Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Reading Ruskin (pamphlets): JR on the Senate, JR on the MFA

We’re in the midst of the summer here (& have been for maybe six weeks now): steamily hot days, oppressive, close night, at least one drenching cloudburst every day. Everything green seems to grow at least an inch a day – “venereal soil.”
I’m gathering my breath for the leap into Ruskin’s very large The Stones of Venice, & so reading a couple of pamphlets out of chronological order (also reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, the first volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, divers poetry and sundry graphic novels): Notes on the Construction of Sheepfolds & Pre-Raphaelitism were both published in 1851, after Ruskin had completed the first volume of Stones of Venice, for which Seven Lamps of Architecture serves as something of a theoretical preamble.

Sheepfolds is an odd little book; it has nothing to do with literal sheepfolds, but instead addresses current divisions with British Protestantism – high church / low church, establishment / dissenters, Anglican / Scottish Presbyterian. JR calls on English & Scottish Protestants to unite into a common front against the Roman Catholic “antichrist.” All in all a pretty typical polemical production for the day, notable now for JR’s remarks on temporal government. He sees three forms of government: executive, which is the “hand” of the nation; democratic, which is the “voice” of the nation; and monarchical, which is the “head” (or mind) of the nation. By monarchical he doesn’t necessarily mean a single monarch, but some sort of ruling body which does the thinking for the nation:
All true and right Government is Monarchical, and of the head. What is its best form, is a totally different question; but unless it acts for the people, and not as representative of the people, it is no government at all; and one of the grossest blockheadisms [nice word, that] of the English in the present day, is their idea of sending men to Parliament to “represent their opinion.” Whereas their only true business is to find out the wisest men among them, and send them to Parliament to represent their own opinions, and act upon them. Of all puppet-shows in the Satanic Carnival of the earth, the most contemptible puppet-show is Parliament with a mob pulling the strings.
Nasty stuff, on several levels, but one sees echoes of Ruskin’s reasoning in the Founders’ decision for a bicameral legislature, in which the Senate would have some degree of immunity from the passing winds of their constituents’ moods.
In Pre-Raphaelitism, JR is reacting to the bad press received by the early paintings of the artists who somewhat pretentiously signed their work with the initials “PRB” – “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” Despite his close association with some of the P-Rs (Millais especially), & despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he had already become known as a supporter of theirs, Ruskin can’t be bothered to defend their work in detail in this little pamphlet supposedly devoted to that very purpose. Instead, he reaffirms the major point of Modern Painters I – that the painter does his “function” best who faithfully records appearances (which indeed, he asserts, the P-R’s do more carefully than any other group of painters working in England) – and then gives, for the bulk of the pamphlet, a summary of the career of JMW Turner, then at the close of his life.

One notable quotation near the beginning seems to me to have specific applicability to the contemporary American creative writing industry:
who among us now thinks of bringing men up to be poets? – of producing poets by any kind of general recipe or method of cultivation? Suppose even that we see in youth that which we hope may, in its development, become a power of this kind, should we instantly, supposing that we wanted to make a poet of him, and nothing else, forbid him all quiet, steady, rational labour? Should we force him to perpetual spinning of new crudities out of his boyish brain, and set before him, as the only objects of his study, the laws of versification which criticism has supposed itself to discover in the works of previous writers? Whatever gifts the boy had, would much be likely to come of them so treated? unless, indeed, they were so great as to break through all such snares of falsehood and vanity, and build their own foundation in spite of us; whereas if, as in cases numbering millions against units, the natural gifts were too weak to do this, could any thing come of such training but utter inanity and spuriousness of the whole man? But if we had sense, should we not rather restrain and bridle the first flame of invention in early youth, heaping material on it as one would on the first sparks and tongues of a fire which we desired to feed into greatness? Should we not educate the whole intellect into general strength, and all the affections into warmth and beauty, and look to heaven for the rest?
I’ve had to restrain myself from interjecting illustrative comments, drawn from the MFA industry, between every sentence. Suffice it to say that Ruskin could have had no inkling of the degree to which minting poets would become an industry, in the English-speaking countries, on a par with the manufacture of cast-iron building ornaments or the construction of railroads. Ah, but none of us came out of that milieu – though we can all point to the poems written by those who did (the other folks!).

1 comment:

Norman Finkelstein said...

Not to distract you from your reading of Ruskin, Mark, but do tell us sometime about what you think of Pullman. I read the trilogy last year and was utterly ravished.