Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Reading Ruskin (Modern Painters, Volume II)

Before I launch into the next Ruskin installment, let me draw your attention to the latest issue of Parnassus: Poetry in Review (that is, 29.1 & 2), which includes both Eric’s wonderful essay on novels with poets as characters (originally titled “Buffy the Poetry Slayer,” until some spoilsport made him tone it down) and my own “Still Diving the Mauberley Trench,” an omnibus review of big books by the very excellent John Matthias. (Oddly enough, I had spent some minutes in NYC at the Met staring at Gustave Moreau’s “Oedipus and the Sphinx,” only to find it waiting for me when I got home, reproduced on the magazine’s cover in far clearer definition than would seem possible.)
Ruskin was all of 24 when Modern Painters I was published (anonymously) in 1843. He published Volume II in 1846. The book marks a huge shift in both approach and evaluation. The big catalyst is an 1845 trip to Italy, where he becomes closely acquainted with a bunch of painters he’d either not known or known only cursorily when writing MPI – Tintoretto, Luini, Botticelli, Carpaccio, 4 of the 5 artists (with Turner) who would become his great “discoveries” and the subject of his promotional energy. Clearly, his 1845 Italian tour showed him that a thorough assessment of greatness in art required more than the emphasis on visible “truth” of MPI – required, in short, an entire theory of what the “beautiful” consisted of, & how the artistic imagination worked.

Modern Painters II, then, begins a far more ambitious and far-reaching project than the first volume, nothing short of a global theory of art: a description of what the beautiful consists of; why we find it beautiful; & precisely what are the operations of the human imagination in producing beautiful works of art. JR doesn’t call this “aesthetics,” because the word implies that what we find beautiful is primarily or ultimately a matter of aisthesis, of sensory perception, & Ruskin firmly believes that the perception & production of the beautiful is a fundamentally moral or spiritual matter. George Landow sums it up nicely: “All beauty, if properly regarded, is theophany, the revelation of God. Contemplating beauty, like contemplating the Bible, God’s other revelation, is a moral and religious act.”

Landow is also good in showing how the mechanics of Ruskin’s theory of the beautiful and sublime are a marriage of Neoclassical and Romantic aesthetics; that there’s really not a lot particularly new here, tho as always its beautifully expressed. Ruskin describes his own writing method in his autobiography Praeterita:
My own literary work… was always done as quietly and methodically as a piece of tapestry. I knew exactly what I had got to say, put the words firmly in their places like so many stitches, hemmed the edges of the chapters round with what seemed to me graceful flourishes, touched them finally with my cunningest points of colour, and read the work to papa and mama at breakfast next morning, as a girl shows her sampler.
The “edged hems” mean in effect that JR tends to conclude each chapter with a bit of high rhetoric, so that one may lay down the book with a feeling of being emotionally stirred & uplifted.

One money quote: Ruskin is concluding his discussion of the “superhuman ideal” – how painters represent angels, saints, the deity – & asserts that pre-Christian societies simply cannot depict a spiritual reality to which they have no access:
The Greek could not conceive a spirit; he could do nothing without limbs; his God is a finite God, talking, pursuing, and going journeys; if at any time he was touched with a true feeling of the unseen powers around him, it was in the field of poised battle; for there is something in the near coming of the shadow of death, something in the devoted fulfilment of mortal duty, that reveals the real God, though darkly.

My own edition is a 1904 version of a reprint JR saw thru the presses in the 1880s, & one of its most interesting aspects is the constant notes the older Ruskin inserts, commenting on his earlier errors & excesses. A second money quote is one of these notes, notable not merely for R’s sense of how strident his tone in MPII looks in 40 years’ retrospect, but for his own immense sense of self-worth & consciousness of his critical powers:
How the public ever pardoned, as they did, the steady self-confidence and general “I would have” (it so) of this book, is extremely difficult for me now to conceive: and yet they were right; for at the root of this simplicity of egotism, there was a natural consciousness of my real power of discrimination which I no more cared to assert than a good dog his power of scent; and on the other hand, – and this I wish I had more distinctly asserted – there was in me as firmly rooted conviction of my own littleness, in relation to the men whom I loved and praised.


Unknown said...

Nice piece.

Steve Shoemaker said...

I'm enjoying the Ruskin, Mark. I once found myself stuck in a deadly boring class on Victorian non-fiction prose and ended up clinging to Stones of Venice like a man on...i was going to say "life raft," but let's say "storm-swept precipice" instead. Anyway, I wrote a fifty-page essay, but have no idea what became of it--probably just as well.

kousalya said...

Really well done for the blog.these are so sweet and pretty!
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