Walling out the World: Walter Pater and the Problem of Aesthetic Historicism

Article excerpt

As his influence on thinking about a crisis of interpretation as the dominant intellectual problem of the late twentieth century has become more widely recognized, Pater has been held up as an exemplar of how to live in a state of textual, social, and historical indeterminacy. His critical procedures have been identified as aesthetic historicism and commended for showing us how to face up to our relation both to history and to the history of art. This essay argues that Pater's aesthetic historicism is not a successful resolution of the problem of historical indeterminacy, but an impulse to wall out a disturbing world and substitute the satisfying pleasures of an ideal history for the imperfections, frustrations, and conflicts of real history. That substitution, upheld by teachers and critics as purveyors of cultural values, reduces artistic expression to projection and art to packaging--a "rearranging of the details of modern life." As a pernicious consequence of this distortion, students are in effect pulled out of their own defining social contexts and asked to have their being in the elaborate projections of "autonomous subjects" who have failed to recognize and acknowledge the systems that support them.


Back in the nineteen-eighties when I was a graduate student puzzling over the reputed influence of Matthew Arnold as fin-de-siecle critic, I kept asking myself, how does one get from Matthew Arnold to Virginia Woolf? As far as I could tell, one didn't. Then, in a tutorial on Marxism and literature, Professor Victor Paananen read from the Conclusion to Walter Pater's Renaissance. I had never heard Walter Pater before. I had never heard of Walter Pater before. I said, "Who is that?--because I heard in that voice the voices of all the writers I had most loved to read, from Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster to D.H. Lawrence and American writers such as Thomas Wolfe and Eugene O'Neill. But at the time I had no term by which to identify those writers, or what they had in common. It was from Georg Lukacs, in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1962), that I got the name of Modernist for the writers to whom l had always responded, in effect, as twentieth-century Romantics.

Since the mid-nineteen-seventies and early eighties, more and more students of Late Romanticism and its Modernist transformation have become aware of Pater's pervasive influence. As Harold Bloom wrote in 1974, Pater "became the most widely diffused (though more and more hidden) literary influence of the later nineteenth upon the twentieth century." (1) In 1960, Wolfgang Iser was astute enough to observe,

   Although Pater remains deeply rooted in the nineteenth century, and
   so is usually classified as a Late Romantic, there can be no doubt
   that his work prefigured the problems that have become dominant in
   our time. And the parallels between his fin de siecle and our own
   fast-fading century make it all the more fitting that he should now
   emerge again from the shadows to which his aesthetic label has so
   long confined him. (2)

Pater has emerged from the shadows. And to the extent that the dominant problems of our time have been understood in terms of a crisis of interpretation resulting from the collapse of all cognitive frameworks or theoretical systems, a crisis that reaches beyond literary texts to human history and the empirical world itself, he has been seen as a crucial figure. He has not only been recognized for having, as Iser put it, "anticipate[d] a late-twentieth-century concern with the anatomy of interpretation," (3) but he has also been held up as an exemplar of how to live in the state of indeterminacy to which a legion of Postmodernists have concluded we are confined. More particularly, his discursive methods have been commended for showing us the mature way of facing up to our relation both to history and to the history of art.

In her book Transfigured World: Walter Pater's Aesthetic Historicism (1989), for example, Carolyn Williams commends Pater's aesthetic historicism as the consistent practice of inconsistency. …