Ends of Worlds: An Introduction by the Guest Editor

  • Ellis Hanson


The phrase about the ‘ends of the world’ is familiar enough, not just to readers of the Bible, where it appears amid dire warnings about temptation in 1 Corinthians 10:11, but of course also from Pater’s quintessentially decadent description of the Mona Lisa, where the biblical quotation is taken splendidly out of context to evoke a modern sensibility, the very ‘symbol of the modern idea’,[i] as he writes, a sweeping together in the knowing countenance of a Renaissance portrait all human temptations, all spiritual and worldly aspirations, whole networks of global trade and cultural exchange extending back much farther than those mere thousand years, extending not just to various nations and continents, but also to the depths of the sea and the secrets of the grave. Pater evokes one fallen empire after another as he deftly, if improbably, refigures Mona Lisa as a pearl-diver, a silk-trader, a goddess, a mother, even a vampire. At the droop of that weary eyelid, he is reminded that ‘modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life.’[ii] So many ends of worlds in a sublimely weary eyelid! Decadence is ostensibly a theory of the end of a world, but it has a way of collecting worlds without end. Pater elsewhere challenges us to see the visible outlines of the face as ‘a design in a web, the actual threads of which pass out beyond it’,[iii] extending indefinitely, beyond imagination – and yet continuing to twitch and vibrate like delicate nerves, transmitting messages we can scarcely begin to read.  


[i] Walter Pater, The Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 80.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., p. 150.