As I read Pater’s Imaginary Portraits and get comfortable with his style and approach, the more I feel like I'm looking at a painting. Everything ties together, although you don’t always realize it at the time…the narrative may not be part of the main subject but it works its way into shaping how you view the overall work. “Sebastian Van Storck” is set in 17th century Holland when Dutch society enjoys the fruits of power and prosperity. The title character rejects society, family, art, and love (although he doesn’t reject the ease of life that affluence provides in a well-to-do family), vainly trying to escape what he sees as imprisoning forces around him.
”Sebastian had come to think all definite forms of being, the warm pressure of life, the cry of nature itself, no more than a troublesome irritation of the surface of the one absolute mind, a passing vexatious thought or uneasy dream there, at its height of petulant importunity in the eager, human creature.”
He seeks to obtain “the restoration of equilibrium, the calm surface of the absolute, untroubled mind, to tabula rasa” by extinguishing or suppressing oneself. Sebastian rejects the materialism he sees around him and embraces a nihilism that leads him to attempt suicide. Once again, escape, symbolic and literal, is a major theme in these portraits.
As in the previous portraits, Pater clearly ties the internal life and the society as a whole. Despite being highly regarded by everyone, Sebastian is physically sick in addition to a melancholy spirit. Society tries to engage Sebastian, but usually for its own benefit—free dinners, marriage prospects, wealth seeking—things to benefit the individual at the exclusion of others. Pater intends Sebastian’s life to be a cautionary tale judging from the attending physician’s comment at the end of the portrait of the disease emerging “on people grown somewhat over-delicate in their nature by the effects of modern luxury.” In addition, Pater seems to be coming down hard on the romantic view of suicide…just because death was inevitable doesn’t mean that it should be sought before its time. When actively seeking death, Sebastian saves the life of a child. Finding a purpose that lies beyond one’s self gives meaning and purpose lacking in all other aspects of his life. While the emerging disease is literal, it also represents a metaphorical tuberculosis (and melancholy) that can affect those becoming too “delicate” in nature.
A strong watery component fills this portrait, starting with the setting itself. Holland is described as half land, half water and constantly under threat of being consumed by the sea. The storm at the end of the story shows the delicate balance and reliance on the dykes for the country’s wellbeing. In addition to describing life around this constant watery threat, Pater’s language adds to the feel. One example: “…(T)he monotonous tide of competing, fleeting existence.”
Emerging from these portraits are philosophical views embodied in tragic fables. Next will be the final portrait in this collection, “Duke Carl of Rosenmold,” and hopefully some additional stories by Pater that fit the Imaginary Portraits mold.