Pater vs. Wilde

I know that I haven’t been updating regularly. I can’t absolutely promise that I will do so, but I’m going to try, because this is important to me. I want to try to write at least 500 words a day on this blog. It’s for myself, really, because if I don’t write out my thoughts, it’s as though they get all blocked up, and that’s not good for me. I need to keep them flowing.

You might be pleased to hear that I’m working on a new story. It’s called “Estella Saves the Village,” and so far I have about 3500 words written. I think it’s going to be about another 1500.

I’m getting to a place with my writing – it’s an interesting place, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe it. It’s a place where when I write, I feel as though I’m doing so with clarity and precision. The way I want to do dance steps. No vague steps, no steps that signal indecision, as though I’m not sure where to go. When I write, I want nothing extra. Nothing pretty simply for the sake of prettiness. In a review, the reviewer will often take a sentence, or a couple of sentences, out of context. Simply to show how pretty the writing is. That’s not what I want.

My favorite writers have that clarity and precision: E.M. Forster, for example. Willa Cather. That’s what I’m looking for.

But I wasn’t going to write about my own work today. Instead, I was going to focus on the two writers I’ve been teaching this week: Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

We’ve been looking at Pater’s Conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance, which I think everyone should read and reread. This is the conclusion to the conclusion:

“One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of the Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve – les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among ‘the children of this world,’ in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion – that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”

What Pater says, in brief, is that our lives are brief, and to make of them the most we can, we should experience all we can. How to do that? How to compress the most and best experiences into the given time, into a finite number of pulses? Art, Pater tells us. Because art gives us the most, the highest, experiences.

Wilde was deeply influenced by Pater, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is, in a sense, an experiment in Paterianism, with Wilde’s usual tongue in cheek.

On Friday, I asked my students, would you rather be Wilde or Pater? I was startled when they said Wilde. Because after all, Wilde went to prison for two years. He suffered terribly. He also created art so much greater than Pater’s that even comparing them is a silly exercise. But to my students, Wilde had experienced more. He had truly lived, while Pater had spent a life being comfortably intellectual. Never giving in to his desires as openly as Wilde did, although we do have evidence now of at least one romance with an Oxford undergraduate.

I was startled because having a life like Wilde’s is so, so hard. To live fully, to mock society openly, to allow yourself to become an object of ridicule in your pursuit of what you believe to be the beautiful and true. Wilde suffered. Why would anyone want to suffer like that? (Honestly, I’m not sure my students realize, yet, what living that sort of life entails.)

There’s really only one reason to do so – when you can’t help it, when everything you are draws you to a life that is extraordinary, rather than containing ordinary peace and pleasures. When you can’t make any other choice. Wilde could not have chosen to not be Wilde.

I think choosing the life of a serious artist always entails some degree of suffering. (Serious is a key word here.) It’s not a comfortable life, and the only reason to choose it is that you really have no choice in the matter.

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3 Responses to Pater vs. Wilde

  1. Was that 500 words?
    I’m off tomorrow morning to two weeks of friends–(no internet) silence, wandering in the woods, star staring, hot tub in the morning, wood fire at night, and stopping a minute to wish you well. happy thanksgiving Theadora.

  2. I think there’s also a romanticism to The Artist’s Life that seems quite appealing, even in the face of persecution, depression, and imprisonment. The suffering itself even seems romantic (although in Buddhism, we’re taught that in fact all life is a form of suffering until we reach enlightenment).

  3. Michelle, that sounds wonderful. Happy Thanksgiving! Jason, I think you’re right. I rather wonder what Wilde himself would have thought? I wonder if he would have volunteered to be Pater? Perhaps in his lowest moments, but I have a feeling that he would have wanted to be himself, despite it all. (I have to admit, this is where I disagree with Buddhism, because so much of life isn’t in fact suffering — but that’s personal experience. And I think we have a right and a duty to experience joy, enlightened or not.) 🙂

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