This passage has been excerpted by Philip V. Allingham from Carol Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism & Narrative Doubt. London and Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. ISBN 0-813 9-2217-8, which is reviewed elsewhere in the Victorian Web [GPL]
[According to Carol Levine, Walter Pater's The Renaissance offers a rebuttal of Ruskin's thesis in The Stones of Venice. For instance, for Pater what makes Michelangelo's sculpture wonderful is that it escapes the severe limitations of realism, the inherent stiffness and heaviness of stone, and becomes personal narrative that synthesizes antiquity and modernity, and yet awaits completion for generations beyond its creation:]
In the middle of the Renaissance collection there are two essays that together build a history of sculpture, "Lucca della Robbia" and "The Poetry of Michelangelo," where Pater argues crucial problem for sculpture as an art is its inflexible material itself produces "a hard realism, a one-sided presentment of mere form that solid material frame which only motion can relieve" (50-51; my emphasis). Pater's sculptural "realism" refers to the material reality of the medium rather than the imitation of an object in the world. It is this realism that sculpture must strive always to avoid: "Against this tendency to the hard presentment of mere form trying vainly to compete with the reality of nature itself, all noble sculpture constantly struggles" (51). Desperately fighting against "presentment," sculpture makes it clear that being present is not the aim of the Paterian aesthetic. Realism is not the goal, but the impediment to art in stone.
But what would allow sculpture to escape its own hard "realism"? Stone has a tendency to become a "thing of heavy shadows, and an individuality of expression pushed to caricature" (51). In "Luca della Robbia," Pater describes the ways that "three great styles in sculpture" have freed sculpture from its own heaviness. The Greeks represented generalized, impersonal types of humanity, until they distilled something timeless in the stone: "like some subtle extract or essence, or almost like pure thoughts or ideas" (51). Much later, Michelangelo pushed sculpture to the opposite extreme, representing "the special history of the soul" (52). And "midway between" these two poles were the early Renaissance sculptors: "the system of Luca della Robbia and the ad can sculptors of the fifteenth century, partaking both of the Allgemeinheit of the Greeks . . . and the studied incompleteness of Michelangelo" (53-54). On the one hand, Pater presents this as a kind of Hegelian narrative of sculptural development, in which each phase both incorporates and supersedes the knowledge of the one before on the path to freedom, as stone is progressively released from "its stiffness, its heaviness, death" (51). But on the other hand, this is a narrative told in the order: from the extremity of breadth and universality to the extremity of individualism, and from this opposition to its mean or midpoint, marking what might seem to be the synthesis of antiquity and modernity before modernity has actually happened. After all, Luca della Robbia and his fellows are allowed to "partake" of their successors as much do of their forerunners. Just as the first essay ends with its focus middle of the narrative, "The Poetry of Michelangelo," which follows it, ends with the middle, too. It finishes with a reference to the "tradition of those earlier, more serious Florentines, of which Michelangelo is the inheritor, to which he gives the final expression" (72). Both essays end with a look backward in time.
If we were to reorder the narrative, of course, we would find a progression: from the anonymous Greeks to the shadowy, named but unknown Tuscans to the apex of individual expression found in Michelangelo. But even when we take Michelangelo as the end of the story of sculpture, Pater refuses to provide the rounded conclusion of narrative closure that we might expect of a tale of consummation: Michelangelo leaves "his sculpture in a puzzling sort of incompleteness, which suggests rather than realises actual form" (53). This incompleteness is the triumph of the Michelangelesque. Indeed, the two essays repeatedly emphasize his skill at presenting the feeling of an imminent eruption: "some spirit of the thing seems always on the point of breaking out" (52-53); "an energy of conception . . . seems at every moment about to break through all the conditions of comely form" (57); "the brooding spirit of life itself is there; and the summer may burst out in a moment" (60). If Michelangelo represents the victorious end of a progressive narrative of freedom, his work does not so much embody that freedom as suggest its emergences, stopping at the point between the deathly stasis of blank rock and the realization of completed form. Ironically, Pater calls this studied incompletion Michelangelo's "perfect finish," as if the end were never ending, the completion incomplete.
Since Michelangelo's sculpture provides an escape from the presentment of the real — with its deathly heaviness — Pater suggests that in order to resist "realism" we must focus on the middle of the story, refusing to reach closure, dwelling on transition and incompletion. To put this another way: when Pater explicitly refuses realism, he does so by writing a story that celebrates the suspensions of the middle as the whole content of narrative. In a sense, Pater simply takes Ruskin further down his own path by emphasizing the imperfections of representation, its inability to do anything other than strive to get beyond its own limitations to the other. In narrative terms, this means endless suspending. But Pater also pointedly departs from Ruskinian realism in these essays on sculpture. Pater's Michelangelo, like Ruskin, celebrates the activity of mediation — the painstaking effort to move beyond the materiality of representation to the living breath of the world. But Pater changes the place of the real in this process. The real is no longer alterity, the not-self, but the materiality of sculpture itself. In other words, the goal of sculpture is to become something other than itself — other to itself. Pater relies on Ruskin's structural oppositions, setting art against reality, self against other, and life against death, but he fundamentally alters the role of the real in these oppositions: now it is no longer the other and the source of life in art, but rather art's most rigid self and its potential death.
Can we bring together Pater's two references to realism — Leonardo's childish experiments and Michelangelo's efforts to relinquish the real — as critical responses to Ruskin? It may seem an eccentric conclusion, but in both cases realism is tied to a version of suspense. Leonardo moves between reality and representation, between truth and falsehood, between image and text, never able to come to rest on firm ground. For Michelangelo, meanwhile, realism is hard, deathly stone, the burden of art, and the proper response to this real is to emerge from it. But this does not mean leaving the real behind altogether; it means, instead, life coming out of death, the space between stone and not-stone, the process itself of emergence. In both cases it is the interruption — the suspension — that gives the Renaissance its character.
If the realist experiment has always emphasized the middle of the story, Pater's essays seek to mark only the experience of rupture, the fractured consciousness of the in-between. In The Renaissance, understanding emerges, in large part, from the work of analogy, moving back and forth between two moments, each of which throws light on the otherness of the other. The difference between representation and the "real" in Ruskin was all about the failures of representation; in Pater, those differences themselves become fruitful, allowing us to see both poles in new ways, each in light of new comparisons. Refused any epistemological resting place, we are offered the rupture between perspectives as itself crucial to the production of understanding. As Jonathan Loesberg writes, the "experience itself" of Pater's work calls for a "friction between sensations, a friction necessary for an experience to take shape."
Given the centrality of transition in the production of meaning, it is perhaps not surprising that the narrative of resurrection is one of the most common motifs in the collection: death looking forward to new life, which must look back on death to acquire its significance. Temporal shifts are, of course, integral to narrative. But Pater's narratives, with their emphasis on the middle, are particularly focused on the representation of narrative transition, which cannot be perceived without the movement in two directions. Narrative, like the back-and-forth movement of analogy, requires past and future to act as other to one another.
Indeed, Pater hints at a potential link to be forged between the split understanding born of analogy and the fragmentary perception of narrative time, both of which imagine that meaning is born of division and difference. If this is a conclusion now widely recognized in poststructuralist writing, it is my contention that it works, in Pater's essays, as a response to realism, both pictorial and narrative. Far from replacing the experimental paths of Modern Painters with startlingly new narrative forms, Pater can be read as drawing attention to the structural fissures of the realist text. With hindsight, that is, we can read Pater back on to Ruskin to discover that Modern Painters also rested on analogous relations: the 'eal threw light on the duplicity of painting, just as painting permitted he reality of the real to take shape. Even in grounded Ruskinian realism, respective identities were forged out of the act of their differentiation. Similarly, in a narrative such as Jane Eyre, a single mystery, appearing repeatedly, helped to make the apprehension of temporality possible, the future illuminating the past and the past the future, but with Paterian lenses we might see that each was perceptible only in light of the otherness of the other. Thus Pater's unconventional uses of the same paterns of persuasion potentially reveal the work of realism as the rhetorical production of understanding, haunted by the self-divided moment of perception.
If rhetoric is temporal, temporality is rhetorical, both conceived in the fracturing of perspective, and both, in Pater, crucial to perception. In analogy and narrative transition alike, consciousness is made aware of the divided construction of knowledge itself, which occurs only by way of otherness — representation in light of the real, the past in light of the future. In the end, the analogy between narrative and analogy is not simply formal: it concerns the temporally divided operation of understanding itself: in which object and temporal moment can only be perceived in relation to an other. If Pater's work is not such a fundamentally new narrative model, it is a new and more radical epistemology than the Ruskinian model, deliberately ungrounded in a fixed and knowable world. [pp. 187-91]
- A review of Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense
- Charlotte Brontë's Undermining the Conventions governing the feminine
- John Ruskin's Realism and its effect on his readers
Last modified 21 September 2004