On Walter Pater’s Aesthetic Principles of Experience and Analysis

While re-reading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray I came across Walter Pater’s Conclusion to his masterful study The Renaissance.  Here is a link to a wonderful website I found on it.  Plenty of Mona Lisa and Leonardo Da Vinci.  The questions I’ve considered lately in light of my students’ comments have been: What makes the ideas in these texts relevant today?  How do these writers speak to us?  Why bother?  Pray tell… snore…

Then I re-read these lines from Pater’s Conclusion:

Our physical life is a perpetual motion of them -the passage of the blood, the waste and repairing  of the brain under every ray of light and sound– processes which  science reduces to simpler and more elementary forces. Like the  elements of which we are composed, the action of these forces extends beyond us: it rusts iron and ripens corn. Far out on every  side of us those elements are broadcast, driven in many currents;  and birth and gesture and death and the springing of violets from  the grave are but a few out of ten thousand resultant  combinations. That clear, perpetual outline of face and limb is but  an image of ours, under which we group them– a design in a web,  the actual threads of which pass out beyond it. This at least of  flame-like our life has, that it is but the concurrence, renewed  from moment to moment, of forces parting sooner or later on their  ways. 

Or if we begin with the inward world of thought and feeling, the  whirlpool is still more rapid, the flame more eager and devouring. There it is no longer the gradual darkening of the eye, the  gradual fading of colour from the wall –movements of the shore-side, where the water flows down indeed, though in  apparent rest– but the race of the midstream, a drift of  momentary acts of sight and passion and thought. At first sight  experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects,  pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling  us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action. But when  reflexion begins to play upon these objects they are dissipated  under its influence; the cohesive force seems suspended like  some trick of magic; each object is loosed into a group of  impressions –colour, odour, texture– in the mind of the observer. And if we continue to dwell in thought on this world, not of  objects in the solidity with which language invests them, but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and  are extinguished with our consciousness of them, it contracts  still further: the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience, already  reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one  of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice  has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind  keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world. Analysis  goes a step further still, and assures us that those impressions of  the individual mind to which, for each one of us, experience  dwindles down, are in perpetual flight; that each of them is limited by time, and that as time is infinitely divisible, each of them is infinitely divisible also; all that is actual in it being a single  moment, gone while we try to apprehend it, of which it may ever  be more truly said that it has ceased to be than that it is. To such a tremulous wisp constantly re-forming itself on the stream, to a single sharp impression, with a sense in to, a relic more or less fleeting, of such moments gone by, what is real in our life fines  itself down. It is with this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis  leaves off –that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves. 

I shouldn’t think that a typical teenager sitting in a community college English class would jump up and down after reading these lines.  Perhaps they signify very little.  But yet, allow another glance.  Look again and we can see a world of possibilities open before us… as readers we co-create those worlds in the “perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.”

These lines recommend how we can approach reading as a process of meaningful creation–as experience and analysis.  How do we make sense of texts?  How do they speak to us?  How do we read?  What do we take away from the reading?

Reading words, reading the world is a two step process: (i) Experience, (ii) Analysis.  Obtain impressions and locate ourselves in them–we can find our own voice in the language of experience.  Then we reflect on the experience and analyze it…

I’ll apply this sort of reflection to Kafka in my next post…


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