|. . . Ruskin|
|. . . 2004-04-24|
If I know you, you're most likely to have encountered (and immediately forgotten) W. H. Mallock as the unwitting source of A HUMUMENT, which paints over his ponderous three-decker, A Human Document. In his own time, however, Mallock's name was made by his first novel, The New Republic, a best-selling satire à clef consisting almost entirely of dialog.
Its timing was right. His targets (Jowett, Huxley, Arnold, Ruskin) were in the ascendant, and their tones would remain recognizable well into the next century. Mallock himself established at least one long-lasting Victorian reputation: Most of his readers came to the book already holding some image of Thomas Carlyle, which Mallock's timid "Donald Gordon" wasn't likely to reshape, but most would first encounter Walter Pater, then at the start of his unprolific publishing career, as "Mr. Rose," and "Mr. Rose" Pater would stay for the rest of their lives.
Mallock obtained his B.A. from Oxford in 1874. Two years later, still hanging around Oxford, he began serializing the book. It's the work of a clever and vindictive student, a vicious mimic with little experience of life outside home or school. The New Republic's deflating and punctured monologues, drawn from close observation of college lectures and sermons, match his gifts perfectly. (Its gauche attempts at poetry and man-of-the-worldliness match his limitations just as strikingly.)
Contemporaries naturally saw Mallock as the successor to Thomas Love Peacock. But Peacock's mockery was affectionate, based on the long drop from his friends' grand hot air balloons to their farcically messy private lives. In contrast, there's real venom in Mallock — and little else of potency — and so I'm more inclined to see him as the founder of that new line of satire which was to include Aldous Huxley and Wyndham Lewis. George Orwell was equally inclined to see him as the founder of the endemic "silly-clever religious book, which goes on the principle not of threatening the unbeliever with Hell, but of showing him up as an illogical ass."
Mallock was a pioneer in still another way. It's only a rumor that Carlyle bid him farewell with "Can ye hear me, Mr. Mallock? I didna enjoy your veesit, and I dinna want to see ye again." And it's only a rumor that, before Mallock's homophobia ruined Pater's reputation in the world at large, he ruined Pater's career at Oxford by fetching stolen private letters to the Master of the College, Benjamin Jowett. But we have sufficient proof before us that Mallock was unscrupulous in the spreading of rumors — a piece of work, as they say. Willing to allow for the doctrines of might makes right (when he has the might) and survival of the fittest (while the rankings stay frozen in his favor), courageously resolved to manipulate the foolish masses for the benefit of the greater good (that is, himself), vehemently defending all the privilege of noblesse and none of the oblige, combining the social conscience of a libertine and the self-righteousness of a roundhead, Mallock's a recognizably contemporary conservative. It's easy to picture him as a Young Republican at Yale, blitzing out a novel which tells off PC and poststructuralism and women's studies to great acclaim and publicity....
And it might be pretty funny. He might actually do a book or two worth reading before his toothsomely juicy contempt shrivelled into a Buckleyish (or even Bennetish) bore. The New Republic is often (always at its nastiest) very funny. God forsake me, a few times I even squirmed. As David Daiches wrote for a newer moribund Republic in 1951:
If we can read through The New Republic without at one point or another being made to feel a little foolish, we are wise indeed. On questions of religion, culture and progress the view of the modern liberal intellectual tends to be a conflation of Benjamin Jowett and Matthew Arnold, and it is salutary (to use a favorite word of Arnold's) to have it so cunningly challenged.
(This on-line edition is dedicated to The Happy Tutor.)
Your link to the Tribune columns led me to think, Orwell would have made a great blogger. Or is that going too far? I do like reading Orwell & thinking about his right-wing advocates. When I'm reading him gleefully fantasizing about the underclass training machine guns on the army, what is Roger Kimball reading?
For that matter, what is Roger Kimball wearing? Did his mom buy those clothes?
and ann coulter will be remembered more for her bosom than her buddies
Hey, that's unfair!
even constant vigilance may not be enough (dan reynolds)
Good thing, 'cause I need some sleep.
Gosse on Pater is wonderful!
Gosse may have been a dull critic but as an easy-going late Victorian raconteur he was excellent. From the same essay collection, I pulled the more personal comments on Walt Whitman and Christina Rossetti.
Lawrence White likes those too:
The Gosse on Whitman is quite beautiful. I guess I'm just a sap at heart but it was the sweetest thing.
In honor of all this Gosse love, I've just posted a portrait of the man himself.
tell them all how it really is
I used to have a blue guitar,
Till I smashed it one green day.
It would not play things as they are,
As Peter Townshend may....
|. . . 2006-09-30|
In January, 1870, John Ruskin began Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, issued near-monthly through early 1878 and more spasmodically between 1880 and 1884.
Tastes have changed in 130 years, but the book remains weak, and weakens as it goes. The first and last frontispieces illustrate the progess from Giotto to ick.
Between them, we're whiplashed between fulmination and namby-pamby; we plod through dull fiction, eccentric introductions to geology and entomology, a few close moralizing readings of paintings, histories, and saints' tales, bad-tempered quarrels with the well-meaning and mostly good-natured, daydream descriptions of imaginary coinage, comment-larded translations of Plato's Laws and the Bible....
The arguments I found most cogent thin with repetition; pages dissolve into a welter of cross-references: "Let her read the account of our modern pastoral music, at page 90 of my fifth Letter,— of modern Venetian 'Barcarolle,' page 245 of Letter 19, and 257 of Letter 20..." And, as Ruskin himself points out, they only restated more bluntly what he'd written prettily before.
It doesn't even excerpt easily: Ruskin was a manic monologist, not an aphorist.
The serial started forcefully enough, engaging a still-live issue: the moral and ecological costs of capitalism. And suspensefully enough while I waited for the author to reveal his plan.
Post-revelation, the grounds of suspense changed. Now I wondered how long it would take for his plan to fall apart, and how completely it would fail before he admitted defeat.
And then, a while later, how long it would take for him to become certifiable, and how that would show up in the "letters"....
Oh, I've encountered successful works shaped by and incorporating their artists' mental collapse. Not here. Here I was drawn on by pure, if sympathetic, morbidness.
It's not my favorite way to read a writer; it's not how writers prefer to be read. But after finishing the book, curious, I found that even its greatest champion, Tim Holt, reads it that way. He says that's why he likes it most.
That's the best Ruskin's biographer can fish from the man's life work.
From political prophet and model prose stylist to human interest story — the degradation's ours as much as Ruskin's.
All these decades I'd hosted Whistler's version of the story: a victory of wit and art over the opressive Establishment.
But Whistler wasn't the only presumptious upstart in the case. Ruskin had climbed far in life, it's true; so far that, without realizing it, thrashing in the upper foliage, he'd left behind anything which could support his weight.
In context, Ruskin's insult was a singular throwaway in an ever less coherent and ever more discountable flood of attacks on enemies much more Established than either disputant. Whistler was flogging a lame horse. The target of his suit would collapse into complete delirium long before the trial took place.
This revision teaches a lesson worth learning. (Although I needed it more at eighteen.) Our license to rave isn't a sign of fear or respect, but of our fecklessness. Milords, miladies, & Most Reverend and Right Honourable Archbishops needn't soil their gloves chastising the fool. Sooner or later, some other thin-skinned desparate clown will do the job for them, unpaid.
Unseated at the foot of the table, splattered with drumstick grease, wine dregs, and worse.
And Ruskin's yen for the early Renaissance, his execrations of usury, his frantic vehemence, and the sad curve of his career all forced thoughts of Ezra Pound. (Some people even compare Fors Clavigera with the Cantos, although Pound's post-1930 prose seems a much closer match.)
Both were convinced they stood on unassailable dignity even when hopping, frothing, screaming mad. They were both very fond of the word "Master". And they shared an abusive pedagogy: Disgusted Ruskin describes himself hammering a nail into our thick skulls; disgusted Pound describes slamming a dick into the passive vulva of London.
A dirty job that somebody's gotta do: Carpentry or rape?
Pound wants credit for suffering through a purported source of pleasure.
And one difference between Ruskin's and Pound's late madworks is who they're aimed at and how: discursive prose for the working class vs. high art for the perceptive elite.
Both men were pushed off the path of pure aesthetism by the same conviction: Great art can only be created by a great culture, and so a great society must be remade.
But Pound circles the argument around again to shape and keep a cozy bed. How does one set about creating a great society? Why, by making great art, of course.
Fors wasn't written as literature or criticism; it documents an attempt to achieve more than words alone achieved, and to actualize fantasy by less comfortable means than continued fantasizing.
Ruskin's choice was Quixotic, literally. With Quixotic results.
But Quixote was at least a principled man.
And, in the end, restricting himself to purely verbal labor protected Pound neither from guilt nor retribution.
Best not even go there.
And so another American I think of's Henry Adams.
Ruskin was a conservative Christian communist; Adams a "conservative Christian anarchist".
The adjective falls oddly against those nouns.
Ruskin and Adams opposed it to a just-as-obsolete usage of "liberal": "rule by free-market capitalism."
Outside of academia, it's been obsolete a long while. By Ruskin's time, all major Anglo-American political parties accepted capitalism as a given, and the only economic dispute between "conservative" and "liberal" was, and remains, whether government should provide welfare exclusively to the wealthy or to others as well.
Although I haven't filled in the spreadsheet, Ruskin directed perhaps his most sustained and violent abuse against church leaders.
Adams didn't, being more interested in politicians than in evangelicals, and there being, back then, a difference.
Pound, of course, was a pagan.
Yet Ruskin, the only fanatic gospel reader of the three, was the only one not to fall into the idiot trap of anti-Semitism. Deluded, he was at least able to clearly see the capitalists two feet in front of him and what churches they attended.
"Anarchist" if you can't.
Despair drives us mad; hope flies there. When Adams referred to himself and his friends as instutionalizable, the joke had teeth. He was careful to restrict his ravings to private letters.
And he proposed no plan but to watch.
Set up an inner nation to survive the crash. Bit by bit, donated acre by unmortgaged acre, volunteer serf by volunteer baron, neo-Medieval economy, religion, culture, and technology would re-establish themselves in England's green and pleasant land.
The scheme anticipates Hari Seldon, but its goal anticipates the post-apocalyptic pastoral. Over and over, we've imagined the development of low-tech pseudo-feudalism after the big blow-up. Ruskin just wanted to have it ready to pivot into place early on.
The land which turns swords into ploughshares is always beaten by the land which turns swords into money.
What Ruskin could build was ridiculously trivial next to his dreams. But he built its trivia soundly, and trivially it still stands.
In the long disastrous history of attempts to make over society, Ruskin's fiasco counts as success. He managed to erect a molehill instead of a bomb crater.
Geography's not the issue. The conflict's between purity and productization.
The Tutor graciously acknowledges the razor-bladed apple on his desk.
|. . . 2006-10-26|
But regret is one thing and resentment is another. Seeing one morning, in a shop-window, the series of Mornings in Florence published a few years since by Mr. Ruskin, I made haste to enter and purchase these amusing little books.... it was difficult to sympathise, for the simple reason, it seems to me, that it savours of arrogance to demand of any people, as a right of one's own, that they shall be artistic. "Be artistic yourselves!" is the very natural reply that young Italy has at hand for English critics and censors. ... "One may read a hundred pages of this sort of thing," said my friend, "without ever dreaming that he is talking about art. You can say nothing worse about him than that." Which is perfectly true. Art is the one corner of human life in which we may take our ease. ... One may read a great many pages of Mr. Ruskin without getting a hint of this delightful truth; a hint of the not unimportant fact that art after all is made for us and not we for art. ... Differences here are not iniquity and righteousness; they are simply variations of temperament, kinds of curiosity. We are not under theological government.- Henry James, "Recent Florence", 1877
This seems simpatico, and true, and cruel. Henry James all over.
What creeps me out about it — about early James in general — is the genial air of contempt, of exclusive access to "the real right thing." Yes, if we stay smart and aware, passive analysis can get us somewhere. But the active objects of our gaze ain't hearing nothing they don't already know. They also think who don't just stand and wait.
By the time young James wrote this put-down, old Ruskin had already made the decision to forsake art history for an attempt to (re-)create the sort of theological government which would make us "artistic ourselves." His effort may have been delusional, but it at least demonstrated self-awareness.
"First, do no harm" is a more difficult injunction than it seems at first. Maybe that's why I prefer the later James: just as ineffectual but less smug about it. The decades of bruised conscientiousness built up their protective layers of silk (if you like the style) or numb callus (if you don't), and the voice became its own padded cell.
|. . . 2006-11-14|
It's good to treat Keats humorously; Keats did. But if the poem's speaker was meant to be an unreliable narrator, he's in awfully distinguished company.
Poetry [...] expands the mind by giving freedom to the imagination and by offering, from among the boundless multiplicity of possible forms accordant with a given concept, to whose bounds it is restricted, that one which couples with the presentation of the concept a wealth of thought to which no verbal expression is completely adequate, and by thus rising aesthetically to ideas. It invigorates the mind by letting it feel its faculty — free, spontaneous, and independent of determination by nature — of regarding and estimating nature as phenomenon in the light of aspects which nature of itself does not afford us in experience, either for sense or understanding, and of employing it accordingly in behalf of, and as a sort of schema for, the supersensuous. It plays with semblance, which it produces at will, but not as an instrument of deception; for its avowed pursuit is merely one of play, which, however, understanding may turn to good account and employ for its own purpose.- Immanuel Kant
Kant famously found in beauty purposefulness without purpose, and infamously proposed the aesthetic sense as a foundation of good god-fearing existence. Beauty is the one Truth we mortals directly and certainly know as an immortal might; "understanding" or "reason" can be argued with, but the judgment of "taste" is unshakeable.
A cultured skeptic might've objected. "What do you mean by 'purposeless'? I gave the artisan his instructions myself, and I know my purpose. He was bound to apprenticeship for seven years, and so he must know his. As for the inarguability of taste, last week a rascal of a printer lost his hand over just such an argument, and I believe he's recanted."
In anticipation, Kant set up a hierarchy of beauties. The genius is a genius because he doesn't really know what he's doing; other artists are minor because they do know what they're doing: they're imitating the genius. Natural beauty's on a higher plane than artistic beauty because artists can give their reasons but God, um, can't. Decorative abstractions and instrumental music are "freer" beauties than portraits or songs, not because the former lack any compositional principles, but because Kant doesn't know what those principles are. Lilies and brightly colored birds provide purer moral pleasure than a beautiful horse because Kant understands the purpose of a horse.
If a lily ever revealed its motives, humanity might be in big trouble. Fortunately, "it is absurd... to hope that another Newton will arise in the future, who shall make comprehensible by us the production of a blade of grass according to natural laws which no design has ordered. We must absolutely deny this insight to men."
Taking these apparent instructions to heart, Keats straightforwardly (maybe too straightforwardly) attempts to both condense and exemplify Kantian aesthetics. The "Ode"'s speaker starts from a position of ignorance. O felix vacua! The concept of the urn thus lets him experience beauty, speculate freely, and rise to ideas. His last line doesn't refer to Barbara Stanwyck: Stoopid Beauty is Truth. (In Kaufman's retelling, it sounds a lot like Gracie Allen: "Did I ever tell you about my brother's urn, George?") Similarly, Goethe didn't mean a fast-talking Rosalind Russell type — it's the Sweet Dumb Feminine that draweth us ever onward.
I guess it's easy to poke holes in all this. But when I first read the Keats, and when I first read the Kant, I did immediately and intuitively sense something right — I had sometimes felt a sort of disinterested pleasure which did seem ethically important somehow. And we've all heard complaints from academics and working artists who became unable to enjoy the artifacts which originally enticed them into their fields, "shouldn't watch sausage being made" and all that....
However, I also know of fiction writers who still love reading novels, musicians who dance, stand-up comics who laugh easily, horror directors who scare easily, sausage makers who eat sausage.... Even after you've learned a technique, you don't have to think about it all the fucking time. What "aesthetic experience" requires isn't so much suspension of disbelief as suspension of knowledge.
Some people are better at turning out the lights than others. Reading Fors Clavigera, I found I shared a formative experience with my fellow aesthete Ruskin, and probably with lots of other bored or sickly kids:
I soon attained serene and secure methods of life and motion; and could pass my days contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colours of my carpet;— examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses; with rapturous intervals of excitement during the filling of the water-cart, through its leathern pipe, from the dripping iron post at the pavement edge; or the still more admirable proceedings of the turncock, when lie turned and turned till a fountain sprang up in the middle of the street. But the carpet, and what patterns I could find in bed-covers, dresses, or wall-papers to be examined, were my chief resources, and my attention to the particulars in these was soon so accurate, that when at three and a half I was taken to have my portrait painted by Mr. Northcote, I had not been ten minutes alone with him before I asked him why there were holes in his carpet.
Resting on surface, wrapping ourselves voluptuously in surface without ever going past it... misses things. (Like where carpets come from.) The wittiness of Kaufman's series lies in its following the prescribed rule of ignorance. He gives the "Ode" a close reading cold, unsullied by historical context.
The results, of course, are dominated by his own un-Keats-like tastes and habits of thought. And the possibility of such misreading is enough to argue against the poem's and Kant's viewpoint. Some level of expertise or habituation must be attained before "intuitive" "immediate" apprehension becomes possible. After sufficient exercise, the muscle memory makes aesthetic experience come easily, but it's no more innate than anything else in culture.
I can even remember some of the process myself — it wasn't until age 19 that I became able to appreciate static visual art. I was too Kantian an aesthete. Since I derived exactly as much pleasure from looking at a natural landscape (or at a brick) as I could from a painting, what was the point of the painting? A lot of conversation and a generous dose of LSD were needed to help me understand experientially how surface contemplation might be guided by someone other than the observer.
And so my sense of "rightness" (in urn, in Kant, in Keats) was intuitive and immediate, yes — but not universal and not immortal. It may arise exclusively in individualizing capitalistic cultures with pretensions to genteel faith; I may be merely a sickly, bored product of my time and place. That's fine; I don't need universality or immortality. Contigency suffices. My criticism only aspires to an existence proof: Kilroy Thought Here.
A scrawl on a wall. Message flattens into material; the material hangs on. Where Kant and Keats no longer convince as argument, they still provide an artifact to attract our attentions, on which we can hitch a leash, a long leash, from which our wits can wander.... As the poet sang, "I was a fine idea at the time. Now I'm a brilliant mistake." Mistake on, dude.
|. . . 2007-01-08|
I've finally transferred some chunks of John Ruskin's Fors Clavigiera from my commonplace file to the web. The selection is too thin and too aribitrary to be useful for research, but might be able to satisfy mild — or stimulate deeper — curiosity.
Letter LXXXI isn't included, and so you'll just have to take my word that Ruskin responded positively to the newspaper clipping an American sent him concerning “Justus Schwab, the most prominent Communistic leader.”
|. . . 2009-10-01|
V. Been there, done that
Following up, I found Juliet Dusinberre's Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art, which appears to cover "why, a six-year-old child could do that" Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting alongside high literature. (I assume she'll mention poor old Rusky-Busky, who taught art appreciation to the masses and once wrote a kid's book.)
And there's also Dieter Petzold's "Taking Games Seriously: Romantic Irony in Modern Fantasy for Children of All Ages" in Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations:
If Romantic irony provides a close link between Romanticism and modernism, the one between Romanticism and postmodernism is even closer. In particular, what has been labeled 'metafictional' writing seems to be just an application, or elaboration, of the German Romantics' ideas of irony.... It is on this level that a connection can be made between Romanticism, postmodernism, and some contemporary children's books.... By reminding their readers that they are participating in a game, the authors of ironic fantasy allow themselves and their readers to have their cake and eat it too: to remember that the fictional world they are enjoying is just make-believe and to realize at the the same time that it is, nevertheless, profoundly meaningful. Moreover, by insisting on the importance of the reader in this game, authors of ironic fantasy for children have also managed to reconcile the Romantic belief in the naive, imaginative child with the Romantic belief in the sovereignty of the subjective (therefore ironic) author.... The history of children's literature is not devoid of texts that make oblique comments on the complexities of reality by playing with the conventions and trappings of fairy tale and fantasy — in other words, fantasy texts that employ Romantic irony. However, there have always been readers who found such books somewhat disturbing, and there is a widespread feeling that these are not really children's books since they are appreciated by adults at least as much as by children.... Yet, whether in spite or because of these ambivalences, these texts have been popular in their times (in part extremely so), both among adults and children, and they have endured.
Lookit me, ma, I partake of the spirit of the age! I've partaken of the spirit of the god-damned age!
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.