Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Walter Pater, Circe, and the Paths of Darkness

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Walter Pater, Circe, and the Paths of Darkness

Article excerpt

Although Homer's Circe traditionally has epitomized the sensual femme fatale, when Pater in his late novel, Gaston de Latour, compares Queen Marguerite to this goddess, he is drawing upon a little-known allegorizing of Circe by Giordano Bruno. In the Platonic tradition of the stilnovisti, Bruno finds the imperfect and the fallen to be an avenue to the ideal. The key to Gaston's prolonged dalliance in decadent Parisian society is the Platonic "law" enunciated in the Phaedrus that the carnal cannot obliterate the spiritual. Circe's spell is neither permanent nor fatal; like Ulysses, Gaston possesses a counter-charm, a youthful consecration that cannot be wholly expunged and that transforms his perception of fallen beauty into an aesthetic and spiritual vision. Indebted to Oxford idealism, Paterian aesthetics avoids John Ruskin's exaggerated moralizing yet posits a relationship between the good and the beautiful that Oscar Wilde had denied.

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Walter Pater's novel, Gaston de Latour (1888-1894), belongs to that select company of literary works terminated not by the resolution of their plots but by their authors' deaths. However, since each chapter of Gaston can be read almost as an autonomous essay, the text Pater left behind is by no means a fragment bereft of meaning. Set in France in the see-sawing of the Religious Wars of the sixteenth century, Gaston was meant to be the second in a trilogy of works concerned with identity, vocation, and belief. (1) Its eponymous hero is a boy-priest whose aesthetic and religious proclivities take him from rural solitude to Charles IX's and Henry III's bustling, secular Paris. I have noted previously, in my introduction to the ELT Press edition of Gaston, that Pater's readers will never know precisely how the unwritten portion of the plot would have utilized allusions to Homer's and Dante's "classical and Christian themes of the epic journey through the dark forest of passion and vice to the 'moral ideal' of beauty and love." The projected plot of Gaston--such as any plot of Pater's always seems to be ("exotic, of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnambulistic, frail, androgynous," to adapt Paterian phraseology)--remains behind the veil; but, as I said, "Gaston apparently has a lost child; surely something would come of that. And the parallels to the Odyssey, especially the theme of Circe's enchanted captivity and the returned wanderer, suggest Pater may have had some further Homeric correspondences in mind." (2)

I want to analyze Pater's allusions to Circe, not to speculate on incidents of the unwritten plot but to elucidate the relationship of ethics to aesthetics in the novel. A popular allegorical figure in the lusty Renaissance (George Chapman's Homeric translation and commentary were echoed everywhere), Circe masqueraded in many different guises: Spenser's Acrasia and Milton's Eve are surely her echoes or doubles, no less than her son Comus. Though Circe appeared in the visual art of the Victorian era, its imaginative works tended not to cite her by name (with the evident exception of Arnold's "The Strayed Reveller"), perhaps because she too blatantly personified sensuality. But in John Keats' "Endymion" (where Circe does appear in Book III) as well as in his "Lamia" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci" to Oscar Wilde's Salome, the century dramatized Circe's body-spirit dualism. But like Robert Browning's Fra Lippo Lippi, caught by the nightwatch between the whorehouses and the monastery, Gaston overcomes the artificial cleavage of sense and soul by assimilating the castle of Circe into the art of Francis 1st's chateau. If revulsion with sexual depravity is less intense in Browning's poem than in Pater's novel, the authors both imply that the transcendent finds its meaning in and through the relations and aesthetic orderings of temporal, sensuous, fallen forms and selves (tipsy, irreverent, joyous, sexual; or anxious, sickened, grave and remorseful). …

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