Friday, May 01, 2009

why Ruskin?

I'm a great fan of LibraryThing, the online book-cataloguing site. In heroic bursts of data-entry activity over the past few years, I've managed to get the bulk of my books online – I estimate between 1/3 & 2/5 remains uncatalogued, but I'm working on it – & it's enabled me to get some kind of handle on the shape of the metastasizing collection. The widget down on the right is a cute lagniappe: it throws up a random (?) selection of books from my library, linking them to This morning's selection [captured above] struck me as a nice encapsulation of my books: Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping, Camille Guthrie's The Master Thief, Gregory Kavka's Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, Don DeLillo's Underworld, Henry Weinfield's Without Mythologies, Andreas Huyssens's After the Great Divide, Romana Huk's collection Assembling Alternatives, & Erich Auerbach's Mimesis (tho mine is the old Anchor edition, rather than the shiny thing pictured). And yes, The Poem of a Life.
A commentor on my last Ruskin post asks, quite rightly, "You mention Ruskin a lot; why Ruskin? I've never read him in school or out, and don't know if he's some Victorian stuffed-shirt or some wild creative genius. What do you recommend for starters?" (Vance replies that it shouldn't be "or" but "and.") I'm not entirely sure why I've become so obsessed with Ruskin over the past few years. My records show I started reading Ruskin back in 2001 or so. Heaven knows I never heard his name as an undergraduate, tho I took at least two or 3 Victorian lit courses. And he never popped up in my graduate career, either, even tho I did a course on Victorian poetry with Paul Sawyer, the author of one of the finer critical books on the man. (I do recall during my undergrad years reading the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark's A Ruskin Notebook, but I guess I wasn't prompted to look up the source-texts of his poem.)

I think, frankly, it was Guy Davenport who put me onto the man, as he put me onto so much us, both false trails & true. I'd been reading Guy for maybe 15 years when I noticed that he was talking about Ruskin all the time on the occasions we met, & then I noticed and got very excited by his essay "The House that Jack Built" (in The Geography of the Imagination) – yes, the one that posits Fors Clavigera as a kind of Victorian Cantos, & that argues that the symbol of the labyrinth is central to Ruskin & inherited by Joyce, Pound, & practically everyone else. That made me sit up and take notice.

I entered Ruskin rather randomly, by way of an Everyman edition of To this Last (collected with other essays on political economy), & found myself riveted by the man's voice – this eloquent, sometimes indeed "purple," rhetoric furiously excoriating Victorian capitalism & philistinism. It was obvious that Ruskin was not someone whose political solutions I could accept – if he hated capitalism as deeply as Marx or Engels, his solution was not a kind of socialism but a return to something like paternalistic feudalism – but the subtlety and underlying fury of his rhetoric proved intoxicating, ultimately addictive.

And from To this Last I found myself dipping into every sort of Ruskin I could lay my hands on: art criticism, architecture, literary criticism (there's an analysis of a passage from "Lycidas" in Sesame and Lilies that stands as perhaps the best bit of "close reading" before Empson), ecclesiastical criticism, & the wild & wooly digression-upon-digressions of Fors itself. Sometimes you can hear the machinery of his prose creaking, the rhetoric straining at the end of an exhausted essay or lecture to rise up to the expected peak of eloquence at the close – but there's always something there to reward the reading: an unexpected bon mot, a savage stretch of angry criticism, or an extended stretch of utterly insightful interpretation. Yeah, Ruskin is wrong – politically, morally, aesthetically – an astonishingly high percentage of the time. But he's very rarely dull for very long, at least to my ears.*

But what continues to awe me is the range of Ruskin's interests – you name it, he wrote on it: geology, meteorology, political economy, fiction, poetry, ecclesiology, philosophy, painting, ornithology, sculpture, engraving, iconography (a clear line of descent from JR to Panofsky), mythology, the illustration of children's books, architecture both practical & theoretical, the theory of landscape painting, music, and so on. Like Pound, Ruskin felt qualified to express an opinion on everything; unlike Pound, Ruskin's opinions are almost always worth considering. I'm beginning to suspect that a Ruskinian cast of mind – if not Ruskin's ideas directly, those ideas as diffused thru anglophone culture as a whole – is a central backdrop to the whole modernist enterprise, in ways that go well beyond Proust's translating Ruskin or Pound's name-dropping his works in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. (This may end up being a very big book.)

Joe asked the other week where to begin with Ruskin. I stick by my answer, tho I suppose that modernistic/postmodernistically-inclined folks might conceivably want to jump right into Fors: Kenneth Clark's old (but widely available) Penguin anthology, Ruskin Today, is a nice collection of high points; Phaidon still has an excellent selection of his art criticism, The Lamp of Beauty; both Oxford and Penguin have current selections available, and The Stones of Venice (abridged) and The Seven Lamps of Architecture are both available in nice paperbacks. Perhaps the loveliest way to get acquainted with this often unlovely & prickly man is his autobiography, Praeterita. Yes, start with Praeterita, then The Lamp of Beauty, and when your appetite is whetted, go on to the Penguin To this Last for a taste of the angry Ruskin.

*I will confess the first volume The Stones of Venice, after the virtuoso opening, is largely an ultra-technical yawn, & I've only cast my eyes over the disspiriting bulk of Vol. II of the Library Edition, which is devoted to his poetry; I suspect that one will be something of an ordeal.


Sisyphus said...

You've captured almost a little found poem there in the pic:

might have
yadda yadda
real live full

Marilyn Robinson's HousekeepingI liked this

Don DeLillo's Underworld,

and this

Andreas Huyssens's After the Great Divide,this

Erich Auerbach's Mimesis and this. So I suppose I should go out and read the rest of what you have listed then.

Vance Maverick said...

Thanks for this. I've been trying without success to remember why I started reading Ruskin around when I graduated (having studied no English or art at all). I certainly knew his name from general reading (doubtless through Robert Hughes). And I was fascinated but nonplussed, and ultimately didn't make progress (except with Praeterita, partly because of the back-reflection of Proust in its style).

Also, you're right about Stones of Venice -- what I read was excerpts, so it was rash (not to say hypocritical) of me to suggest someone read the whole thing.

Captcha: mayst, as in "thou mayst ask thyself -- well, how did I get here?"

Ed Baker said...

well... that certainly WAS some exciting group in Merrie Olde... imagine

Pater,Morris, Ruskin, Rossettie (SOME FAMILY the Rosetti's) wasn't yurner around then? and Dickens...

now my question (don't laugh)

what was the writing tool that each used? a quill and ink?

imagine the time and attention paid to each sentence/word/ essay...

did Dickens write all of those stories using a feather-pen and homemade ink? did Ruskin? did Pater?

thanks I read "Ruskin" in the mid-sixties...and other Pre-Raphaelites

"they" in all of the expressions of art and lit certainly
put/had their noses to the grind-stone.

a little now "olde phashuned" but

but wort getting lost in.... for a-while

you make scholar-shipping fun...

Ed Baker said...

looking around for a photo of Ruskin's writing desk or box or what have you I found this book/e-book/Gutenberg!

The Life of John Ruskin

-for those who "dig 'it'"

Rather Ripped said...

Thanks for uncovering Ruskin; I'll get one of his selected and see. Say more, Mark, about Davenport and Ruskin, miss Davenport. Ruskin is one of those names I just skim over. In fact, the whole 19th century I used to skim over--I met my 19th cent. prerequisite by reading Austen! Now, I'm mad about Dickens. Also, say more about Doughty and Davenport. Cheers.

Steven Fama said...

I still would like you to write here about the index to the dang multi-volume collection. Please!

dan visel said...

Making my way through the Praeterita on this recommendation (and having seen it in Davenport as well) - thanks!