude has been overstepped. This is also the case on the sacred level; it has succeeded for Adam to become in touch with the divine, and in that sense he has exceeded the step between profane and sacred. We as readers are seduced by this image not so much because of the vivid description of the body, which in fact is absent, but because of the representation of the divine desire. In fact, we could say that the reader is seduced by the desire for desire. As in the painting of Venus, Pater in this passage wants to describe how desire is represented in art, and afterward he wants us to desire that desire. Pater is perhaps after all not so much interested in the body in itself, but in the desire for the body, and that is the dynamism of his text.
Until now we have mainly dealt with how Pater understands the body in painting, but Pater is of course closer to an aesthetic theory based on the representation of the body when he describes the Greek sculpture. It is here he finally finds the ideal expression of beauty and the complete representation of the idea in sensual form, and this is what he takes pleasure in. Pater desires to emphasise the sensuous over the idea, and he wants to describe how the sensuous is always connected to pleasure that arises from the sensual. Pleasure never comes from the idea alone, and it always has a physical origin. Sculpture has an immense importance here because it has the most concrete representation of the body; however sexuality is always ambiguously represented in Pater’s text, and I will seek to analyse this in the following passage, which is from the essay on Winkelmann:
“The hair, so rich a source of expression in painting, because, relatively to the eye and the lip, it is mere drapery, is withdrawn from attention; its texture, as well as its colour, is lost, its arrangement but faintly and severely indicated, with no broken or enmeshed light. The eyes are wide and directionless, not fixing anything with their gaze, not riveting the brain to any special external object, the brows without hair. Again, Greek sculpture 41 deals almost exclusively with youth, where the moulding of the bodily organs is still as if suspended between growth and completion, indicated but not emphasised; where the transition from curve to curve is so delicate and elusive, that Winkelmann compares it to the quiet sea, which, although we understand it to be in motion, we nevertheless regard as an image of repose; where, therefore, the exact degree of development is so hard to apprehend. If a single product only of Hellenic art were to be saved in the wreck of all beside, one might choose perhaps from the ‘beautiful multitude’ of the Panathenaic frieze, that line of youths on horseback, with level glances, their proud, patient lips, their chasted reins, their whole bodies in exquisite service. This colourless, unclassified purity of life, with its blending and interpenetration of intellectual, spiritual, and physical elements, still folded together, pregnant with the possibilities of the whole world closed within it, is the highest expression of the indifference which lies beyond all that is relative or partial. Everywhere there is the effect of awaking, of child’s sleep just disturbed. All these effects are united in a single instance – the adorante of the museums of Berlin, a youth who has gained the wrestler’s prize, with hands lifted and open, in praise for the victory. Fresh, unperplexed, it is the image of man as he springs first from the sleep of nature, his white light taking no colour from anyone one-sided experience. He is characterless, so far as character involves subjection to accidental influences of life” (The Renaissance, 140).
Pater is in a sense “closer” to the body in this passage than in the earlier descriptions we have dealt with, but at the same time he tries to desexualise the body of the statues in this passage. He expresses later in the Winkelmann essay that “the beauty of the Greek statues was a sexless beauty,”(The Renaissance, 142) but in the same time there can be no doubt that this passage is a perfect description of what the Greeks defined as perfect beauty, and this beauty was always partly connected to sexual pleasure. Through all this, it is remarkable that the essay on Winkelmann does not elsewhere try to minimise the sexual allusions. It says explicitly about Winkelmann that he had: ”fervent friendships with young men.”(The Renaissance, 123) So the entire essay vacillates between stating and denying sexuality, and this seems also be what is the essence of the just quoted passage. The sexual descriptions are obvious: “youths on a horseback”, “patient lips”, “their whole bodies in exquisite service”, and “[…] with its interpenetration of intellectual, spiritual, and physical elements, still folded together, pregnant with possibilities […].” The language is loaded with allusions to sexuality, but at the same time the passage tries to seduce us to believe there is only purity and innocence behind it all. The reason for this may be the Victorian age, but it could also be that the half-hidden sexuality is the most seducing.
Direct desire may be unpleasant for the reader, Pater always sticks to the allusions to sexuality; he never mentions it directly, and the effect is therefore much more powerful. One could say that Pater seeks the desire of the body, but at the same time he consciously tries to undermine the purely sexual and sublimate it to something higher. On a larger scale there seems to be a gap between what Pater says explicitly and what he says implicitly, and the reasons for the contradiction could be what Barthes formulates in the following way: “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas – for my body does not have the same ideas I do” (Barthes, 17).
There are always two ideas competing simultaneously in Pater’s text: On the one hand, we have the ideas of the body, and on the other hand, we have the concepts of the spirit, and this seems also to be reiterated in the tension between the philosophic and the anti-philosophic tendency that is everywhere present in The Renaissance. Moreover, Pater’s text is never singular, and it has the ability to state contradicting philosophic views. The mechanism of the text is built on the tension between the body and the idea, and how this is resolved in sudden aesthetic moments, and that this is the desire and dynamism of the text. If we are to conclude how the reader responds to this text and how The Renaissance itself is a responding text, it is important to notice how desire always is prevalent in the descriptions of art.
In his book The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes asks the question: “Does the text have a human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body?” and answers it in the following way: ”Yes, but of our erotic body” ( Barthes, 17). To understand how The Renaissance represents an erotic mood in its interpretation of art, it is important to emphasise that this discourse is itself erotic. The erotic body is not something outside language, but everywhere present inside language. One could say that the erotic body is not only the object of discourse, but also the subject of discourse.
The most obvious examples of the erotic discourse are found in the metaphors of the text. One cannot miss the fact that the touch of the hand seems to be a metaphor for how deeply you are touched by and absorbed in human ideas, as for example when Pater describes Abelard as one: “bent on trying all things by their congruity with human experience, who had felt the hand of Heloise, and looked into her eyes, and tested the resources of humanity in her great and energetic nature.”(The Renaissance, 5). The hand is one of the main ways by which Pater understands the physical aspect of art, and the hand is a metaphor for how the critic experiences art.
In the Winkelmann essay, the hand is one of the central metaphors for how Winkelmann contemplates Greek sculpture, as Pater formulates it: “From intoxication Winkelmann is free: he fingers those pagan marbles with unsigned hands, with no sense of shame or loss.”(The Renaissance, 143). The erotic hand-metaphor is built on the metonymic closeness that hand has to the body. The body is always the last sign in the signifying chain, and the main erotic metaphors are constructed through their metonymic proximity to this last signifier, which is the body. We will see this displayed even more if we analyse the Mona Lisa description:
“The presence that rose strangely thus beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come’, and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experiences of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the 46 vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea”(The Renaissance, 79-80).
Let me first notice that Mona Lisa is described as an object desired by men. But when described as a desired object, it is important to understand how she figuratively is represented in this passage. If we read the passage closely we will discover how almost every description has the body as its last referent. However, as in the image itself, it is always a part of the body which is represented, but this part is always standing as a synecdoche for the whole body. The entire body is never directly present – mostly because the image does not represent the full figure – but Pater imagines and projects his own ideas into the picture, and she becomes a whole person and manifest with the total body. In Pater‘s description of Mona Lisa, he makes obvious that she sits (whereas we cannot be sure in the picture whether she sits or stands,) and her timelessness is based on the omnipresence of her body in time, because she has been everywhere in the world through history. And the sins, lusts, and desires cannot be understood without taking the whole body into consideration. The last sentence of this quote says explicitly that she is an ‘embodiment of the old fancy’, and this must be understood literally. But the sensual element of this picture is not alone built on the imagery in this description. There is also in the language itself something excessive: everything is accumulated into sentences which almost explode in eloquence, and they are almost bursting with insertions. The aesthetic moment, can only be understood fully if we think of a ‘linguistic orgasm’, and this is of course also underlined when one of the most used verbs in The Renaissance is ‘to penetrate.’
Pater also several times describes the erotic power of art in terms of fire, as for instance as it is articulated in the most remembered quote from his book: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”(The Renaissance, 152). This seems to be a clear characterisation of the main desire of The Renaissance, but there is no desired object. This sentence is instead a description of how desire in itself is desired, and the word ‘ecstasy’ is crucial here, because it describes what was Pater’s main attitude toward art, namely as something sensually overwhelming. We could argue that Pater’s description of Mona Lisa basically is an erotic epiphany, but at the same time it is important to make clear that the sexual is never manifestly present, it is always an understated linguistic sensuality, which is displayed in The Renaissance.
The Renaissance as a queer-text?
Walter Pater’s sexual proclivities are much debated, and there has been much serious writing about The Renaissance as a particularly homosexual text. This is most effectively done in Linda Dowling’s book Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Her text pursues how homosexuality became a dominant discourse at Oxford at the end of nineteenth-century, mediated through Plato’s philosophy, and how The Renaissance was representative of this movement. Linda Dowling argues that we cannot understand homoerotic elements of Pater’s texts if we look only on “the complex surfaces of his prose” (Dowling, 95), we must also understand them as a way of thought.
In this essay, I have tried to understand how erotic figuration is a result of the philosophy of the body. However, Plato’s influence on The Renaissance is very ambiguous, because Plato is not normally characterised as an exponent of a philosophy of the body; on the contrary, he is often recognised as the first to establish a philosophy that was based entirely on transcendent ideas. The philosophy of Pater seems to be an attempt, in an almost unplatonic sense, to describe how the body is the centre of all understanding. Pater’s text is also never solely homoerotic, as we have seen in the passages quoted in this essay. Pater is not interested in fixed genders, but in the desire itself, how it is displayed in a piece of art, and how he can reproduce this experience for us as readers.
Pater speaks about this in the final sentences of his conclusion: “Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion – that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass and simply for those moments’ sake” (The Renaissance, 153). This is what Pater advises the reader to pursue: the love of art for art’s sake is a way to describe how art does not have a purpose outside itself; on the contrary it is to be desired for its own quality.
Obviously, the desire of desire is comparable with the statement of art for art’s sake. Only through art can the true desire be acknowledged without any particular object, because art is not to be seen as merely as an object in Pater’s eyes. We are rather dealing with a subject that has many of the same qualities of a human being; and this may be the reason for that he uses such vague words as ‘sweetness’, ‘manners’, and ‘charm’ when he characterises art.
Pater’s understanding of art is everywhere very close to how you would describe a person. Art gives the same passion, ecstasy, and love as a person from real life does, and one of the central metaphors of the text would be: art is a person with a body. The erotic encounter is not associated with an idea of a body with a particular sex, but with a body with an emotion.
A ‘reader-response’ analysis of The Renaissance should always take the concept of the desire into consideration because we cannot understand the mechanism of the text without basically understanding the pleasure that it generates. I have shown how this is displayed through the figures of the text and how it is inseparable from the discourse of The Renaissance. There is always an understated erotic sensitivity that arises from the rhetoric of the text. Walter Pater is a critic who endures philosophical illogicality and self-contradiction; who remains shameless on one level of rhetoric, but immediately upon entering the level of recognition of the real circumstances (the body) he becomes shy and understated and, in consequence, much more seductive.
(The essay has originally been published in another version I Arbejdspapirer på Litteraturhistorie, AU).
Barthes, Roland; The Pleasure of the Text (trans. Richard Miller) Hill and Wang, New York 1996
Bloom, Harold (ed.); Walter Pater Chelsea House Publishers, New York 1985
Dowling, Linda; Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford Cornell University Press 1994
Iser, Wolfgang; Walter Pater – The Aesthetic Moment Cambridge University Press 1987
Lodge, David (ed.) Modern Criticism and Theory: a reader Longman 1988
McGrath, F. C.; The Sensible Spirit – Walter Pater and the modernist paradigm University of South Florida Press 1986
Pater, Walter; The Renaissance – Studies in Art and Poetry (Adam Philips ed.) Oxford University Press 1986