Aesthetic Culture in the Literature
of the Time
In the second half of the nineteenth century both philosophy and science contributed, and, as we have seen, formed a comprehensive background to, what might be called the crisis of Realism. The solid world, made of a tangible material substance, seemed to crumble, to slip away, or simply to disintegrate. What remained, it seemed to writers and artists, were only appearances, sensations, something which you could look at for a fleeting moment, but which you could not grasp, hold, or rely on. How did the arts, or culture as a whole, reflect this state of affairs, or this intellectual trend? Philosophy, one could say, has some inherent links to the abstraction of science. How did the arts linked to real life approach a world in which there were only appearances? To answer these questions, we turn first to literature and to the literary criticism of the time.
In 1868, the year in which impressionistic painting was crystallizing, Walter Pater composed the “Conclusions” to what became his best-known work, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. In the few pages of the “Conclusions” Pater gave concise expression to an important intellectual and artistic trend of his time. “To regard all things and principles of things as inconstant modes or fashions has more and more become the tendency of modern thought.”1 Walter Pater, as we know, was the principal representative of the movement we call Aestheticism. To this movement we shall return in another part of this volume. Here I shall mention only one of its characteristics, the concern with a contemplative attitude.
“At first sight,” Pater said in the Conclusions, “experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality….” But, he continued, “when reflexion begins to play upon these objects they are dissipated under its influence: the cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic: each object is loosed into a group of impressions—color, odor, texture—in the mind of the ob