When Henry James, looking back on the novels that had marked the turn from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, insisted on limits authors must set to the web of relations, he might have had any number of authors in mind. Poets and novelists dwell, as the phrase goes, in a “forest of symbols”–and they must, James says, see the forest for the trees. Otherwise perdition.
His insistence on “form” is an insistence on limits, on justifiable beginnings and ends, on principles of inclusion and exclusion; it may be that the trees seem to go on endlessly, that all is forest and the forest is all, to such an extent that to speak of a forest or the forest seems meaningless, given that the world and the forest coexist. But the height of artistry is recognizing the forest of symbols for just that; a forest, with limits.
For Ruskin, all the world was forest and the forest was all the world. There is no author among the Victorians, or before, for whom the life of words was the life of the world; each word a symbol and each symbol a vista of further symbols; not a chain of signification, but an entire landscape of significances; the metaphor of spatial relationships breaks down entirely because any one symbol can be in a landscape and also contain a landscape.
Captured as he was in a cast of mind that outdoes Carlyle’s in Sartor Resartus, Ruskin does not worry over whether the vesture of symbols is essential or accidental, primary or secondary; all is symbol, tout court.
It is not a flexibility of mind, but a faith in the fundamental continuity, even identity, of symbol and reality that allows for Ruskin’s strangest moments: “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” for instance, in which he asks that an atmospheric phenomena be both scientific and moral, aesthetic and ethical, natural and supernatural, without feeling the need to apologize for the collapsing of distinctions; he can engage, at the end of the lecture, the language of the Bible in a denunciation of the British Empire on which the sun never sets because the cloud is really, fundamentally, for him, connected to God and human power: any explanation of the cloud will, after all, depend on symbols and judgments in normative terms, and these, he knows cannot be curtailed: they lead from science to morals, and back again.
All of which should make Ruskin an enduring author, which he is not: something is absent in the dividends he pays. The obvious thought is that what he lacks is a human element: he does not, and it seems as if he cannot, write about people. “Scenery is fine; human nature is finer”: Keats’ words stand opposed to a principle of Ruskin’s works in which humans are reduced to scenery.
But Ruskin does remain supremely fascinated by the nature of at least one human: himself. His works are records of his desire for an idealized, reactionary, aesthetic and ethical consummation with the designs, patterns, and potential of the matter of the world. To say that all of the world for Ruskin is a forest of symbols risks occluding the opposing truth: that all of the forest of symbols is for Ruskin the stuff of the world. Any word is a symbol that leads out to others because Ruskin is so quick to trace any word to a material reality that has the potential to be shaped to so many other purposes, and that participates in so many designs.
Here is the clue, I think, for why Ruskin’s work suffers, at least as much as it does from its narcissistic exclusion of human natures other than his own: Ruskin does not write to realize or make something of the forest of symbols, or of the world; instead, he writes in order to reveal the potential for making latent in the world, and in the symbols that sustain and are sustained by the world. He is, like Wordsworth before him, and like Proust after him, a “time author,” an author who is concerned with time the preserver, time the destroyer, and time the redeemer, interested in other words in what exists in time, and what might come to exist, or cease to exist, in time. Where Ruskin differs from Wordsworth and Proust is his relation as an author to the world and to verbal symbols: he does not, for the most part, direct them so as to record, register, or redeem time. Instead, we are reminded that the world that constitutes a symbolic word, and the symbols that constitute the world, are open to movement in many directions. Rather than stating what is and what is becoming; what has been, and what will be, Ruskin gives us all at once, where everything might be something else, is in a state of becoming, has already becoming; he refuses to find anything like a closed form, a determinate shape by which to illuminate and apprehend the patterns and designs of the world.
Ruskin’s work, then, is a salutary reminder of what literary form might be for, of how it might participate in, and take hold of, the world. His refusal of form is a refusal to abandon potential for realization; literary form does not insist upon absolute completion, finality, and perfection, but it strives in the direction of these; it relinquishes possibility.
An exemplary passage of Ruskin’s prose comes from the “Simplon” chapter of Praeterita. In it, Ruskin would hold firm on what is stable–on the River Rhone, passing through time, but also a symbol for time itself, not the change of time, but time as a steady, constant force:
Waves of the clear sea are, indeed, lovely to watch, but they are always coming or gone, never in any taken shape to be seen for a second. But here was one mighty wave that was always itself, and every fluted swirl of it, constant as the wreathing of a shell. No wasting away of the fallen foam, no pause for gathering of power, no helpless ebb of discouraged recoil; but alike through bright day and lulling night, the never-pausing plunge, and never-fading flash, and never-hushing whisper, and, while the sun was up, the ever-answering glow of unearthly aquamarine, ultramarine, violet-blue, gentian-blue, peacock-blue, river-of-paradise blue, glass of a painted window melted in the sun, and the witch of the Alps flinging the spun tresses of it forever from her snow.
Note the progression of never-, ever-, forever; the adverbs of absolute duration compounding with verbs that insist on temporal span; the permanence of those verbs clashing against the myriad impressionism of compound-colors, the river containing all of these, and then becoming something that is not itself: the glass of a painted window melted in the sun, without the gap even of a simile.
Ruskin writes unwilling to abandon the possibilities of what he sees; to remain itself, for him, the river must be and contain much that is beyond it–such is the nature of language, of metaphor, of our understanding of the world. But also, for Ruskin, such is the nature of the world itself: things are not just what they are, they are also crucially what they might become, what they might do, what they might resemble…Ruskin’s ontology cannot separate these out: an entity cannot be reduced; it must suggest others, must be permanently itself and contingently, temporally other things.
But language and judgment depend on distinctions, and the power of his writing comes as he must set limits to what he sees and how he says it, while nonetheless maintaining the open possibility for more. He maintains such distinctions and judgments at the level of the sentence, the period; it is the only form to which he is committed, because he must be. So Ruskin is a master of periods, of a sentence or series of sentences, but not necessarily of a work in any greater unit or unity; not even, I’d think, of a chapter. Yet to read him in excerpts only is to lose out on the setting of those sentences within the larger wash and flux; to feel that they are not tethered to a greater unity, which is a source of their power even as it is a source of dissatisfaction.
The reason for the dissatisfaction is not simply habit; not just the fact of having been trained to expect a work of literature to show an attempt at, or a reckoning with form (as even the most Mennipean satires do); instead, it is a dissatisfaction with what is in the end of a self-deception, since all of Ruskin’s works are ultimately bounded by beginnings and endings, by breaks and patterns, by design of the book itself, and, beneath it all, by the wanderings of Ruskin’s mind. Ruskin’s refusal for form is, in the end, a refusal to step outside of himself, to leave his own interest, his own attention, and to question its validity, its authority, and its limits.
It’s an old fear of poets and authors that genuine literary creation demands madness, melancholy, ecstasy, enthusiasm, or whatever other words have, at least since the Renaissance, described the phenomenon of losing oneself, of being “beside oneself”; the greatest and first essayist, Montaigne, was, according to M.A. Screech in his Montaigne and Melancholy, wary of the necessity at all; and so, it seems, was Ruskin, also, in the end, an essayist. The comparison is not arbitrary. Montaigne is wary of the need to soar above himself, but his essays, seeking to ground the experience of the self in the self, rather than in ecstasy, folly, drunkenness, or insanity that mean leaving the self behind, must chart and assay what the self is and might be; their peculiar form, their digressions, their wanderings, as free as it could seem as Ruskin’s, are careful chartings, intentional expeditions in particular directions; Montaigne’s freedom in the essay form is vigilant for the inconsistencies, inadequacies, uncertainties of the self. Without losing himself, and without ever being “beside himself,” he writes with a constant thought that there are others beside himself, and that he might be beside himself.
Faced with the very real prospect, and in the end the reality, of madness, of being outside of himself, Ruskin seems instead unwilling to entertain a thought of what self-limits might be, and unwilling also to entertain a thought of whether it is incumbent on any author whose ground for writing is the whims, attention, and judgment of himself alone, to make those whims, attention, and judgment the object of scrutiny, also.