The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings
edited with an Introduction by John D. Rosenberg
Braziller, 560 pp., $7.50
A man of the most searing sensual passions and dreams of masterful authority driven by them beyond the bounds of sanity; a visionary, surely, and the greatest prose writer of his age, forced by natural disgust at its callous cruelty and ugliness to create his own “paradis artificiels“; a Lear of the nineteenth century, who could write of himself and his deluded feudal kingdom “And what am I, myself then, infirm and old, who take, or claim, leadership even of these lords?…. Bred in luxury, which I perceive to have been unjust to others, and destructive to myself; vacillating, foolish, and miserably failing in all my own conduct in life—and blown about hopelessly by storms of passion—I, a man clothed in soft raiment,—I, a reed shaken with the wind…” This surely is the Ruskin who can still speak to us today. As a writer on art he was at times profound and certainly influential—but his dogmatic confusion now bewilders more than it enlightens; as an economist his hatred of the repellent stupidities of contemporary doctrines stimulated him more to nobly foolish ones of his own than to practical remedies—though much that he dreamed of is now part of our lives, and the effect on Gandhi and the young Labour Party was significant; his influence on Proust is more a matter for literary historians than for the general reader. What then remains? Praeterita, certainly, that perfect autobiography—but also a thousand fragments which bring to life one of the most richly gifted and tragic of men, whose heart had been “broken ages ago, when I was a boy—then mended, cracked, beaten in, kicked about old corridors, and finally, I think, flattened fairly out.”
For all the density of his sweeping paragraphs he responds most rewardingly to anthologies. Mr. Rosenberg, who wrote a really superb study two or three years ago, has now followed it up with a very perceptive choice from his works. This, combined with a few other excellent contributions of recent years and the most sensitive exhibition devoted to his life which has just closed in London, will surely resurrect him finally from the neglect into which he had fallen.
Every age is—and (despite the warnings of scholars) is surely right to be—unfairly selective in its estimate and recreation of past genius. We, who live at a time which has chosen to admire the “black” Dickens, the revelations of mescalin addicts, the confessions of those “who allow themselves to be wholly known,” should find no difficulty in creating a Ruskin of our own. Our information about his unconsummated marriage is relevant here: Impotent he may have been, but his formidable sexual energy was only transposed: “There is a strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse—to draw and transcribe the things I love…a sort of instinct like that for eating or drinking. I should like to draw all St. Mark’s…stone by stone—to eat it all up …