Monday, August 30, 2010


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.


Archambeau said...

I am an embarrassment in so many way -- not least being my attempts to Explain the World in 700 words, three times a month.

Anyway -- I like the distinction between aestheticism and Ruskinian moralism you've got going here, with Pound as some weird synthesis. The big contours seem to be something like:

1. Ruskin's anti-modernity by way of a proposing a (sentimental?) return to pre-industrial methods of work and social relations.

2. Aestheticism's anti-modernity by way of turning its back on the world that has no time or place for beauty.

3. Pound yearning for a world like the one Ruskin proposes, not because it is better for life (at least not in the first instance) but because it is better for art.

For sure Pound is riding the Ruskin train -- the modern world being about cast plaster, not alabaster, and all that.

Does Ruskin have anything to say about banking and usury? If so, you're onto a gold mine!


Mark Scroggins said...

Yes... tho (3) is only my *sense* of it; Graham Hough's good on how aestheticism is a direct outgrowth of Ruskinian "organicism"-- Ruskin turned inside out, as it were.

Usury ---- oh, yes: Fors is probably harder on Usury than EP himself is, & every bit as strident (tho JR to my knowledge never jumps into EP's anti-Semitic equation of usurer = Jew).

E. M. Selinger said...

@Bob, re: Pound and the Ruskin train--I hadn't realized ol' Ez had worked with Gene Simmons on this:

Anonymous said...

how cute!

how about a little less sophomoric non-sense and a little more respect for a genius? Ol' Sel!

E. M. Selinger said...

Sorry, Anonymous. I'm too old to genuflect; no forelock left to tug.

Bob A struck a casual note ("riding the Ruskin train -- the modern world being about cast plaster, not alabaster, and all that"), and I joined the fun.

Besides, wasn't Gene Simmons precisely what "the age demanded," back in my youth?

" image
Of its accelerated grimace"--yup.

"Something for the modern stage,
Not, at any rate, an Attic grace."

Yup, that too. Not even the grace of _Toys in the Attic_, come to think of it.

What say you, Mark? Your blog, your call.

Mark Scroggins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Scroggins said...

Ah, no Kiss fan I, auld Sel'. But I suspect Pound brings it on himself with the whole folksy, cracker-barrel self-presentation -- not just in the correspondence, but in the radio broadcasts & the later essays, as well.

'Strue, we rarely speak of "big Wally" (Stevens) or "Tommy" (Eliot), but those heavy-hitters cultivated an image of Augustan distance, while Pound I think invited a kind of jokey intimacy, both among his correspondents & his wider readership.

And heavens! what sort of nomenclatural respect did EP show for his own elders, even those he clearly thought of as geniuses? "Algy" for Swinburne; "Hop o' the Accents," for Browning.

E. M. Selinger said...

Quoth Paul Mariani, in "A New World Naked," p. 577:

"He [WCW] still refused to buy into Pound's anti-Semitism. So, for example, he'd written Kenneth Rexroth in May that 'ol' Ez could be a bastard' when he spoke about the Jews and that he for one had no use for the man when he went on ranting that way."

Yr. own Zukofsky, "when I can't read myself, happens too, I can still read ol' Ez..." (The Ezra Pound Encyclopedia, p. 310)

Jonathan Williams: "I can only pray, with mentors as splendid as Cartier-Bresson and Ol' Ez, that I have put images and words on paper that won't waste your time" (A Palpable Elysium, p. 13)

Hell, he called HIMSELF "Ol' Ez": Letter to Olson: Dear Chas, This thing (GrandPa: GoodBye) on ol'Ez makes you one of the few men I take pleasure in reading." Ask Google Books.

So, yes--"invited a kind of jokey intimacy" puts the case nicely. If anything, my saying "Ol' Ez" is objectionable because it's such a familiar familiarity, neither fresh nor cheeky, really.

As for Kiss...well, I never owned an album, but I knew a song or two. And as you know, I have execrable taste--except in friends.

Vance Maverick said...

How would you compare Ruskin and Browning as models for Pound? I realize that's not the question you want to write a book about -- but I see some similarity in the way EP built on them covertly while posing as an original.

Mark Scroggins said...

I see Pound, Vance, as pretty much overtly following in Browning's footsteps, & never really disclaiming him as a direct influence. He wants to build on Browning -- Sordello, notably -- and to get it *right* in ways that Browning might not have. (To recover the "real" Sordello, perhaps? or to out-problematize Browning in the matter of problematizing the recovery of the past...)

Ruskin, on the other hand -- I don't think he can openly confess a debt to Ruskin because by the turn of the century JR's become such a monument, for all the wrong reasons -- moralizing, scolding, etc. -- which Pound as young aesthete absolutely scorns. But there's clearly an immense influence of the Ruskinian cast of mind, & "Ruskinism" in general, even if EP doesn't recognize it as such.

What I'd like to find out is precisely how much of JR Pound actually *knew*. He knew "Kings' Treasuries," or at least name-drops it in HSM, and he knew Stones of Venice in some form -- the signed column of the Usura Canto is dwelled on, & even illustrated, in SoV. But did he know Fors? Did he know Unto This Last?

Vance Maverick said...

Thanks -- easy to forget there was a Pound that disclaimed moralizing and scolding. I don't know anything about P's reading of Ruskin, but would also like to know.