Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Selections from John Ruskin

Edition: Modern Painters

Of Ideas of Beauty is part of Ruskin's prodigious book on art, Modern Painters. It can be found in the second volume of the book, added in 1846. (The original volume was published in 1843).
On the Pathetic Fallacy is also part of Modern Painters, added as part of volume 3 in 1856.
Of Kings' Treasuries and Of Queens' Gardens are two lectures part of a series called Sesame and Lilies delivered in Manchester in 1865.

Of Ideas of Beauty:
For Ruskin, understanding the ideas of beauty was part of a larger religious and moral quest necessary for bettering the health of the modern English nation. The essay begins with a condemnation of present-day concerns with "utility" in determining what is most beautiful. He goes on to clarify that all pursuits of science and art may either be "subservient to life" or the "object of life"--this division respectively characterizes that which is "useful" and that which is the pursuit of the "beautiful." The proper appreciation of the beautiful is the "object of life" and Ruskin complains that his contemporaries tended to degrade the importance of this kind of pursuit. This pursuit, "the moral perception and appreciation of ideas of beauty," can be achieved through the "theoretic" and "imaginative" faculties.

The "theoretic" faculty allows us to uncover the moral impressions of beauty, since for Ruskin, beauty is not sensual but moral first before all. How might man be accurate in his exercise of the "theoretic" faculty? Ruskin's answer is that the theoretic faculty is accurate the more universal and constant the impression is. In contrast, "false taste" may be known by its "fastidiousness," the opposite of universal. Methodologically, the "temper" of the accurate use of the theoretic faculty is patient.

There are two types of beauty: typical beauty and vital beauty. Typical beauty is the "external quality of bodies already so often spoken of, and which, whether it occur in a stone, flower, beast, or in man, is absolutely identical, which, as I have already asserted, may be shown to be in some sort typical of the Divine attributes," and "vital beauty" is "the appearance of felicitous fulfilment of function in living things, more especially of the joyful and right exertion of perfect life in man." These definitions in place, Ruskin rejects common errors concerning beauty, of which there are four: that the beautiful is true, that the beautiful is useful, that it is dependent on custom, and that it is dependent on the association of ideas.

The characteristics of "typical beauty" form the bulk of his discussion. First, typical beauty may be found in physical manifestations of infinity, which signals "divine incomprehensibility." His examples include a child's instinctive appreciation of space, and the greater beauty of curvature over hard lines since "a curve divides itself infinitely by its changes of direction," and the beauty of gradation. A second characteristic of typical beauty is unity, which signals "divine comprehensiveness." There are several kinds of unity--subjectional (things subjected to one force), original (things from a common origin), unity of sequence (things that link according to steps or chains), and unity of membership, the most important one, an "essential unity, which is the unity of things separately imperfect into a perfect whole." This essential unity of imperfect parts necessitates variety in the parts. This kind of variety for the sake of unity should not, however, be confused with novelty, which is love of change in itself and not love of change for the sake of unity. Another characteristic of typical beauty is "repose" which signals "divine permanence." It is even more beautiful when associated with an "implied energy," therefore it is a kind of calm restraint. Typical beauty also has "symmetry" which signals "divine justice." This is different from proportion in that symmetry is the "opposition of equal quantities to each other" and proportion is the "connection of unequal quantities with each other." Finally, "purity" in typical beauty signals "divine energy." Somewhat unexpectedly, Ruskin rejects the notion of purity as "sinlessness" but defines it more as a condition of "health" and "proper operation." Purity is thus a kind of "vital energy" opposed to death, decay. and degeneration.

Ruskin then moves on to talk about "vital beauty." The perception of it requires "charity" which perfects the theoretic faculty. All creatures should be viewed as brothers, and one must also cultivate a sympathy with plant life. Ruskin explains that the "ideal of the species" can be produced in art by the imagination but cannot actually occur in the real. The ideal of the species is "the noble generic form which indicates the full perfection of the creature in all its functions." For plants, this depends on the environment--cultivated plants are not "ideal" at all because their divine "function" has likely been tampered with. For example, perhaps the ideal for a plant relates to its divinely given function to survive in the desert. In sum, this is the artist's task in coming up with an ideal form: "The task of the painter in his pursuit of the ideal form is to attain accurate knowledge, so far as may be in his power, of the character, habits, and peculiar virtues and duties of every species of being."

As far as "vital beauty" in man goes, Ruskin gives some brief observations on a bodily ideal, but focuses more on the mind, which ought to be free from sensuality and sloth but full of energy and intensity. In art which seeks to imagine the ideal form of man, there should be a "banishment of the immediate signs of sin upon the countenance and the body." What this should look like is only knowable through taking a moral and loving view of humanity. Nevertheless, Ruskin describes some "practical" notions of what shouldn't be in ideal portraiture: signs of pride, unrestrained sensuality, ferocity and fear (though holy fear is different), and unrestrained passion. Again, however, it is "not the knowledge of them [signs of sin[, but the dread and hatred of them, which will effectually aid the painter." Ultimately, although the ideal form of man (or anything else) can't be realized on earth, the imagination can imagine them.

Finally, Ruskin makes a few answers to potential objections, qualifying that some evil men might achieve aesthetic beauty without morality, but this ultimately means that they can't reach true beauty--something will always be "missing." Ruskin also admits that sometimes God might "speak" through evil men. Ruskin critiques, finally, the Christian men who are cold, hard, and Spartan in their living and worship, essentially accusing them of not being truly Christian in their ignoring the evidence of God's morality in the colorful, visible world.

On the Pathetic Fallacy: 
Ruskin's famous section on what he terms "the pathetic fallacy" begins with a clearing away of the terms "objective" and "subjective." These terms have no utility philosophically, Ruskin argues, because of the nihilistic logical extreme of a philosopher easily saying that nothing exists except the fact of perception. Instead, Ruskin argues instead to replace these terms with the idea that the "power" of an object to produce a perception or sensation is always there, whether or not someone actually perceives or senses. This frees up the individual to say that things either are or they seem to be. 

Having cleared away these troublesome terms, Ruskin says that the "pathetic fallacy" results from when emotions "produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things." This concept is important in understanding what makes an effective poet. Ruskin lists four classes of men: men who are not poets, second order poets, first order poets, and finally, men who are prophetic. The first class "perceives rightly, because he does not feel." The second class "perceives wrongly, because he feels," and the third class "perceives rightly in spite of his feelings." This classification gives away Ruskin's preference for a kind of restrained emotion: a poet is stronger certainly if he has emotions and passions, but even stronger if he can see beyond his own emotions. The fourth and final class of men are "strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them." In other words, prophetic men see something (divine?) beyond what is readily apparent in the material world.

The rest of the essay gives examples of these different classes. For Ruskin, Keats and Tennyson are second order poets; Wordsworth is greater. The greatness of a poet, he argues finally, "depends upon two faculties, acuteness of feeling, and command of it." This is just another way of arguing again the importance of emotion but also the restraint of it in great poetry. In the end, after all, the "pathetic fallacy" is "always the sign of a morbid state of mind, and comparatively of a weak one," and the degree to which one can restrain and work with these fallacies produces lesser or greater poetic effects.

Of Kings' Treasuries: 
The "treasures" which Ruskin refers to in this lecture are those that may be hidden in books, and "kings" are those who are rich in the knowledge and wisdom of books. The lecture begins with Ruskin's rejection of utilitarian arguments for education in his day, lamenting how parents send their children to school in order that they might get a "position in life." Next, Ruskin asks his audience to accept the premise that the "love of praise" is the root of effort, especially "modern effort." Here, Ruskin makes a bit of a jump to talk about the importance of the company one keeps, and suggests that individuals surround themselves with the good company of truly good books. There are four kinds of books: "good books for the hour," "good books for all time," "bad books for the hour," and "bad books for all time." For his purposes, Ruskin defines the first two only: "good books for the hour" are basically newspapers and magazines in that they are for all intents and purposes "useful and pleasant talk" aimed at mass audiences which a speaker can't possibly reach other than by print. "Good books for all time," however, are written not to "multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it." In other words, this kind of book consists of the best that a man knows from his life, his choicest wisdom, which should therefore be "perpetuated" for all time. Ruskin imagines that this kind of wisdom is in a way democratically accessible in that "it is open to labor and merit, but to nothing else."

To surround oneself by the company of these latter kinds of "good books" is the goal. To achieve this, the individual must have a "true desire to be taught" by these books, and humble before the wisdom of the ages. He should also read closely--"letter by letter." Ruskin's definition of "literature" is the close-reading of books with such an attention that understands the power of words. Here, he also warns against the great danger of words in their power to distort ideas--especially in the translation of texts. Therefore, Ruskin suggests learning Greek, Latin, French, and German in order to know the origins of English words. Ruskin supports this idea of close-reading through an example reading of a passage from "Lycidas," in which he closely parses Milton's diction to draw out what he believes to be Milton's intent. Ruskin's approach advocates "putting ourselves always in the author's place, annihilating our own personality, and seeking to enter into his, so as to be able assuredly to say, "Thus Milton thought."

In the next section of his lecture, Ruskin defends the importance of passion and "sensation." He notes that the present age often condemned "sensation," but only because "sensation" was applied too narrowly. To "feel with [the wise writers of books] what is just" is not a base but an essential human capacity: the problem with his contemporaries, Ruskin thought, was that they applied the power of feeling to pursuits which were too narrow. The lecture becomes more polemical at the end; in second-person, Ruskin accuses the England of his day of despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence. He goes on to prove each of these points; hatred of literature, science, and art can be seen in how the public now treats these things in terms of their utilitarian "shop" value in a capitalist economy. According to Ruskin, men today "despise nature" because of he runs railways ("race courses") through the most beautiful landscapes. An excerpt from the Daily Telegraph on a poor man who died (having refused to go into the workhouse) serves to prove his point about how the men of today "despise compassion."

Ruskin concludes that the national purpose of his day to be chiefly "amusement." To reform this attitudes, individuals must try to recognize that the true kings are those who treasure wisdom. To perpetuate this wisdom in society more broadly, money should be spent on libraries which "will be accessible to all clean and orderly persons at all times of the day and evening; strict law being enforced for this cleanliness and quietness." "This book plan," Ruskin believes, will "prove a considerable tonic to what we call our British constitution, which has fallen dropsical of late, and has an evil thirst, and evil hunger, and wants healthier feeding."

Of Queens' Gardens: 
The "gardens" Ruskin refers to contain the flowers of female wisdom, which ought to be tended and nourished by their "queens," figures that represent the height of true feminine achievement. This lecture contains Ruskin's views on what constitutes "womanly mind and virtue." First, he firmly counters notions of separate spheres, emphasizing that though women may have different talents than men, they share a mission: "We hear of the 'mission' and of the 'rights' of Woman, as if these could ever be separate from the mission and the rights of Man." He goes on then to list instances of strong, virtuous women in great literature to build his answer as to the question of womanly mind and virtue. Shakespeare's literature has more heroines than heroes; "the catastrophe of every play is caused always by the folly or fault of a man; the redemption, if there be any, is by the wisdom and virtue of a woman, and failing that, there is none." In Walter Scott's works, female characters are once again possess a "quite infallible and inevitable sense of dignity and justice." Ruskin also mentions Dante's Beatrice in passing, Chaucer's "Legend of Good Women," and Spenser's strong women like Britomart. Women, therefore, have an important "guiding" function, Ruskin concludes, which has to do with her sense of love and justice. In sum: "Man's power is active, progressive defensive...woman's power is for rule, not for battle, and her intellect is...for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision."

In the next part of his lecture, Ruskin tells what he believes to be the right type of education for women. First, her education needs to attend to her physical health and beauty, citing Wordsworth's Lucy as an example of the kind of allowances necessary for physical health and beauty. In a word, she must be free to delight in natural surroundings. Second, the knowledge which a woman ought to receive should not be so different from that which a man receives, only that the end of such knowledge should always be recognized as necessary for true feeling and judging. Knowledge is not an end in itself for women. Relatedly, she must be taught to "extend the limits of her sympathy with respect to...history" so that she might judge correctly. The one kind of knowledge which Ruskin restricts from women is theology, (though he doesn't quite develop why?)

"Dangerous" literature for women include novels, romances, and religious exciting literature. There are, of course, good novels, Ruskin admits, but even so, novels dangerously err in their "picturesqueness of statement," such that "our views are rendered so violent and one-sided that their vitality is rather a harm than good."

Importantly, a girl cannot be "forced" by her education. Ruskin repeatedly emphasizes a connection between the female sex and nature/the natural; this connection would be destroyed with education which was too coercive. Ruskin writes: "Let her loose in the library, I say, as you do a fawn in a field," trusting the natural instincts of female-kind to pick what is good for her. In order to learn that her station is noble and important, girls also need noble teachers. Ruskin critiques contemporary attitudes which degrade the position of instructors. Like his lecture on "kings' treasuries," Ruskin becomes more polemical near the end, challenging women through the second-person address to not abdicate this grand role of guidance. At the end, he also breaks apart the notion of public versus private spheres: man and woman both have roles inside the home--men to defend, women to order applies to both the home and to the state.

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