What I'm writing is, as I say, something else altogether. I began writing bits of the next scholarly book; then I ran out of things to say (for the moment) and spent a few days putting down autobiographical fragments (not that anybody will ever want to read that – I'm just laying in some stuff that I can read when my memory starts to go). At the moment, however, I'm more or less on fire, doing some big conceptual stuff paired with some close textual analysis. It feels good, whether or not it really is; I know it'll fit in the big jigsaw puzzle of the next book somewhere.
The letter carrier delivered a new biography of Effie Ruskin the other day, Suzanne Fagence Cooper's sublimely potboilerly-titled Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais. By my count, this is the sixth or seventh book I've accumulated on Ruskin's ill-fated marriage. My own brief take on the disastrous wedding night – or at least some of the speculation thereupon – is here. (Cooper has her own theory, which I won't spoil by revealing.
Unsurprisingly, while Ruskin is capable of incredibly sexy language – the so-called "purple" passages of the early books especially, which make word-lovers like me positively swoon – there isn't much in the way of actual erotica in his massive (9 million words, I read somewhere) corpus. But then, reading thru The Cestus of Aglaia (1865-6) the other day, I came upon (re-read, really) this often discussed passage, where Ruskin recalls
the image of an Italian child, lying, she also, upon a hill of sand, by Eridanus' side; a vision which has never quite left me since I saw it. A girl of ten or twelve, it might be; one of the children to whom there has never been anyother lesson taught than that of patience: – patience of famine and thirst; patience of heat and cold; patience of fierce word and sullen blow; patience of changeless fate and giftless time. She was lying with her arms thrown back over her head, all languid and lax, on an earth-heap by the river side (the softness of the dust being the only softness she had ever known), in the southern suburb of Turin, one golden afternoon in August, years ago. She had been at play, in her fashion, with other patient children, and had thrown herself down to rest, full in the sun, like a lizard. The sand was mixed with the draggled locks of her black hair, and some of it sprinkled over her face and body, in an "ashes to ashes" kind of way; a few black rags about her loins, but her limbs nearly bare, and her little breasts, scarce dimpled yet, – white, – marble-like – but, as wasted marble, thin with the scorching and the rains of Time. So she lay, motionless; black and white by the shore in the sun; the yellow light flickering back upon her from the passing eddies of the river, and burning down on her from the west. So she lay, like a dead Niobid: it seemed as if the Sun-God, as he sank towards grey Viso (who stood play in the south-west, and pyramidal as a tomb), had been wroth with Italy for numbering her children too carefully, and slain this little one. Black and white she lay, all breathless, in a sufficiently pictorial manner: the gardens of the Villa Regina gleamed beyond, graceful with laurel-grove and labyrinthine terrace; and folds of purple mountain were drawn afar, for curtains round her little dusty bed.Par for the course in overall ickiness, I guess. Not merely is the erotic energy of his prose directed at a prepubescent girl (as his emotional energies were at the time directed at Rose La Touche, who was 9 when Ruskin met her, 16 or 17 at the time of this writing), but she, the incarnation for the nonce of "patience," will jump to serpentine life at her playmate's approach – "she rose with a single spring, like a snake" – & scream at her in Alecto's own shrill shriek. Ruskin, I fear, keeps pushing me towards what I've been resisting for years: a systematic reading of Freud.