|Readings in the History of Æsthetics: An Open-Source Reader; Ver. 0.11|
|Prev||Chapter 21. "Art is Emotion" by Walter Pater||Next|
Pater writes in the "Preface" that beauty cannot be defined abstractly but is experienced and distinguished by the individual:
To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of æsthetics.
Even so he believes that there is some "special impression" or virtue that the competent critic uncovers in beautiful objects. Is this impression a particular quality of form and content in every work of art or is it something like Clive Bell's "significant form"?
Compare Pater's observation that conscious thought shatters the cohesiveness and immediacy of impressions and diminishes the scope of our interaction with the world with David Hume's analysis of the mind's interpretation of experience. First, Pater in his "Conclusion" writes:
At first sight experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action. But 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—colour, odour, texture—in the mind of the observer. And if we continue to dwell in thought on this world, not of objects in the solidity with which language invests them, but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them, it contracts still further: the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind.
And, second, Hume explains how our perceptions, the materials of our experience, are derived from either sensation or reflection:
Ideas may be compar'd to the extension and solidity of matter, and impressions, especially reflective ones, to colours, tastes, smells and other sensible qualities. Ideas never admit of a total union, but are endow'd with a kind of impenetrability, by which they exclude each other, and are capable of forming a compound by their conjunction, not by their mixture. On the other hand, impressions and passions are susceptible of an entire union; and like colours, may be blended so perfectly together, that each of them may lose itself, and contribute only to vary that uniform impression, which arises from the whole. Some of the most curious phænomena of the human mind are deriv'd from this property of the passions.
Which of these two analyses reflect more accurately our experience of the world?
In what sense does Walter Pater's emphasis on experience itself, not "the fruit of experience," anticipate Jacques Derrida's notion of deconstructive reading where the categories of understanding distort the "textual event."
Pater has been criticized for conceiving life as a kind of nonmoral narcissistic hedonism. (As a result of the criticism, Pater pulled the "Conclusion" from the second edition of The Renaissance with these words, "This brief "Conclusion" was omitted in the second edition of this book, as I conceived it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall.")
Do Pater's notions of "getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time" and "art for art's sake" entail a kind of æsthetic solipicism? Compare Pater's exposition of the æsthete to that of Søren Kierkegaard:
If we conceive of love æsthetically, we must acknowledge the principle that the poet's ideal of love may be higher than anything that reality presents. The poet may possess an ideality in this connection such that what the actual life yields in comparison is but a feeble reflection. Reality is for the poet merely an occasion, a point of departure, from which he goes in search of the ideality of the possible. The pathos of the poet is therefore essentially imaginative pathos. An attempt ethically to establish a poetic relationship to reality is therefore a misunderstanding, a backward step.
In Either/Or, Kierkegaard reveals the æsthetic stage of life, in part, as a kind of self-deception where the individual purposefully replaces authentic experience with fantasy.
David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L.A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Clarendon. 1975. 366.
Søren Kierkegaard. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Translated by David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1941. 347.