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As already shown (at the end of the second introductory lecture and in the lecture on Victorian cultural/intellectual liberalism), the 19 th century saw the legitimation of some new humanistic disciplines connected to culture as a whole, especially in relation to society, or to the specialised departments mentioned in the title as aesthetic or modern literary criticism. As early versions of the subjects that are taught today in any university, the Victorian beginnings in any of these domains are still of interest today and by comparison, provide a clearer insight into these branches of knowledge.
From the point of view of the strange (for today’s readers) coexistence between fundamentalism and liberalism in the minds and texts of the Victorian intellectuals and writers in general, it can be noticed that all the new disciplines from this lecture’s title, which are more or less connected with humanism are liberal in intention and normatively devised disciplines, for the following reasons:
- they are clear corpora of knowledge defined and delimited by the interpretation of available data gleaned from the wider, grander, British imperial landscape;
- they are organised and in-formed by principles and by criteria of value into theories and axiologies, respectively;
- they are legitimated as new disciplines capable of generating value jdugments and predictions , also having at their disposal instruments suited for working in existing contexts.
But from the point of view of the ideas that these new disciplines embody as liberal constructs, there is a strange mixture of, on the one hand, liberal, reasonable, moderate, tolerant and calm thinking with, on the other hand, authoritarian normativity, exclusivist and impassioned and extremist delivered in a prose style which will get carried away in one direction or another thus deviating from the neutral communicative norm of the clearer prose.
Victorians have been shown to set great store on culture, or to invest in culture, as the first lecture pointed out. The climax of Victorian culturalism was reached with the publication of Matthew Arnold’s essays, which had better be termed ”essays in humanism” in addition to being, according to their title, ”Essays in Criticism” or categorical statements on ”Culture and Anarchy”. In the previous segment of the survey on the Victorian Essay that included the debates on education, the issue of constructing by the right decisions in matters of education a liberal man’s comprehensive system of harmonious powers or faculties has been already tackled. The Arnoldian idealistic culturalism which continues this trend is very intersting to study because it combines liberal with fundamentalist features. On the one hand, it is inspired by what we called at the beginning of the lecture on liberalism ”liberal constructivism”, so that it evinces the general features of any modern discipline as outlined in paragraph 12.1 above. On the other hand, when Arnold devises his system of universally valid cultural models, he is behaving as an inveterate fundamentalist who recommends too strongly set recipes in a given domain. This is due to the fact that behind Arnold’s system there lurks another intention than the pure liberal one and a practical purpose which, by Newman’s standards in ”The Idea of a University”, is informed by other than the Liberal Pursuits, namely by what he would call ”ulterior purposes”, those of the Useful Pursuits. In other words, the major flaw of Arnold’s system comes from his utilitarianism which makes him embrace fundamentalism in a manner directly opposed to the one he preaches as the norm for culture’s disinterestedness (cf. ”The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”). Arnold’s flaw, the internal contradiction of his thinking is that he subordinates culture, criticism, poetry, literature in general, as well as what historical awareness he had been able to glean, to a utopian project: Arnold wanted to add to the material happiness and excellence of the Victorian empire, to add, therefore, by education something resembling a further diamond to the Empress of India’s crown, namely, the splendours of the past cultural empires (of Athens or Elizabethan England) and the academic spirit that in his opinion still animated the contemporary esprit cultivé de la France (cf. ”The Literary Influence of Academies”). This further implies that he conceived of education as a kind of straightening cure (from materialism) like a convalescent’s tour abroad for vampirising other cultures while curing the varicose veins of the native culture of the bad blood that the predominant mentality represented; even more savagely, Arnold’s cultural great project can be conceived as an elevating surgery after which the industrious cultural surgeon might be imagined wiping his stained hands as a result of amputating the materialistic spirit of an age that might as well have been its very soul. This lack of moderation in the lecturing tone, which it is hoped will be excused by recognising its black humorous turn, was prompted by the impatience of the present 20th century reader who has been reading and teaching Arnold as a seminal figure for too long now, without noticing too much criticism of this master as yet, even one hundred years after his day (What is more, people like T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis have been observed to follow Arnold slavishly in this reader’s formative years of the period when modernism was a kind of cultural religion and in which T.S. Eliot was the hierophant; T.S. Eliot was for 20th century modernism what Matthew Arnold had been in the 19th, namely an inveterate, never-aging model writer and professor whose commonsensical (and not very original!) statements, were considered every layman’s Bible. Exaggerating a little, it can even be claimed that T. S. Eliot copies Matthew Arnold in everything, including his split personality which declared one thing in criticism while practising the very opposite in poetry; but for the present purposes, what matters is that T. S. Eliot copied from Arnold the disrupted, digressive prose style, the main cause for the grudge that the present reader bears against this pair of professors.) The style in an Arnoldian essay is prophetic, like Carlyle’s, but devoid of Carlyle’s rhetorical and emotional surprises of all kinds, it is oral, conversational and free without being witty in the least, which makes it simply too copious and rambling - without this being anybody’s worthwhile, intellectually. What is the benefit of this brand of conversationalism (or, to return to one of the stylistic obsessions of these lectures, it seems, of this garrulousness) that comes ex catedra, promises much in one text while it achieves little - or fulfils its promises only much later, in an unexpected context? Does not this lead, one wonders, to ideological disorder? And does not this defeat precisely the didactic purpose of the essay? Is not this also the source of so much self-contradiction and hazy theorising in both T.S. Eliot and Arnold? )
After this brief [sic!] emotional and rhetorical parenthesis, the return to the summary of Arnold’s culturalist system is welcome both as a healthier change of tone and in order to give the student the occasion to agree or disagree with the former vituperations while being in the know.
Arnold made a synthesis of various contemporary cultural theories and/or practices: German (Goethean) and French (Arnold took Sainte-Beuve ”the celebrated French critic”, as he calls him in ”Culture and Anarchy”, PEV II, p. 442 for his model) as well as English (He drew a lot of his cultural subjects and attitudes from Carlyle, either directly or via Cardinal Newman’s or J.S. Mill’s texts of the 50s, or simply because Carlyle’s ideas were very influential with the younger contemporary Victorians). Arnold’s didactic populariser’s zeal for cultural edification led him to the legitimation of English comparatism (inspired also by his knowledge of Herder’s work) which comparatism he named, cf. the subtitle of ”Culture and Anarchy”, political and social criticism, while actually meaning culturalism (but it is demonstrable that, as a rule, Arnold does not coin his memorable phrases very felicitously). This discipline is a precursor of today’s critical theory or cultural criticism or even cultural studies, a kind of sociology of culture informed by a particular political conviction (Today, the political bias is provided by leftism, or the critique of capitalism from within, according to Marxian assumptions; in Arnold’s times the critique of capitalism from inside the system used idealism to counteract materialism, in ways that will become evident).
After so many digressions, here are the promised brief and clear statements of/about his humanistic system liberal in form, according to the introductory paragraph of the lecture. Arnold’s normative discipline of culturalism assumed the following as its principles:
1. there exists an order of ideas vis-à-vis the order of nature, corresponding to a highly developed, spiritualised human nature (This assumption is in keeping with what Hans Georg Gadamer, in his handbook of modern hermeneutics, ”Truth and Method”, indicates as one of the leading humanistic concepts, namely, Bildung or culture – retained in its primary German form in the English translation of the book.) (Arnold’s sonnet ”In Harmony With Nature” develops this idea in the sceptical direction);
2. culture is a universal repository of the spiritual; Arnold defines it as ”a study of perfection” (”Culture and Anarchy” I : ”Sweetness and Light”, PEV p. 443) By perfection, Arnold understands a harmonious conjunction of beauty and intelligence, sweetness and light. Culture is for Arnold what knowledge was for Newman in ”The Idea of a University”, the spring and cause which makes men good and, especially, endows them with a passion to do good. It is a spiritual entity . Since it determines human perfection and uses all forms of experience and it makes humanity grow, culture is conceived in religious terms, which is a proof of Arnold’s traditionalism or fundamentalism as it has been called.
3. Endowed with interpretive power, poetry is the main ministrant or, by a faded metaphor from the field of science, the main universal tool for culture, owing to its capacity of granting (intellectual but also moral) deliverance (Arnold’s unfelicitous use of language in prose makes these terms at best opaque, when not really infernal false friends). By ”interpretive power” Arnold actually means ”the power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully full” (do you like the careless repetition of the syllable ”full” in the middle of a master’s sentence? But he is a didactic master, not a sylistic one, is he not? so:)J a wonderfully full, new, intimate sense of them – of things – and of our relations with them” (”Maurice de Guérin”, PEV II, p. 260). As for ”deliverance”, poetry offers by it ”the comprehension of the present and the past” and the possession of general ideas (”On the Modern Element in Literature”, 1857).
4. The criterion for all cultural activities is their disinterestedness, a determination of ”keeping aloof from what is called ’the practical view of things’; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. (…) steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them”.
As this last criterion comes from Arnold’s most theoretical essay on criticism, which defined criticism, we could pass on to describing what is practically the second Arnoldian normative discipline: criticism. The above assumptions underlying culture are also applicable to criticism, although, obviously, criticism is conceived as a separate discipline due to the systematic conception presented by Arnold in this first essay of the Essays in Criticism, First Series, 1865: ”The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”.
5. Criticism (the actual name he should have given to culture itself, in so far as he had used it in ”Culture and Anarchy” to refer to ”that criticism of life, that knowledge of ourselves and the world which constitutes culture”) was defined as ”a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” (PEV II, p 216). The critical activity represented for Arnold an exemplary activity, the pilot cultural activity because it forged the ideas with which poetry could then work, acting as the pedagogy of literature for transmitting to the successors ”the practice of poetry, with its boundaries and wholesome regulative laws, under which excellent works may again, perhaps, at some future time, be produced”(cf. the last paragraph of the ”Preface to the First Edition of Poems”, 1853, in PEV II, p. 198). Arnold transformed criticism into a spiritual power, trying to make it as ”respectable” a power as his own notion of the poet’s creative power, but he also declared it to be as much of a formative power as knowledge was for Newman or Mill, in the earlier decades of the Victorian age. In this respect, Arnold is as much a humanist as both Mill and Newman were when they personalized and, we may even jocosely put it: personified, abstract ideas by incorporating them as human faculties. The protagonist of Arnold’s re-enactment of Culture (capital letter) is, of course, the critic, an embodiment of the Carlylean ”man of letters”, the hero of culture, therefore. This is obviously a fundamentalist or traditionalist feature of Arnoldian criticism. One more addition is necessary here: Arnold drastically opposes his just critic, a guardian of the Republic of Culture, as Plato would put it, to the the dilettante, a Goethean term; ”the dilettanti”, Arnold writes in the ”Preface to the First Edition of Poems”, ”cannot think clearly, feel nobly, and delineate ideas firmly” (PEV, p.198)
6. There exists one criterion for assessing the power of an age in history, which Arnold calls adequacy (and which Hans Georg Gadamer includes in his list of leading humanistic concepts as judgment, in the English translation of 1975, the equivalent of ”good sense”). Where there exists adequacy, Arnold says, in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, ”On the Modern Element in Literature” (1857), an age will have ”the representations of highly developed human nature, endowed with the charm of noble serenity which accompanies true insight; it will have maturity and freedom at the same time.” If we compare these attributes with the ones illustrated by J. S. Mill and enumerated by Newman, respectively, as criteria for the liberal discussion or for the liberal university, ”freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom”, it is obvious that we are in the heart of Victorian liberalism with Arnold as well. What remains to be done is to see whether he will remain here when applying what he conceived liberally.
If, for analytical purposes, we compare the applicative side of his doctrine with his principles, by assuming both that Arnold should have had a clear-sighted view of the discipline he had set up by letting himself be inspired by the Germans and the French writers, and if we also asume that he conceived the two parts of his system in isolation, which he did not, or he did in only very few cases – being, otherwise, the spontaneous communicant that we termed garrulous and informal earlier in the lecture – then, we can say that once Arnold armed himself with these cultural/critical definitions and criteria which are leading concepts of humanism at the same time (as the parallel with Gadamer has tried to suggest), he immediately passed on to build a set of value judgments pronounced in accordance with the principles presented above. Thus, in the seminal text about ”The Function of Criticism”, Arnold applies the criterion of adequacy and terms the ages endowed with adequacy epochs of expanison, and the others, epochs of concentration. This classification will serve him as the guide-line for declaring his contemporary England on the eve of an age of expansion, which, of course presupposes, but only presupposes without stating, that it had actually been traversing an age of concentration. Then, in ”The Literary Influence of Academies” he will further demonstrate that England was provincial as compared to France, not only because France had an academy that set the tone and the taste in creating a form of intellectual culture radiating all around, but also because it belonged to a nation with a natural ”bent towards the things of the mind, towards culture, towards clearness, correctness and propriety in thinking and speaking” (PEV II, pp 237 and 243); and also,because, as he had affirmed even earlier, ”There is the world of ideas and there is the world of practice; the French are often for suppressing the one and the English the other”; (”The Function of Criticism”, PEV II, p 213.). In ”Culture and Anarchy” (1869) Matthew Arnold will combine in his panorama of contemporary culture and of English society comparatist arguments derived from history and purely humanistic statements tinged by the metaphysical and utopian spirit that has been previously called fundamentalism. Arnold’s humanistic plea for culture as against anarchy has a curious doublefold orientation: on the one hand it looks towards the past for salvationist models, Arnold’s being a typical case of classicist cultural revivalism; on the other hand, it contemplates an immense future, already, and not directly in poetry (like in ”The Study of Poetry”) as yet, a future only waiting for the middle-classes – whom he calls philistines – to awaken to culture by education. Arnold’s prophetic visionarism envisages the return of the phantom of Hellenism, the culture of sweetness and light, subsequent to the defeat of Hebraism, that narrow-minded concentration of the puritans, whom he calls philistines, upon their own materialistic navels (the underlying allusion here being to a man who studies Yoga and to Norman Mailer’s ironic fiction of the same title). In his entire career, Arnold had given various names to his utopian idealism expecting the second coming of the spiritual from above, down into the world of materialism. At first, in ”On the Modern Element in Literature”, it had been the ideal ”modern age” (whose definition proved how little modern it was by purely historical standards); then he had implicitly called it ”Goethe” or Germany, then ”Maurice de Guérin” (and so: ”France”) – and he abstracted from each case a feature which he had praised and advocated so insistently until he had turned it into a concept: that of ”disinterestedness” or of the ”interpretive power”; at last, in ”The Study of Poetry” it would be poetry whose transformative power for the whole human race will assume the functions of the earlier ”modern age”. Already, analytically speaking, it becomes quite clear that for all the genuine humanism that went into Arnold’s ”system” he could not be taken seriously by 20th century standards as a theorist of culture, because he was actually… a mythographer rather than a historiographer of culture. So we cannot ”learn” the basics of a positive humanistic discipline by frequenting Arnold’s prose. Instead we can read him for pleasure, it is true, for a kind of elevated, spiritualised pleasure (if we can stand his prose style, that is); but, anyway, without being able to generate further knowledge of our own by perusing his ”system”. This is the best test for a fundamentalist versus a liberal study or essay: to check whether or not it can form us in Newman’s sense of the liberal knowledge to be acquired in an ideal university. If the answer to the checking or test-question be ”No”, it means that study or that text would simply like to condition us , or to compell us into obedience. Now, ”Culture and Anarchy” tries to do more than offer one more culturally related myth – because this is what Arnold’s culturalism ultimately amounts to, with its polarities and messianic design (whether we adopt Roland Barthes’s broad definition of ”myth” in ”Myth Today” or not). (In ”Culture and Anarchy”, there are polarities that clearly indicate that we have to do with a myth, a high-mimetic, enhanced model of life, indicated by the clear-cut oppositions between barbarians versus philistines, playing the two possible pre-ordained roles of respectively negative versus positive characters, soon to be alchemically transmuted into cultural gold (the populace does not enter Arnold’s cultural calculus). ”Culture and Anarchy” tries, however, to transcend the myth-making action: it indicates only that the philistines are the hope for the future of the Victorian narrow-minded Hebraist present, which had been justly analysed repeatedly before as provincial. Were ”Culture and Anarchy” Arnold’s last word in cultural criticism, we might still cherish hope ourselves that this essay-writer stood to be cured of fundamentalism. As it is, with ”The Study of Poetry” crowning his second series of ”Essays in Criticism” and his cultural theory with a clear canon highlighted by his own literary touchstones whimsically explained and argued for very approximately, we can only – nostalgically – remember the after all more coherent theory about ”the modern age”, in ”On the Modern Element in Poetry”, and a theory which we can hope to use for our own comparative benefit even today, when we are in the thick of the latest modern age. (Arnold defines a modern age as an age of advanced civilization: non-aggressive, tolerant, with multiplied conveniences of life, with a taste formed according to the best standards, an age supreme in intellectual maturity and speaking a modern language: that of a thoughtful, philosophic mind; in short, an all-humanist utopia).
There are two texts by Matthew Arnold that inaugurate the practical discipline of literary criticism : the ”Preface to the First Edition of Poems” (1853) and ”On Translating Homer” (1861). In this part of the lecture, the evaluating criteria applied there will be shown to lead to judgments of taste very similar in Arnold’s literary criticism with John Ruskin’s judgments on painting and architecture, respectively, in ”Modern Painters” (1843 – 1860), and ”The Stones of Venice” (1851 – 1853). (With Ruskin it is not true, of course, that, like Dickens he published his long essays in instalments. But his essays are formed of long books published during long years, because Ruskin has even more to teach his contemporaries than Arnold).
In the ”Preface to the First Edition of Poems”, Arnold decreed that poetry must imitate great actions (and not morbid feelings), as, you remember, poetry was an ideal education for the human race that needed models . And if, just like a Jakobsonian structuralist of today, Arnold mentioned a quality for poetry borrowed from Goethe, which he rendered by a strange word in English, ”Architectonicè”, a quality to be obtained by subjecting actions to selection and … (no, not ”combination”! but with an even more ”liberally constructive word”) construction – if all these were indeed part of Arnold’s teachings in literary criticism, it is not less true that such laudable principles were counteracted if not really contradicted by the presence in precisely the same essay by Arnold of a vapid, empty sample of ill-applied fundamentalism: the concept of ”the grand style” which characterises, according to Arnold the expression of the Greek unapproacheable masters. In fact Arnold will return in ”On Translating Homer” to this pompously empty critical idiom when he praises ”the grand style” of the classics and he explains that there are two Aristotelian brands of grand style: the severe one, noble, elevated or spoudaióV (Homer’s style) and the simple one, direct, spontaneous in expression, the nVL8@λ (Dante’s style). It is striking how similar in their impressionistic relativity Ruskin’s concepts, statements and judgments of taste are to Arnold’s. In ”Modern Painters”, Ruskin speaks about ”greatness of style” which he defines by steps, i.e., according to some criteria which have got nothing to do with what we would expect style to be. His criteria come from the most miscellaneous regions of life, art and morality, and they are ”choice of noble subject”, ”love of beauty”, ”sincerity”, ”invention”; these allow Ruskin to classify artists into… highest, second order, and third order artists (it all sounds like in Caragiale’s sketchy pedagogy of Marius Chicoº Rostogan, to us, but maybe it is all our fault); these criteria allow Ruskin also to define, in the guise of a corolary, therefore not as his main critical purpose, ”great art” as recognizable for being ”distinct”, ”large in masses and in scale”, ”delicate”. All these would be good and nice, were they not so … indistinct, vague and especially so delicate as to leave no traces whatsoever in the reader’s intellectual memory.... No trace of analytical precision in Ruskin’s criticism, just like in Arnold’s worst texts. Thus we might just record in passing that this was the aesthetic taste of the early Victorians, were it not again for the good part of another faulty concept of Ruskin’s by 20th century standards. Ruskin selects an ideal age, just like Arnold in his utopian modern age or in his Athenian, Elizabethan or French academical epochs of expansion. This is the Pre-Raphaelite age which will be used to connect the non-academic Victorian avant-garde’s taste (in the most artificial way conceivable romantic, so post-romantic) to a period in the real history of the world-art which is the earliest Renaissance still retaining traces of the Middle Ages, the period of ”Giotto, Angelico, Orcagna, John Bellini” (PEV I, p. 730). One thing is sure, that the puritanical middle-class taste contenteted itself with speakers, teachers of taste whose pure impressions or obsessive statements about world-art Victorians took for normative criticism. Also, Victorians seemed to think that the systematic form (which we could assimilate to the liberal constructivism in appearance only ) was sufficient to make perfectly credible these cultural and moral activists devoted to the community.
By another accident, Ruskin was also the man who inaugurated the Gothic fad in Victorian architecture, so despised by the bitter Hardy who deplores it in ”Jude the Obscure” where he also transforms the College Walls into the walls of a Bastille impossible to demolish by Jude in his bare-handed obscurity alone. In ”The Stones of Venice”, where he makes it clear that he is describing an ideal Venice, not necessarily the real one, he proposes Gothic architecture as a concrete universal, an ideal, a myth, owing to its alleged qualities (which are actually virtues already, so no pretense of objectivity is even implied, sorry!). They are : Savageness, or Rudeness; Changefulness, or Love of Change; Naturalism or Love of Nature; Grotesqueness or Disturbed Imagination; Rigidity or Obstinacy: Redundance or Generosity. The same mixture of morality with aesthetic criteria and with empirical observations, these would be the Victorian ingredients of taste in matters of architecture, just as they had been for painting (with Ruskin) or for literary criticism (with Arnold). In this last catalogue of impressions and ideals, however, there can be noticed a clearer penchant towards nature and the rules of sensibility than had been the case in any of the previous inventories. Indeed, this testifies to the faster changes in taste that were under way earlier in aesthetic criticism than in the literary one, and which would immediately lead to the next stage in aesthetic criticism, Walter Pater’s hedonism.
In the preface to the ”Studies in the History of the Renaissance” (1873), Walter Pater suddenly transported aesthetic criticism down to earth, placing it into a familiar stream-of-psychological impressions of a flesh and blood person, from the point of view of a 20th century reader; that is, Pater tied aesthetic criticism to the individual perception and the phenomenal world rather than to any idealistic system, social practice or to mere speculation as had happened before for so long tedious pages in Arnold and Ruskin. In the ”Author’s Preface” (PEV III, p. 224 – 228) , Pater already uses the word ”aesthetic”- it had been missing from the cultural case studies of Ruskin’s books - it appears in the syntagm ”the aesthetic critic” which forms the object of one of the first paragraphs. Another striking element appears as early as the first paragraph of the preface: the rejection of abstractions in the aesthetic discussion. Then immediately, the statement inconceivable for either Ruskin or Arnold: ”Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative”. From here, only one step separates the 20th century reader from the relieving declaration that , for the aesthetic critic ”all periods, types, schools of taste, are in themselves equal”. One has a feeling of something déjà vu and the reading flows smoothly, making one think of John Stuart Mill or Thomas Henry Huxley, although the topics and judgments are completely different in Pater’s prose. There is a sense of total agreement with the commonsensical ideas, empirical, verifiable, that you feel you understand completely. This is the result of the natural, deliberative prose of sensibility that Pater writes. In the ”Conclusion” to what everybody calls in short ”The Renaissance” (PEV III, pp. 324- 327), Pater offers the methodology that probably has served him in producing the corpus of aesthetic criticism contained in the book. Thus Pater confirms his intuitions discursively:
1. The first step in aesthetic criticism (he does not indicate it by an abstract name, ” observation”, even ”empirical observation”; rather he uses plain, descriptive words) : ”seeing one’s object as it really is” (this is in keeping with Sainte-Beuve ”Causeries du Lundi”, of 1849)
2. The second step: educate your perceptions to obtain ”the right susceptibility” (Is this not something like a preliminary step for the phenomenologist’s bracketing of experience in view of better concentrating upon the essential features to be observed?)
3. The third step consists in the affirmation of faith in the power of the senses ”to maintain ecstasy” and grant ”success in life” by the ”failure to form habits”.
It is obvious that the power or faculty of Pater’s model man has shifted from the liberal thinker’s brain and even from the outwardly projected heart of the pure idealists to the power of the senses: the sense of sight, touch and so, to sensualism. Another, more elevated word for the cultural faith in sensualism is of course hedonism, while the more scientifically ringing one is psychologism. From here there is one more step –or rather, one more turn: of the century – to the downright impressionism of the 20th century avant-garde painters.
Pater and after him more programmatically Oscar Wilde will carry further into aestheticism such empirical observations as these. Aestheticism is based on the following paradox: it has at its core ontological scepticism paired with the worship of art as the (ideal) order of the beautiful. In the guise of a Platonic Diotima or feminine daimon, the order of the beautiful is capable of refilling the universe with sense, which means that it has a normative function, from the theoretical point of view. (From the practical point of view, it has the power of a generator ). If, prompted by the former Platonic association, we compare the position occupied by art (poetry) in Plato’s Republic, an extra muros and pariah’s position, we realize that with the aestheticists just as with Arnoldian or Ruskinian critics art is invited to take the place of the former ruler of the city-state or the republic as Plato calls it, and so the role of the queen or king, as you like it. This signals the major reversal of functions in the traditional chain of being or diagram, which must have also something to do with the more liberal and scientifically succesful history of mankind in the modern centuries, and, of course, with the generalised lay spirit. Art, the contemplation of the beautiful, grants freedom and intensity of life to man in the act of perception which is transfigured into an aestheticist, fastidious act of taste. Aestheticism is tantamount to the art of refined perception and through it, of hedonistic pleasure, i.e., refined, contemplative but essentially phenomenal or immanent pleasure.
In the aestheticist scenario or the summarizing diagram (applied with Arnold and earlier on with Pater himself in the ”Author’s Preface” to ”The Renaissance”) conscience becomes the subject or protagonist, but not formal and habitual conscience, rather, the channel for ”a powerful current of feeling and observance” (cf. Pater’s ”Marius the Epicurean”, 1885, chapter I ). The content of consciousness is mainly given by the practices of perfecting the senses first by the improvement in their capacity of being moved and made ready, refined for rich, genuine external perception, secondly, by their accomodation to the task of internal perception. Marius the Epicurean is declared to be aware and endowed with great seriousness, namely: ”an impassibility to the sacredness of time, of life and its events and the circumstances of family fellowship”; the other name for this great seriousness would obviously be scepticism. This implies moral or ethical relativism, moral stoicism as another form of agnosticism. But there is one absolute in this world of scepticism and relativism, it is the individual’s communion with the flux of existence through the senses, which communion or participation is effected through art. The new hierophant is the artist seconded by the hedonistic connaisseur. The severance with the wider flock of philistines and with the general mass of the outsiders effected through the watershed of art, art being understood as this study of perfection through and of the senses, is both proclaimed and enacted by reduction to its most absurd and fantastic implications in Oscar Wilde’s ”The Picture of Dorian Gray” and the book’s preface. Thus, aestheticism also termed ”art for art’s sake” lowered and reversed the striving for perfection (read ”the study of perfection”), the greatness and the seriousness of all the Victorians who formed the objects of the former lectures on the essay, i.e., of the aesthetic, literary and cultural critics taken together. It was the most extreme form of liberalism, dogmatic in the opposite direction from the fundamentalist one, namely a scepticism.
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