The Mind’s Narrow Chamber By Walter Pater: Reading and Meditation

November 2, 2020  • Todd Breyfogle

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There is an interplay between our sensory experience and our faculties of reflection. On the one hand, we encounter a myriad of objects through sight, sense, touch, hearing, and taste. They draw us out of ourselves; we cannot possibly comprehend them all simultaneously in all their fullness. And they call to us, as Walter Pater puts it, in a thousand forms of action. They demand a response. We ignore them, pass by, forget most almost immediately. But we also step back and reflect. And when we do, those sensory experiences coalesce into a bundle of impressions—we filter, combine, assign concepts and labels which help us make lasting sense of what we have encountered. What is the balance between sense and making sense, between experience as such and our molding of it in our own image? This evocative passage from Pater is puzzling. When “the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind”, are we to lament that we have somehow limited or even falsified our experience? Or are we to marvel that in our narrow frailness we have the capacity to embrace the wide expanse of reality? As we encounter the wonders of the world with all five senses, do we think too much or think too little?

Todd Breyfogle, Denver, Colorado

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