Introduction: Bodies and Things

  • Katharina Boehm
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


In his famous ‘Conclusion’ to The Renaissance (1873), Walter Pater evokes an intricate network, a ‘web’ of endlessly extending material threads, to describe the intimate, physiological rapport that exists between subjects and objects. Departing from Cartesian dualism, the passage suggests that the shared materiality — ‘phosphorus and lime and delicate fibres’ — of the human body and inanimate matter makes it impossible to define with any precision where the self ends and the material world begins. Pater’s study frequently resolves the subject-object relationship into a universal aesthetic impressionism. However, even in instances in which he asserts the autonomy of the perceiving subject (‘[e]very one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation’), the subject remains so thoroughly permeated by the sensory experience of the material world that his or her whole being is determined by it: ‘It is with this movement, with the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off — that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.’2 The deliberate vagueness of phrase in Pater’s ‘Conclusion’ emphasizes the ambiguous positions of subject (as possessing agency) and object (as lacking in agency). In this excerpt, Pater’s syntax transforms the human self into the passive object of the sentence: ‘the elements of which we are composed’; reciprocally, the material forces that act upon the self exert an agency that seems to contradict their object status.


Object World Bodily Object Object Relationship Cartesian Dualism Inanimate Matter 
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© Katharina Boehm 2012

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  • Katharina Boehm

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