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  • Re-Reading Pater:The Musical Aesthetics of Temporality
  • Brad Bucknell (bio)

"Music" in literary modernism might ordinarily be thought in relation to the inheritance of Mallarmé and other symbolists enamored of things Wagnerian, and therefore associated with modernism's aesthetic dimension.1 This symbolist musical lineage can further be linked to the modernist emphasis upon subjectivity and the concomitant inward turn toward the representation of consciousness and self-consciousness (Aronson 19).2 Music is then related to the attempts by many writers—Joyce, Woolf, Proust, and others—to speak the unspeakable, to represent the unrepresentable (21-22). Music's association with aestheticism and with modernism's subjectivist project seems to connect it to the whole issue of art's self-exile from the horizons of social and political contention—indeed, even from the realm of time and history as such.3 The political [End Page 597] implications of modernism's detemporalizing aestheticism appear plain enough: critics may point toward modernism's elitism,4 or consider modernism as "aloof, [and] hieratic" (Hassan 90) in its predisposition toward "transcendence" (92).5 I think, however, that this notion of the transcendent predilections of modernism can be contested with reference to one of the movement's aesthetic forerunners, Walter Pater, and in terms of some of his best known statements on the ideal art of music.

Pater's claim in The Renaissance that, "All art constantly aspires to the condition of music" (86, Pater's emphasis), seems to offer music as the model for artistic transcendence, with its supposedly perfect blend of form and matter. From one point of view, Pater is merely picking up on a nineteenth-century truism, recapitulating a belief in music's perfections which, from at least the time of Schopenhauer on, places music at the top of romantic and symbolist hierarchies of art. Such hierarchies maintain the primacy of the subject position of both artist and listener, especially since music is traditionally conceived as the most "expressive" of the arts.6 But from another perspective Pater may be offering through his use of music as the paradigmatic art a concise expression of the difficulty and provisionality of the subject's position in relation to time and art. As is clear from Pater's "Conclusion" to The Renaissance, and I think as well in his whole emphasis on "aesthetic criticism," subjectivity is by no means a place of privileged knowledge or certainty. Although Pater may emphasize the importance of the subject in relation to history and aesthetic evaluation, he is not merely extending a late Romantic belief in the primacy of the poet or artist "self" as the ground of epistemological certainty. I will make the case here that with music, Pater figures a paradoxical idealization of art, precisely because of music's age-old association with time. In Pater's hands, music reintroduces the temporal into the very heart of the synchronic moment, and therefore links the limita-tions [End Page 598] of the subject directly to the issues of artistic evaluation, history, and the provisionality of knowledge. Disparaging a programmatic approach to aesthetic perception and to the writing of that perception, Pater develops a complex engagement with the aesthetic object, a doing and undoing which in a sense involves both the object and the perception of it in a profound and enigmatic interplay. Pater's ideas on music, as expressed in The Renaissance, are continuous with his overall epistemological and aesthetic project; indeed, as we will see later on, Pater's statements about music are part of what links him so strongly to the later modernist struggle with time and history. But in order to elaborate fully Pater's sense of "music," I must first give some detailed attention to the problems of knowledge and art with which "he is concerned. My reading of Pater may not answer all the charges against an "elitist" or transcendent modernist aesthetic, but it may offer a foundation for a somewhat different view of modernism's relationship to history, and, in the broadest sense, of modernism's political landscape as well.

Clive Scott, in a discussion of Mallarmé, suggests that for this poet, "[w]riting poetry becomes a means of activating what...


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