Elegant close readings of seminal modern aesthete Pater's passionate criticism coexist uneasily here with an oddly tentative...

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WALTER PATER: Lover of Strange Souls

Elegant close readings of seminal modern aesthete Pater's passionate criticism coexist uneasily here with an oddly tentative biographical study. Donoghue (English/New York Univ.; The Old Moderns, 1994, etc.) sets out to trace how Pater invented a style that would become central to modern culture, by outlining the way in which he connected the modernisms of Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Eliot to antiquity, the Renaissance, and the Romantics. But in biographical sketches, Donoghue falls into some of the bad habits of the literary hagiographer. At times he seems unable to see the society for the eminent personages. (Symptomatic of this problem are several chapter titles that simply string together names -- ""Hopkins, Oscar Browning, Simeon Solomon, Symonds."") Nor does Donoghue entirely escape fetishizing things British and Victorian. The fierce intellectual battles over religion that captivated Pater's Oxford seem rather a lark; Donoghue's delicate treatment of the ""homoerotic disposition"" common to Pater and his circle, while it avoids sensationalism, seems almost to take their age of closets and codes on its own terms. Those familiar with Donoghue's often polemical reviews may be struck by the lack of motivation these chapters exhibit. In contrast, his book's much stronger second half, where he surveys Pater's output and places it in perspective, finds Donoghue struggling-in the best sense of the word -- with issues of aesthetics and politics. Rehabilitating Pater, the champion of art for art's sake, becomes, paradoxically, a means to rescue art and aesthetics from ""the rough strife of ideologues."" Donoghue mixes it up admirably on Pater's behalf, turning weapons of cultural and even deconstructive criticism to the purpose of legitimating aestheticism as an alternative mode of consciousness. Readers will delight in Pater's worldview and in Donoghue's technique; the contradictions of the latter's project, meanwhile, may prove instructive to those trying to practice art for art's sake.

Pub Date: April 2, 1995

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1995