Friday, October 3, 2008
Walter Pater's Call to Aesthetic Experience
Consider how Walter Pater’s 1868 conclusion to The Renaissance might have something to say to us. The following quotation is taken from the “Conclusion” in Kathleen Higgins, Aesthetics in Perspective (Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996). Pater begins with what he calls our physical life. Here we must “fix upon it in one of its most exquisite intervals.” The exquisite interval he chooses is “the moment…of delicious recoil from the flood of water in summer heat.” (161) Already we are in the domain of everyday aesthetics: the delicious pleasure of being splashed with water on a hot summer day. Pater then talks about this event in terms of what he refers to as moment-to-moment concurrence of forces that go beyond us. The language is old-fashioned but we understand the thrust of it. He then moves to what he calls “the inward world of thought an feeling” where he observes that “the whirlpool is still more rapid, the flame more eager and devouring” than in the physical realm. Here, “when reflexion begins to play upon [external] objects,” and their “cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic.... each object is loosed into a group of impressions – colour, dour, texture- in the mind of the observe.” Thus, he describes what Monet was doing in painting in the same year in his La Riviere. The purpose of philosophy, Pater thinks, is to "startle" the human spirit to a life of observation in which “[e]very moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest…for that moment only.” The point is that “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end.” Why? Because “[a] counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life.” (162) We want, then, to be “present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy.” (163) Pater writes, further, that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." He encourages us to have any experience that "seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment." This includes "any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend.” That is, we should focus on the strange and curious phenomena in our everyday lives. He encourages us to have a “sense of splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch. The reason is that "our one chance [to find meaning in life] lies in …. getting as many pulsations as possible into the” time allotted us. (163). Pater is known for advocating art for art’s sake, but he really only values art because it provides us the highest quality of experiences for our moments and “for those moments' sake.” In this respect Pater is a hero of the aesthetics of everyday life.