The twentieth-century author most often summoned as the sibylline guide to the depths of Ruskin’s oeuvre is Proust. Guy Davenport, who might also be called on for a tour of those often dead-end, more often unstably provisional Ruskinian labyrinths, writes of the French Master and the Victorian Sage:
Ruskin may have also shown Proust, by bad example, how to write an enormous book into which everything he knew could be put. Ruskin’s books are all like provincial museums with a long-winded guide. No matter how carefully he worked them out, as with The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters, they tended toward the-grand and wonderful clutter of The Bible of Amiens and Fors Clavigera. (Ruskin once began an Oxford lecture on Michelangelo, slid into a digression on shoes, then into one on the feet of little girls, and then into little girls altogether. In Fors he was capable of moving from the Elgin marbles to plum pudding.) It was this exhaustible fund of essences and events that became Proust’s inspiration: his liberation. (Read it its entirety here)
Reading Proust can help us see how reading Ruskin might matter for a mind that teems with more life, more stuff, than most of us will ever possess, and it can make us see how Ruskin might be valued, even if we cannot value him ourselves. But it also is a constant reminder of what Ruskin is not: liberated. For all of his digressions, for all of his wanderings, for the breadth of learning, Ruskin is constantly compelled and besieged; so, one might say, is Marcel, at the whim of capricious nerves and unsought desires, and, most severely because implicating both, the vicissitudes and vagaries of time. But in reading Proust, one feels as if the author is finding liberty from this; his prose recovers and redeems losses, and is itself an affirmation of a breadth of being, an expansiveness of mental and imaginative life that, if not freely willed, brings with it nonetheless a satisfaction that is akin to that often associated with liberty.
As Proust was not, Ruskin was obsessed–not just haunted, but actively possessed–by a craving for Authority, and even, perhaps, Necessity. One might turn to the distinction between negative and positive liberty, and say that Ruskin was, against the doctrines of Mill, rejecting all claims of negative liberty–but Ruskin disliked talk of freedom altogether: “it is restraint which characterizes the higher creature, and betters the
lower creature: and, from the ministering of the archangel to the labour of the insect,–from the poising of the planets to the gravitation of a grain of dust,–the power and glory of all creatures, and all matter, consist in their obedience, not in their freedom.” (“The Work of Iron.”) The digressions, and, what often motivates those digressions, the repeated attempts to unify all objects into coherent orders of symbol and myth, which in turn express truth and moral virtue–these are done out of a sense of duty, not to the shape of the written work or spoken lecture, but out of a sense of beholdedness to something else, something that Ruskin never clearly or confidently understands, though he calls it God, or Truth.
Speaking of freedom or liberty, the concept of duty and responsibility inevitably lingers, awkwardly excluded, in the background, and in Proust, the duty motivating the freedom is to the life and self of coherence and incoherence, of loss and gain; in Ruskin, the apparent formlessness cannot be felt as a liberty because there is less of a sense of what he feels duty and responsibility towards—mountains? his father? God? his mother? Ruskin seems to write out of hunger for authority, though he cannot clear see or understand or define any authority that would satisfy his hunger; and he is least convincing–or most intolerable–when he adopts the position of authority himself, when he speaks as a “nanny” (as he was accused of doing, when he published The Ethics of the Dust; an especially pointed jab since he was, just then, devoting a great deal of time and energy at a school for girls, providing them an informal polymathic education).
Ruskin begs for a seat on the analyst’s couch, even if the analyst is trained only in folk-psychology. And to indulge in a rapid-fire pop diagnosis: no author has both more gratuitously and magnificently indulged curiosity, and also felt so insecure in the authority of that curiosity.
There is something distinctly childish in all of this, childishness that Ruskin may have sought to escape by playing dress-up as nanny, but which he returns to in all of his major works. The child-like wonder and awe at the world that characterizes all of Ruskin’s work is mirrored bizarrely in the works (through the looking-glass) of Ruskin’s acquaintance, Charles Dodgson: as a child, Alice is relentless curious, and the word “curious” holds sway over not only Alice, but over the structures of those works, which move capriciously, and without regret, from episode to episode, as Alice’s attention is caught up by successive features of the world she imagines and inhabits. Like Ruskin, Alice’s curiosity is relentlessly taken up by, and propelled by, the game of perspective, scale, and size—from the order of the minute to the order of the grand. Like Ruskin, Alice is fascinated and harassed by the meanings of words–but whereas her adventures play on the idiosyncratic fantasies of sense that might attach to common turns of phrase, Ruskin forages through words, through myths, through symbols, inventing connections, proliferating meanings, and insisting that these are bound up to an essential truth. And like Alice, Ruskin loses himself in a world where authority imposes itself frequently, but without binding force, or where claims to authority erupt only to dissipate, where, in the end, Ruskin finds himself, like Alice, shaking those invested with its mantle, until the turn into something else in his hands, or rearing himself to gargantuan proportions and discarding others’ pretensions to hold court. Admittedly, the similarities are always easier to find than the differences; but the similarities here suggest that Ruskin might be read, not only in the context of children’s literature, but at least profitably in that tradition.
(Anecdotal aside: Tim Hinton, explaining that “Ruskin was part of the Oxford milieu that produced the unforgettable children’s story,” with Ruskin and Dodgson living in adjacent colleges, writes: “Dodgson and Ruskin corresponded more than they met…The actual contents of the letter did not great interest him [Ruskin]. They contained conventional remarks about art. At one point, irritated by Dodgson’s enquiries, Ruskin brusqely referred him to a back number of Fors Clavigera, ‘Can’t afford tenpence,’ Dodgson replied, that being the price of Fors.” (Hinton, Vol. 2, 196); Ruskin new Alice Liddell, and writes of her in the “Mont Velan” chapter of Praeterita)
The root of the matter, given my current preoccupations, is attention: Ruskin and Alice are both exemplars of attentiveness, and what is more to curiosity, where curiosity is a movement of attention, or an inclination of attention before it moves to seize. Early in Praeterita, Ruskin writes of The habit of fixed attention with both eyes and mind–on which I will not further enlarge at this moment, this being the main practical faculty of my life, causing Mazzini to say of me, in conversation authentically reported, a year or two before his death, that I had “the most analytic mind in Europe.” An opinion in which, so far as I am acquainted with Europe, I am myself entirely disposed to concur.
Then later in the same work, in the chapter, “Otterburn”: By my reason for quoting this piece of Guy Mannering here is to explain to the reader who cares to know it, the difference between the Scotch “mind” for “remember,” and any other phrase of any other tongue, applied to the act of memory…In order that you may, in the Scottish sense, “mind” anything, first there must be something to “mind”—and then, the “mind” to mind it. In a thousand miles of iron railway, or railway train, there is nothing in one rod or bar to distinguish it from another. You can’t “mind” which sleeper is which. Nor, on the other hand, if you drive from Chillon to Vevay, asleep, can you “mind” the characteristics of the lake of Geneva. Meg could not have expected Bertram to “mind” at what corner of a street in Manchester–or in what ditch of the Isle of Dogs–anything had past directly bearing on on his own fate. She expected him to “mind” only a beautiful scene, of perfect individual character, and she would not have expected him to “mind” even that, had she not known he had a persevering sense and memorial powers of very high order.
This is Ruskin attempting to describe the “faculty of attention” itself; the Scottish word, a part of his linguistic heritage, that he falls back upon bundles into it both a recognition that attention, though not the same as memory, makes a claim upon memory (to pay attention to what deserves to be remembered; to remember what we pay attention to), that to “mind” is both a reaching outwards by the mind, through the senses (“fixed attention with both eyes and mind”), and also a turning inwards, a holding in consciousness under an active and dynamic awareness, the world being present in the mind, even when it is absent before the sense; and it is also an affirmation that attention is not a subjective faculty alone; one can only “mind” when one is awake and in the presence of something of a certain value; that though minding the world can do justice to its value, not all of the world can justly make a claim on the power of minding; “mind” in Ruskin’s sense does not traverse a dichotomy of mind (in a common philosophical sense) and world, but instead it dissolves that dichotomy.
The attention fascinated Ruskin, and yet the works are uneasy with their own—not “drift of attention,” since that phrase suggests too passive, too lazy a movement—but their own rage of attention, and rage for attending; Ruskin craves more than anything that moment when the world and the mind dissolve into one another, when being awake, one is awake to the world, and the world summons one’s receptive capacity to attend. On these occasions he is most himself. Somewhat curiously, these are moments when, living most, he is most absorbed into the inanimate, and so, in another sense, least alive. But for Ruskin an essential fact of the world’s order was that matter itself, from the inanimate to the animate, was not to be segregated by the divide of that-which-lives-and-so-can-die and that-which-does-not-live-and-so-cannot-die. Panned by critics, Ruskin defended The Ethics of the Dust in a preface of 1877 (the first edition was published, with another preface, retained in later editions, in 1865, the year of Alice), remarking that the book includes summaries of his beliefs “satisfy me better, and seem to me calculated to be more generally useful, than anything else I have done of the kind.” He helpfully directs us to those summaries, the first and most essential of which is on 211. Two of the girl-interlocutors (the book is a dialogue) have, while “clapping their hands,” asked Ruskin, the “Old Lecturer”: “Then may we really believe that the mountains are living?” To which the Old Lecturer responds:
You may at least earnestly believe, that the presence of the spirit which culminates in your own life, shows itself in dawning, wherever the dust of the earth begin to assume any orderly and lovely state. You will find it impossible to separate this idea of gradated manifestation from that of the vital power. Things are not either wholly alive, or wholly dead. They are more or less alive….And the gradations which thus exist between the different members of organic creatures, exist no less between the different ranges of organism. We know no higher or more energetic life than our own; but there seems to me this great good in the idea of gradation of life–it admits the idea of a life above us, in other creatures, as much nobler than ours, as ours is nobler than that of the dust.
“Impossible to separate”–that phrase is essential for Ruskin’s thought and writing everywhere: it was impossible for him to separate matters; distinctions could be drawn, but separation was a futile endeavor, and this because his attention seemed to him to naturally arise in the space of interactions and encounters with so much matter in the world: the attention is not his, but is the result of his being in the presence of certain forms and objects; being in that presence, he is reminded of his continuity with it, and so both, Alice like, diminished into the lesser elements, and ennobled by belonging to so fixed and powerful an order (Orders and Guilds being for Ruskin, as they were for his teacher Carlyle, a lost ideal worth re-realizing). All while worrying whether there was a valid authority holding it together, holding him in his Covalent bond with the molecular fabric of the world, and vindicating and authorizing him to attend as intently and voraciously as he does (he, like Alice, cannot stop himself from tasting, devouring).
But something is lacking in all of this, and with what is absent from Ruskin’s endeavor, with what escapes his attention, or defies and resists or even repels it, his work loses interest–and the thought of his career is sadly tempered. Here is a passage, also about attention, and about the crumbling barriers of separation, that Ruskin could never have written; could never, perhaps, have appreciated had it been written for him to read:
But whereas the attentions of servants, nurses and nuns, their kindness to us, the merits we find in them and the gratitude we owe them, increase the impression we have of being, in their eyes, someone else, of feeling that we are alone, keeping in our own hands the control over our thoughts, our will to live, I knew, when I was with my grandmother, that however great the misery that there was in me, it would be received by her with a pity still more vast, that everything that was mine, my cares, my wishes, would be buttressed, in my grandmother, by a desire to preserve and enhance my life that was altogether stronger than my own; and my thoughts were continued and extended in her without undergoing the slightest deflection, since they passed from my mind into hers without any change of atmosphere or of personality.
Not only because Ruskin counts first, among the “calamities” of his childhood, that he had “nothing to love,” that his “parents were–in a sort—visible powers of nature to me, no more loved than the sun and the moon,” but because for all of the powers of his mind that could be drawn out by the world, one part of the world remained inaccessible to his mind–and that was the mind of another person. I do not mean that Ruskin could not sympathize for another’s plight; that he was incapable of caring for the suffering of others. I mean that Ruskin takes such moral obligation towards others for granted, it making almost no demand upon his powers of mind, leaving the attention in abeyance, and presenting no resistance—none of the deflecting resistance of another person’s attentiveness, which Proust, in the passage above, is so relieved to find absent from his grandmother’s care. One of the most sadly self-revelatory, self-aware (sad in part because of the absence of sadness in Ruskin’s tone) moments of Praeterita in the “Crossmount” chapter:
The thoughtful reader must have noted with some displeasure that I have scarcely, whether at college or at home, used the word “friendship” with respect to any of my companions. The fact is, I am a little puzzled by the specialty and singularity of poetical and classical friendship. I get, distinctively, attached to places, to pictures, to dogs, cats, and girls: but I have had, Heaven be thanked, many and true friends, young and old, who have been of boundless help and good to me,—nor I quite helpless to them; yet for none of whom have I ever obeyed George Herbert’s mandate, “Thy friend put in thy bosom; wear his eyes, Still in the heart, that he may see what’s there; If cause require, thou art his sacrifice,” etc. Without thinking myself particularly wicked, I found nothing in my heart that seemed to me worth anybody’s seeing; nor had I any curiosity for insight into those of others; nor had I any notion of being a sacrifice them, or the least wish that they should exercise for my good any bit their most pleasurable accomplishments,—Dawtrey Drewitt, for instance, being farther endeared because he could stand on his head, and catch vipers by the tail; Gershom Collingwood because he could sing French songs about the Earthly Paradise; and Alec Wedderburn, because he could swim into tarns and fetch out water-lilies for me, like a water-spaniel. And I never expected that they should care much for me, but only that they should read my books; and, looking back, I believe they liked and like me, nearly as well as if I hadn’t written any.
At the center of the passage, that word, “curiosity”—here a limit to curiosity, and to what Ruskin does not want to see: “nothing in my heart that seemed to me worthy anybody’s seeing; nor had I any curiosity for insight into those of others.” Proust will continue, some clauses later: “I threw myself into the arms of my grandmother and pressed my lips to her face as though I were thus gaining access to that immense heart which she opened to me. And when I felt my mouth glued to her cheeks, to her brow, I drew from them something so beneficial, so nourishing, that I remained as motionless, as solemn, as calmly gluttonous as a babe at the breast.”
Ruskin suckles at the conical mountain; nowhere more himself than beneath Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, or the Jungfrau, he remarks. Alice requires no nursemaid and she too shows little attention for the hearts of others—children, Peter Pan, will make a somewhat sentimental fuss of telling us, don’t understand the feelings of others, and aren’t particularly curious to understand them.
But I do not think that Ruskin-as-Child is the only or best way of understanding his peculiar strengths and his devastating limitations. Instead, I would compare him to another twentieth-century author, one of Proust’s great admirers, whose own memoir–from what I’ve read of it–bears greater resemblance to Praeterita than to Recherche. Yet Ruskin’s name appears nowhere in the index to Boyd’s two-volume Nabokov biography; nor, less surprisingly, does Nabokov’s name appear in the index to Hinton’s two-volume life of Ruskin. Nabokov of course would have known Ruskin and a good literary sleuth might correct me with an allusion in Lolita–but it is not because of Ruskin’s and Humbert’s shared desires that I am thinking of Nabokov; instead, it is because Nabokov’s great limitation as a novelist was his power of character, his relentless fascination with the matter of the world being nowhere equaled by a fascination with the hearts of others…except the hearts of others who were unable to conceive of the hearts of others; hence Humbert (and one of the astonishing feats of the novel is the appearance of Dolores Haze, through the haze of Humbert’s delusions, as a full character of her own). I do not mean that Nabokov was, in life, incapable of imagining others (how could he cherish Tolstoy as he did, if that was the case), but I do think it is a limitation of his practice as a novelist—and I do not mean that Humbert’s psychopathic solipsism is the inevitable, or likely, form that a struggle to conceive of the fiction of others’ lives will take. But both Nabokov and Ruskin delight in all that the attention can extract from the world, and all of the attention that the world can extract, until other people, rather than matter, matter.
Nabokov turns his limitation into a strength—his greatest novels are about the cruelty and horrors of the failure of imagination, the absence of curiosity even, about others. (But I find Speak, Memory lacking in the same way as Praeterita–despite what both possess in abundance). Ruskin, not confronting the limitation directly, not even curious, as Nabokov was, about what inability to attend to others might entail or involve, does not. One consequence of the absence of others in the work is the absence of authority that Ruskin can believe in; structures of authority he celebrates, but the face, voice, and human reality of authority evades him, and leaves him writing in search of it elsewhere, in the faces of mountains, in the sky, where he almost convinces himself—but doesn’t, or else why write so relentlessly—that he can see and feel God. The dust is not bound by ethics; but in Ruskin’s writing the fantasy that it is so bound, and that the ethics are the same that entangle human affairs, nearly satisfies his desire–and the fascination of the works is the summoning of a mirage by astonishing feats of attention, and the subsequent marvel as the drops of water fade away at what seems to be the very instant that they ought to reach his lips.