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The Augustinian Ruskin

Ruskin knew Mr. Fellows’s kind of critic; sometimes was that kind of critic (as in Modern Painters II)—the one who throws up depth on depth of scaffolding before the cathedral, then swings and scrambles like a monkey through all the pipework. But Ruskin’s very receptiveness prevented him from imposing any one theory on art. He started fresh in front of every work, and was so bowled over by it that his earlier pronouncements seemed worthless. He studied his masters by copying them—and then wrote about what he could not copy: “Tintoret has shown me how to paint leaves. My word, he does leave them with a vengeance. I think you would like to see how he does the trunk, too, with two strokes; one for the light side and one for the dark side, all the way down; and then on go the leaves: never autumn swept them off as he sweeps them on.”

This “flattenability” before the facts was always Ruskin’s strength—first as an art critic, and then as a social critic. Not that he was impressionable in the shallow sense. It was after he had done all his homework that the real greatness stunned him. He could trace and trace, and come nearer each time—but in the lessening distance between his own copies and the original, he saw chasms opening.

I have had a draught of pictures today enough to drown me. I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today—before Tintoret…. He took it so entirely out of me today that I could do nothing at last but lie on a bench and laugh.

He celebrated paintings as great victories, moments when men cracked the code of the universe—split something more basic than the atom. And he constantly remade himself in order to see new things—a fact reflected in the sequence of his various styles, from the crimson robes of early works like Seven Lamps, through the bright fighting armor of Unto This Last, to the involuntary motley of his last (Fors Clavigera) phase.

Mr. Fellows does not have this art for being flattened. He is a builder, and his apparatus gets so intricate that he is at last imprisoned by it, clanking around inside its pipes with a rumble of mere plumbing. It takes some effort to crack his code—but the result can be roughly stated in parable form. Imagine a man bending down to a telescope, and startled by his own reflection cast off the glass of the eyepiece; he ducks his head closer to rid him of himself, and busily focuses a hazy distance into sharper and sharper focus, only to find he is looking at a distant and horribly distinct self. In a panic he straightens up and looks with the naked eye at the dim object far off; and then calmly describes what he can see of it, before falling into a dead faint. We are asked to believe that Ruskin’s early acuity of vision came from a fear of the autobiographical impulse—he tried to be a mere observing eye of all things. But the impulse gained and gained on him, until finally he at once exercised and exorcised it in Praeterita, by looking only at his far-off younger self.

There are obvious elements of truth in this schema. But there are three objections, just as obvious. 1) It suffers from the clinical bias that cripples so much work on Ruskin. More is known and guessable about Ruskin’s daily inner life than about most other men’s—about his unconsummated marriage or later taste for nymphets—and his final madness gives a telos toward which everything earlier can be ordered. Every sentence can be treated as a symptom. Usually this reduces his lifelong outpouring of an eerie verbal music to so many psychic dodges or ways of coping with Effie and with-Rose La Touche; or with his father, or his mother; with sex, with money, with Sabbath laws. Mr. Fellows is not as blatant as this—but he too treats the autobiographical impulse as a kind of disease that wins out after Ruskin can no longer evade it. Why this should be a disease for Ruskin it is difficult to imagine. Nor is one forced to imagine it by the evidence of Ruskin’s life.

2) Fellows, when describing any one period in Ruskin’s life, uses supporting texts from any or all other periods of his writing. To illustrate a tendency to digress in the later writings, he actually cites a poem written by Ruskin when he was eleven years old. Fellows tries to defend his method this way: “My instincts are to view a body of literature—Ruskin’s more than most—in its ‘collective aspect,’ as if, removed from serial progression, it were alive, autonomous, all portions occurring simultaneously.” One is reminded of the Lucretian satire of Anaxagoras’s “homoeomery,” that it would call for all man’s constituent atoms to be little men, each crying or laughing when the “big” man does. Fellows has to postulate a Ruskin entire in each of his sentences, so they can be cited back and forth over years and periods without any distortion. This is unlikely in itself, and doubly invalidated in the case of Ruskin. Few men have gone through more distinct stages of thought, each marked by a deep change in style; and Fellows’s own thesis involves a process through different attitudes—e.g., when Ruskin is fleeing toward the outside world, he is not yielding to the autobiographical impulse.

3) Despite his lax norms of inclusion when citing evidence, Fellows makes his pattern of development far too rigid. Take the famous epiphany recorded in Praeterita:

And today I missed rocks, palace, and fountain all alike, and found myself lying on the bank of a cart-road in the sand, with no prospect whatever but that small aspen tree against the blue sky. Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced—without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they “composed” themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.

Fellows cites this to illustrate Ruskin’s period of mere outer recording by “the artist as annulled self.” Ruskin, “the self-abnegating tracer of aspens,” uses his very creativity to obliterate himself. The passage, we are told, shows Ruskin at work “without the self-contemplative bias that creates the landscape of the pathetic fallacy.” But on the very same page of Praeterita, Ruskin speaks of his disappointment at not finding “the spring which was the soul of the place.” And he goes on to say that the tree demonstrated to him “the bond between the human mind and all visible things; and I returned along the wood-road feeling that it had led me far;—farther than ever fancy had reached, or theodolite measured.”

It is typical of Ruskin that his walk along the road is measurable to the acute observer, and yet measureless. Landscape was always for him a “cipher” of the soul. What he resented in the pathetic fallacy was the reduction of this vast symbol to a puppetdramaturgy of little weeping atoms—the tree as a pouting princess. That is why he exonerated the Greeks from “fallacious” pathos—they saw the attributes of the gods in natural phenomena, not the gods themselves.

Where Fellows finds symptoms, others can still find an extraordinary and very successful attempt by Ruskin to analyze one’s self and one’s world as languages one of the other. Ruskin was awed by Turner because he saw him trudging about, rather shabby, with stored furnace under furnace, within him, of sunsets remembered and being reforged—days and worlds tiered endlessly down, resummonable. Such a man has immense horizons in him:

Imagine all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in their memories as in vast storehouses, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and with the painters, down to minute folds of drapery, and shapes of leaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as shall justly fit each other: this I conceive to be the real nature of the imaginative mind. [Modern Painters III]

It is the imagery of Venetian warehouses, with their “unindexed treasure”—and it closely resembles that moment when St. Augustine enters into himself and finds the wharves of Carthage transfigured there:

I go into the grounds, the extended mansions, of remembrance, where is stored the endless import of my senses. There, too, is record kept of thoughts added to the sensual imprints, or subtracted from them, or varying them in combination. Indeed, everything ever committed to remembrance is still laid up there, unless long decayed or sunk beyond retrieval. On visits there I make request for what I would withdraw, and some are issued instantly, while others must be sought for at some length in deeper vaults. Still others, clamorous, pour out unbidden and, while a different thing was asked for and is being sought, they dance as it were before me, saying, “Wasn’t it us you were wanting?” And I banish them, with a hand’s brush of the heart, from the presence of my memory, until what I seek is brought from its cobwebs and restored to light. Other things are easily withdrawn, in order, merely for the asking—one by one emerging in their sequence and then filing back in place, to be withdrawn again at will; all these transactions taking place when I recite from memory. [Confessions 10:8]

It is odd that Ruskin knew little and cared not at all about St. Augustine. Both men fashioned a complex psychological language from the hills and valleys of hope and despair in the Psalms. They yearn across vast distances within themselves, invent an inner politics of the mind’s patria. Both intuited a reciprocity between the vision-giving and vision-receiving parts of the universe—an interiority in distances, and long vistas in the heart. Carthage and Venice are for them, respectively, the city of Mansoul—not as mechanical allegory, but as reciprocal codes, whose meanings lie in their very particularity. Augustine will “spell” a worm as Ruskin does the fly:

I could descant in all candor on the glories of the worm, when I look at its glancing color, its perfect corporal rotundity, its intermeshing of end with middle, middle with end, each contributing something to a thrust toward oneness in this lowest of things, so that there is no part that does not answer to another part harmoniously. And what of the principle of life effervescing its melodious order through this body?—its rhythmic activation of the whole, its quest for that which serves its life, its triumph over or revulsion from whatever menaces it, its reference of all things to a normative center of self-preservation, bearing a witness more striking than the body’s to the creative unity that upholds all things in nature? [De Vera Religione]

This worm has entered the fierce hieroglyphic world of Blake’s Tyger, not by a pale abstracting process but by its vivid actuality. And Ruskin’s fly arrives there with an “angry republican buzz”:

Strike at him with your hand; and to him, the mechanical fact and external aspect of the matter is, what to you it would be, if an acre of red clay, ten feet thick, tore itself up from the ground in one massive field, hovered over you in the air for a second, and came crashing down with an aim. That is the external aspect of it; the inner aspect, to his fly’s mind, is of a quite natural and unimportant occurrence—one of the momentary conditions of his active life. He steps out of the way of your hand, and alights on the back of it. [The Cestus of Aglaia]

If the real outer landscape can suggest, to such men, the intimate farthest things of the heart, then they wander into works of art as into the vistas of another’s mind. Augustine lived for years “inside” Vergil’s epic, and discovered there the first traces of God’s city. A painting lets Ruskin wander out into that larger world Turner kept under his hat:

We are permitted to climb up the hill from town, and pass far into the mist along its top, and so descend mile after mile along the ridge to seaward, until without one break in the magnificent unity of progress, we are carried down to the utmost horizon. And contrast the brown paint of Claude, which you can only guess to be meant for rock or soil because it is brown, with Turner’s profuse, pauseless richness of feature, carried through all the enormous space; the unmeasured wealth of exquisite detail, over which the mind can dwell, walk, and wander, and feast for ever, without finding one break in its vast simplicity, or one vacuity in its exhaustless splendour. [Modern Painters I]

The mind turns itself inside out, and the world outside in—that is the only way either the mind or the world can be (un-understandably) understood:

The faculty of remembrance is so vast, God, so vast—an inner space not endable; who can plumb it? This faculty is mine, my own natural power—yet I, who am it, do not contain it entirely. The mind is not large enough to house itself. Yet where could its uncontained portion be? A thing cannot be outside, rather than inside, its own self—so how does the mind fail to contain itself? This stuns me with wonder, and I puzzle over it. Yet men go out to admire mountain peaks, huge waves at sea, broadly flowing rivers, the Ocean’s ambit and the whirl of stars—and overlook themselves; not even amazed that the things I just named were not present to my eyes as I named them, yet I saw them all—mountains, waves, rivers, and stars which I have looked on, and even the Ocean, which I have only heard about—in remembrance, where they exist on the same scale, as distant from each other, as when I see them in the outside world. [Confessions 10:8]

Our self is “over the hills and far away,” and we must go in search of it through landscapes charted by St. Augustine and Ruskin. All Fellows’s tinkering with his machinery for describing Ruskin’s fable-telescope just detracts from the mysteries his subject dealt with.

It may seem odd, for those who have been diagnosing Ruskin so long in the drawing room of Mrs. La Touche, that I compare him with the great saint and theologian. But both men loved to tease at sacred texts. Both were intrigued by the quirks of language, as signs of the mind’s anfractuosities. Both were ceaseless correspondents, endless observers, and political reformers. They had an equal passion to learn and to teach, to contemplate and to convert. Ruskin was much like a displaced bishop firing off Fors after Fors to his shadowy flock. It is true that Ruskin’s attempts at system-building failed. He did not have the tremendous concentration, over years of composition, that Augustine brought to his City of God (which was written as a sequence of pamphlets, much like Fors Clavigera). But his failure should be measured on such a standard—up against the greatest.

Bernard Shaw would not have been surprised to hear Ruskin spoken of among the saints—he was something of a patron saint to Shaw in all his social criticism. And Shaw knew this was a preacher who lived true to his own gospel:

There are always a few cases in which exceptional men and women with sufficient unearned income to maintain themselves handsomely without a stroke of work are found working harder than most of those who have to do it for a living, and spending most of their money on attempts to better the world…. John Ruskin published accounts of how he had spent his comfortable income and what work he had done, to shew that he, at least, was an honest worker and a faithful administrator of the part of the national income that had fallen to his lot. This was so little understood that people concluded that he must have gone out of his mind; and as he afterwards did, like Dean Swift, succumb to the melancholia and exasperation induced by the wickedness and stupidity of a capitalistic civilization, they joyfully persuaded themselves that they had been quite right about him.

It seems to me that a patron saint good enough for Shaw should be good enough for the rest of us.


The Right Ruskin November 13, 1975

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