Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Non-“Portrait” portraits

I enjoyed the four stories that made up Imaginary Portraits so I decided to read a couple of additional “portraits”. “The Child in the House” was published in Macmillan’s Magazine in August 1878. The somewhat autobiographical piece is a look at Florian Deleal’s childhood and what Pater called “the process of our brain-building.” This was Pater’s first “imaginary portrait,” a term he coined in a letter sent to the editor of Macmillan’s, meaning for readers to react like they would in front of portrait and speculate what became of the character.

There are many similarities to the stories in Imaginary Portraits. There is much artistic detail provided in descriptions (with emphasis on light and dark again), intricate sentences with many complex clauses, and a movement of time back and forth while telling the story. Unlike the other portraits, this one does entail a sense of escape unless nostalgia counts as such. In the development of Florian, there is an emphasis on the appreciation of beauty and the awareness of pain and death. “For it is false to suppose that a child’s sense of beauty is dependent on any choiceness or special fineness, in the objects whch present themselves to it, though this indeed comes to be the rule with most of us in later life; earlier, in some degree, we see inwardly…”. In relating the big and little things that Florian reminisces about, the story becomes a study on memory associations and events/things that shape us. His awareness of death and pain heighten his appreciation of beauty.

In describing Florian’s development, Pater emphasizes sensory perceptions. Florian “was led to assign very little to the abstract thought, and much to its sensible vehicle or occasion”, the senses being “instinctive in his way of receiving the world…”. As Florian ages, his interest in religious imagery deepens and he uses religion to interpret what is happening to and around him. While nothing much happens in the story, it is a good introduction to the later portraits in their impressionistic technique and intricate writing.

“Apollo in Picardy” was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in November 1893, and feels both the same and as a mirror image of “Denys L’Auxerrois.” The similarity with Denys goes beyond the mythic component:

  • Denys obviously was an updated (to the medieval era, anyway) Dionysus with Apollonian overtones, but Apollyon is a much more subtle blending of the Apollonian/Dionysian attributes,
  • Both stories draw a contrast between the creative or inspiring individual and a structured, stifling world (especially regarding a religious order)—nature vs. civilization, or at least an update on these myths for the modern world,
  • Death, death, and more death, where major issues are left unresolved. Did I mention death?

The difference between the description of Apollyon and the name Apollo in the title promoted some of the dissonance within the work. The name Apollyon can be traced to a fallen biblical angel, whose name translates from the Greek as “destroyer”. Apollyon is the opposite of the Prior, who produces his writings through discipline instead of through creative energy. Discipline and order are used to suppress the imaginative and free yearnings of everyone, with the exception of Apollyon (and previously in Denys). People that are exposed to Apollyon, though, blossom and become more creative without realizing it. In contrast, religion is shown as a stifling habit, devoid of original intent or higher meaning. The transcendence comes from listening to Apollyon’s music or in the play of his games, freeing the individual to experience and enjoy life.

Pater doesn’t seem to be rewriting the ancient myths so much as updating them to reflect the modern world. Greek and Roman myths allowed opposites to coincide, maybe not always peacefully but at least together. Whether the myths were meant to symbolize contrasting natures such as the conscious vs. unconscious or sensual vs. spiritual, there was coexistence or mingling in the opposites. The feeling after reading “Apollo in Picardy” and “Denys L’Auxerrois” is that there is no more coexistence in our divided drives, to the detriment of the sensual. Apollyon kills Hyacinthus (who discovered “his true self for the first time” upon his visit to Picardy) during their games. Denys’ death comes at the hands of those he liberated. Pagan and Christian rites are mingled to the detriment of those participating. Such internal and external differences can no longer live side by side, the modern mind unable to bring dissonance into harmony (or so Pater seems to be saying).

In addition to the complexity of his writing and his emphasis on the influence of impressions, an additional technique that Pater foreshadows in modern writing is the uncertainty of events and characters. Instead of an omniscient narrator, at times gossip and rumor are allowed to stand unchallenged and unanswered. Was Apollyon involved with murder and other wayward actions? Was Denys responsible for the vineyard murder? Even he is unsure. The uncertainty of actors and actions yields an extremely ambiguous reading, dovetailing nicely with the unreconciled division within characters and events. Pater’s modern mythmaking reveals a troubling trend in individual consciousness, unable to live in harmony with the unconscious or society.

I’ll stop with Pater at this point (for now) even though there are several other short stories that are considered “portraits”. Next up is Eça de Queirós’ The Relic.

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