Thursday, May 22, 2008

Imaginary Portraits discussion: Chapter 4

“Duke Carl of Rosenmold”

Having read this several weeks ago before a vacation break and work overload, I run the risk of leaving out much of what struck me as important or good about this story. While enjoying it, I did feel it was the weakest of the four portraits in the collection. Or at least the one that connected the least.

Several things come together in Imaginary Portraits with this story: the setting is continental Europe, the time is a not-so-golden past, the characters involve mythical gods (or pale imitations of them) come back to life, art criticism is couched within the fiction, and themes involving escape are common. In this story we see Duke Carl, who is compared to Apollo by his countrymen, discovering the beauty and importance of the Italian Renaissance. There are several thematic facets of Apollo that reside in Carl: a bringer of light, a discoverer of truth, and a patron of the arts. With the use of light, artificial sources versus natural light has important symbolism in the story.

Yet Carl is often described as “a really heroic effort of mind at a disadvantage.” He valued pale imitations of masterworks, intimating that he is a pale imitation of the god Apollo. When a masterpiece from the Renaissance is unveiled in Rosemond, no one is able to comprehend and appreciate its greatness. The cheapening of ideals comes to fruition with his Tom Sawyer-like fake death and funeral which he Carl witnesses. While this echoes the romanticism of death by Sebastian Van Storck, it highlights once again the ennui and decay in continental Europe (especially as compared to the Renaissance)…or maybe I’m reading too much judgment in Pater’s descriptions.

One additional theme that also appears to shine through is Pater’s belief that knowledge of the past is indispensible in understanding the self. Carl’s trip through the German countryside and yearning to learn more about the source of the Italian Renaissance shows one attempt at achieving this. However he works alone, drawing wrong conclusions “without a ray of light from others.” He reads too much into things and gets his history wrong while being “without suspicion of the cynic afterthought that such historic soul was but an arbitrary substitution, a generous loan of one’s self.”

Carl’s new poetic code was going “straight to life,” seeking adventure without considering the responsibilities of his title in order “to cheat a little the profound ennui of actual life.” In a tactic similar to his mock funeral, he directs his lover (a common country lass) with a test of her devotion. While his disappearance is unexplained, certainly ignoring larger political and military events going on around him played a role in his demise. The story begins its conclusion with this explanation:

”The Enlightening, the Aufklaerung, according to the aspiration of Duke Carl, was effected by other hands; Lesser and Herder, brilliant precursors of the age of genius which centered in Goethe, coming well within the natural limits of Carl’s lifetime. As precursors Goethe gratefully recognised them, and understood that there had been a thousand others, looking forward to a new era in German literature with the desire which is in some sort a “forecast of capacity,” awakening each other to the permanent reality of a poetic ideal in human life, slowly forming that public consciousness to which Goethe actually addressed himself. It is their aspirations I have tried to embody in the portrait of Carl.”

This explanation leaves me a little uncertain. Is Pater trying to say that gods and myths are not tied to one person but more a product of what is happening in the public spirit? Or that people like Carl, untalented yet above the surrounding level, can improve the chance for the culmination of true greatness—fulfilling his aspiration that greatness reappear in the world? Or some other meaning altogether?

By recasting ancient myths in modern times (or in the case of Denys L’Auxerrois, in medieval times), much of the original intent of the myths have been discarded. Whether they were originally meant to explain natural causes or explore the division of the conscious versus the unconscious is no longer as important since science had improved greatly and psychology was burgeoning. Areas that myth still help explain, regardless of time, is in the search for meaning and in the understanding of creation. The updating of these myths is a lot more open-ended than the original myths, highlighting the dual nature of many of the original mythic characters. Regardless of the ultimate meaning intended, these portraits allow Pater to use fictional characters to comment on art, analyze the human condition, and investigate the relationship between past and present.

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