Friday, December 02, 2011

ruskin crossroads

So I've reached a crossroads in my Ruskin reading. After he accepts the Slade Professorship of Art at Oxford in 1870, our man becomes unconscionably busy – as I think I've mentioned, his attention becomes divided in at least 3 directions: his Oxford duties, which include both his lecture series (most of which get revised into books) and his direction of a drawing school (for which he sets out detailed sets of exercises and organizes a hefty collection of specimen artworks); his pedagogical interests, directed mostly at the girls of the Winnington School, and which result in a series of extraordinarily eccentric "textbooks" – Love's Meinie (on birds), Deucalion (on geology), and Proserpina (on flowers); and his series of monthly "letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Fors Clavigera, which begin in January 1871.*

If I read thru the Library Edition in numerical order – and I've just finished volumes 20 and 21 (the former containing the first year of Ruskin's Oxford lectures, the latter his catalogues and instructions for the Art School) – I'll be reading several more volumes of Oxford lectures, then a couple volumes of the textbooks, before I hit Fors, the 600,000 words of which are contained in volumes 27 thru 29. And I've decided I can't wait.

To some degree Fors is the text to which my whole reading of Ruskin has been tending, the keystone work connecting the early Ruskin of Modern Painters I – as late-Romantic, early-Victorian a production as one can imagine, outside of Carlyle – to the high modernists. Guy Davenport called it "a Victorian prose Cantos." I'm not the first person to see it as a proto-blog; indeed, I had Fors in mind as a kind of model when I began Culture Industry the better part of 7 years ago (let's not mention how poorly I've managed to emulate Ruskin, okay?).

I finished a first reading of Fors two summers ago on a penthouse terrace on Manhattan's West Side, reflecting ironically, as I baked unprotected in the sun, on Ruskin's all-too-wet view from Brantwood in the Lake District, & his increasing despair as the "storm-cloud" of industrial pollution blackened British skies. I'm ready to read it again, letter by letter, allowing myself no more than three letters at a sitting. (There're 96 in all.) But I don't want to stray too far off the track of my roughly chronological trawl thru Ruskin's life-work. So I'll read the first Library Edition volume of Fors, then return to Volume 22 and read thru the rest of his Oxford lectures. Then I'll allow myself a second volume of Fors, after which I'll read his textbooks and guidebooks. And only then will I read the third and final volume of Fors.

Of course, after Fors is done, there still remain 6 more volume of miscellaneous Ruskiniana – his environmental lectures, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, his literary criticism, Fiction Fair and Foul, his luminous autobiography Praeterita, and various other stuff; and then two volumes of collected letters. (The very last two volumes of the 39-volume Library Edition are a bibliography and an index.) I'm not too worried about the letters, or at least the letters collected in the LE seem rather less "canonical" than the other volumes, as I seem to have accumulated almost a dozen other volumes of Ruskin letters along the way, which will eventually want reading.

I think this can be done. Quentin Bell recalls reading thru the Library Edition in a year; but then again, he admits that he wasn't reading anything else. I'll count myself lucky if I finish the maroon wall (as I think of the 3+ shelves of JR that loom over my left shoulder when I sit at my desk) by the end of next year. Assuming the Mayans were wrong.

*That's leaving out his incessant letters to the press and the various European guidebooks he was cranking out with his left hand; at one point in the 1870s Ruskin had seven books at once at some stage of publication.

1 comment:

Sisyphus said...

Sheesh, did he take speed, like I've heard some of the bigwig Theory scholars did to crank out lots of books?

I get tired just reading these to-do lists.