Monday, April 13, 2009

Bell on Ruskin

Quentin Bell, from the Preface to the 1978 reissue of his Ruskin (1963):

Ruskin, early decorated, luxurious Ruskin, complete with crockets and crenellations is I am convinced, a model which all those of us who are learning to write should study, imitate, and learn to love. I say this despite the fact that in doing so I shall find that, amongst teacher of English eyebrows will be raised, lips will probably be pursed and a variety of clucking noises will be clearly audible. 'What', you will say: 'is that gold and purple prose that cloying sweetness of language to be considered wholesome fare for the young? We live in the late Twentieth Century and what style could possibly be less appropriate for us than that of the eighteen forties? The suggestion is absurd, it is as though some girder-bending, concrete-mixing, polyvinylurinated art student were told to copy Bernini.'

This of course is just what such an art student ought to do (and is saying this I am looking straight at you Jane Doe and at you, Richard Roe, both of you now majoring in creative writing at the University of Labrador). Ruskin can help you, he cannot harm you. The authors who can do you a mischief are those whom you would naturally admire, those whose writings 'make sense' within the context of your own age, those who are still new and smart and popular and 'relevant'. These you copy at your peril for they are saying the kind of things that you want to say, in using their phrases you may be cozened into believing that they are your own, their style is so close to yours that yours may become infected by theirs. Then indeed you may grow into a sedulous ape, a wind bag blown tight with the stale phrases of other people and then indeed you will be damned.


Vance Maverick said...

"polyvinylurinated" is fun, almost prophetic for 1963 -- credit to the copyist?

And I second the advice, while wondering whether its effect on QB was entirely salutary.

Mark Scroggins said...

I think QB's playing with us here: normally his prose is deft & far more restrained. On about 3 occasions in this book he cuts loose & writes unrestrained Ruskin-pastiche, as he does in the 2nd paragraph. He closes the book with about a page of deepest purple Ruskinism, then invites us to figure out which sentences he's actually *cribbed* from JR!

Joseph said...

Rabbi, I have always wanted to read Ruskin and now confess before the entire world that I have not. Where would you suggest I start? (And the more extravagant the prose style, the better . . . )

Vance Maverick said...

Stones of Venice! Also the Autobiography.

Mark Scroggins said...


Phaedon used to have (still available from various Amazon sellers) an excellent selection of the art criticism, *The Lamp of Beauty* -- that collects all the snazzy extravagant passages from Modern Painters & elsewhere, & much else. And if you want Ruskin as the hard-nosed socio-economic critic, the Penguin Unto This Last is an excellent selection of the social criticism, & includes some snatches of Fors Clavigera.

Yes, of course, Stones -- but do an abridgement, since the 1st volume of the 3 volume set is a snooze. The autobiography, Praeteritia, is wonderful.

Kenneth Clark edited a good selection of the "high points" entitled *Ruskin Today* (still widely available).