Tuesday, April 05, 2005

John Ruskin and Particularism

I listened to the BBC 4 In Our Time discussion of John Ruskin on the way to work this morning, and was struck by a couple of things. (Here is the (main page; the discussants are Dinah Birch, Professor of English at Liverpool University; Keith Hanley, Professor of English Literature and Director of the Ruskin Programme at Lancaster University; and Stefan Collini, Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at the University of Cambridge).

One thing that struck me was the extent to which Ruskin's political investments overlap with those of succeeding generations. For those who haven't heard of him, Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, and William Morris are the dominant voices in the "Pre-Raphaelite" movement in Victorian literature and the arts. [See George Landow's page on Ruskin for more details; and here is a site on Pre-Raphaelite painting] Philosophically, the Pre-Raphaelites were interested in a kind of neo-Feudalism that verged on Fourier-style socialism. Following Ruskin's Modern Painters books, they celebrated Gothic architecture and hierarchical authority. Ruskin apparently described himself as "the sternest kind of Tory," but he was nothing like the other Tories of his era.

In the sense that his work was critical of Victorian industrialization and Capitalism, Ruskin's work had a big influence on many Marxist and progressive thinkers. Also of particular note is his big influence on Gandhi, whose anti-industrial pose owes quite a bit to the ideas of Ruskin and Carlyle (the latter is mentioned with particular enthusiasm in Gandhi's Autobiography).

But the three British Victorianists who are the discussants on this BBC show suggest that, with the seeming current irrelevance of anti-Industrialism protests (except perhaps amongst radical environmentalists), it's unlikely that the political economy side of Ruskin will continue to be compelling for current and future readers. The broad philosophical motive behind Ruskin's political thought is now no longer especially exciting to engage. We are no longer interested in the moral obligation to return to nature, live with the land, or (in the Indian idiom), spin, sew, and embroider our own clothes.

What does remain thrilling in Ruskin's writing is, if anything, the writing itself. As one of the discussants says towards the end of the discussion, Ruskin was not all philosophical abstractions, by no means just an "-ism" thinker as the earlier comments in this post might suggest. If you read Modern Painters (and I confess I've only read a few select sections), you find passage after passage dwelling on the particular visual textures of the English countryside, both natural and man-made. Here's one particularly beautiful paragraph I culled from this website:

For instance, I cannot find words to express the intense pleasure I have always in first finding myself, after some prolonged stay in England, at the foot of the old tower of Calais church. The large neglect, the noble unsightliness of it; the record of its years written so visibly, yet without sign of weakness or decay; its stern wasteness and gloom, eaten away by the Channel winds, and overgrown with the bitter sea grasses; its slates and tiles all shaken and rent, and yet not falling; its desert of brickwork full of bolts, and holes, and ugly fissures, and yet strong, like a bare brown rock; its carelessness of what any one thinks or feels about it, putting forth no claim, having no beauty or desirableness, pride, nor grace; yet neither asking for pity; not, as ruins are, useless and piteous, feebly or fondly garrulous of better days; but usefill still, going through its own daily work, - as some old fisherman beaten grey by storm, yet drawing his daily nets: so it stands, with no complaint about its past youth, in blanched and meagre massiveness and serviceableness, gathering human souls together underneath it; the sound of its bells for prayer still rolling through its rents; and the grey peak of it seen far across the sea, principal of the three that rise above the waste of surfy sand and hillocked shore, - the lighthouse for life, and the belfry for labour, and this for patience and praise.

The idea behind Ruskin's celebration of the decaying church at Calais is roughly congruent with that of Romanticism broadly construed -- the beauty produced by the evidence of the forces of nature, the inextricable (there's that word again) link between human artifice and the inevitable effects of time and age. But more than anything, what I walk away from a passage like that with is the desire to go see the Church he's talking about. (I can't imagine it could still be there.)

That said, if one reads just a little further, one finds that the sweep of comparative architecture, and moral/philosophical investments return in short order to the fore-front:

I cannot tell the half of the strange pleasures and thoughts that come about me at the sight of that old tower; for, in some sort, it is the epitome of all that makes the Continent of Europe interesting, as opposed to new countries; and, above all, it completely expresses that agedness in the midst of active life which binds the old and the new into harmony. We, in England, have our new street, our new inn, our green shaven lawn, and our piece of ruin emergent from it, - a mere specimen of the Middle Ages put on a bit of velvet carpet to be shown, which, but for its size, might as well be on a museum shelf at once, under cover. But, on the Continent, the links are unbroken between the past and present, and, in such use as they can serve for, the grey-headed wrecks are suffered to stay with men; while, in unbroken line, the generations of spared buildings are seen succeeding each in its place. And thus in its largeness, in its permitted evidence of slow decline, in its poverty, in its absence of all pretence, of all show and care for outside aspect, that Calais tower has an infinite of symbolism in it, all the more striking because usually seen in contrast with English scenes expressive of feelings the exact reverse of these.

For Ruskin, the English have a penchant for marking off the past in a museumy way, while Continentals (Ruskin had traveled extensively in France, Germany, and Italy), live with the distant past in a much more mundane, functional, and integrated way. Ruskin never met a generalization he didn't like: he reads the distinction as symbolic of a broad moral divide between English and Continental thinking.

The challenge is to bracket Ruskin's penchant for "symbolism," and read against the grain of his philosophy by reading in the grain of his finely descriptive language. Perhaps if we look closely at the rhythms of his prose (especially in the first passage I quoted), we might continue to find new and vital ways to read Ruskin.


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