August 17, 2002

1. Walter Pater

A Phlit subscriber in Egypt sent me a link to an article on Walter Pater, the English writer best known for his book, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry.1 The article appeared in an American monthly called The New Criterion. I had never heard of The New Criterion, but I now realize that it’s a major publication, perhaps this country’s best periodical on higher culture. It regularly carries articles on major writers from earlier centuries — such as Walter Pater. These articles are usually written in the form of book reviews; the article on Pater, for example, is a review of a recent book on Pater. The New Criterion’s politics are right-of-center, it often lambasts left-wing academics, and it carries articles by prominent conservatives such as Robert Bork. Its managing editor, Roger Kimball, is affiliated with St. John’s College, a college that focuses on The Great Books. (St. John’s has two campuses, one in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and one in Annapolis, Maryland.)

Pater was born in 1839, five years before Nietzsche, fifteen years before Wilde. Like Nietzsche and Wilde, Pater lacks the religious and moral principles that guided earlier generations. Perhaps this generation was the first that was raised with a secular world-view. Pater lacks the deep religious and moral feelings that one finds in Ruskin, who was born twenty years before Pater, and Pater never experienced the painful erosion of faith that Ruskin experienced.

If Pater lacked religious and moral principles, what did he live for? Pater lived for art and for experience. These two goals are related because art itself is an experience (the experience of reading, the experience of listening to music, etc.), and because experience can be treated aesthetically (the singing of birds, a sunset, life in general). For Pater, experience is not something to be gotten through, it’s something to be valued for its own sake; what matters in life is not the destination, but the road: “Not the fruit of experience,” Pater wrote, “but experience itself, is the end.... Life as the end of life.”2 (This phrase reminds one of the phrase, “Art for art’s sake”, which was the motto of the Aesthetic Movement, the movement that Pater inspired and Wilde championed.3) As Kimball says, “Life [for Pater] was not a continuously unfolding whole but a series of lyric moments: ‘In a sense [wrote Pater] it might even be said that our failure is to form habits.’”

Does this remind you of Zen? Is there something Zennish in Pater, in Wilde, in the Aesthetic Movement? Is the Aesthetic Movement part of a convergence between Western thought and Eastern thought, a convergence that was taking place in the decades before Zen reached the West (that is, before 1900)? Didn’t Alan Watts, the famous writer on Zen, say “Zen lies so close to the ‘growing edge’ of Western thought”?4 On my desk is a book called Full Catastrophe Living, which discusses meditation, yoga, etc. This book has the spirit of Zen (or should I call it “the spirit of Pater”?). Chapter One is called “You Have Only Moments To Live.” The epigraph of Chapter One is a quote from an 85-year-old woman in Louisville: “Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.” Isn’t this Pater’s creed?

Pater’s first major work was The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. It created a sensation in the English literary world because of its lack of religion and morality; Pater was excoriated as a corrupter of youth. Pater’s next major work was Marius the Epicurean, a long historical novel about a young man growing up in the waning days of the Roman Empire, and the early days of Christianity. Marius shows a deep understanding of Roman history and culture, but it’s a rather dry, tedious novel; you’ll find it worth finishing, but you’ll regret starting it. The protagonist, Marius, is loosely based on Pater himself. Pater connects his own Zennish world-view with certain schools of ancient philosophy, especially Epicureanism. (Pater never seems to have connected his world-view with Eastern philosophy. Thoreau, on the other hand, who is the most Zennish writer of Pater’s time, was fascinated by Eastern philosophy, though he didn’t live long enough to learn about Zen per se.)

Marius reminds one of Zen (and of Thoreau) by his emphasis on the present moment: “the little point of this present moment alone really is, between a past which has just ceased to be and a future which may never come.” Marius resolves “to exclude regret and desire, and yield himself to the improvement of the present with an absolutely disengaged mind.”5 This focus on the present is found among animals and children, and it might be argued that culture takes us away from the present. Pater, however, argues that culture conduces to an appreciation of the present: “the real business of education — insight, insight through culture, into all that the present moment holds in trust for us, as we stand so briefly in its presence.”6 While Thoreau approaches Zen through Nature, Pater approaches Zen through Culture.

Pater insists that living in the moment doesn’t mean living for the moment: “Not pleasure, but fulness of life, and ‘insight’ as conducting to that fulness.”7 Pater’s world-view isn’t hedonism, Zen isn’t hedonism, meditation isn’t the way to pleasure.

Pater realizes that his Zennish world-view is a kind of religion. Pater’s contemporaries were wrong to say that he had no religion; he had a religion, but it wasn’t their religion. Pater’s religion emphasized means rather than ends; his protagonist, Marius, is unsure about his ultimate ends, but resolves to use means that “have something of finality or perfection about them... the means should justify the end.” This way of living “might come even to seem a kind of religion... by virtue of its effort to live days ‘lovely and pleasant’ in themselves, here and now.”8 Zen’s two favorite words are “here” and “now”, and it urges us to “be here now”.

Pater contrasted Romantic and Classical, and described the Classical as similar to Zen. He spoke of, “that inexhaustible discontent, languor, and home-sickness, that endless regret, the chords of which ring all through our modern literature. It is to the romantic element in literature that those qualities belong.” On the other hand, the Classical approach is to appreciate the world around us, to celebrate it: “One day, perhaps, we may come to forget the distant horizon... to be content with ‘what is here and now’; and herein is the essence of classical feeling.” So Pater sees the Classical as Zennish, the Romantic as un-Zennish.

Though the connection between Pater and Zen is clear, the New Criterion article seems unaware of it. People who respect The Classics often ignore Zen, and Alan Watts is probably ignored at St. John’s College.

Just as Pater looks different through the eyes of Zen, so too Western literature as a whole — and Western philosophy, too — will look different when scholars begin to view it through the eyes of Zen.

2. Aphorisms

A. God is dead, said Nietzsche. What now? How has Western civilization responded to the death of God?

  1. nihilism, suicide There was an epidemic of suicide among Russian radicals in the late 19th century. Gorky, who moved among radical students, said “how many of the people I have known have abandoned life of their own choice!”9
  2. art Art treated with the sort of respect that was once reserved for religion (Pater, Proust).
  3. nature (Thoreau, environmentalism)
  4. rationalism The attempts to arrange society according to a rational plan — Communism, for example — result from the death of God. The goal of these plans is to create an earthly utopia, which will replace the heavenly utopia that has been lost.

B. When I was traveling in England two years ago, my mother (whom I was traveling with) noticed that a young man of 18 or 20 was having a conversation with a man of 70 or 75. She found this striking, and didn’t think she would see this in the U.S., where young people inhabit a world of their own, cut off from other generations (the so-called “generation gap”). Peer pressure seems stronger in the U.S. than in other countries, and peer pressure keeps young people away from people who aren’t in the peer group.

Assuming this is true, it raises the question, “why is peer pressure especially strong in the U.S.?” Perhaps because American parents don’t have firm roots — roots in religion, in culture, in history, in society, etc. Perhaps American youngsters turn to their peers for a life, a future, an identity because they don’t find a solid foundation at home.

C. I spoke to a man who went to Amherst College in the late 60s, about ten years before I went to Harvard. He remembers talking to his classmates about literature, he remembers that certain classmates were very knowledgeable in certain fields; he said he learned more in the cafeteria than anywhere else. On the other hand, I don’t recall a single conversation about literature — except once, when a classmate asked another classmate, “do you like Flannery O’Connor?” and received the response, “I like her work.” That was the only mention of literature that I ever heard outside the classroom in my years at Harvard. (Perhaps it sticks in my memory because it was different from every other conversation that I heard in those years.)

What changed between the late 60s and the late 70s? Perhaps that was the decade in which American colleges, and American society in general, became fully democratic, and the last faint traces of a leisure class vanished. And when the leisure class vanished, education became vocational, education became preparation-for-a-career, and culture was no longer regarded as something intrinsically valuable. The mantra of higher education became Diversity; intellectual ferment was lost.

D. His wife could light up a room, and he could darken a room, so if the two of them were together, chiaroscuro effects were achieved that reminded some people of Rembrandt, and others of Caravaggio.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. The article is by Roger Kimball, and appears in The New Criterion, May 1995. back
2. See the Kimball article, and also Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, ch. 8 back
3. If you want to learn more about The Aesthetic Movement, don’t forget the young André Gide, especially his novel, The Immoralist, which was deeply influenced by Wilde. back
4. The Way of Zen, preface back
5. Marius the Epicurean, ch. 8 back
6. ibid back
7. ibid, ch. 9. Virginia Woolf appreciated the Zen element in Thoreau, and sensed the kinship between Thoreau and Pater. When Woolf speaks of Thoreau, she uses Pater’s famous phrase “hard, gem-like flame.” Wikipedia: “Another influence on Woolf was the American writer Henry David Thoreau, with Woolf writing in a 1917 essay that her aim as a writer was to follow Thoreau by capturing ‘the moment, to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame.’” back
8. ibid back
9. Gorky, My Universities back