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The Right Ruskin

In response to:

The Augustinian Ruskin from the August 7, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Often I have felt that I would like to have Garry Wills’s confidence, his own brand of two-dimensional “flattenability,” which avoids “depth on depth,” when confronting the most impressive kinds of cathedrals, those, like the magnificent cathedrals of Ruskin’s entire work—or those, like William Gaddis’s great novel, that are complete with the “intricate” architectural “apparatus” of “turreted walls, parapets, crenelations, machiolations, bartizans, a harrowing variety of domes and spires in staggering Romanesque, Byzantine effulgence, and Gothic run riot….” But those cathedrals impress me sufficiently to make me want to investigate rather than reduce them to anything like Mr. Wills’s “parable” [NYR, August 7] of my book (The Failing Distance: the Autobiographical Impulse in John Ruskin)—a reduction to the sanitized condition of a canonized cartoon figure that is entirely unrecognizable to me and that makes me think that what he calls the “obvious elements of truth in this schema” would be, to me, nothing but a “cloud of unknowing,” recorded by a deranged amanuensis.

But Mr. Wills, observing that there are these “obvious elements of truth,” also discerns a trinity of objections—1. Clinical Bias. 2. The Problem of the Sequence of Texts. 3. Lax Norms of Inclusion, but a Pattern of Development that is Far Too Rigid—that are more conveniently symmetrical (for Mr. Wills’s apparent purpose) than obvious. Since the third objection is simply uninteresting, and in the second, Mr. Wills takes it upon himself not so much to misquote me as re-write me, as if performing surgery on my tapes (not his own), I would like to reply to the first objection only.

  1. Clinical Bias. Mr. Wills says: “It [The Failing Distance] suffers from the clinical bias that cripples so much work on Ruskin.” A curious statement. Mr. Wills does say that I am not “blatant,” though his objection is “obvious.” Mr. Wills has a way with words, a fan perhaps of the oxymoron; perhaps I am obviously subtle. Quite simply, I would have thought that if Mr. Wills wanted to make a related charge, he could have accused me of just the opposite—of clinical exclusion, of going to painful and almost fictional lengths to avoid “ways of coping with Effie and with Rose La Touche; or with his father, or his mother; with sex, with money, with Sabbath laws.”

In fact, the language of Ruskin’s approaching madnesses and his verbal strategies employed to maintain a precarious sanity might profitably be discussed; there are (as I am certain Mr. Wills well knows) passages in The Brantwood Diary (brilliantly edited, though neither sanitized nor canonized, by Helen Gill Viljoen) that are unmatched in the rest of Ruskin’s work, passages infinitely more striking than Mr. Wills’s quoted Tintoretto passage, the all-too-familiar vast storehouse quotation, or the fly passage (but then Augustine discusses worms, Wills has a bee in his bonnet, and Ruskin possesses the art of “flattenability”).

Yes, language taken to the “edge,” to the blank page following the February 22, 1878 diary entry, might well be explored. But I didn’t do it. In any case, the “autobiographical impulse” is not a “kind of disease,” as Mr. Wills well knows, but becomes, with a bit of Ruskin’s own “tinkering,” a form of salvation. Still, there is a claustrophobia of certain pronouns, the first person both active and passive, and, dealing with texts rather than clinics, it occurred to me that it should be noted. (How does Mr. Wills account for Ruskin’s perpetual and unavoidable “unflattenability” before Rembrandt? But then Mr. Wills doesn’t seem interested in the brilliantly analytical “depth on depth” of the “Lycidas” interpretation.)

In any case, Mr. Wills, if I might I would suggest not a two-dimensional Saint Ruskin of shadowless “flattenability,” of impressionistic (and, yes, shallow awe), but a very humane and complicated man: a very good and great man—possibly the greatest man of the English nineteenth century. If you’ve extracted Ruskin from a clinic where he hasn’t been placed (despite an almost annual February madness), you’re right about taking him out of Mrs. La Touche’s drawing room. He doesn’t belong there. God knows.

Jay Fellows

New York City

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