Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Child in the House

Frukosten ("Breakfast"), Amalia Lindegren, c. 1866

The problem of beauty has been on my mind today--specifically, the way that age corrupts and diminishes our perceptions of beauty. Do you remember what it was like when you were a kid, and things just delighted your senses without evoking any judgment? I think of people I fell in love with when I was small, and marvel at how beautiful I found them just because they had my love, and because my vision was not tainted by cultural or (god help us) consumer convention. Once we grow away from that state, it's lost forever, but we remember it. It defines the tone of childhood memories.

I don't know of anything in literature that captures a child's experience of beauty better than Walter Pater's "The Child in the House." Pater is considered one of the fathers of the Aesthetic Movement. Oscar Wilde and Gerard Manley Hopkins were both his students, and he's seen as a major influence on 20th century writers from James Joyce to John Ashbery.

"The Child in the House" is probably Pater's most widely read piece. There is something hypnotic, seductive about it, even though its tone is coldly rational, almost severe. I think it's best approached as a prose poem. Read it out loud, and the sentences that seem bloated on the page will begin to flow like a warm current.

Below are couple of passages I happen to particularly like, but do click on the link at the bottom of the post to see the whole essay. It's not terribly long, and there are some extraordinarily lovely passages on linden trees and the like--perfect for the scent fiends among us.

"Let me note first some of the occasions of his recognition of the element of pain in things–incidents, now and again, which seemed suddenly to awake in him the whole force of that sentiment which Goethe has called the Weltschmerz, and in which the concentrated sorrow of the world seemed suddenly to lie heavy upon him. A book lay in an old book-case, of which he cared to remember one picture–a woman sitting, with hands bound behind her, the dress, the cap, the hair, folded with a simplicity which touched him strangely, as if not by her own hands, but with some ambiguous care at the hands of others–Queen Marie Antoinette, on her way to execution–we all remember David’s drawing, meant merely to make her ridiculous. The face that had been so high had learned to be mute and resistless; but out of its very resistlessness, seemed now to call on men to have pity, and forbear; and he took note of that, as he closed the book, as a thing to look at again, if he should at any time find himself tempted to be cruel."


"Thus a constant substitution of the typical for the actual took place in his thoughts. Angels might be met by the way, under English elm or beech-tree; mere messengers seemed like angels, bound on celestial errands; a deep mysticity brooded over real meetings and partings; marriages were made in heaven; and deaths also, with hands of angels thereupon, to bear soul and body quietly asunder, each to its appointed rest. All the acts and accidents of daily life borrowed a sacred colour and significance; the very colours of things became themselves weighty with meanings like the sacred stuffs of Moses’ tabernacle, full of penitence or peace."

Go here to read the entire essay.


Anonymous said...

Hi Maria! I just posted over at Mary's blog how I've been wanting to visit her and you for ages now. Thank you for the beautiful piece (and artwork) - your writing and insights consistently render me speechless (no mean feat, just ask anyone who lives with me lol)
I miss you SO. MUCH. over at the 'fume place ))-:
Love you - T xxxooo

helg said...

Dear M,

thank you for this link! I hadn't had the chance to read it and it is highly intriguing.
Beauty is self-evident in the eyes of a child and almost completely irrelevant to cultural perceptions, which is definitely refreshing.
Thanks again for a lovely post.

Anonymous said...

It seems that the same few writers comment on this blog with each new posting. If they represent the extent of the BitterGrace readership, that is indeed a shame. This blog contains the best writing I know of in the blog world (just look at the last two postings) and deserves a wide audience.

BitterGrace said...

Besotted, it is always so nice to see a word from you. I love that you make time to come read my blather ;-) I miss you and all the other wonderful people at you-know-where (notice how cleverly I worded that. LOL!)

Helg, I do hope you get a chance to read the whole thing, It is incredibly beautiful. I was reading it aloud to myself today, and its perfect eloquence just made me so happy, I was laughing. Madwoman ;-)

Thank you for the kind words, Bozo. I do love and appreciate my cozy little blog family, but the more the merrier. Feel free to promote me!