'Definite History and Dogmatic Interpretation': The 'White-nights' of Pater's Marius the Epicurean

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Author: Gerald Monsman
Editors: Juliet Byington and Suzanne Dewsbury
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,141 words

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[(essay date 1984) In the following essay, Monsman asserts that Pater's work contains many alternative possible meanings; its ambiguities, variations, and masks defy final meaning, he concludes.]

"White-nights! so you might interpret its old Latin name. 'The red rose came first,' says a quaint German mystic, speaking of 'the mystery of so-called white things,' as being 'ever an after-thought--the doubles, or seconds, of real things, and themselves but half-real, half-material' ... So, white-nights, I suppose, after something like the same analogy, should be nights not of quite blank forgetfulness, but passed in continuous dreaming, only half veiled by sleep. Certainly the place was, in such case, true to its fanciful name in this, that you might very well conceive, in face of it, that dreaming even in the daytime might come to much there" (Marius, 1: 13-14).1 If the reader is called upon to "interpret" the old Latin of the villa's name as signifying dreaming nights and days (the absence of the original Latin belatedly supplied in a footnote as Ad Vigilias Albas had given the "you" an interpretation in the first two editions of the novel without any means of authentication), then Pater's readers as well as Pater's characters and Pater himself are concerned even more with the problematics of interpreting those dreams themselves. There is a great deal about the meaning of sleep, dreams, and vision not only in the chapter describing Marius' home of White-nights but throughout the novel; indeed, the novel's epigraph seems to characterize the whole work as a fantasy in the mind of the author or reader: "A dream in wintertime, when the nights are longest." Long before Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery and rose by interpreting the Pharoah's dreams, this activity had a venerable tradition. But if Joseph's success lay in what essentially is the technocrat's accurate forecast, Pater's originality is constituted by his realization that meaning always eludes any final form. Every bit as avant-garde as Freud's pioneering work in the interpretation of dreams some fifteen years later, Marius the Epicurean sponsors a theory of interpretation that denies dreams any definitive meaning but instead offers other dreams as their explanation, one behind another like the layers of a lily bulb without a final core (or much like the pages of the text which at Marius' death has circled back to its opening scenes). So too Freud's or Jung's archetypal myths operate like the meaning of the dream scenes in Marius, each patient's history is a layer of the bulb's overlapping leaves, a form of the myth which itself is but a story whose explanation depends on and varies with other myths. The process of interpreting the dreamtext itself is, I intend to show, like the activity of interpreting the old Latin name of Marius' villa--a translation or substitution of one name or sign for another without any final closure. Notice in the opening quotation the dubiety expressed by the triple use of "might," of "I suppose," of "something...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420034396