Why we should commemorate Walter Pater
By Matthew Beaumont
Is there any point in celebrating the fact that 174 years ago today the art critic Walter Pater was born?
Pater’s most celebrated and controversial book, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) is about the distant past, superficially at least, and therefore risked seeming irrelevant even in his own time. It could not however have inspired a generation of undergraduates, including Oscar Wilde, to embrace aestheticism and a cult of homoeroticism, as his critics claimed, if it had not also been a coded polemic about the present. But Pater’s thinking was also about the future. It is in this utopian dimension of Pater that I think should be celebrated in the twenty-first century. There is a good deal of point in looking back at the Walter Pater who was looking forward to the future.
Pater’s career as a published writer, from the mid-1860s to the mid-1890s, coincides almost exactly with the period in which, once the confidence in the capitalist system that had been characteristic of the third quarter of the nineteenth century had started to corrode, especially in the face of a sustained economic depression, utopian literature became an almost compulsory form of political discourse. Pater has not often been associated with this ideological climate because he is generally dismissed as apolitical. But his ‘impressionist’ criticism can nonetheless productively be reconsidered as a kind of social dreaming.
The aesthetic that Pater excavates from the past is in Studies in the History of the Renaissance intended to act as the foundation for an ethic that, in the future, might transcend the deformations of capitalist society, including the repression of homosexuality. The reception of this book, which was viciously attacked by conservative commentators, testified to the ethical implications of his criticism. But Pater’s prose also promoted a disposition that was inescapably political.Pater’s writings of the 1860s and 1870s look to the future. A utopian impulse is, for example, constituent of the piece that is generally said to inaugurate his intellectual biography: “Diaphaneitè.” This was an essay he read aloud in July 1864 to his intimates in the Old Mortality Society, a fraternity of young, mostly agnostic intellectuals studying at Oxford University. The Old Mortality, established in 1856, thrived for a decade as an alternative, albeit exclusive, forum for philosophical debate inside the university, and attracted a number of intellectual luminaries with radical reputations, including A.C. Swinburne and J.A. Symonds.
Pater’s elusive title, “Diaphaneitè,” is intended to evoke a condition of diaphanousness, that is, a transparency of spirit at once luminous and mysterious. The paper is an enigmatic, highly poetic meditation on the “type of life,” as he puts it, which “might serve as a basement type.” By “basement type” he means the archetype that might form the foundation of a different social order, one that is peaceful and filled with a sense of completeness. Pater looks to the past, particularly the Hellenic past, for the proleptic image of a utopian future that might still be realizable; “the character we have before us is a kind of prophecy of this repose and simplicity, coming as it were in the order of grace,” he writes.
“Diaphaneitè” posits nothing less than the prototype of a utopian society. “The type must be one discontented with society at it is,” Pater declares, and the mass proliferation of this man of the future, he adds, “would be the regeneration of the world.” This is no activist though. “The philosopher, the saint, the artist, neither of them can be this type.” No, Pater’s “revolutionist,” to use his ascription, is the diaphanous type. In its perfect simplicity, this archetype represents a critique of the dessicated conditions of life in industrial society, one that is paradoxically both crystalline and quicksilver. In contrast to the saint, the artist, or the philosopher, who is so often “confused, jarred, disintegrated in the world,” the diaphanous type is “like a relic from the classical age, laid open by accident to our alien modern atmosphere.”
The diaphanous type embodies the youthful Pater’s utopian dreams of a homosocial society that might reinstate the ethics and aesthetics associated with the spirit of Hellenism. It is thought to have been inspired by Charles Lancelot Shadwell, a friend and former student famed for his handsomeness, and himself a member of the Old Mortality. “Often the presence of this nature,” Pater writes in tones that tremble with erotic excitement, “is felt like a sweet aroma in early manhood.” Pater subsequently dedicated Studies to Shadwell, who had in the summer of 1865 accompanied him on the trip to Italy during which he soaked up many of the impressions that permeate the book.
Pater’s paper on the diaphanous character might be described as an attempt to articulate a utopian politics that is apolitical. It acknowledges that to prognosticate about the Coming Race is to engage a political language, but it seeks at the same time to escape the logic of this political language by etherealizing it, diaphanizing it. What Pater hopes for is a revolution without revolution (which is rather different from a process of evolution, and rather more radical). “Revolution is often impious,” he wrote; “But in this [diaphanous] nature revolutionism is softened, harmonised, subdued as by distance. It is the revolutionism of one who has slept a hundred years.”
Pater’s revolutionist is a Rip van Winkle relieved to discover, on awakening from his epochal sleep, that the social transformation that has taken place in the meantime embodies not the sudden appearance of modernity but its utopian displacement. If a cryogenically preserved Pater were to be reborn on 4 August 2013, he would I suspect be disappointed to discover that, in spite of the dramatic advances achieved by homosexuals in the meantime, the diaphanous type of which he dreamed remains confined to a “basement type,” and isn’t the archetype of an open, liberated society. All the more reason, then, to commemorate Pater the revolutionist.
Matthew Beaumont is a Senior Lecturer in the English department at University College London. He has edited Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887 for Oxford World’s Classics.
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Image credit: Photo of plaque commemorating Walter Pater, By Simon Harriyott [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.