Monday, May 18, 2009

et cetera

Okay, so I thought I was getting better – the eye clearing up, the mucus fading from kelly green to a less alarming sandpaper beige, the cough no longer rattling the windows in their frames – but then I woke up Saturday almost literally dead. Okay, not that bad, but I felt seriously rough; Sunday was just as bad, & the conjunctivitis was back as well. Sigh. Methinks I need to get ahold of some serious antibiotics & get this business under control before loading the family up for Oberlin & J.'s college reunion this coming weekend.
Ruskin's poems burble along comfortably enough, if unmemorably. I've gotten about halfway thru the 550-page 2nd volume of the Library Edition; I've finished, that is, all the poems he formally published & collected during his lifetime (the collection of record, which more or less signalled the close of Ruskin's already negelected poetic career, came out in 1850, when he was 31), & have just embarked on the real live "juvenilia," starting with the bits of precocious doggerel he was cranking out at 7 or so. What's striking about the –er – mature poetry (he really pretty much gave up poetry when he got deeply into the 1st volume of Modern Painters, published when he was 24) is that Ruskin's much-admired descriptive "eloquence" – what many would call his "purple prose" – is already very much in place. Indeed, the stuff comes absolutely naturally to him, simply flows off his pen. What makes the difference is that in Modern Painters that descriptive gift will be harnessed to a coherent moral aesthetic; later, things'll get even more interesting, when that moral aesthetic is imbricated with a social & political vision.

It's hard not to agree with Kenneth Clark in his introduction to the Penguin anthology Ruskin Today, who regrets "the sheer nonsense which occupies a great part of his later work." On the other hand, Clark presents an interesting meditation upon his choice of particularly "beautifully written" passages – the "purple" bits, precisely:
There are good reasons why this kind of writing [a "highly coloured prose style"] is no longer admired and, by younger critics, actively despised. It introduces an emotional appeal into matters which should be the concern of reason, and even the emotions it arouses are inflated by the pressure of words. It is commonly used to conceal the truth,to stir up hatred, and to promote war. A rhetorical style intoxicates the writer and seems to generate a particular state of mind, so that Ruskin will suddenly indulge in a tub-thumping justification of the Crimean War or a violent incitement to go out and seize colonies (although in his quieter moments he knew that both war and colonialism were wrong), simply because the mounting rhythm of his style carried him in that direction. Today the suspicion we feel for degraded language rhetoric extends to elaborate writings of all kinds. We find it hard to believe that anyone who is sincerely anxious to tell the truth will do so in long and well-contrived sentences, rather than in a series of monosyllables and grunts. [Compare the inexplicably popular Matt Taibbi's neanderthal attack on Terry Eagleton, or the American right wing's promotion of the "rhetoric" of Joe the Plumber & Sarah Palin against Obama during the last election.] And so the marvellous eloquence which, to his contemporaries, seemed to guarantee Ruskin's immortality, has become one of the principal reasons why he remains unread.
Gay Daly's Pre-Raphaelites in Love continues to amuse & engross. I called it a "pot-boiler with academic pretensions," which was perhaps a trifle harsh but on balance fair enough. The material itself is fascinating, & presented gracefully – the erotic relationship between painters & models, the collision of Victorian moral strictures & hard-wired human desires, the place of the "fine arts" in Victorian political economy, the process of a new "avant-garde" assimilating itself into the structures of official culture, etc. – but I'm continually hankering for Daly to dig a bit deeper, to indulge in a bit more hard analysis. But that, of course, might well push the book out of the "popular audience" category into the "academic" world. (Precisely the wall I found myself walking atop while writing The Poem of a Life, & I'm not sure which side I kept falling onto. [Perhaps, given that the book is still available, & a bargain, you should pick up your own copy & decide for yourself?])
Is it too obvious that I'm avoiding writing what I ought to be writing?


Eric said...

1) Get some antibiotics. There is no substitute. (As a chronic sinus victim, I know this all too well.)

2) Amazed that you continue to read & blog in this condition. You have a remarkable constitution, sir.

3) Have decided I am an academic with pot-boiler pretensions. Or at least pot-simmerer. (Pot-smoker? Nah--leave that for di yunge.)

Vance Maverick said...

I checked out the Daly from the library. The writing is full of insecurity -- she even half-apologizes, at the start, for studying the PRB at all.

(Not a personal criticism: my own dissertation was ten times worse. It's tempting to wonder whether having Mary Daly for your mother and research assistant would make you nervous about committing yourself.)

And she doesn't seem quite at home grappling with the art qua art. (Small example at the beginning -- when retelling an anecdote of Millais the child prodigy, she describes some things he drew as "perfect likenesses". If they were perfect, then we could all just go home now....)

Mark Scroggins said...

Having finished the book, Vance, I tend to agree -- while the *stories* are of course engrossing, Daly's tentative tone wears pretty quickly. Her "apology" is probably too fulsome, tho it's sort of a more personal version of the account of the PRB's popular & critical fortunes that one gets at the beginning of many more scholarly books.

Yeah, she's awful on the art, & there's not nearly enough of it reproduced to assess some of her descriptions.

But there are the beginnings of a very interesting book on the Victorian art market & Victorian sexual/passional mores in there, unfortunately swathed in a thick blanket of romance-style storytelling (sorry, Eric).

I suspect her mum is a different Mary Daly altogether.

Vance Maverick said...

You're right, her mom is not THE Mary Daly after all.