Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reading Ruskin (doggedly)

Just made my way, in the interstices of the various course books & things, thru Ruskin's Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy (1872). Not an inspiring read, I'm afraid; rather an amphibious book, a series of essays written (& published in periodical form) in the wake of Unto This Last (1862), then later collected & revised as JR was ramping up work on Fors Clavigera, all excited over the moonshine medieval utopianism of his Guild of St. George. Unto This Last, which I'm in the process of reading once again, is nervous & exciting writing, a sharp angry counterblast to Victorian capitalism & the whole discourse of political economy. It's easy to understand how UTL became such an influential book (some credit it with the early rise of the Labour Party; Gandhi translated it) – in some ways, it's the Victorian Walden, shaved down by three-quarters & with all its polemics sharpened.

Munera Pulveris ("gifts of the dust"), on the other hand, is its theoretical counter-statement, Ruskin trying desperately to get his conceptual ducks in a row. The ideas are all there, I suppose, but the intensity is lacking.

I wonder sometimes, as I pass the bookcase where I've finally made space for the three yards of the Library Edition, whether I'm not simply too old to take on this business of mastering Ruskin. Somewhere the elderly Johnson tells Boswell that he doesn't really read that much anymore; in his youth, he says, he "read hard" & laid in a stock of things that would sustain him into maturity. I too read hard in my salad days. I read all of Melville, all of Sir Walter Scott; there's probably not a single work of Zukofsky's I haven't read thru at least 3 times. But I sometimes fear that that power of concentration is no longer mine to command.

Or perhaps it's just the sheer size of the Ruskin project. John Dixon Hunt, in the intro to The Ruskin Polygon, comments that one never encounters a set of the Library Edition without at least some of its pages still uncut (which is the case with mine, despite the fact that it was once a library copy – I suspect, in fact, that the bulk of the cutting in my edition was done, not by readers, but automatically, by a librarian: the last half-inch towards the spine, in about 35% of the pages, seems to have been neglected, the mark of someone doggedly working thru the volumes with a paper-knife rather than of a reader attentively cutting each page as she proceeds). There are after all 39 volumes (the last two bibliography & index), which makes for 37 X [approx.] 500 pp. = 18500 pp. of Ruskin & Ruskiniana, very little of it enlivened by the events, characters & conversations one finds in, say, Balzac or Scott. ("'And what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations?'" – lots of fine, fine illustrations, tho.)

I had thought, when I first shelved these things, that I would assault them in order, reading from the beginning of Volume I ("early prose writings") thru the end of Volume XXXVII ("letters"). Quentin Bell says it took him a solid year, reading nothing but Ruskin: I'd give myself half a decade. But I seem to have stalled out on that notion somewhere in the midst of the 5 volumes of Modern Painters (Volumes III thru VIII), & have been casting forward into Fors, into the writings on political economy, & into various by-ways. And I suspect that's how it'll be. Perhaps, to satisfy my OCD (or as Vance puts it, my "Swiss" sense of order), I should generate a chronological list of the works & check off each thing as I read it.
Steve Evans has begun posting his annual "Attention Span" surveys of what folks have been reading. I'm happy to see Stephen Cope's nice words on The Poem of a Life:
Scroggins’s approach is novel, as he mixes narrative with criticism in alternating chapters. Biographies rarely capture my attention the way that this one did, and I found myself repeatedly returning to the poems to find resonance and resource where before I encountered only the opacity of technique. An absolutely necessary book.
Which I will tuck away with Tim Conley's
Illuminating and exemplary. To those writers I know who cannot even imagine why one would read a “literary” biography, I say: read this and see.
– and Ben Friedlander's
Sometimes, all you need is a firm grip from a friend to make it across slippery ground. With Zukofsky, Scroggins is that friend.
– from last year. DIY blurb-building.


Vance Maverick said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply you didn't have OCD. ;-)

The alternating chapters are indeed nice. I took them as an alternative to the "integrated" approach of, say, Richard Holmes -- among other things they don't run the risk of making the criticism subservient to the biography, or the biography patly illustrative of the work.

Anonymous said...

You're one of my Ruskin heroes Mark!