A Student Response to Walter Pater

The Flame and the Gem

Can we truly understand and experience the world around us as simply being a “gem-like flame” (Pater 210) without wanting to dig deeper or wanting to know what that gem is? I believe that human curiosity could bar us from that. That people want to know more about something they like even if it may be hard to understand. I find myself aligning relatively closely to the idea of aestheticism — the seemingly intrinsic values of seeing something for what it is and no more. To find pleasure in reading literature and feeling the emotions that seeped through the author onto the pages. However, when I made this realization, I found that I was shocked by it. When I find something that piques my interest, I want to figure out more about it. I would argue that a balance struck between these ideas can offer greater pleasure than simply having aestheticism or overanalyzing every experience one has. I’d like to explore the duality between aestheticism and rational, more deliberate forms of thinking when dealing with music.

Music and its myriad genres is very subjective to the individual who listens. Whether it’s the synthpop beats of the 70s and 80s or the more contemporary electronic dance music or indie scene, music is an art form to lose one’s self in. It “[sets] the spirit free for a moment” (211) and with that freedom we can escape into melancholic playbacks of those “better days,” having a good time with friends, or simply reliving the moment the song caught your attention with a delightful first listen. For an aesthete, music delivers consistently on the values Pater emphasizes. Anyone can be their own critic of beauty in music.

There’s two sides to every coin, though, and having a more analytical approach can be gratifying just as much as an aesthetic view. Either side is lacking without the other to support it. Take Steven Universe’s “Here Comes a Thought” for example. The song itself touches on the subject of introspection contrasting aestheticism’s point of view. Through the song’s visuals, butterflies made of light are symbolic of troubles that may arise from daily life and interpersonal relationships. During the song’s first half, Ruby and Sapphire are confronted with such troubles. Ruby, being hot headed, chases after one butterfly and obsesses over it as Sapphire is overwhelmed by hundreds. This is symbolic of the relationship between aestheticism and rational thought such as that in the Victorian era. Sapphire, being representative of rational/analytical approach to a subject, sees many ways of interpreting it to the point of being overwhelmed. Ruby, on the other hand, represents the “gem-like flame” (210) that Pater argues is “success in life” (210). It’s clear to see that both are troubled. Like the Victorian era cult of aestheticism was cast aside by the highly religious at the time, the two ideals can be placed together to work in harmony. Ruby and Sapphire are two parts of Garnet, the character which sings in “Here Comes a Thought” and similarly how aestheticism and analytical thought can work together to form a better understanding of one’s self and the works of art that bring us pleasure.

Movie soundtracks come to mind such as those from Inception and Interstellar by director Christopher Nolan. Most notably “Time” and “Mountains” respectively. The gripping dread brought by “Time” in the final scenes of Inception would lose its impact on the audience had it only been taken as a soundtrack. The implications of the Dom Cobb’s Totem are enhanced by the bittersweet sound and ambiguous ending of Inception which brings about analysis from the viewer. Has Dom woken up from his dream? Is he still trapped in the world of his creation? As for “Mountains,” the ticking of the clock makes the audience aware of how precious time is. Every hour on Miller (planet) equating to seven years on Earth. The tension created is palpable.

Aestheticism spreads across all forms of art as it is very subjective for each individual. The balance brought with comparing aesthetic experiences with more deliberate thought can expose greater understanding and pleasure. Whether it’s music, literature, poetry, art, the experiences I’ve had were never lesser when extracting meaning from every surface or simply for leisure. It all comes down to which side of the coin one wishes to see.

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