Thursday, June 08, 2006

Ruskin v. Beowulf

So Jessica’s decided to drop this fall’s Ruskin seminar in favor of an Old English course. Now how, if I were inclined to argue with what after all is totally her decision, would I argue between the two? First off, I’d say good on you for taking the Old English; I never did – the medievalists were pretty hardcore at Cornell (tho they also had more fun than anyone else) & I was intimidated – & I’ve regretted it ever since. But how often does one get to read Ruskin in a formal setting? (I’m of course discounting J’s prof’s zany requirement that everyone read Tim Hilton’s 900+ page biography of Ruskin over the summer – it’s a grand book, but that’s overkill; read John Batchelor or John Dixon Hunt.)

Some of the blog’s 8 readers know I have a thing for Ruskin, and perhaps I’m just being totally jealous that Jessica’s having this educational opportunity that I never had. But I am fascinated by Ruskin, & if I had to put the case for him in five points or less, it’d go something like this:
•Some of the very best, perhaps the best, English prose of the 19th century. Call it occasionally “purple,” call it overwrought, it’s still magnificent.

•Wonderfully perceptive and thought-thru art criticism; you may think he’s dead wrong about what he values and what he disses, but you can’t dismiss his discussions.

•Along with Karl Marx, the most biting social critic of the 19th century (yes, he takes it in a totally different direction than Marx, but he recognizes the cash nexus and alienated labor as the main problems in contemporary society, & he writes about them more eloquently than anyone else).

•The beginnings of cultural criticism as we know it: someone’s got to write the book that links Ruskin to Pound (who called JR a “goose,” but who owed him pretty much everything), to Benjamin, and to the rest of the Frankfurt School.

•The crucial link between Victorianism and Modernism (which I gather is the theme of the course, & which I’d give my eye-teeth to be sitting in on – can I get a syllabus when Fall comes around, Jessica?).
And of course I’m leaving aside the sheer weirdness of the guy: begins his career writing a book on Turner that morphs into a 7-volume celebration of Venetian Renaissance painting; becomes promoter-in-chief for the pre-Raphaelites; after his wife walks out of their (unconsummated, because of some hangup he had with female anatomy) marriage, becomes a confirmed (but never active) pedophile; invents, with Fors Clavigera, the weblog (only about 120 years before the internet) in between bouts of sheer barking madness.

Now doesn't that sound like more fun than the Battle of Malden and The Owl and the Nightingale?


Jessica Smith said...

Ok, ok, OK Mark, if you feel this strongly about it... I too want a Modernism-Victorianism link course, but a whole course on a single author who I don't plan to study again? But: I do have to audit two classes within the next year; why not audit two in the coming semester instead of splitting them into two semesters? I'll at least check it out. And: I love John Dixon Hunt, so if you think his book is good, maybe I can read that instead of the Tome.

I like Medievalism... perhaps b/c it's so far removed from what I do that I feel free to dabble & play instead of looking for "implications" and such. It's like Story Time for Modernists (can everyone see the pictures?).

Whether I make it through the first class (or even the bio) or not, I will indeed forward a copy of the syllabus--the readings are usually online as well.

Jessica Smith said...

(the Hilton) 1056 pages
(the Hunt) 512 pages
(the Batchelor) 369 pages

Batchelor it is!

Alex Davis said...

Possibly of more use, Jessica, is G Cianci and P Nicholls, eds., Ruskin and Modernism (Palgrave, 2001)--and at 240pp it's even shorter than the Batchelor!

Jessica Smith said...

Wow! Until they come out with a Cliffs Notes for the HIlton or one of the "Introducting" series comics, looks like I'll be reading Cianci+Nicholls.

I hope my teacher doesn't read your blog, Dr. Scroggins. (I'm not lazy, just don't want to spend the summer reading 1000+ pgs on Ruskin for a course I'm *auditing.* I'm a very slow reader.)

Mark Scroggins said...

"Dr." Scroggins?!?!?

Anyway, I agree with Alex that the Cianci/Nicholls is a very good anthology of targeted critical articles, but presupposes a certain familiarity w/ Ruskin already. (Alex, does this mean that we're both Ruskin enthusiasts, as well?) For the biographical background wch I assume JF wants you to have, Batchelor is very good & compulsively readable -- I think I breezed thru it in two or three days one summer in Austin. Closest to Cliff's Notes I know is a *wonderful* 150pp. book by Quentin Bell (Woolf's nephew, is it?), *Ruskin* (1963, George Braziller, 1978). He does an excellent job of outlining the life & importance etc, & writes beautifully. Also George Landow's little volume in the Oxford Past Masters series, which is thinner on biography but meatier on criticism.

Jessica Smith said...

Ok. I'm going to read the Batchelor because it's cheapest (the story is, I have trouble returning books to the library--and I have trouble reading books without writing all over them). Then I'll scan some book reviews on Muse and maybe try Quentin's book. Yes; I like his writing style too. Do you know JF?

I think one of my peers got his MA at your school. Do you know an Ashley Faulkner? (Speaking of Quentins)

-k said...

Don't miss that terrific essay by Elizabith Willis on Neidecker and William Morris. It's in a recent issue of Contemporary Literature.

She has quite a bit to say on Ruskin too.

t. wood said...

Mr. Scroggins and Miss Smith:

Guy Davenport's Harvard thesis was on Pound's first thirty Cantos. Published by EMI Research Press the book is CITIES ON HILLS, early 1980s. (A scarce and not inexpensive book in the trade). In it, Davenport writes at length about Ruskin and his "influence" on Pound and his writing. This is'nt news I'm sure to Mr. Scroggins. In all of Davenport's writing, there's much to be had by the assiduous reader.

Another swell (and succinct, 111 pp, w/notes) Ruskin bio is Francis O'Gorman's JOHN RUSKIN (1999), published in the Sutton Pocket Biographies series. O'Gorman, in addition to other Ruskinian projects, is compiling a bibliography of Ruskin - a truly daunting task.

Davenport recognized Ruskin as the protean, dare I say seminal, writer he is.

Thank you Mr. Scroggins for doing your part in keeping Davenport's memory alive through Culture Industry.

With appreciation and thanks, T. Wood