QOTD (2010-04-10); or, A Story of Emotional Poles

My last despatch from the valley of trainee scholarship marked a particularly low point in traversing that, so to speak, lonesome valley; today, I seem to have reached instead the highest mountain, and in the course of doing so I finally at long last read these important paragraphs which conclude the Conclusion of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance:

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness o the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of the Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

Last November my side lost an election, and so I took a rare trip to New York and regarded objets d’art. I came home that night and I wrote in black marker on white paper in block capitals two words: “SEEK BEAUTY.” I masking-taped the paper to the wall above my desk and I withdrew into the practice of intellectual engagement. I told myself that henceforth I would achieve the heights and depths of my usual emotional rollercoaster by virtue of texts and paintings and recordings and the appearance and existence of nature around me. I resolved to be thrown neither to despair nor to exultation by the vagaries of Washington; I resolved to close myself off to the angst of adolescence. I notched off another milestone—I began my third decade—and I continued to tell myself daily that, inch by inch, paragraph by paragraph read or written, I am becoming a scholar.

I have grown up and continue to reside in an academic milieu; for all my life I have heard discussed the most canonical of texts in my field(s) before I actually assign myself to encounter them. In many cases it took a college class for me to finally return to the texts my parents have been teaching my entire life. In the case of the Pater, I have read and heard much about these paragraphs from my academic mentors and idols and from my own background reading before I’ve had occasion to at long last read them myself. The background (from mentors and idols, from my own sophomoric scholarship) has led me to believe that all critically and emotionally does not sit well with Pater, but nevertheless I see in these two paragraphs a vindication: of inward-looking living; of high-strung, high-stakes emotion; of shelves and desks and windowsills piled in books; of the life of a circumscribed campus; of dollars spent predominantly on books and caffeine; of the exultation with which I have come to greet a new day’s sunshine. Perhaps this isn’t what Pater meant, precisely—but we make all such influential texts our own, and even if I must eventually read Pater correctly in order to cite him in a putative senior thesis, I still am inclined to believe that if misreading Pater leads me to believe I may do as much good for my own soul and others’ by turning to texts as by travelling to Washington, well: what harm can there be in putting all I have into the search for beauty?

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