Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Prehistoric Blogs I: Fors Clavigera

I’m a relative latecomer to the blogosphere, so I’m always discovering new uses people have come up with for the weblog medium, and ways in which people have rethought its potentials and limitations. And of course there’re only probably a couple dozen weblogs that I look at with any regularity – a teeny tiny fraction of that sea of writing going on out there. Much of what I see, especially from blogs that don’t explicitly concentrate on poetry, politics, or cultural criticism, is old-fashioned journal- or diary-keeping: with the ever-present twist that this particular diary, instead of having a lock on its cover or living in the depths of a desk drawer, is on some level intended to be public.

As someone who draws a salary on the basis of pretending to say intelligent things about literary texts, I find myself looking to literary history for formal precursors of the weblog, and with mixed success. The great Restoration diarists – Samuel Pepys, William Byrd II – don’t really fit the bill, because their journals are so resolutely private. Even Henry David Thoreau, I’m convinced, wouldn’t have kept a blog (despite the success of the always refreshing Blog of Henry David Thoreau, which gives you a daily snippet of HDT’s journal, weblog style): as wonderful as his journals are, they’re really a personal storehouse and quarry, the great blocks of observation and pre-composition from which he carved out his actual books. Thoreau had no other ultimate reader in mind for his journals than himself. (That’s a bit more questionable with Coleridge’s journals, which seem to be written with at least half an eye on posterity; and one suspects that Harold Nicholson and Virginia Woolf would rest very uneasily indeed in their graves if their journals hadn’t been published.)

But the other day the postman brought a book that reminded me of one model somewhere in the back of my mind when I started this blog: Judith Stoddart’s Ruskin’s Culture Wars: Fors Clavigera and the Crisis of Victorian Liberalism (U of Virginia P, 1998). John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, author of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, among scores of other works, from 1871 to 1884 concentrated his energies on a series of monthly pamphlets entitled Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. (“Fors” is fate; “clavigera” means “bearing a nail,” or a “club,” or perhaps a “key.” Ruskin would play with every possible meaning of his Latin title.) Each of the 96 installments of Fors is dated and datelined; in each of them Ruskin (eventually) comments on and addresses contemporary issues and events; like the “Comments” page on Blogger, the numbers of Fors incorporate letters received, along with Ruskin’s responses; and in an early anticipation of hyperlinks, Ruskin includes both copious illustrations and lengthy quotations from current newspaper articles.

Guy Davenport, in “The House that Jack Built,” a lovely essay on the form of the labyrinth in modernist writing, calls Fors Clavigera a “Victorian prose Cantos,” and traces the ancestry of much of high modernism --– from Joyce to Pound to Zukofsky – to certain labyrinth-passages in Fors. I think he’s overstating, both in regards to Ruskin’s direct influence and to the disjunctiveness of his style. But it’s undeniable that Fors has a kind of zany, paratactic logic that reminds one of The Pisan Cantos or a letter from Charles Olson. In the course of a single number (61, from November 1875), Ruskin will veer from describing the white cat owned by his hostess, to recounting the high-minded reforming impulses that led him to begin Fors, to a fiery castigation of contemporary economic inequities, to an engraving of a leaf with perfect circles eaten out of it by the “leaf-cutting bee,” to a comparison of contemporary bookkeeping handwriting with a line from a Greek psalter (both carefully reproduced), to the family trees of the sons of Noah, to a list of classics that one ought to read. The “Notes and Correspondence” section reprints, among much else, two newspaper articles about workers’ deaths by starvation, a letter by Robert Burns’s brother Gilbert, and an account of a picturesque Welsh valley being ruined by the railway.

It’s all rather exhilarating and bewildering, held together ultimately by the force of Ruskin’s beautiful prose and his overbearing, hectoring personal voice. There’s lots not to like about Ruskin – he describes himself as a “violent Tory of the old school,” and while his compassion for the working classes at times seems to match Karl Marx’s, his solutions to the economic problems of Victorian Britain are so impractical as to be risible. But I am fascinated by how Fors, as a periodical, single-author work, unconstrained by preset subject matter or approach and ultimately at the mercy of the contingencies of the writer’s life and context, provides one model for the ultra-contemporary form of the weblog.

Fors Clavigera is no longer an easy book to come by. I am almost certainly the only person in Palm Beach County to own two copies of it in its 1600-page entirety, both of them modest turn-of-the-century reprints. The definitive edition, part of Cook and Wedderburn’s beautifully edited collection of Ruskin’s complete works (1903-1912) has passed out of the realm of readers and into the country of well-heeled collectors. Dinah Birch, one of the finest Ruskin scholars working, has edited a selection of Fors for Edinburgh University Press – which goes for a mere $135. Abebooks is the place to go to find a usable, probably battered set in the neighborhood of fifty bucks, which is what I paid for my first copy. Ruskin is at best an acquired taste, but well worth the acquiring.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did anyone catch this? It was pretty cool. About Steve Alten and his new book Hell’s Aquarium.


The last first-edition collector's hardbacks of MEG: Hell's Aquarium are being shipped to Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com in time for Discovery Channel's SHARK WEEK, August 2nd - August 9th. MEG, short for Carcharodon Megalodon was the 70-foot, 70,000 pound prehistoric cousin of the Great White Shark. Reviewers have called best-selling author Steve Alten's latest installment "the Moby Dick of giant killer shark novels."

Must-reading for shark lovers!