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Pater's work is notable among the readings for this week in its tone of earnestness, which is a marked contrast from the flippant air of Le Gallienne, Wilde, and Beerbohm. Witness the last lines of Pater's conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance:
We are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says, we are all under a sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve. . . . Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among "the children of this world," in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. 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 quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art's 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.
This passage's tone is impassioned and instructional. The audience can be sure that its exhorter cares deeply about his subject and wishes them not only to care, but also to act as he commands them. How different this is from the very end of Wilde's "The Decay of Lying." After several rather serious paragraphs detailing "the doctrines of the new aesthetics," Wilde's Vivian concludes by commenting,
The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art. But of this I think I have spoken at sufficient length. And now let us go out on the terrace, where "droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost," while the evening star "washes the dusk with silver." At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. Come! We have talked long enough.
Vivian's dismissal of the forces of nature as good primarily for illustrating quotes demonstrates Wilde's deliberately flippant style. Wilde, unlike Pater, destabilizes his reader, making us uncertain about the reaction he expects from us.
1. Do we declare belief, or merely tilt an ironic eyebrow at Wilde's experiments? Wilde seems to leave little room for the enthusiasm suggested by Pater.
2. Why does Wilde use this mannerist pose to express his thesis of aesthetics?
3. Might the form his rhetoric takes be a working-out of his theories? What I mean by this last question is this: does Wilde, in refusing to give his readers a safe stance for belief, prepare us for the destabilizing nature of an amoral universe in which beautiful art reigns supreme? We might also discuss the contrasting ways in which Pater's tone allows us to enter in to his theoretical system.
Last modified 11 March 2001