Thursday, May 24, 2012

reading Ruskin: endgame

In his luminous autobiography, Praeterita, Ruskin recalls how he read the Bible with his mother, from the time he was able to make out the words to the time he went up to Oxford. They went thru 2 to 3 chapters a day, each one reading alternate verses aloud: "she began with the first verse of Genesis, and went straight through, to the last verse of the Apocalypse; hard names, numbers, Levitical law, and all; and began again at Genesis the next day." Margaret Ruskin corrected her son's pronunciation and intonation, quizzed him on the meaning of hard passages, and set him verses to memorize each day. Unsurprisingly, he came out of it with an unparalleled familiarity with the language and ideas of the King James Bible. (Apparently, they made a brief foray into learning Hebrew as well, which didn't stick; in later years Ruskin would correct habitually correct KJV renderings with his own translations from the Vulgate or the Septuagint, but never from the Hebrew text.)

I feel a bit like the child Ruskin with my own Ruskin reading. Every morning, after getting the girls off to school (or driving them myself), I settle down with my coffee and a volume of the Library Edition for an hour or so. Typically, I've been covering around 50 pages a day, reading at a moderate pace, marking passages (in pencil, Tom!), making notes. When I finish a volume, I immediately pull out the next and begin the Editors' Introduction.

This sort of wholesale & roughly chronological reading, as I found when working my way thru LZ, is essential to getting a firm grasp of the shape & details of an author's career. But it's also dreadfully wearing. I've already mentioned how trying Deucalion, Ruskin's mineralogical "treatise" was. His books on ornithology and botany (Love's Meinie and Proserpina) were similarly tough trudges, for different reasons. Indeed, the Library Edition is so complete that there're whole volumes of what amount to laundry lists – Vol. XIII on Turner, for instance, is largely composed of Ruskin's catalogues of Turner drawings, and Vol. XXI, The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford, enumerates all of the specimen works he donated for his drawing school, in hundreds of pages. I confess to doing a bit of skimming when I come across a page which consists of nothing but the numbered names of drawings I've never seen, & whose subjects I can't imagine – but there's not a page I haven't cast my eye over carefully, looking for some interesting passage of description or commentary.

The day before yesterday – my mother's yahrzeit, a melancholy (and rainy) day – I finished the last letters (and appendices) of Fors Clavigera (Vol. XXIX) and a volume I'd been reading concurrently, The Guild and Museum of St. George (XXX), a collection mostly of notes, statements, correspondence, and catalogues relating to Ruskin's quixotic project to reclaim waste agricultural land in Britain and set up model cooperative (but rigidly hierarchical) farm communities, and to stock a museum for the edification of the workers. I fear from now on it's all downhill, however. The last two volumes of the Library Edition are a bibliography and an index. Volumes XXXVI and XXXVII are letters, which I intend to read, but at my own pace, piecemeal. And Volume XXXV is Praeterita itself, which I've already been thru several times.

Which leaves the odds & sods of Volumes XXXI thru XXXIV: a couple of volumes of other people's writing which Ruskin edited for the use of the Guild of St. George (right now I'm in the midst of XXXI, Biblioteca Pastorum, the beginnings of a kind of eccentric "household library" for Guild members); a number of very late Oxford lectures; a collection of public letters on various subjects; and various & sundry other sweepings (presented by the editors under the title "Ruskiniana"). I'm sure there will be some jewels – or at least some interesting bits – here. I do indeed look forward to The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, Ruskin's own version of Silent Spring, and to Fiction Fair and Foul, his assessment of the English novel. But I'm pretty sure that nothing's going to measure up to the work of the '60s and '70s, from Unto this Last thru the fiery middle letters of Fors.

To put it simply: After his first major mental breakdown in early 1878, Ruskin never really gets his mojo back. It makes for sad reading, to say the least. The last nine numbers of Fors, written after his convalescence, are wan imitations of the earlier ones. Where the best letters of Fors read like muscular, proto-modernist ideograms of juxtaposed materials, iced off at the end with scrappy chunks of correspondence (think Paterson, in prose), the late ones feel like Ruskin desperately trying to focus his attention, trying time and again to sum up what's he's been about over the past 20 years. And he can't stop thinking about Rose La Touche, the Irish girl he fell in love with when she was 9 or 10, who died insane (at 27) in 1875, and whose name and specter (as St. Ursula) keep haunting all his writings. Praeterita manages to be his last masterpiece because it's an exercise in autobiography as therapy, Ruskin looking back at all the things in his life that make him happy, scrupulously avoiding everything that would upset him or send him back over the edge.

Reading the last run of Fors in conjunction with a few other Ruskin-related items – his correspondence with Thomas Carlyle, his letters to Lady Mount-Temple (his great confidant on the Rose La Touche affair), a little monograph by Van Akin Burd on JR's flirtation with the spiritualists (yes, Rose communicated with him from the other world), JL Bradley's Ruskin chronology (what, you don't read chronologies?) – has given me a deeper sense of Ruskin's longstanding mental problems, the degree to which he struggled with depression for pretty much his whole life. But it's sad to see the man succumbing in the end, sad to watch the five-volume extinguishing of the lamp. Of all of the literary careers I've worked my way thru, Ruskin's is the most precipitous in its dropping-off. Well, maybe there's one comparable – from Praeterita, again:
The series of Waverley novels, then drawing towards its close, was still the chief source of delight in all households caring for literature; and I can no more recollect the time when I did not know them than when I did not know the Bible; but I still have a vivid remembrance of my father's intense expression of sorrow mixed with scorn, as he threw down Count Robert of Paris, after reading three or four pages; and knew that the life of Scott was ended: the scorn being a very complex and bitter feeling in him, – partly, indeed, of the book itself, but chiefly of the wretches who were tormenting and selling the wrecked intellect, and not a little, deep down, of the subtle dishonour which had essentially caused the ruin. My father never could forgive Scott his concealment of the Ballantyne partnership.*
*Scott was a silent partner in the firm of his publisher, James Ballantyne; when Ballantyne went belly-up in the banking crisis of 1826, Scott refused to declare himself bankrupt, & determined to write his way out of his enormous debts. Over the next six years he essentially ruined his health and his mind by overwork, producing some seven volumes of fiction, a six-volume life of Napoleon, a two-volume history of Scotland, and various other books.

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