Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

John Ruskin: Fit the First

Thirteen years ago, when my friend Jamie Smith launched his blog, he named it Fors Clavigera in honor of a strange and powerful project by the great Victorian sage John Ruskin. Jamie rightly notes in that first post that the original Fors Clavigera, though published as a series of monthly pamphlets, could be seen as a kind of “proto-blog.” How so?

Let’s start with some background. Ruskin thought of these pamphlets as open letters: the full title of the project was Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. After decades of work as a historian and critic of art and architecture, Ruskin had come to believe that (a) the arts of his own age were, generally speaking, far less excellent than they should be; (b) that those deficiencies were inevitable by-products of a corrupt system of political economy that promoted profit for the industrialist above all and so enforced impersonal efficiency and productivity over the flourishing of makers and craftsmen; and (c) that, therefore, a critique of political economy had to be articulated before anything else. The political economy of Britain had to be fixed so that the conditions of labor could be fixed so that the arts could be renewed so that persons could thrive once more. Thus Ruskin’s first major exercise in this endeavor was a series of 1857 lectures called The Political Economy of Art.

Several of Ruskin’s books started as lectures. Nineteenth-century England was devoted to public lectures and readings – audiences were often huge – and Ruskin found it helpful to work to an inflexible deadline and then, later, flesh out certain points at greater length for print. But Fors was a new and different thing for him. By the time he began it, in 1872, he had come to believe that the condition of England, with so much and ever-increasing wealth standing side-by-side with the most appalling poverty, could not be addressed by him through the occasional lectures or books, but by an ongoing project: a continuous prophetic engagement accompanied by practical efforts to ameliorate the condition of the poor. “For my own part,” he wrote at the outset of the project,

I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer. I am not an unselfish person, nor an Evangelical one; I have no particular pleasure in doing good; neither do I dislike doing it so much as to expect to be rewarded for it in another world. But I simply cannot paint, nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I like, and the very light of the morning sky, when there is any – which is seldom, now-a-days, near London – has become hateful to me, because of the misery that I know of, and see signs of, where I know it not, which no imagination can interpret too bitterly.

So what to do?

I must clear myself from all sense of responsibility for the material distress around me, by explaining to you, once for all, in the shortest English I can, what I know of its causes; by pointing out to you some of the methods by which it might be relieved; and by setting aside regularly some small percentage of my income, to assist, as one of yourselves, in what one and all we shall have to do; each of us laying by something, according to our means, for the common service; and having amongst us, at last, be it ever so small, a national Store instead of a National Debt. Store which, once securely founded, will fast increase, provided only you take the pains to understand, and have perseverance to maintain, the elementary principles of Human Economy, which have, of late, not only been lost sight of, but wilfully and formally entombed under pyramids of falsehood.

In order to have a secure place for his financial contribution, Ruskin started a charitable organization called St. George’s Company, later (and still) the Guild of St. George; and for the teaching and explaining part of his program, he began publishing these letters.

In the end he published them monthly, mostly, for over a decade – there are 96 of them in all. And as he went along the style became more and more loose, casual, associative, even chaotic. He called this the third of his “ways of writing,” a style in which he simply wrote whatever came into his head and then later on gave it some measure of grammatical coherence. It is a style especially suited to his topic, because what he wanted to show, throughout the letters, was the complex set of ways in which the natural world, human perception, the human desire to make beautiful and useful things, and our social and political systems all interact with one another. Here is a passage that I have chosen utterly at random from the first volume of the collected letters:

In old times, under the pure baronial power, things used, as I told you, to be differently managed by us. We were, all of us, in some sense barons; and paid ourselves for fighting. We had no pocket pistols, nor Woolwich Infants – nothing but bows and spears, good horses, (I hear after two-thirds of our existing barons have ruined their youth in horse-racing, and a good many of them their fortunes also, we are now in irremediable want of horses for our cavalry), and bright armour. Its brightness, observe, was an essential matter with us. Last autumn I saw, even in modern England, something bright; low sunshine at six o’clock of an October morning, glancing down a long bank of fern covered with hoar frost, in Yewdale, at the head of Coniston Water. I noted it as more beautiful than anything I had ever seen, to my remembrance, in gladness and infinitude of light. Now, Scott uses this very image to describe the look of the chain-mail of a soldier in one of these free companies; – Le Balafre, Quentin Durward’s uncle: – “The archer’s gorget, arm-pieces, and gauntlets were of the finest steel, curiously inlaid with silver, and his hauberk, or shirt of mail, was as clear and bright as the frost-work of a winter morning upon fern or briar.” And Sir John Hawkwood’s men, of whose proceedings in Italy I have now to give you some account, were named throughout Italy, as I told you in my first letter, the White Company of English, ‘Societas alba Anglicorum,’ or generally, the Great White Company, merely from the splendour of their arms. They crossed the Alps in 1361, and immediately caused a curious change in the Italian language.

(The Woolwich Infant was a mighty cannon of which the celebrants of British power were perhaps inordinately proud.) Notice how Ruskin swerves from history to the observation of nature to his memories of his literary reading and then back to history. This kind of free association of ideas is very characteristic of Fors – as it is of many blogs. So that’s the first way in which Fors may be said to be a proto-blog.

But another way is more important: Ruskin received many letters in response to each issue of Fors, and, because of his stature in English society, received a good deal of commentary in newspapers and other periodicals as well. Ruskin simply incorporated these responses, and his reflections on them, into later issues of Fors. So gradually the series became less of a monologue and more of a rich, complex, polyphonic conversation.

Fors was a marvel in its own time, as important a literary/cultural/political project as any produced in the second half of the nineteenth century, but it is little known today. To some degree that is because of its intrinsic topicality, its sensitive responsiveness to the issues of its own day; but I think a more important reason for its neglect is is its combination of massiveness (hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words) and unexcerptability – you just can’t get the feel of it without reading each letter in full. Here are two early ones to give you a taste, though they are not as dialogical as the later ones would become: Letter 7 and Letter 10.

But why am I so interested in this project of Ruskin’s? I’ll explain that in my next post.

2 comments:

  • Very interesting. I’d place the exhaustion and collapse of the arts (or fine arts) somewhat later, in the early 20th century rather than the middle of the 19th, but it was already clear in the 19th that major social stresses were being felt and articulated by writers and philosophers of the day. The pseudo- or proto-dialogue or conversation between writer and audience you highlight was clearly ahead of its time; but then, sensitive artists are always in touch with their audiences and critics. I also note that the Romantic Era have been superceded by later style periods in many art forms. The exceptions, yet to be surpassed, are classical music and painting.

  • Brutus, for what it's worth, Ruskin places the exhaustion and collapse of the fine arts somewhere around the fifteenth century.

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