“Writing Between the Lines”: Style as Walter Pater’s Esoteric Teaching of Queerness

Walter Pater, late nineteenth-century aesthete, is sometimes considered a quietist lacking political engagement. Heather Love points out that Pater has been closely linked to the ills of aestheticism, in particular, political quietism. She challenges this view by proposing to read Pater’s works “not as a refusal of politics but rather as a politics of refusal”.[1] I argue that Pater is not only engaged in a “politics of refusal” but also covertly celebrates unorthodox queerness esoterically to ensure that his radical politics would safely reach out to the select few.

According to Leo Strauss, in repressive times, heterodox ideas can dodge public surveillance by appearing rather innocuous, hence their wide dissemination in print, reaching out to a select group of dissenters who are able to decipher the encoded messages: “Persecution cannot prevent even public expression of the heterodox truth, for a man of independent thought can utter his views in public and remain unharmed, provided he moves with circumspection. He can even utter them in print without incurring any danger, provided he is capable of writing between the lines”.[2] The term persecution covers a variety of phenomena, ranging from the most brutal type, to the mildest, such as social ostracism. Pater’s queer experience of “social ostracism” neatly falls into the latter type of persecution.

Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance is a highly influential promotion of aestheticism that was much scandalised by his contemporaries, especially for sponsoring a hedonistic ethic with his infamous “Conclusion.” Pater was then forced to suppress the offending “Conclusion” in the second edition, because “I conceived it might possibly mislead some of these young men into whose hands it might fall”.[3] To compound Pater’s social precarity, his secret romantic relationship with an undergraduate named William Hardinge was accidentally exposed to some colleagues, including his former tutor, Benjamin Jowett. Hardinge was notorious at Oxford for taking delight in shocking others not just through his homoerotic poetry but also through his homoerotic behaviours, which earned him a reputation of being “the Balliol Bugger”. A friend of Hardinge revealed that he openly confessed to intimately lying in another man’s arms kissing him. The letters Hardinge and Pater exchanged were affectionately signed with “lovingly yours”.[4] Although it’s unclear whether Pater and Hardinge’s relationship was consummated, their intimate exchanges and Hardinge’s brazen homosexual acts suggest a dangerous sexual liaison that may have occurred or could occur at any time. Pater’s biographer A.C. Benson wrote in his diary that: “Pater’s whole nature changed under the strain, after the dreadful interview with Jowett. He became old, crushed, despairing, and this dreadful weight lasted for years; it was years before he realised that Jowett would not use them”.[5] This incident was hushed up within a small circle, but Pater still became socially ostracised. Within a few months, a junior proctorship became vacant, and Pater was next in line for the job, but Brasenose nominated Rev. John Wordsworth instead.

Pater became more cautious in writing after this traumatic incident. Some scholars assume that Pater adopted a more socially acceptable stance later in life, as evidenced by his removal of the controversial “Conclusion” from the second edition of The Renaissance. Furthermore, his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885) recounts the story of Marius, who is exposed to philosophical ideas of the Epicureans, Heracliteans, and the Stoics, and finally is converted to Christianity. All these seem to indicate that Pater retreated from his earlier radical views to conform more to conventional morality. It seems rather an oddly conservative stance taken by Pater who once celebrated La Gioconda’s paganism and exclaimed that “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”.[6] Does this apparent contradiction signal Pater’s U-turn from unorthodoxy towards orthodoxy?

Such apparent contradiction is emblematic of what Leo Strauss calls “esoteric”[7] teaching in repressive times. Strauss insists that political philosophers characteristically hide their actual beliefs behind a sanitised veneer. In Strauss’s view, esoteric writing allowed philosophers to conceal dangerous truths from society at large, while signaling these truths to an inner circle of dissidents. This protected the philosophers and helped disseminate their unorthodox ideas. With this in mind, we can clearly see how Pater’s literary style is telling us a different story, despite its sanitised veneer of conventionalism. Oscar Wilde notes that Marius is “a spectator [of Christianity] merely, and perhaps a little too much occupied with the comeliness of the benches of the sanctuary to notice that it is the sanctuary of sorrow that he is gazing at”.[8] The same can be said of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Even though it tells a story in which a decadent hero is punished, the novel is a far cry from being a condemnation of Decadence. Rather it seems quite the opposite. Corruption is often described as alluring and liberating.

Walter Pater regards literary form as essential for his semiotic struggle against the establishment. In The Gender of Modernity, Felski astutely observes that we should see textuality as politically implicated:

The topos of the feminine, it can be argued, thus serves a specific function in the counterdiscourse of late-nineteenth-century aestheticism, signalling a formal as well as a thematic refusal of an entire cluster of values associated with the ideology of bourgeois masculinity […] The domain of the aesthetic was a seductive one precisely because it allowed for the expression of certain forms of homosexual feeling, albeit in indirect and disguised form, that could not be publicly expressed elsewhere. [9]

She sees in early modernism a self-conscious experiment with style that parallels the emergence of homosexuality as a distinct identity. In his 1889 essay “Style,” Pater contends that “the style is the man, complex or simple, in his individuality, his plenary sense of what he really has to say …nothing is to be left there which might give conveyance to any matter save that”.[10] Therefore, it is not a stretch to say that in Pater’s later works, the semiotic struggle in celebrating queerness is more often found in form than in content, as a means of circumspect counter-discourse against heteronormativity.

Xueying Zhou is a lecturer at the English Department of Beijing University of Chemical Technology. Her research interests include decadence and modernism, and the work of Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater.

Notes & references

[1] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 58.

[2] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, [1952], 1988), p. 24.

[3] Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (London: Macmillan, [1877], 1912), p. 246.

[4] Billie Andrew Inman, “Estrangement and Connection: Walter Pater, Benjamin Jowett, and William M. Hardinge”, in Pater in the 1990s, eds. by Laurel Brake and Ian Small (Greensboro: ELT Press). pp. 1-20 (p. 12).

[5] A.C. Benson, Walter Pater: A Life Remembered, ed. by R. M. Seiler (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1987), p. 254.

[6] Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance (London: Macmillan and Co., 1873), p. 210.

[7] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, p. 17.

[8] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (New York: Philosophical Library), p. 93.

[9] Rita Felski, The Gender of Modernity (London: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 101, p.103.

[10] Walter Pater, Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (London: Macmillan and Co., [1889], 1931), p. 33.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *