he conclusion of Marius is the furthest reach of Pater's dialectical impulse, and thus the furthest and most satisfactory merger of religion and culture in his career. This merger remains a delicately poised dual vision: on the one hand, Marius at the point of death retains his essentially "aesthetic" point of view, his "unclouded receptivity of soul"; on the other, this receptivity is now also an openness to the transcendent, the ample vision, the great hope or possibility of further revelation in life. The writings of the final decade [285/286] do not retreat from this balance of skepticism and detachment on the one side, and religious feeling and the possibility of a submetaphysical "beatifying" vision on the other. Vision balances vision: one, the utmost "capacity" for the variety and flux of the world (the vision of life in the Renaissance), the other the near-apprehension of a possible absolute reality, This balance becomes the central argument of Pater's last major work, Plato and Platonism. The writings of Pater's final, rather inconclusive, decade attempt to define the psychological and spiritual climate of a "third condition" of humanity, the reconstructed human nature that is the ultimate goal of Pater's dialectical adjustments and reconciliations. But a deep and persistent dualism remains at the heart of Pater's vision of man; he was no more able than was Arnold to overcome a realistic perception of continuing divisions in the human psyche. The balance of Christian and pagan, body and soul, concrete and ideal, commitment and detachment — the whole range of Pater's opposites — is constantly reshifted as he looks for a formula adequate to his aspiration.
The place of Christianity in these final attempts at cultural synthesis remains ambiguous. As Marius and some of the later essays suggest, Pater favors a "mixed" culture. It will be Catholic in form (in art, ritual, emotional tone), corresponding to that mode of ideal vision which apprehends "the world as it should be, as we should be glad to find it." But the content of that culture would be a mixture of skepticism, pagan sensuousness, and aesthetic susceptibility, the vision of the world as a flux of vivid, incommunicable impressions that produce a specially privileged consciousness as the crown of life. This latter mode of vision would appeal to emergent evolutionary "science" for confirmation of a view of life as unending change, a Hegelian "secular process" without a transcendental sanction. By 1886 Pater's Christianity is, intellectually, so far orthodox that he can criticize Amiel for his inability "to see that the old-fashioned Christianity is itself but the proper historic development of the true 'essence' of the New Testament"; at fault is Amiel's "constitutional shrinking, through a kind of metaphysical prejudice, from the concrete — that fear of the actual — in this case, of the Church of history." It is not surprising that Pater adapts to his needs John Henry Newman's "sceptical" argument (discussed [286/287] in Chapter 23, below) in favor of assent, "on probable evidence," as leading to "the large hopes of the Catholic Church" (EG, pp. 33-34).
The psychological conditions for Pater's "religious phase possible for the modern mind" become dearer in the important and evidently autobiographical review of Robert Elsmere in 1888. "Doubt" becomes the double-edged polemical weapon of a sort of devout agnosticism, to be used alternately against a blameably undoubting belief, and against a blameably certain unbelief. For "philosophy" and "science" now enforce doubt as the necessary condition of perception in the modern world; but "doubt," in Pater's double vision, also has the positive function of opening itself to the "possibility" of transcendence. Robert Elsmere, he argues, was right to leave the clergy, but he was wrong to perceive his doubts so late and to act so precipitately in such a complex question. "Had he possessed a perfectly philosophic or scientific temper, he would have hesitated . . . . [For,] one by one, Elsmere's objections may be met by considerations of the same genus, and not less weight, relatively to a world so obscure, in its origin and issues, as that in which we live" (EG, p. 67). Elsmere belongs to "a large class of minds which cannot be sure that the sacred story is true," and it may even have been his duty to act on his doubts.
But then there is also a large class of minds which cannot be sure it is false — minds of very different degrees of conscientiousness and intellectual power, up to the highest. They will think those who are quite sure it is false unphilosophical through lack of doubt. For their part, they make allowance in their scheme of life for a great possibility, and with some of them that bare concession of possibility (the subject of it being what it is) becomes the most important fact in the world. [EG, p. 68]
It seems clear that Pater felt he belonged to that class of minds which "cannot be sure it is false." This, along with a special preference for liturgy at once aesthetic and religious, may be said to be the essence of his religious position in his last years, as far as it can be understood.
The peculiar flavor of this position, aesthetic and "Catholic," is evident in, for example, "Art Notes in North Italy" (1890), where the "remarkable beauty" in the face of a saint painted by Romanino leads [287/288] to this observation: "Beauty and Holiness had 'kissed each other.' . . . At the Renaissance the world might seem to have parted them again. But here certainly, once more, Catholicism and the Renaissance, religion and culture, holiness and beauty, might seem reconciled . . . . [This] reminds one how the great Apostle Saint Paul has made courtesy part of the content of the Divine charity itself" (MS, pp, 107-108). A more problematical example of this wedding of religion and culture is that of Raphael, the "seductively mixed manner" and "delightfully blent effects" of whose early work are Pater's chief interest. Raphael's painting of Apollo and Marsyas might stand as a parable of "the contention between classic art and the romantic"; and Apollo "has a touch . . . of Heine's fancied Apollo 'in exile,' who, Christianity now triumphing, has served as a hired shepherd, or hidden himself under the cowl in a cloister" (MS, pp. 47-48). Pater, perhaps referring to the Pre-Raphaelites of his own century, discusses this "peculiar, tremulous, half-convinced, monkish treatment of that after all damnable pagan world" as it affects his contemporaries: "And our own generation certainly, with kindred tastes, loving or wishing to love pagan art as sincerely as did the people of the Renaissance, and medieval art as well, would accept, of course, of work conceived in that so seductively mixed manner, ten per cent of even Raphael's later, purely classical presentments" (MS, p. 48). (I take "accept . . . ten per cent" to mean "accept as little as ten per cent.") And now for the first time medieval Catholicism — and not merely its aesthetic aspect but its "whole creed" — is seen as an essential component of the Renaissance imagination; whereas earlier, the Renaissance was a reinstatement of "pagan" ideals tout court, or the Middle Ages were seen, in the Morris review of 1868 and elsewhere, as at most providing an overwrought "mystical" climate in which a rather sinister and antinomian "liberty" of the heart and senses could flourish. In his greatest, "partly symbolic," paintings,
Raphael asserts, interprets the power and charm of the Catholic ideal as realised in history. A scholar, a student of the visible world, of the natural man, yet even more ardently of the books, the art, the life of the old pagan world, the age of the Renaissance, through all its varied activity, had, in spite of the weakened hold of Catholicism on the critical intellect, been still under its influence, the glow of it, as a religious ideal, and in the presence [288/289] of Raphael you cannot think it a mere after-glow. Independently, that is, of less or more evidence for it, the whole creed of the Middle Age, as a scheme of the world as it should be, as we should be glad to find it, was still welcome to the heart, the imagination. [MS, p. 58]
Orthodox Christianity itself is now conceived as compatible with "humanistic developments." In 1894 Pater remarks that the Gothic churches of the thirteenth century "concurred . . . with certain novel humanistic movements of religion itself at that period," especially in Marian devotion; or, put differently, Gothic architecture "had a large share in that inventive and motivating genius, that expansion of the natural human soul, of which the art, the literature, the religious movements of the thirteenth century in France, as in Italy, where it ends with Dante, bear witness" (MS, pp. 110, 128). In what is probably Pater's most favorable comment on the Catholic Church of history, comparable to the opening of Arnold's "Pagan and Mediaeval Religious Sentiment," he states that, "in contrast with the classic manner, and the Romanesque survivals from it, the vast complexity of the Gothic style seemed, as if consciously, to correspond to the richness, the expressiveness, the thousandfold influence of the Catholic religion, in the thirteenth century still in natural movement in every direction" (MS, p. 114). The clear implication of all these references, however, is that orthodox "Catholic" Christianity is by no means in these latter days "in natural movement," that its hold on the critical intellect has indeed even further declined. The reader is left somewhat baffled, as indeed Pater himself may have been, as to the place of this historic Christianity in the even more emphatically skeptical culture of the nineteenth-century aesthete. The "hold" of orthodoxy upon the intellect has been reduced to a "bare concession of possibility"; if Pater's generation wishes to embrace the medieval as openly as the pagan in a "seductively mixed" cultural conflation, will not Christianity be the merest "after-glow" and its power and claim purely picturesque? The terms of the contract for the marriage of religion and culture, holiness and beauty, remain moot.
Part of the difficulty here is that the role of the "pagan" element in life remains almost equally enigmatic. For example, Heine's theme [289/290] of the gods in exile, of Apollo redivivus in the Middle Ages — referred to in the Raphael essay, but first mentioned in the Renaissance studies — becomes the central motif in a number of Pater's fictional works of the final decade. Many years ago, John Smith Harrison helpfully explored Pater's use of the idea of the gods in exile, but beyond a vagrant suggestion that Pater's intentions involved the reconciliation of Christianity and Paganism,1 he did not link the theme with his lifelong exploration of cultural antagonism and synthesis. More recently R. T. Lenaghan has identified as the central pattern of Pater's fiction, the opposition of the two gods, Dionysus and Apollo. In Apollo, he finds "the concentration of mortal achievement, an ideal of human development"; in Dionysus, "the power of a massive vitality external to man" and "the promise of the continuity of life in nature." ("Pattern in Walter Pater's Fiction,", p. 70.) The difference is not that between intellect and passion, since Apollonian religion embodies both intellect and passion, but is a matter of scope: "the Greeks under Apollonian guidance had concentrated value on man and had achieved a marvelous ethical depth and purity, but their achievement was circumscribed within relatively narrow human limits and it neglected the wider spiritual sense of the more than human vitality which Dionysus proclaims." (Ibid, p. 73.)
For Lenaghan Pater's various "Portraits" then become so many examples of the different balance of these two elements — ranging from conflict, through the varying predominance of one or the other, to different kinds of reconciliation. But Lenaghan's exemplary study is disappointing in suggesting that "Pater's purpose seems to have been to reset the old myths in a Christian era, not just to show how the world has changed, but to show also, in the continued vitality of the old myths, how it has not changed." (Ibid, p. 75.) For vitality and continuity, while unquestionably conferring validity, are not sufficient to suggest the precise [290/291] weight these pagan themes are to have in Pater's cultural synthesis. Moreover, the content of these pagan views, lightly touched on by Lenaghan, has undergone a decisive change. First of all, the Apollonian-Dionysan distinction is substantially the same as the contrast, made in the Greek Studies of the late seventies, between the Ionian and the Doric aspects of Greek religion and Greek culture. But in those earlier essays Pater's intention was clearly to praise the richness and adequacy of the Greek religious ideal at the expense of Christian pretensions to spiritual uniqueness; whereas in the portraits of the years after Marius, only one — "Apollo in Picardy," and that arguably — can be said to represent Christianity unfavorably. For now the desired combination of these two religious ideals, discernible in Greek religion, is simply seen as observable in medieval Christianity too. There is no question of setting off Christian against pagan in the spirit of Pater's earlier cultural polemics. The prevailing religious norm of Pater's writings after Marius is that of historic Christianity. Pater's Ionian-Doric, or Apollonian-Dionysan, distinction now designates perennial aspects of human consciousness, and if only a special version of Christianity will fully meet his test, it will be a version of Christianity nevertheless. The older, cruder antagonism between Christianity and paganism — suggestive of the vehemence of Pater's rejection of traditional Christianity in his early adult life — is no longer adequate to the complexity of his new view of the religious problem. Lenaghan illuminatingly refers to the Christianity of Cornelius and Cecilia as "a humane Apollonian ideal." Marius' own "natural Christianity" is evidently even richer, giving "full recognition both to Apollo and to Dionysus," by offering to the intellect "an ideal of humanity perfected in love" and by suggesting that this love is "the bond between the individual and the powers beyond mortality" which man senses in the vitality of nature. (Ibid, p. 85-86.)
But the content of Pater's "pagan" religious synthesis, somehow compatible with historic Christianity, is not yet fully clarified by these distinctions and continuities. Certainly it is only in the two longest portraits, Marius and Gaston de Latour (1886), that there is a sufficiently [291/292] developed adjustment of these disparate forces to suggest exactly the view of man which Pater projected in his last years. Gaston is significant for its further exploration of a "third condition" of humanity and, in its unfinished state, for its inconclusiveness. The first five chapters, published from June to October 1889 in Macmillan's, have a certain coherency in themselves, and recapitulate much of the dialectical progression of Marius, though with some altered emphases. Gaston, as an observer of the religious wars in France in the late sixteenth century, is like Marius in living in a society in fundamental transition. In his youth he possessed an "imaginative heat, that might one day enter into dangerous rivalry with simple old-fashioned faith"; but for now the two are "hardly distinguishable elements of an amiable character, . . . two neighbourly apprehensions of a single ideal" (pp. 22-23), an ideal not otherwise explained. This susceptibility to beauty is predictably challenged by a growing recognition of sorrow in the world. As Gaston develops into manhood his naturally religious nature is questioned, "as by a rival new religion claiming to supersede the religion he knew, to identify himself conclusively with this so tangible world" — in other words, the Epicureanism of Marius or the aesthetic Hellenism of the heroes of the Renaissance, The dilemma is familiar: "Two worlds, two antagonistic ideals, were in evidence before him. Could a third condition supervene, to mend their discord, or only to vex him perhaps, from time to time, with efforts towards an impossible adjustment?" (pp. 38-39)
In the poetry of the P1éiade, Gaston finds the mode for his "new imaginative culture" (p. 60). The contemporary relevance of his ideal — variously described as "a discovery, a new faculty, a privileged apprehension," "a manner, a habit of thought" — is evident in Pater's reference to "the power of 'modernity,' as renewed in every successive age for genial youth, protesting, defiant of all sanctions in these matters" (p. 37). The moral ambiguities of the new religion are dwelt on at length. The devotee will wait "devoutly, rapturously, . . . for the manifestation . . . of flawless humanity, in some undreamed — of depth and perfection of the loveliness of bodily form" (p. 71). This may well be the most openly erotic statement of the "worship of [292/293] physical beauty" in Pater's writings. At any rate, Gaston is fully aware of the incompatibility of these "two rival claimants": "Might that new religion be a religion not altogether of goodness, a profane religion . . . ?" (p. 71) The tone of the eighties, which had suffused Marius, reappears as Gaston hopes either to be rid of the traces of his youthful religious idealism or to have it "speak with irresistible decision and effect." Gaston seeks for "some penetrative mind" or a theory "which might harmonise for him his earlier and later preference, . . . or, failing that, establish, to his pacification, the exclusive supremacy of the latter" (p. 72). Pater is explicit that Gaston's position exactly parallels the dilemma of radical spirits in an earlier generation of the Renaissance: mankind haunted by an older moral and religious ideal in actual possession of the world, at the very moment it was "called, through a full knowledge of the past, to enjoy the present with an unrestricted expansion of its own capacities" (pp. 82-83), If one were to "enjoy," to "eat of all the trees," there was needed "some new reading of human nature itself," as a sanction for the always rather suspicious Paterian "liberty of heart" (p. 83).
That justification is attributed, ex post facto, to Montaigne. For he is made the propagator of "that emancipating ethic" through his demonstration that "the essential dialogue was that of the mind with itself — the famous phrase from the Preface to the Poems of 1853 which Arnold had in disapproval applied to the "modern" consciousness. Montaigne's essays are about the "variableness, the complexity, the miraculous surprises of man, concurrent with the variety, the complexity, the surprises of nature, making all true knowledge of either wholly relative and provisional," and "a likely insecurity in one's self " (p. 89). Since these diversities are ultimate, truth is not to be sought "in large theoretic apprehension of the general, but in minute vision of the particular" (p. 93). Thus his own experience was the "ultimate ground of judgment," providing "what undulancy, complexity, surprises!" (pp. 106, 107) This ultimate epistemological defense of subjectivity, which Pater here and in Plato and Platonism attributes to Socrates and Plato, may have a more immediate source in Arnold despite Arnold's disapproval of the dialogue of the mind with [293/294] itself. In effect the ideal that Arnold demanded of the adequate critic in the Homer lectures of 1861, Pater characteristically applies, as he had done in the Coleridge essay of 1866, to a new mode of life:
The 'thing itself' [Arnold said] with which one is here dealing — the critical perception of poetic truth, — is of all things the most volatile, elusive, and evanescent; by even pressing too impetuously after it, one runs the risk of losing it. The critic of poetry should have the finest tact, the nicest moderation, the most free, flexible, and elastic spirit imaginable; he should be indeed the 'ondoyant et divers,' the undulating and diverse being of Montaigne. [CPW, I, 174]
Indeed, Arnold's appeal for "the nicest moderation" may be behind Gaston's reflection that in a world of insane heroism like that of sixteenth-century France, "as regards all that belongs to the spirit, the one thing needful was moderation" (p. 109). But whatever Arnold's possible role in these passages, Pater at the end draws back from his rather innocent if tendentious reading of Montaigne and finds in this "two-sided thinker" a religious recognition "of a certain great possibility, which might be among the conditions of so complex a world." For the "secret and subtle" center of Montaigne's thought was "the opinion that things as we find them would bear a certain old-fashioned construction" — even if it was not "this side of that double philosophy which recommended itself just now to Gaston" (p. 113).
This is, dialectically, the ambiguous state in which Pater leaves his hero. His account simply reproduces the doubleness of the aesthetic "openness" of Marius' deathbed consciousness, which is somehow susceptible also to religious hope or possibility — though the balance is now shifted somewhat toward the skeptical and aesthetic side. But Pater was to use Gaston once again as the vehicle for the exploration of a far more radical "third condition" of man, in the "pantheism" of Giordano Bruno. Entirely out of the sequence with the other essays of the series, this piece appeared a year later in another periodical (Fortnightly, August 1889). Pater's ambiguity is revealed in the title, "The Lower Pantheism." In his later years in Paris, Gaston, apparently content [294/295] in his Montaignean double consciousness, remains alert to theories of "divine assistance" and "inspiration." In a pantheism that tends to cancel differences between matter and spirit, spirit and flesh, good and evil, Gaston saw at once the possibility of "a freer way of taking, a possible modification of, certain moral precepts" (pp. 141-142). And yet, though this was no doubt a "primitive morality," Pater hastens to point out that there is no evidence that Bruno was prepared "to sacrifice to the antinomianism, which is certainly part of its rigid logic, the austerities, the purity of his own youth" (p. 145). Bruno's counsel was certainly, "Touch! see! listen! eat freely of all the trees of the garden of Paradise, with the voice of the Lord God literally everywhere! — here was the final counsel of perfection . . . . How petty in comparison seemed those sins, the purging of which was man's chief motive in coming to places like this convent . . . ." (pp. 152-53) This doctrine of "indifference" is nevertheless a genuine religion and Bruno "but the instrument of some subtly materialised spiritual force" (pp. 153-54). Pater's final stance, however, is one of tolerant rejection. At first his disapproval seems moral: Bruno's "large, antique, pagan ideas" seem to deny the deepest antagonism, that between "Christ and the world, say! — Christ and the flesh!" or even that between good and evil (p. 159). For Pater recognizes that if Bruno was cautious about the practical application of his theory,
there was that in his very manner of speech, in that rank, un-weeded eloquence of his, which seemed naturally to discourage my effort at selection, any sense of fine difference, of nuances or proportion, in things. The loose sympathies of his genius were allied to nature, nursing, with equable maternity of soul, good, bad, and indifferent alike, rather than to art, distinguishing, rejecting, refining. Commission and omission! sins of the former surely had the natural preference . . . . How would . . . susceptible persons . . . read it ["this lesson"] especially if the opposition between practical good and evil traversed diametrically another distinction, the "opposed points" of which, to Gaston for instance, could never by any possibility become "indifferent," — the distinction, namely, between the precious and the base, aesthetically; between what was light and wrong in the matter of art? [p. 161] [295/296]
In short, Pater's rejection of this ultimate Renaissance statement of Greek "liberty of heart" is based, finally, on fastidious aesthetic grounds. The grosser amoralities are unartistic, because indiscriminate, and hence unacceptable.
Last modified 29 August 2007