uskin's chapter on Turner's The Garden of the Hesperides, which displays his interpretations of an individual painting at their most complex, shows that for him any work of art always leads to the society within which it took form. His means of moving from art to society in his analysis of this painting exemplify both his characteristic manner of proceeding as a social critic and his most important ideas about society. Immediately after explaining its mythological or symbolic figures, he offers an interpretation of the entire work which concludes that Turner's representation of ancient Greek myth is in fact a nineteenth-century "religious picture" because it expounds the faith by which his contemporaries live and work, the faith, that is, to which their deeds, if not their words, testify. "Here, in England, is our great spiritual fact for ever interpreted to us — the Assumption of the Dragon" (7.408). Turner, the greatest of British painters, looks about him, observes the triumph of Mammon, and firmly, if sadly, sets down in the guise of a symbolical grotesque the truth he has observed.
According to Ruskin, Turner darkens his palette to "a sulphurous hue, as relating to a paradise of smoke" (7.407-8) to show that by choosing to live beneath the watchful glance of the Dragon of Mammon, England entered the true Dark Ages. In the third volume of Modern Painters (1856), Ruskin had earlier argued that 'the title "Dark Ages", given to the mediaeval centuries, is, respecting art, wholly inapplicable. They were, on the contrary, the bright ages; ours are the dark ones . . . We build brown brick walls, and wear brown coats . . . There is, however, also some cause for the change in our own tempers . On the whole, these are much sadder ages than the early ones; not sadder in a noble and deep way, but in a dim wearied way — the way of ennui, and jaded intellect, and [55/56] uncomfortableness of soul and body' 15.3211. When he comes to interpret Turner's Garden of the Hesperides, Ruskin concludes that the ennui, the sadness, the lack of light and colour arise, as he believed Turner to have stated, in the worship of what he later termed the Goddess of Getting-on. In taking Turner's Garden of the Hesperides as a sign of the times, an index to the spiritual condition of contemporary England, Ruskin sounds a note he will sound with increasing frequency throughout his career as a critic of society.
Ruskin opens the major phase of his career as a social critic, then, by interpreting Turner's painting just as he had opened his career as an art critic by defending its accuracy. Essentially, he proceeds by transforming individual works, as he had earlier transformed individual Venetian buildings, into symbolical grotesques; or, to put it another way, he reads paintings and buildings alike for the meanings they embody. At an early stage of his career — in fact, by the first volume of The Stones of Venice (1851) — some of the meanings that compel his attention are social, political, and economic, and by 1860 he applies approaches first used when explaining art to contemporary society.
Throughout his writings on political economy Ruskin depends on a series of aggressive interpretations, and they play a central role in his presentation of himself as a Victorian sage. What makes him a secular prophet in the manner of Carlyle, however, is not his act of interpretation but the fact that he chooses to interpret matters that his audience rarely realizes require interpretation at all. Who, for example, would have expected Turner's Garden of the Hesperides to contain such a message for Victorian society, and, similarly, who except a sage would realize that the development of architectural styles in Venice or an industrial accident in England could contain truth essential for England's survival? Indeed, what makes Ruskin, Carlyle, and others like Thoreau or Arnold sages is precisely that they venture to read — interpret — apparently trivial matters such as the colour of contemporary men's clothing, advertisements, and the like, which most members of the [55/56] audience consider without interest and value. Such is the sage's claim to authority, however, that he can demonstrate that virtually any contemporary phenomenon or incident offers him a direct way into matters of supreme importance matters such as the cultural health of a nation, its moral nature, and its treatment of the working, producing classes.
This same urge to draw his contemporaries' attention to apparently trivial phenomena that turn out to contain important political and moral truths also informs some of Ruskin's most seemingly quixotic public projects, such as the utopian St. George's Guild and the repair of Hinksey Road, Oxford, by a crew of Oxford undergraduates. Like his interpreting apparently trivial matters, these activities were intended in large part to be exemplary and educational. They were intended to show, for example, the dignity of labour, the necessity of community, and the possibility of noncompetitive social organization. Such public gestures were bound to appear quixotic because they forced upon the attention of his contemporaries Ruskin's unfashionable, subversive political economy. Just as his interpretations of perception and symbols have the dual purpose of winning the reader's assent both to the specific interpretation and to the procedure that produces that reading, so, too, these more expansive interpretations have two purposes. First, Ruskin wants to convince us of his interpretations of British society, and second, he wishes us to learn how to make such interpretations ourselves.
Therefore, when he later explains the development of his political views in Praeterita, he characteristically presents their evolution in terms of learning to interpret. A visit to the Domecqs, his father's business associates, amid their Parisian elegance presented him with an enigma that demanded interpretation. As a young boy, he wondered why the Andalusians who grew the grapes for the Pedro Domecq sherries "should virtually get no good of their own beautiful country but the bunch of grapes or stalk of garlic they frugally dined on; that its precious wine was not for them, still less the [57/58] money it was sold for" (35.409). Later Ruskin felt himself troubled even more because these gentle, generous people "spoke of their Spanish labourers and French tenantry, with no idea whatever respecting them but that, except as producers by their labour of money to be spent in Paris, they were cumberers of the ground" (35.409). These attitudes, says Ruskin, "gave me the first clue to the real sources of wrong in the social laws of modem Europe; and led me necessarily into the political work which has been the most earnest of my life" (35.409). When Ruskin explains the development of his political interpretations, he presents himself as an outsider and an onlooker, and he suggests that even as a child he found himself asking questions about matters whose obviousness and urgency the adults around him failed to notice.
Following the procedure that informed the previous two chapters, this one will first summarize some of Ruskin's central ideas and then examine those characteristically Ruskinian techniques he developed to present them. First, let us look at the essential emphases of his social criticism. Like his conceptions of the arts, his ideas about political and social economics combine the traditional and the radically new, the expected and the outrageous. As a disciple of Thomas Carlyle, he forces contemporary England to recognize precisely what its actions and ideologies imply. In particular, he makes the individual members of his audience perceive that their basic attitudes towards work, value, wealth and social responsibility contradict the Christian religion that supposedly forms and informs their lives. This part of the Ruskinian enterprise is crucial because, as contemporary observers of the Victorian scene from Engels to the Christian Socialists pointed out, the moneyed classes so effectively segregated the lives of the lower classes — so effectively kept them out of sight — that they did not know the sufferings of the industrial, urban poor.
One fundamental portion of Ruskin's task, then, is to thrust such facts into sight and consciousness, thereby creating that awareness which is a necessary precondition of moral and social reform. In "Traffic" (1865) Ruskin thus mocks his [58/59] audience's conception of an ideal life by presenting it in the form of what is essentially a dream-vision. Arguing that his listeners' worship of the Goddess of Getting-on implies that they also condemn others to miserable lives, he presents a picture of their ideal that enforces corollaries or implicit points they would willingly leave out of their sight and consciousness .
Your ideal of human life then is, I think, that it should be passed in a pleasant undulating world, with iron and coal everywhere under it. On each pleasant bank of this world is to be a beautiful mansion, with two wings; and stables, and coach-houses; a moderately-sized park; a large garden and hot-houses; and pleasant carriage drives through the shrubberies. In this mansion are to live the favoured votaries of the Goddess; the English gentleman, with his gracious wife, and his beautiful family; he always able to have the boudoir and the jewels for the wife, and the beautiful ball dresses for the daughters, and hunters for the sons, and a shooting in the Highlands for himself. At the bottom of the bank, is to be the mill; not less than a quarter of a mile long, with one steam engine at each end, and two in the middle, and a chimney three hundred feet high. In this mill are to be in constant employment from eight hundred to a thousand workers, who never drink, never strike, always go to church on Sunday, and always express themselves in respectful language. [18.453]
As Ruskin points out, this image of human existence might appear "very pretty indeed, seen from above; not at all so pretty, seen from below" (18.453), since for every family to whom the Englishman's deity is the Goddess of Getting-on, one thousand find her the "Goddess of not Getting-on" (18.453). By making explicit the implications of such a vision of life based upon an ideal of competition, Ruskin's symbolical grotesque serves a powerful satiric purpose. His rich experience and expertise as an art critic here turns out to be particularly helpful, for he carefully explains the sketched-in elements of his supposedly [59/60] ideal scene with the same techniques that he uses in his descriptions of an Alpine landscape, the city of Venice, or Turner's paintings. In each case he proceeds by presenting visual details and then drawing attention to their meaning. Here he first presents a slightly tongue-in-cheek image of the English capitalist's Earthly Paradise, after which he reveals its dark implications by showing the world of have-nots upon which this kind of paradise rests. By moving through his created word picture from upper to lower, he endows each portion of his visual image with a moral and political value: the upper classes reside literally, spatially, above the industries that provide their wealth and also above the workers who slave to make their lives ones of ease.
As this typical example of Ruskin's polemic makes clear, he applies the stylistic, interpretative, and satiric techniques which characterized his art criticism to his writings on society. Of course, the fundamental reason he can move so easily from writing about Turner and Tintoretto to writing about the labour question and definitions of value, wealth, price, and production lies in the fact that the same attitudes towards cooperation and hierarchy inform both his areas of concern — areas of concern which Ruskin finds inevitably and inextricably interrelated. For example, when defining composition in the fifth volume of Modeen Painters, he emphasizes that aesthetic rules and relationships are subcategories of more universal laws of existence. "Composition may best be defined as the help of everything in the picture by everything else" (7.205), or, again, it "signifies an arrangement, in which everything in the work is thus consistent with all things else, and helpful to all else" (7.208-9), and the artist is therefore a person who "puts things together, not as a watchmaker steel", but who puts life into them by arranging his materials "so as to have in it at last the harmony or helpfulness of life" (7.215). The arts and the work of the artist are therefore images of fundamental laws of life and society, for "the highest and first law of the universe — and the other name of life is, therefore, "help." The other name of death is[60/61] "separation." Government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death" (7.207). Here we have the centre of Ruskin's social, political, and economic thought: a vision of hierarchical and paternalist (or familial) forms of co-operative social organization, a vision which Paul Sawyer astutely sees as essentially Confucian.
As Ruskin's application of the same techniques and ideas to the criticism of art and society reminds us, he does not shift abruptly from writing about painting to writing about political economy. In fact, as early as the chapter on "The Nature of Gothic" in The Stones of Venice (1853), he had indicted modem society for alienating and dehumanizing its workers by forcing them to perform mechanical, soul-destroying tasks, and in his 1854 pamphlet On the Opening of the Crystal Palace, which associated oppressing the poor with the destruction of the past and its beauties, he savagely juxtaposed the self-indulgence of a dinner party to the starving of the poor. In his Manchester lectures published under the title of The Political Economy of Art (1857) and later reissued as A Joy For Ever (1880), Ruskin introduces his distinction between true and false wealth and argued that a love of true wealth implied a wish to eradicate poverty and unemployment. Attacking advocates of classical laissez-faire economics in their own stronghold, Manchester, he instructed its millowners and merchants that "the notion of Discipline and Interference lies at the very root of all human progress or power" and that the '"Let-alone" principle is ... the principle of death' (16.26). At this point in his career as a social economist, Ruskin believed that those with political and economic power simply failed to perceive their true responsibilities.
By 1860, when he wrote the individual essays that constitute Unto This Last (1862), on the other hand, he had become convinced that they would never perceive these responsibilities until they first realized that their fundamental socioeconomic assumptions were pseudo-scientific justifications of selfishness and shortsightedness. The first section of[61/62] Unto This Last, which argues that one cannot formulate a useful economic theory without paying attention to the social affections, therefore attacks the intellectual status of laissez-faire economics, particularly in its popularized forms, and the third, which concerns economic justice, attacks its fundamental immorality. The remaining sections advance his own complex humanized conceptions of value, price, production, consumption, and wealth. According to Ruskin, "THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration" (17.105), and therefore the measure of a thing's value is the extent to which it aids life and the living.
Ruskin's social criticism eventually had major influence in part because he thus rejected outright the fundamental ideas of classical economics accepted by most of his contemporaries and set out on his own. Drawing upon the Bible, Carlyle, Owen, and the example of the Middle Ages, Ruskin's Tory Radicalism thus opposed Malthusian emphases upon scarcity of resources and instead stressed their abundance and a consequent need for just and efficient distribution. Similarly, he rejected a political economy based upon competition and urged the greater relevance and practicality of one based on cooperation. Working from premises that thus differ radically from those of his contemporaries, Ruskin in Unto This Last redefines "wealth" and transfers emphasis from production to consumption, thus advancing a consumerist ethic:
Economists usually speak as if there were no good in consumption absolute. So far from this being so, consumption absolute is the end, crown, and perfection of production; and wise consumption is far more difficult than wise production. Twenty people can gain money for one who can use it ... The final object of political economy, therefore, is to get good method of consumption, and a great quantity of consumption: in other words, to use everything, and to use it nobly; whether it be substance, service, or service perfecting substance. (17.98, 102) [62/63]
His assumptions about the nature of wealth and consumption lead him to urge that "Production does not consist in things laboriously made, but in things serviceably consumable; and the question for the nation is not how much labour it employs, but how much life it produces. For as consumption is the end and aim of production, so life is the end and aim of consumption" (17.104).
In addition to these general attitudes that horrified many of his contemporaries, Ruskin advanced specific political programmes that they found equally radical and equally disturbing. He urged, for example, that the government should establish "training schools for youth" and that "every child born in the country should, at the parent's wish, be permitted (and, in certain cases, be under penalty required) to pass through them" (17.21), He also proposed that the government not only should take care of all old and indigent but also should establish factories to employ those in need of work. These factories, which would set standards of quality for British manufacturing by example, would also ensure that people on all economic levels could obtain pure, unadulterated food and other necessities.
Of all Ruskin's proposals, however, few struck many contemporaries as more outrageous than the one exhorting them to disregard Malthusian doctrine and pay workers a living wage. To the economists who stated that raising wages would lead the worker either to overproduce his class or to drink himself to death, Ruskin replies: "Suppose it were your own son of whom you spoke, declaring to me that you dared not take him into your firm, nor even give him his just labourer's wages, because if you did he would die of drunkenness, and leave half a score of children to the parish. "Who gave your son these dispositions?" — I should enquire — Has he them by inheritance or by education!" (17.106). And it is the same, he insists, with the poor. Ruskin, later a proponent of a classless society, points out that either members of the lower classes have essentially the same nature as the rich and hence are capable of education or they "are of a race essentially different from ours, and [63/64] unredeemable (which, however often implied, I have heard none yet openly say)" (17.106). Ruskin, who applied his skill at biblical and pictorial interpretation to the language of political economy, was particularly astute at finding the claims of self and class interest lurking within supposedly objective explanations.
Indeed, Ruskin particularly embarrassed and outraged many readers — just as he inspired others, such as Morris and Gandhi — when he pointed out that the cruellest treatment of the poor by the rich appears not in poor wages and working conditions but in the way they are kept down by mental and spiritual impoverishment. "Alas! it is not meat of which the refusal is cruellest, or to which the claim is validest. The life is more than the meat. The rich not only refuse food to the poor; they refuse wisdom; they refuse virtue; they refuse salvation" (17.106-7). In Time and Tide (1867) and Fors Clavigera (1871-8, 1880-4) he continues to advance a series of specific proposals based upon his hierarchical, co-operative, familial social vision — namely, that all should work and all do some physical labour, that wages should be fixed by custom, as he believed they were in the professions, and not set by any law of supply and demand; that the nation and not individuals should own natural resources; and that government should take responsibility for education, which he took to be that factor most productive of true wealth.
Like his Tory Radicalism itself, the language in which Ruskin presents his criticism of contemporary society combines old and new, for in attacking crude laissez-faire capitalism and its associated social attitudes, he draws upon the rhetoric, vocabulary, and tone of both Old Testament prophecy and Victorian preaching. From the beginning Ruskin had a tendency to preach. When he was but three years old, he gathered the family servants around him, climbed on a chair, and urged them, "People, be good!" The same urge to preach — and the same basic message — colours all his writings. He necessarily exchanges the techniques of the preacher, one[64/65] whose congregation accepts him as superior, for those of the alienated secular prophet who self-consciously sets himself apart from his audience when he comes to criticize his society. Ruskin changes his conception of himself as a writer only when he advances essentially unpopular ideas. None the less, whether writing more as preacher or as prophet, Ruskin applies the exegetical methods learned in Bible study.
Of course, when the preacher interpreted even apparently trivial passages, he still dealt with the Bible, a sacred text. Ruskin, in contrast, makes his elaborate interpretations of contemporary phenomena and so emulates the prophets of the Old Testament more than he does contemporary preachers. In so doing, he also follows Carlyle, who developed a variety of strategies to convince an unwilling listener, for the sage writes (or speaks) not only as an interpreter but also as one whose interpretations will be received with hostility. His first task, therefore, must be to win the attention of his audience and then to convince its members that he is worthy of their credence. Ruskin, like Carlyle and other Victorians who wrote in this mode, employs a variety of methods to win his reader's attention and eventual allegiance. The rest of this chapter will examine the literary techniques and rhetorical strategies that characterize his social, economic, and political writings, and as we shall observe, many of Ruskin's techniques as a sage relate so essentially to his ideas that form and content are not easily separated. The examples of Ruskinian technique adduced in the following pages therefore also permit us to examine the major points in his social criticism.
All Ruskin's techniques derive from his need to convince an audience many of whose basic ideas he is attacking. For example, Ruskin makes extensive use of the related techniques of definition, redefinition, and satirical definition to demonstrate that,however little his readers might suspect the fact, they do not know the correct meaning of words. Their words have lost meaning, which must be restored if these words are to exist in any sort of healthy, correct relation to reality. One may compare Ruskin's definitions in Modern Painters[65/66] with those in his later social criticism. When writing of art, Ruskin defines a host of concepts — imitation, truth (in the visual arts), composition, beauty, sublimity, picturesqueness, tone, colour, form, and grand style. Such definitions provide the usual material of art treatises, of course, and Ruskin's reader expects him to make them. But when he undertakes more radical and far more disturbing definitions of value, wealth, and religion in his later works, Ruskin thrusts the act of definition into the foreground, thereby demonstrating his audience's complete dependence upon him since only he can provide the true meaning of words crucial to whatever discussion he has embarked upon. For example, Unto This Last combines its definitions of key terms with scathing attacks on more conventional ones. According to Ruskin,
Political economy (the economy of the State, of citizens) consists simply in the production, preservation, and distribution, at fittest time and place, of useful or pleasurable things . . . But mercantile economy, the economy of "merces" or of "pay", signifies the accumulation in the hands of individuals, or legal and moral claim upon, or power over, the labour of others; every such claim implying precisely as much poverty or debt on one side, as it implies riches or right on the other. (17.44-5)
Believing that the most basic definitions of classical economists are incorrect because they misconceive their entire subject, he further attacks — one economist's definition of his subject as ' "the science of getting rich". But there are many sciences, as there are many arts, of getting rich. Poisoning people of large estates, was one employed largely in the Middle Ages; adulteration of food of people of small estates, is one employed largely now' (17.61). In essence, Ruskin claims by these manoeuvres that since his audience has fallen away from the ways of God (or nature), its members find themselves hobbled by a corrupted, misleading, almost useless language and they need him to restore their words. They need him, in other words, to lead them forth from the Tower of Babel. His [66/67] emphasis upon definition exemplifies the way Ruskinian theme and technique coalesce and become almost indistinguishable, for he believes that the false moral, economic, and political positions that he opposes not only cause unhappiness and obvious societal problems but even have corrupted the language we all use.
As Ruskin's use of definition suggests, his pronouncements frequently take the form of an alternation of satire and vision — satire to destroy opposing ideas and moments of vision to replace them, In addition to redefining the ideas and language of his opponents satirically, Ruskin also employs other forms of satire. Many of his acts of interpretation themselves take the form of satiric sallies, for as he probes his society's ideas and values, the demeaning conclusions he draws again and again demonstrate that its members have fallen away from their supposed standards of morality and humanity.
By performing elaborate acts of interpretation upon trivial phenomena, which he claims to be windows into a nation's heart, he essentially metamorphoses such matters into elaborate satirical allegories or symbolical grotesques. Ruskin frequently employs two kinds of this formal device, which we may in turn call "found" and "invented" versions of the symbolical grotesque. Found or discovered satiric grotesques are those he locates in existing phenomena. For instance, his discussion of wealth and value in Unto This Last (1860) includes a newspaper report of a shipwrecked man who strapped all his gold to himself in an attempt to preserve it, leapt from the sinking vessel, and promptly plunged to the bottom of the sea. Ruskin, who engages himself to examine modern notions of value and ownership, asks the question, Now does the man own the gold or does the gold own the man? In contrast to such discovered satirical grotesques, invented ones, which take the shape of both individual images and parables, do not have a component furnished by contemporary phenomena. These satiric images and parables are exemplified by his image of England's true divinity, Britannia of the Market, in "Traffic" (1865) or, in the same work, his fable of68] the two supposedly friendly landowners who spend all their funds on weapons to defend themselves against each other.
These forms of the grotesque contribute to the sage's dominant technique, which is the creation of ethos or credibility. According to the older rhetoricians, arguments may take three forms or modes: logos, pathos, or ethos. Arguments that depend upon logos employ what we may loosely term "reason", for they attempt to convince by means of logic, authority, statistics, precedent, testimony, and such like, whereas those that employ pathos appeal to the emotions of the listener or reader. In contrast, ethos tries to convince the audience that the speaker or writer is a serious, sincere, and, above all, trustworthy person, one whom, when the resolution of an argument lies hanging in the balance, one should follow. Of course, virtually any kind of argumentation draws variously upon all three argumentative modes. But Ruskin proceeds by making all his various arguments and evidence convince the audience that, however much his ideas might seem strange and even outrageous, he deserves their credence. Because he begins from an ideological position that conflicts with that of his audience, he starts with a decided disadvantage; and forced to take grave rhetorical risks, he does so to demonstrate how unusually, how unexpectedly he turns out to be right while received, orthodox opinion turns out to be wrong. All of Ruskin's other techniques — his clear argumentation, his citation of personal experience, his word-painting, his clear sight, and his ability to notice natural phenomena most fail to observe — contribute to creating this appearance of credibility, so that we will pay attention to his most annoying or unexpected ideas, give them some consideration, and allow him the opportunity to convince us both that they are true and that our recognition that they are true is crucial to us personally.
In contrast to "found" symbolical grotesques which the sage creates from those phenomena he chooses to interpret, the invented form of the symbolical grotesque derives from his own imagination and may take the forms of extended[68/69] analogies, metaphors, and parables. In his writings on political economy Ruskin makes great use of such invented symbolical grotesques, which there effectively replace the word-painting that characterized his art criticism as his favourite rhetorical device. In "The Roots of Honour", which opens Unto This Last, he uses precisely such a satirical analogy to attack the intellectual stature of nineteenth-century economic theory. Thus, he begins with a corrective introduction that first attacks as delusions these supposedly scientific approaches to society's major problems and then compares them to primitive, outmoded bodies of thought, such as alchemy: "Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious — certainly the least creditable — is the modern soi-disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection" (17.25). Granting that "as in the instances of alchemy, astrology, witchcraft, and other such popular creeds, political economy has a plausible idea at the root of it" (17.25), Ruskin argues that the economists err disastrously by "considering the human being merely as a covetous machine" (17.25). Although he readily agrees that one should attempt to eliminate inconstant variables when trying to determine guiding laws for any area of knowledge, he points out that economists have failed to perceive that 'the disturbing elements' in the problem they have tried to eliminate from their theories are not the same as the constant elements since "they alter the essence of the creature under examination the moment they are added; they operate, not mathematically, but chemically, introducing conditions which render all our previous knowledge unavailable" (17.26). Drawing upon his knowledge of chemistry, a true science, for an analogy, Ruskin then points out how dangerous such false conclusions can be: "We made learned experiments upon pure nitrogen, and have convinced ourselves that it is a very manageable gas: but, behold! the thing which we have practically to deal with is its chloride; and this, [69/70] the moment we touch it on our established principles, sends us and our apparatus through the ceiling" (17.26). Immediately after introducing his satiric analogy, which takes the form of a rudimentary, abbreviated narrative, Ruskin next employs a wonderfully bizarre symbolical grotesque:
Observe, I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusion of the science if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis. (17.26)
According to Ruskin, who is arguing that this supposedly practical science is in fact decidedly impractical and impracticable, modem political economy had the same advantages and disadvantages as does his invented pseudoscience of gymnastics-without-skeletons: its inventors and practitioners have sacrificed usefulness, relevance, and applicability to theoretical elegance and ease. In making such a charge, Ruskin immediately demonstrates that although he might at first appear the wild-eyed impractical theorist, his ideas have more value than commonly accepted ones.
Ruskin's invented symbolical grotesques are particularly useful in summing up the flaws in opposing positions. These analogies and little satiric narratives of course owe much to Neoclassical satirists, particularly Swift, whose Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels make extensive use of both to cast an opposing view in a poor light. When Ruskin argues in "Traffic" against those who claim that they cannot afford to create[70/71] beautiful surroundings for human life, he employs a characteristic parable to reduce such protests to absurdity. Suppose, he instructs his listeners, that he had been sent for "by some private gentleman, living in a suburban house, with his garden separated only by a fruit wall from his next door neighbour's" (18.438) to advise him how to furnish his drawing room — Finding the walls bare, Ruskin suggests rich furnishings, say, fresco-painted ceilings, elegant wallpaper, and damask curtains, and his client complains of the expense, which he cannot afford. Pointing out that his client is supposed to be a wealthy man, he is told:
"Ah yes," says my friend, "but do you know, at present I am obliged to spend it nearly all on steel-traps?" "Steel-traps! for whom?" "Why, for that fellow on the other side of the wall, you know: We're very good friends, capital friends; but we are obliged to keep our traps set on both sides of the wall; we could not possibly keep on friendly terms without them, and our spring guns. The worst of it is, we are both clever fellows enough; and there's never a day passes that we don't find out a new trap, or a new gun-barrel, or something." (18.438-9)
Fifteen million a year, his client tells Ruskin, the two good neighbours spend on such traps, and he doesn't see how they could do with less and so Ruskin the room decorator must understand why he has so little available capital to beautify his client's environment. Turning to his audience, Ruskin abandons the pose of the naïf and comments in the tones of the Old Testament prophet: "A highly comic state of life for two private gentlemen! but for two nations, it seems to me, not wholly comic." Bedlam might be comic, he supposes, if it had only one madman, and Christmas pantomines are comic with one clown, "but when the whole world turns clown, and paints itself red with its own heart's blood instead of vermilion, it is something else than comic, I think" (18.439). Having first mocked with his satiric parable the intellectual seriousness of[71/72] his listeners' self-justifications for failing to spend money on beautifying their environments, Ruskin next moves from mocking to damning them as he reveals, once again, that competition is a law of death and that it destroys art, beauty, and the conditions of healthy, full existence.
In the manner of the Old Testament prophet he demonstrates that the actions of his contemporaries reveal that they have abandoned the ways of God, Ruskin's symbolical grotesques provide a particularly appropriate device for such social criticism, because they emphasize both the symbolical and the grotesque qualities in-contemporary life which desperately need correction. These set pieces, which combine Ruskin's gifts for interpretative and satirical virtuosity, replace word-painting as his characteristic stylistic technique in the later writing and prove essential to his enterprise as a sage, for they serve to focus his interpretations of society while providing an attractive, interesting, and often witty means of conveying his ideas. [72/73]
Last modified 9 December 2006