July 10, 2002

1. Ruskin

A. The Darkening Glass

A few months ago, I decided to try something new with our book discussion group. I decided to read two books in a row on the same subject; I announced a two-month study of visual art. For the first meeting, I chose Panofsky’s Three Essays on Style, and for the second meeting, I chose a study of John Ruskin (the famous Victorian writer on art and architecture): The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius. I hoped that the first book would introduce the second, and make the second easier to understand, while the second book would reinforce the first.

Unfortunately, the half dozen people in the group found Panofsky difficult to read, as I mentioned in a previous issue of Phlit. And when I started reading the Ruskin study, I feared that they wouldn’t like it any better than Panofsky. It was a good scholarly study of Ruskin, a first-rate work of intellectual history, but it wasn’t exciting or anecdotal, and it assumed that the reader was already familiar with Ruskin.

Meanwhile, I discovered that several of Ruskin’s books were still in print. I decided to offer people a choice of reading one of Ruskin’s own books, or reading The Darkening Glass. Most people chose Ruskin’s Stones of Venice (in an abridged version) or Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture. But to my surprise and disappointment, nobody enjoyed reading Ruskin. My attempt to make our Ruskin study more enjoyable had backfired; we had gone from the frying pan into the fire. Ruskin’s own works had proven more difficult to read than the scholarly study of Ruskin. Ruskin is didactic and opinionated, he’s the quintessential Victorian. One either loves him (as I do) or hates him (as the other people in the group do).

The Darkening Glass is by John Rosenberg, who tells us in his preface that Marjorie Nicolson, an intellectual historian, persuaded him to write the book. The book is well-written, concise, and packed with information and insights. But if you’re looking for a biography of Ruskin, you’ll be disappointed — this is a study of Ruskin’s writings, not a biography.

Though I had already read much by and about Ruskin, I learned a lot from The Darkening Glass. For example, I learned that Proust was especially fond of Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita, read it repeatedly and almost memorized it, and was greatly influenced by it when he wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past. I also learned that Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect, was a fan of Ruskin, and shared many of his opinions on architecture, including his abhorrence of Renaissance architecture.

B. Ruskin and Rationalism

Rosenberg describes how Ruskin warred against the economists of his time — against laissez-faire capitalism, social Darwinism, etc. Ruskin argued that economists regard man “merely as a covetous machine.”1 Laissez-faire economics is a type of materialism, founded on the “negation of a soul.”2 Laissez-faire economics tries to manage society without regard to religion, tries to manage society with reason alone. Thus, laissez-faire economics is a type of rationalism, based on the same respect for reason that one finds in Marxism.

Ruskin’s rejection of rationalism reminds one of Dostoyevsky’s rejection of English rationalism in Notes From Underground. Dostoyevsky’s argument is psychological; he argues that man is not a rational being, man has unconscious impulses, sadistic impulses, self-destructive impulses. Ruskin’s argument is religious and moral; he argues that man has an obligation to treat his fellow man as a parent treats his children. Like the true philosopher that he is, Ruskin’s goal is The Good Life, and he insists that accumulating material wealth is pointless unless wealth conduces to The Good Life: “there is no wealth but life.”3

Our book group has devoted much time to discussing Zen (just as this e-newsletter has). Zen is a world-view that checks the presumption of reason; Zen is the opposite of rationalism. Understanding rationalism helps one to understand Zen, and vice versa; opposites illuminate each other. Rationalism is the basis of laissez-faire capitalism in its extreme form, and rationalism is also the basis of Marxism. Rationalism leads to Stalin’s Gulag and to Cambodia’s Killing Fields. Man is prone to become infatuated with his own Reason, his own power of conscious thought — especially when he cuts himself off from religion. Rationalism led to many of the calamities of the 20th century.

“You mentioned Stalin’s Gulag and Cambodia’s Killing Fields, but you didn’t mention Auschwitz. Were the Nazis rationalists?” I would describe the Nazis as nationalists — that is, as people who put their faith in nation, history, race, blood and will. This is somewhat different from rationalism, though both nationalism and rationalism are based on the decline of traditional religion. Man’s will and man’s reason both loom large when God is dead, when man no longer says, “Thy will be done.” Nationalism and rationalism have a common origin, and they’re closely related, but they’re not identical; let’s call them brothers, but not twins.

C. Ruskin’s Dark Days

The Darkening Glass describes how Ruskin’s mental state became increasingly gloomy in the last half of his life (he lived from 1819 to 1900). He gradually lost his religious faith, which had been the cornerstone of his world-view. (An interesting book could be written about the loss of faith among nineteenth-century intellectuals.) He experienced violent mood swings, which seemed to depend on changes in the weather. He was obsessed with several young girls, and his ardent feelings always ended in frustration and disappointment. I’ve read many literary biographies, but I never met a writer who was so unhappy in love. He felt alienated from the modern, industrial world, and he often seemed to regard the people around him with loathing. His increasing gloom is apparent when one compares his early and late drawings of Venice.

In his late forties, Ruskin began to suffer (says Rosenberg) from “recurrent sexual nightmares of young girls and coiled serpents.”4 Ruskin called these dreams “singularly unclean, disgusting, ludicrous.”5 In one of his dreams, Ruskin wrote, a snake “fastened on my neck like a leech, and nothing would pull it off.”6 Rosenberg says that Ruskin had “serpent dreams, at once phallic and diabolic.” Ruskin’s nightmares were a prelude to his madness. In his late fifties, “a grotesque hallucination of ‘the Evil One’ appeared in his bedroom. Ruskin wrestled with him through the night and was discovered naked and insane the following morning. For weeks he remained in a state of wild delirium from which he never completely recovered.”7

Students of Nietzsche may recall a discourse called “The Adder’s Bite” (in Part I of Thus Spoke Zarathustra); in this discourse, a snake bites Zarathustra in the neck. If I remember correctly, Jung interprets this as the revenge of the long-repressed unconscious. Such an interpretation seems applicable to Ruskin as well as Nietzsche. The purity of Ruskin’s conscious life provoked an assault by his unconscious. As Jung says, any extreme position in consciousness is balanced by a counter-movement in the unconscious. A philosopher is one who reaches new heights of consciousness, but when he reaches the mountaintop, he’s snake-bitten.

The sad story of Ruskin’s life ends on a positive note: during his old age, while writing his autobiography (Praeterita), he recaptured the happiness and peace of his early years — his travels with his parents, his passionate love of nature, his adventures in art and architecture. He was finally able to accept his parents, himself, his fate. The result is (in Rosenberg’s words) “the most charming autobiography in English.”8

Click here to read my one-page summary of Ruskin’s literary career.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius, ch. 8, p. 133 back
2. ibid back
3. Unto This Last, “Ad Valorem” back
4. ibid, ch. 9 back
5. ibid back
6. ibid back
7. ibid back
8. The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius, ch. 11 back