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Jun 14, 2012

Walter Pater

“MARIUS THE EPICUREAN” Walter Pater (written 1881-1884; first published 1885)

Reading William Colenso’s letters-to-the-editor on nineteenth-century religious controversies leads me into a piece of sheer self-indulgence.

I am about to examine and praise a book which has a very dubious reputation and is filled with faults. It is also a book whose religious outlook represents nearly everything Colenso hated. If William Colenso was at heart an Evangelical – a man who referred every religious argument to the Bible and who hated religious ritual – then Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean is a book that pushes love of ritual to sheer aestheticism. The Bible and Christian precept vanish in a puff of incense.

Walter Pater (1839-94) was a discreet and retiring Oxford don, an historian and aesthetician whose writings inspired a couple of generations of British “Decadents”, Oscar Wilde being their flashiest exponent. Pater lived quietly and died a virgin. (One slightly rude reference I saw declared that he was “probably innocent of any sexual experience with another human being”.) Nevertheless, the tone he set was deeply homo-erotic – a world of gaily dressed young men burning incense on their rooms as they read the “pagan” poetry of Algernon Swinburne to each other, and wondered if they should become High Church Anglicans or Catholics or merely swan off to the south of France together and write bad poetry.

A world of camp, in other words.

For many such young men, Marius the Epicrean was the Bible, at least it was if they hadn’t yet got around to reading the more interesting French works of Joris-Karl Huysmans.

Plot? There isn’t one.

Marius the Epicurean is essentially a set of reflections tied together by the merest wisp of narrative. (A joker once characterised the book with reference to Keats’ great line as a character “alone and palely loitering”).

In the Rome of the pagan philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the late 2nd century AD, young Marius tastes and tries the truth of a series of philosophies. The action, such as it is, is all inward and mental, creating a sense of passivity in the main character. There are some passages on the Christian widow Cecilia, and on the concept of motherhood, but Marius’ strongest attachments are to males – with the young man Flavian, who dies of the plague, and with a chap called Cornelius, who expresses vigour and youth. This squares very much with the mindset of the timid bachelor don who wrote the book and who died, unmarried, in the house of his sisters.

Passivity and lack of strong sexual attachment define the delicate sensibility of Marius as he tentatively fingers the surface of life, having never taken the radical plunge into commitment, let alone marriage and procreation. In short, he is a spectator of life’s most essential dramas. Though Marius dies in early middle age, and though Walter Pater was in his forties when he wrote this book, I read it as the sensibility of a sensitive, and as-yet-untried, adolescent.

So much for playing psychologist to a mind finer than my own.

What of the conscious subject-matter of the book?

Essentially, the Epicureanism of Marius is the method against which various available philosophies are tried. – first the traditional pagan “religion of Numa” for those who still believe in the ancient pagan gods; then dinner-table aestheticism; and finally Stoicism and early Christianity.

Epicureanism says that ultimate answers are unknowable (is there a God or afterlife etc.?). Therefore, value in life has to be found in the lived experience of the senses. But, fully aware that this could become a formula for mindless hedonism, Pater says that value means what is true to human experience; what is morally right; what we feel happy with when we survey our memories. In other words, forswearing traditional religious answers, he gives moral gravity to the concept of living well. Or at least he tries to. In practice it means that all philosophical systems are subjected to judgement by aesthetic criteria. How true are they to human feeling; to a sense of wellbeing; to the creation of beauty?

For all its attractions, the old pagan religion is rejected by Marius/Pater as it does not account adequately for tragedy in human life. Marius ceases to be a worshipper of the old gods when plague carries off his friend Flavian.

Stoicism is immensely attractive in the court of the emperor Marcus Aurelius and in the personal goodness of the (Christian-hating) emperor himself. But it ends creating a profound melancholy in Marius. After all, if we endure pain and suffering as Stoics do, by seeing them as mere unreal shadows that will pass, then we are also saying that the joys and goodness of life are mere shadows. Life is drained of reality and meaning. Stoicism stands back from the physical world, undervalues it and contemplates it passively. It simply does not account for human passions. (I wonder how much Pater was aware that this rejection could apply equally to the arguments of Schopenhauer in his own lifetime?)

So, in the novel’s final sections, Marius gives his qualified approval to (civilised, urban, Roman) Christianity. This is not on the basis of any Christian doctrine (doctrines are never examined) but on the strength of Christianity’s aesthetic appeal as a religion whose rituals feast the human senses without ignoring essential human feeling. Dying on the last page, Marius receives the Christian sacrament, but there is no sense that he has ceased to be an Epicurean. He has simply found a congenial home for his worldview.

I can see how for Pater and others this could lead straight into the type of smell-and-bells Catholicism that luxuriates in the rituals of (pre-Vatican II) Catholicism without taking on board any of the church’s teachings.

More significantly, though, I am struck by the similarity of the Aesthetic answer of Pater to the popular Existentialism of a later age. Both deny the validity of received values, traditional religion and absolute answers. In essence both say the individual has to create his/her own values – by moral choice, according to the Existentialist, or by fine receptivity, according to the Aesthete. I wonder if both systems cannot in fact be read as nostalgia for faith and ultimate value in an age where reason denies such ultimates? Significantly Marius the Epicurean is set in an era when traditional (pagan) religion is decaying – like our own post-Enlightenment world?

A few words about the novel as a piece of prose. Often on this blog, I’ve expressed a taste for those 19th century novels where the narrative breaks off for self-contained essays. Paradoxically, though, when I come to a novel that is all essay, I find it very hard going. Pater has an elaborate prose style – long sentences with numerous qualifying and subordinate clauses and a deliberate gravitas of meditation. More challenging is the fact that this is a novel which attempts to make sensual experience itself its philosophic point. It is easier to read of the clash of philosophic ideas than of the fine gradations of the senses. Frequently, as I read Marius the Epicurean, I was reminded of the more obtuse passages of Henry James. You read a whole page, stop, and wonder if the page was about anything at all.

In the very first chapter, Pater describes young Marius’s mind thus:

“Some very lively surmises, though scarcely distinct enough to be thoughts, were moving backwards and forwards in his mind, as the stirring wind had done all day among the trees.”

Even as I luxuriated in parts of it, I wondered if this couldn’t be the epigraph for the whole novel. But at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that William Colenso would have hated it.

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