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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Marius the Epicurean as a Modern

Page references in parentheses are to Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean (New York: The Modern Library). My copy bears no date but was printed after the time the series carried the Boni & Liveright imprint but before Random House, probably in the late 1920s. Endnotes are in brackets.


The twenty-first century reader may perhaps be excused for thinking of Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean as an outdated old Victorian volume. The author indeed revels in archaic language to represent his second century characters, a strategy that makes about as much sense as film actors accenting their English to indicate that they are to be understood as speaking a foreign tongue. His elaborate prose style, whatever pains he may have taken over it with whatever success, has little general appeal these days. Some of his sentences, once they have taken off, hover over clause after clause, each with pendants of attached phrases, until the reader who fails to be entranced may begin to wonder when the soaring syntax will ever come in for a landing, though it generally sets down with considerable grace in the end.

Since fictional representations of late antiquity and the early Christian era were exceedingly popular toward the end of the nineteenth century, they naturally seem outmoded today. The original buyers of Pater’s Marius the Epicurean may have expected something similar to the immensely popular novel by Marie Corelli Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy (1893). [1]

Pater’s book, however, did not conform to a formula likely to produce a best-seller. His connoisseurship is evident in his inclusion of a miniature library of literary genres of the era in which he set his work: the entire Cupid and Psyche episode from The Golden Ass of Apuleius as well as Fronto’s oration, Eusebius’ letter, and a good bit of Lucian's Hermotimus. Though this assemblage might seem weighty with scholarship and bookish tastes, Marius the Epicurean was in fact attacked, not for being dryasdust, but as an enemy of public morals. The dangers some once saw in The Renaissance as an invitation to antinomian hedonism seem now distant indeed, but Yeats’ words can perhaps suggest the reaction of many less sympathetic readers in Pater’s own time and after. Though he says of the novel, “it still seemed to me, as I think it seemed to all of us, the only great prose in modern English,” “yet I began to wonder if it, or the attitude of mind of which it was the noblest expression, had not caused the disaster of my friends. It taught us to walk upon a rope, tightly stretched through serene air, and we were left to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm.” [2] Yeats’ attitude surely expresses his personal regret at the dissolute ways and premature deaths of several associates including friends in the Rhymers’ Club, but newer forms of self-destructive behavior have rendered the aesthetic pose decidedly démodé.

Even those with no lost bohemian friends once felt that Pater was potentially toxic. Legouis and Cazamian’s masterful and thorough literary history included a warning on Pater that must have made his readers feel as though they were in danger of contracting a dreadful and lethal progressive disease: “This consistent hedonism does not stop short of its ultimate stage; it shakes off all the chains with which society and the hygiene of souls have loaded the skillful search for pleasure, unmindful of the collectivity, it makes for the death of the individual along a path blossoming with roses and strewn with ashes.” [3]

In spite of his place in what today seems quaint controversy, prose that strikes many as fustian, and absorption in the past, Pater’s recent editors claim him as a modernist of sorts. The prolific critic Harold Bloom deemed Marius the Epicurean “one of the more remarkable fictional experiments of the late nineteenth century," and considered Pater the inspiration of “all the High Modernists.” [4] while to Michael Levey the book "look[s] forward beyond its century to modern works of fiction". [5] To critic Gowan Dawson the book displays “a self-conscious manipulation of various levels of discourse and genre that anticipates the fictional techniques of modernism.” [6] One might in fact with some justice call the book postmodern on the basis of its substitution of bricolage for plotting, its self-referentiality and intertextuality, as well as its themes of decentered truth and ineluctable flux. In fact, Marius the Epicurean in both content and form is distinctly modern.

Chapter VI titled “Euphuism” can be read as Pater’s apologia for his stylistic and narrative innovations, justifying highly artificial, ingenious, and learned rhetoric, yet mixed with vigorous and colorful demotic expressions, thereby constituting a “late” manner and forming a dramatic contrast to the realism and naturalism popular at the time of the book’s publication. Rather than ideals of spontaneity, sincerity, and directness, he claims for “the literary art,” “the secrets of utterance,” the sole power to convey “the intellectual or spiritual power within one.” (77) He praises Flavian’s taste: “What care for style! What patience of execution! What research for the significant tones of ancient idiom – sonantia verba et antiqua! What stately and regular word-building! – gravis et decora construction!” (80) Though he likens his values to those of the writers of late antiquity and of the Elizabethan period, his style is, for his own age, a significant innovation.

The modernity of the book in both style and content is evident if unintended from the statements of its most prestigious and hostile twentieth century reader, T. S. Eliot. While Yeats recalled Pater with admiration mixed with the pain of personal loss, Eliot’s far more influential criticism in “Arnold and Pater” aspires to a magisterial tone. To Eliot Pater followed Arnold in chipping away at the grounds for revealed religion (as though Darwin, Freud, Frazer, the Sacred Books of the East series, and the Higher Criticism had had little to do with God’s decline in the late nineteenth century). He objects to Arnold’s concept of Culture as a “study of perfection” as that “arrogates” too much from religion. Insisting on the value of the irrational, Eliot says with that without supernaturalism religion degrades into art and morality as though it were somehow thereby condemned. He tosses barbs even at those who seek to salvage spirituality: Spencer for preferring to call the divine “the Unknowable,” and Arnold for the “eternal-not-ourselves.” He imagines he can turn aside Pater’s comment that traditional religion is “impossible for a man of culture” by simply calling the remark “tedious.” While recognizing the very real phenomenon of what he calls the nineteenth century “dissolution” of thought,” Marius is significant to him chiefly for its inadequacy as religion. Eliot dismisses Pater’s life-work and characterizes his influence as noxious, saying, “The degradation of philosophy and religion, skillfully initiated by Arnold, is competently continued by Pater.”

This is really the sum of his case, though he adds a few specific observations meant in the way of evidence. In formal terms Marius is “incoherent,” “a series of fresh starts,” a “hodgepodge.” While these departures from conventional narrative may support the book’s modernity to some, to Eliot they are simply signs of its failure. What really alarms Eliot, however, is not Marius the Epicurean but his preexisting discomfiture at finding religion in his day “partially retired and confined.” Paradoxically, for Eliot to lack religious faith is to be, as he calls Pater, “incapable of sustained reasoning.” [7]

Pater, whether the fact pleases or dismays, was clearly looking forward while Eliot, who had made such technical innovations and so finely expressed twentieth century Angst in his early work, came to assume a defensive and reactionary posture, doing his best to look backwards to an age of universally shared faith. [8] The real modernity of Pater’s vision, though, emerges only upon a closer examination than Eliot cared to make. Though Marius is often said to have considered Epicureanism and Stoicism before becoming Christian in every way short of baptism, [10] this analysis neglects both the novel’s treatment of the Cyrenaic predecessors of Epicureanism and the likelihood that Pater had good reason to magnify his sympathy with Jesus and downplay Aristippus and Epicurus.

Marius’ original orientation in the book is a sort of unreflecting traditional observance, but he then learns a spiritual goal from Plato, particularly from the Phaedrus, promising a vision like “a bride out of heaven” to the seeker who “fastidiously” selects “form and color” and mediates “much on beautiful visible objects, on objects, more especially, connected with the period of youth.” (26-7) Yet the higher rungs of Plato’s ladder of love strike him as fabulation. For him human nature is “bound so intimately to the sensuous world.” (121)

The thoughtful young Roman admires the Stoicism of that remarkable emperor Marcus Aurelius, yet finds it unsatisfying. He leaves the imperial household feeling that, for all its temperance and humanity, his strongest impression was of “a sentiment of mediocrity, though of a mediocrity for once really golden.” (189) He condemns the Stoic and the medieval monk alike for despising the body and calling for worshippers to “Abase yourselves!” while contrasting their rejection of life with his wholesome “Cyrenaic eagerness . . . to taste and see and touch.” (165) It is because of his contempt for the world, Marius thinks, that the emperor can tolerate blood sports involving beasts in the amphitheater. (198)

The philosophical position of Marius and presumably of Pater is best defined in the chapter title “The New Cyrenaicism.” He is a total skeptic for whom the phenomenal world, not to mention any notion of an afterlife, is a “day-dream.” (121) He feels a particular affinity for Lucian, who appears in the book and whose work Is enfolded within Pater’s text and who made the greater part of his humor out of debunking the claims of religious and philosophical systems. While the cruder sort of hedonist may occupy himself with satisfying grosser appetites, the wise man who realizes that he “can make no sincere claim to have apprehended anything beyond the vail of immediate experience” will prefer the pleasures of “the highest moral ideal” which will lead to doing the “Father’s business.” His slogan emphasizes what a Buddhist might call mindfulness: “Be perfect in regard to what is here and now.” (120) The wise man who pursues an “esthetic education” in all the arts will find himself in the end with “a kind of religion – an inward, visionary, mystical piety” consistent with the sort Marius had instinctively displayed from his youth. This “new form of the contemplative life” would rest on “the intrinsic ‘blessedness’ of ‘vision’ – the vision of perfect men and things.” (122) This religion requires no irrational faith, no “unverified hypothesis” and, Pater drily adds, “makes no call upon a future after all somewhat problematic.” (123) In this way one might makes one’s own life a piece of music allowing one participation in the “’perpetual motion’ in things.” Moral and spiritual and aesthetic taste are revealed to be essentially the same (212) as the fine-tuned imagination will inevitably turn to morality’s service. (230)

Criticism long before Yeats and Eliot yet on a similar moral or religious basis rather than a literary one disturbed Pater and he reacted. Indeed the very composition of the novel may well have been a project to clarify and redeem his value system. Pater says in a footnote to the 1888 edition of The Renaissance, “This brief ‘Conclusion’ was omitted in the second edition of this book, as I conceived it might possibly mislead some of those young men into whose hands it might fall. On the whole, I have thought it best to reprint it here, with some slight changes which bring it closer to my original meaning. I have dealt more fully in Marius the Epicurean with the thoughts suggested by it.” Anxious to avoid the accusation of fostering immorality, he distorted his own views to portray Christianity in a more favorable light and to emphasize morality and even chastity to an extent that would never have occurred without the public controversy.

Vague charges of “immorality” often represented euphemistic accusations of homosexuality. Though Pater tried to be fiercely private, his sexual orientation, no unusual thing in an academic culture that forbade marriage for Fellows until 1882, cannot be doubted. Stung by accusations that The Renaissance encouraged behavior the more shocking for being unspecified, he produced in Marius a singularly eremitical epicurean. It is of prime importance that “The blood, the heart, of Marius were still pure.” (124) Indeed, one critic at least finds that Pater “seems to spiritualize the search for pleasure as far as sacrifice pure and simple.” [10] To him Christianity is “the most beautiful thing in the world.” (303) (How this conviction differs from faith is unclear.) He not only finds the Christian home itself a (presumably sufficient) bride (277) and admires what he calls “the virginal beauty of the mother [!] and her children” (288) but he goes on to declare outright, “Chastity – as he seemed to understand – the chastity of men and women, amid all the conditions, and with all the results, proper to such chastity, is the most beautiful thing in the world and the truest conservation of that creative energy by which men and women were first brought into it.” (288) Even had it not been for such contrary assertions as his decision that he must be a “materialist” and “cling” to “the body and the affections it defined – the flesh” as opposed to incorporeal Platonic ideas, (103) he must surely be making such a conspicuous virtue of chastity to answer past critics and forestall future ones.

Similarly, Marius’ approach to Christianity which never quite leads to conversion can only be an accommodation to the prejudices of his era. Pater’s father was himself an unbeliever and Pater felt strongly enough during his university days to found the Old Morality Club, often described as an agnostic group. Marius’ Christ-like self-sacrifice for Cornelius belies the insistence on the joy of Christianity in contrast to “the heavy burden of unrelieved melancholy” he sees in Marcus Aurelius’ Stoicism. (103) Aware of the strong tendency for Christianity to view the body as corrupt, the world as hopelessly fallen, and the divine judge as stern indeed, he claims that the era of the Antonines represented a milder Christianity, one in which “gladness” is most welcome to God. (292-3) In this form of the church he finds its primary element to be Love. (338) Thus Cornelius’ “pleasantness” is the result of his faith, and to Marius the very first thing “he must ask of the powers” is to be happy in the world. (313) This agreeable sort of Christianity suits Marius’ nature as a “rich and genial character.” (112) Who could argue with a system that promises to deliver a “more durable cheerfulness” of which Greek pagan “blitheness” is a mere “transitory gleam”? (241-2)

Nothing could be more modern than Pater’s acceptance of a world without certainty, without prescribed or revealed values except for those inherent in the human subject. Much of what he says is akin to the Existentialist writers of a half century ago or to more recent post-structuralist ones. Pater finds images for this flux and uncertainty, reusing old tags like a skillful bricoleur. The phrase from Lucretius “flammantia moenia mundi,” which in De rerum natura refers to a specific location between earth and heavens [12] is for Pater a beautiful and nearly mystical image of unknowability, the unstable flux of things and the mysterious boundaries between the human realm and the kosmos, “what might really lie behind,” (110). He cites Hadrian’s lines beginning “Animula, vagula” (101) to represent Marius’ speculation upon the death of Flavian, a poem which simply wonders about the soul’s wandering and the mystery of death, suggesting no answer but only a tone of pathos. The most powerful image of Pater’s enduring skepticism is perhaps the epigraph which might be translated "a winter's dream, when nights are longest." [13] Though Lucian speaks of a specific dream he means to discuss for the edification of the young, the notion of a long winter’s sleep is as well a skeptic’s view of human life experience, unsure of what is real and what is not, experiencing the hallucinatory fantasms of consciousness as we huddle in night-clothes against the cold of life’s inevitable suffering. More than a century later this powerful borrowed image seems not so much modern as timeless.



1. The genre included not only Corelli, a best-selling author for decades, but also books like Bulwer Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes (1835), Kingsley’s Hypatia (1853), Wilkie Collins’ Antonina or The Fall of Rome (1871) Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), and Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (1896). On such texts was built Hollywood’s industry of Biblical epics.

2. William Butler Yeats, “More Memories LXXIII,” The Dial, August 1922, p. 148, reprinted in The Trembling of the Veil.

3. See p. 1273 of Emile Legouis and Louis Cazamian’s A History of English Literature (first published by J. M. Dent in one volume in 1930). For a general treatment see Matthew Potolsky, “Fear of Falling: Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean as a Dangerous Influence,” ELH, Volume 65, Number 3, Fall 1998, pp. 701-729.

4. The first comment from Bloom is on page x of the introduction to the 1970 NAL edition; the second on p. 441 of Genius (Warner: New York, 2002).

5. See Michael Levey’s introduction page 8 of the 1985 Penguin edition.

6. Gowan Dawson, “Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and the Discourse of Sciencein Macmillan’s Magazine," English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol. 48, No. 1, 2005.

7. T. S. Eliot, “Arnold and Pater” originally appeared in The Bookman, Sept. 1930, LXXII, 1, and was later published in his Selected Essays. He was not alone in his opinion. According to Denis Donoghue Eliot’s essay “damaged Pater’s reputation beyond hope of repair in the English-speaking world.” Paul Elmer More had earlier made a similar attack in his Shelburne Essays, 8th Series “Walter Pater.” See also “The Reception of Walter Pater in Europe,” Comparative Critical Studies, Volume 5, Issue 2-3, 2008, p. 330 and David Weir’s “Decadence and Aestheticism: Pater’s Marius the Epicurean,” chapter 4 of his Decadence and the Making of Modernism.

8. Eliot was sufficiently frightened by all the alternatives that he notoriously and rather absurdly called himself, in his preface to the volume For Lancelot Andrewes “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”

9. See Harold Bloom, Genius (New York: Warner Books, 2002), p. 441 “The greatness of Pater is his secularization of the religious epiphany, a displacement in which so many were to be his heirs: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and perhaps all the High Modernists.” For his influence on Joyce see again David Weir’s Decadence and the Making of Modernism.

10. See, for example, Lee Behlman, “Burning, Burial, and the Critique of Stoicism in Pater's Marius the Epicurean,” Nineteenth-Century Prose, Vol. 31, No. 1 , Spring 2004 or Transfigured World: Walter Pater's Aesthetic Historicism by Carolyn Williams.

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