Tuesday, November 08, 2005

And Who Is Left to Argue With?

Still trawling my way thru Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, now in the midst of Letter LXVII. Perhaps the ideal way to read Fors is as its first readers did, one letter per month – something dependable, to be looked forward to on a regular basis, like the new issue of Guitar World or the latest John Ashbery collection. JR writes like an angel, in long, ironically spiralling periods whose close descends upon you with the force of a piledriver. He is the unacknowledged legislator of the environmental movement: where Thoreau saw a train puffing its way past Walden Pond, Ruskin lived in the homeland of Marx’s industrializing Capital, looked out his windows to see the green & pleasant land wrapt in a poisonous black cloud of factory effluent.

There is much in Ruskin that is impossible to abide: his all-too-absolute self-assurance; his descents into the twee and cute; his vision of radical social order and subordination, which at times makes Dr Johnson seem like a liberal. But then, on almost every page, is some passage whose strength of style & rhetoric burns away whatever is false in it:
There are a few, a very few persons born in each generation, whose words are worth hearing; whose art is worth seeing. These born few will preach, or sing, or paint, in spite of you; they will starve like grasshoppers, rather than stop singing; and even if you don’t choose to listen, it is charitable to throw them some crumbs to keep them alive. But the people who take to writing or painting as a means of livelihood, because they think it genteel, are just by so much more contemptible than common beggars, in that they are noisy and offensive beggars.
Whatever in literature, art, or religion, is done for money, is poisonous itself; and double deadly, in preventing the hearing and seeing of the noble literature and art which have been done for love and truth. If people cannot make their bread by honest labour, let them at least make no noise about the streets; but hold their tongues, and hold out their idle hands humbly; and they shall be fed kindly.
But we have no Ruskin, no Arnold, no conservative cultural critics whose strength of thought and expression is such that they are always worth listening to, even if dead wrong. The recent New Yorker profile of Peter Viereck reminded me that such an animal once existed. His place has been taken by a vaudeville of pharasaical money-launderers & pseudo-intellectual buffoons: the sepulchral James Dobson, his eminently reasonable voice counselling us to beat our 18-month-olds with wooden spoons; the bloated & wobbly Bill Bennett, dispensing nostrums about “virtue” from behind the handle of a slot machine; the pasteboard grandpa Pat Robertson, praying death & destruction upon the Dauphin’s enemies, his face screwed up for all the world like that of a man at difficult stool.

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