Bob Archambeau embarrasses me again. Not so much with his fashion choices – that goes without saying – as with his blog, where he posts these big, meaty literary-historical meditations, while I’m bitching about the weather or department meetings or putting up Marx Brothers clips or other such silliness. Maybe – come to think of it – I’m just plain shallow, or sailing into shallowness even as I plunge deeper into decrepitude.
Anyway, I’m still thinking about Ruskin, & trying to fit him into my sense of how modernism emerges from Victorian culture. I’m hamstrung, of course, by having to learn Victorian culture more or less from scratch. Okay, I took a couple of Victorian classes as an undergrad, and was a reader for a Victorian novel course as a grad student, & even audited a Victorian poetry seminar along the way. So I’ve read a lot of the stuff, even if I still can’t get excited about Trollope the way J. does (there’s always a Trollope novel in some stage of multiple rereading on the nightstand).
(She has, by the way, converted me to Kipling’s Stalky & Co.; finally, a public school novel in which the boys are without exception dire & reprehensible – if immensely funny & sympathetic – shits. Finally, a bit of realism about life between 13 & 17.)
I think the key here is to pursue the Pound-Ruskin nexus, which even on its face doesn’t seem at all unlikely. Here’s the thing: Pound almost never mentions Ruskin; there’s a reference in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and a couple of scattered things in the prose (calls him a “goose” at one point), but I think it can be coherently argued that Pound is absolutely saturated, probably without even knowing it, in a Ruskinian cultural discourse. And Michael Coyle’s already made that argument in EP, Popular Genres, and the Discourse of Culture.
That is, the connection between aesthetic production and the state of the larger polity within which they're produced emerges in the early 19th century (according to Kenneth Clark, as quoted somewhere in Raymond Williams's Culture & Society); it's Ruskin who pushes that connection into an exploration of the social conditions upon which the artist ultimately depends, in the "Nature of Gothic" and then in The Political Economy of Art & the later works passim. So what Ruskin & Pound share is a sense of “culture” as an “organic” totality in which aesthetic productions reflect social relations, in which the general health of a society can be gauged by a close analysis of its artworks, and in which the health of the arts depends upon the health of the society as a whole.
What intervenes between the two figures is Aestheticism, with its doctrine of art's autonomy, of "art for art's sake." And EP, as Moody shows in his biography, is an aesthete thru & thru in the early work. When he turns "political" or "social" (Kenner, Davenport, & other date it to the post-Great War moment), he does so with little sense of how Ruskinian his ultimate stance will be. It's perhaps an impoverished Ruskinianism, for when Ruskin excoriates society, he always does so on a moral basis (at first Evangelical, later a more ill-defined "Christian"); Pound, on the other hand, has always seemed to me less concerned with the actual well-being of individual human beings under capitalism than on the wastage of potential artwork.
Now to work out the relationship of Ruskin to Wyndham Lewis, Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Mina Loy. Then there's a book.
But then there's Fors. (One of the Stalky boys – Beetle? M’Turk? – is a dedicated reader of Fors Clavigera, which seems less a mark of his social concerns than of his general bookishness.) Guy Davenport advanced a long time ago (in his "The House that Jack Built" essay) the notion that Ruskin, & Fors in general, is kind of a generative protomodernist ur-text, a "Victorian Cantos in prose." I'm of course fascinated by Fors; like those who read Tristram Shandy as proto-postmodernism, I want to see all of the digressiveness & parataxis & random trouvées of high modernism in the book. But it's not the same thing to say that Fors is willy-nilly protomodernist and to say that Fors is an actual model for modernist literary structure.
The problem is one of what EP Thompson, in his Witness Against the Beast, calls "vectors": if one's got a sense that there's something important shared between the 17th-century Muggletonians (Ludowick Muggleton's portrait, by the way, adorns Sussex University's ultra-modern chapel, which otherwise looks like a concrete & brick beehive) & William Blake, one must establish plausible, even probable "vectors" by which Blake would have been exposed in the late 18th century to Muggletonian ideas. (& Thompson does, at least to my satisfaction.)
The temporal stretch between JR & EP is much shorter, & the works & ideas were more widespread – Pound was 14 when Ruskin died, & cheapo editions of Fors & the rest of his works were all over the United States by the time of Pound's birth. But I'm still searching for that hard & fast accounts of Pound's – & the other modernists'* – reading of Ruskin, & what use they made of him.
*Joyce is a gimme; Stanislaus reports in his memoir that his brother absolutely doted on Ruskin, & even wrote a pastiche homage when he learned of JR's death in 1900.