[NetBehaviour] Walter Pater conference June 2023

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Sat Feb 11 19:53:38 CET 2023

Hi all,

Just wanted to share this link (walterpater.com) to an Oxford conference this June marking the 150th anniversary of Walter Pater's influential proto-modernist book of essays The Renaissance.  It was in this work that his renowned paragraph about the Mona Lisa found its main audience and thereby influenced Pater's many fans including Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, and Proust.

Part of the novelty of Pater's 1873 work, which is sometimes oversimplified as a manifesto of Aestheticism and "art for art's sake," was its attempt to move beyond the narrow certainties of much Victorian thought by blending a more modern scientific perspective with some of the organic, holistic, and systems-oriented ideals of Romanticism.  His look back to the Italian Renaissance was in part an attempt to discern the roots of modernity and diagnose its ills while making the field of view as wide as possible.  Much of his writing intimates a network-like orientation rooted in flux and change, though without any electronic media to illustrate networks literally his concepts have an ambiguously systemic quality which strives to blend the ideal and the concrete.  For Pater the network is that which exists like a fabric or "diaphaneity" across disciplines, societies, genres, languages, art forms, media, ideas, technology, persons, and natural phenomena as well as historical time.  This pre-computer network is one which, in our late emphasis on wires, chips, zeroes, and ones, we perhaps lost sight of but now see crashing back into view in forms like climate change and other tangible crises.

Pater's book also marked a watershed in the relationship between words and images as the dawn of the twentieth century approached, a relationship still in flux today (if not upheaval) given the birth of AI's which can write novels and create images often indistinguishable by humans from those of real people.  Pater interestingly viewed the Renaissance era not just as a rediscovery of ancient culture, exemplified by Raphael, but as a return to nature and renewal of science best illustrated by Leonardo.

The key term or thread in Pater's oeuvre may well be "experience," appearing as esperienza (meaning both experience and experiment) throughout Italian literature including Dante and Leonardo.  Pater uses the term twice in his famous reading of La Joconde, eight times in the then-controversial Conclusion of The Renaissance (twenty-two times overall), and a startling eighty-five times in his later philosophical novel Marius the Epicurean.

The first two words of his preface to The Renaissance, "many attempts," reflect the Latin etymology of the term.

All best,



Marius the Epicurean online text:

"But, without him there is a venerable system of sentiment and idea, widely extended in time and place, in a kind of impregnable possession of human life—a system, which, like some other great products of the conjoint efforts of human mind through many generations, is rich in the world’s experience; so that, in attaching oneself to it, one lets in a great tide of that experience, and makes, as it were with a single step, a great experience of one’s own, and with great consequent increase to one’s sense of colour, variety, and relief, in the spectacle of men and things." (Pater)

Full text of The Renaissance:

"The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all 'the ends of the world are come' and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience (italics mine) of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants, and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary ; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences (italics mine), is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea."  (Pater)

"The service of philosophy, of speculative cul-
ture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it
to a life of constant and eager observation. Every mo-
ment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some
tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest ; some
mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is
irresistibly real and attractive to us, for that moment
only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself,
is the end."  (Pater)

"I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause certain arrogant persons to think that they may with reason censure me, alleging that I am a man without letters.  Foolish folk!  Do they not know that I may retort by saying, as did Marius to the Roman patricians: 'They who themselves go adorned in the labour of others will not permit me my own?' They will say that, because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others? And experience has been the maestra of those who wrote well. And so, as maestra, I will acknowledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evidence."  (Leonardo)



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