“Doomed Creatures of Immature Radiance”: Renaissance, Death, and Rapture in Walter Pater

  • Kevin Ohi


While it has often been observed that Walter Pater writes prose of a surpassing loveliness, it has been observed perhaps less often how uncannily strange it is, haunted by eroticized images of death, by beautiful corpses, their lips still red with life in the grave, by vacantly staring statues, and by dead, dying, indifferent, or precociously melancholic children. Exploring these uncanny figures suggests why it might be said that, for Pater, aesthetic experience is erotic. This eroticism is to be found less in the celebration of particular desires—even though Pater can be startlingly explicit—than in his model of aesthetic reception and the relations it sets out between spectator and work of art, and between reader and text. He is absorbed by the paradoxical coalescence of an absolute identification with spectacle and an absolute failure of identification; the uncanny figures of Pater’s prose articulate the blending of an identification verging on radical self-loss with a melancholic experience of disjunction—for instance, between life and death, between viewer and work of art, or between the erotic possibilities of a rhapsodically imagined past (most notably in ancient Greece) and an erotically repressive contemporaneity. Articulated in spectatorial, rhetorical, identificatory, and historical terms, such disjunctions and mergers traverse his many ruminations on aesthetic experience and mark them as erotic. One name for the erotic disorientations of art, for the coalescence of merger and disjunction Pater describes, might simply be rapture.


Aesthetic Experience Aesthetic Sense Aesthetic Object Stiff Limb Aesthetic Ideal 
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© Kevin Ohi 2005

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  • Kevin Ohi

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