Illuminated Initial 'R'

uskin, the great master of interpreting art and society, brings his skills to bear on his own life in Praeterita, the incomplete autobiography he published in separate numbers between 1881 and 1886, after which year recurrent attacks of madness forced him to stop writing. He wrote Praeterita for many reasons. It was, he tells us, "an old man's recreation in gathering visionary flowers in fields of youth", and it was also a "dutiful offering at the grave" (35.11-12) of his parents. He wrote it chiefly, however, as a means of enabling us to see how he learned or developed his main ideas. According to Ruskin, "How I learned the things I taught is the major, and properly, the only question regarded in this history", and such a statement of purpose — makes two important points. First, unlike Rousseau, Ruskin does not conceive his autobiography as a complete self-revelation or confession. It does not therefore include any mention of his ill-fated marriage or, for that matter, of many of his friendships, and neither does it discuss large portions of his career. Attacks of madness that forced him to give up writing before he had covered certain subjects, rather than conscious avoidance of them, explains many, though not all, of these major omissions.

Ruskin's statement of purpose also informs us that Praeterita, like Mill's autobiography, records largely an intellectual history, and so it does in a peculiarly Ruskinian sense - in the sense that arises in his dual emphases upon the visual sources of knowledge and upon the intrinsic unity of human sensibility. For Ruskin, no such being as economic, aesthetic, or intellectual man exists — even for the sake of argument. According to him, there exists only the human being, all of whose experiences are interconnected, entwined, relevant.

But for Ruskin all his own experiences centre upon acts of perception, and he therefore presents his life history as a series[73/74] of juxtaposed moments of vision. Ruskin's autobiography thus weaves together his two concerns with perception and interpretation, and although he occasionally emphasizes either learning to see or learning to understand in individual episodes, he more commonly interweaves the history of both parts of his education because he finds them so essentially related.

Interpretation explicitly enters the tale of his life when he relates the importance of his childhood reading of the Bible: "It had never entered into my head to doubt a word of the Bible, though I saw well enough already that its words were to be understood otherwise than I had been taught; but the more I believed it, the less it did me any good" (35.189). He soon learned that even the Bible, which evangelicals took as the literal word of God, could not simply be read. It demanded interpretation.

Ruskin's drawings of mountains, as art and as geology — Left to right: (a) The Aigiulle Blaitiere (1856). (b) Rock-Veins under contraction at two [geological] periods. Click on these images for larger pictures. [Not in print version]

By the mid-1850s Ruskin found his childhood evangelical belief, which provided the core of his interpretations of art and life, increasingly threatened by geology, the Higher Criticism, and his own doubts. These various pressures soon led, he tells us, to "the inevitable discovery of the falseness of the religious doctrines in which I had been educated" (35.482). Praeterita borrows but recasts the narrative of his decisive break with evangelicalism which had appeared in the April 1877 issue of Fors Clavigera. Fors tells that the "crisis" in his thought came one Sunday morning in Turin "when, from before Paul Veronese's Queen of Sheba, and under quite overwhelmed sense of his God-given power", he went to the Protestant chapel only to hear the preacher there assure his Waldensian congregation that they, and only they, would escape the damnation that awaited all others in the city. "I came out of the chapel, in sum of twenty years of thought, a conclusively unconverted man" (29.89). According to this earlier version, then, the pastor's statements about damnation, which so contradicted Ruskin's own sense of the ways of God, finally enabled him to choose between "Protestantism or nothing" (29.89). In contrast, Praeterita states that he first attended the Waldensian sermon and then encountered the painting by[74/75] Veronese. Furthermore, according to this second version of his past, Ruskin did not react strongly against the sermon or break sharply with his evangelical belief before he left the chapel. Instead, feeling the sermon irrelevant rather than infuriating, he walked out of the chapel unmoved, and only later did the music and painting convince him that there were better ways than the evangelical to serve God.

When Ruskin inverted the order of events, placing the sermon before his experience in the gallery, he changed the point of his narrative; for whereas Fors explains how a painting convinced him that his evangelical religion preached a false doctrine of damnation, Praeterita tells how the arts of painting and music taught him how to serve God better than his earlier belief. Praeterita not only fails to mention the crucial fact that his decision was between "Protestantism or nothing", thereby lessening the sense of crisis, but also emphasizes affirmation rather than denial.

The contradictions that appear when one compares Ruskin's two versions of this turning point in his life reveal how much interpretation dominates the autobiographer's task. The evidence of Ruskin's letters and diaries suggests that the earlier, harsher version of the incident in Fors more accurately describes what took place on that balmy afternoon in Turin, but once he returned to some form of Christian belief in 1875, he naturally began to perceive unifying rather than disrupting elements in his past experience.

Ruskin thus organizes his past life chiefly in terms of moments of vision because he conceives himself essentially as a spectator, as one, that is, who lives chiefly by seeing and is fully alive only when engaged in the act of vision. Praeterita presents this view of himself by concentrating upon the development of his sense of sight, and the crucial facts in his development stand out as moments when he first saw or learned to see in some new, important way. He lays no claim to artistic imagination, intelligence, or "any special power or capacity; for, indeed, none such existed, except that patience in looking, and precision in feeling, which afterwards, with due[75/76] industry, formed my analytic power ... On the other hand", he tells us, "I have never known one whose thirst for visible fact was at once so eager and so methodic" (35.51). His autobiography, which therefore takes the form of showing the ways he developed under the influence of this "thirst for visible fact", points out that satisfying this thirst provided one of the young Ruskin's chief sources of childhood delight. As a young child, he had few toys and chiefly amused himself by exploring patterns in the carpets and fabrics in his home.

Such a life of the eye was also encouraged by the way in which the Ruskins made their European tours, neither speaking the language of the countries they visited nor socializing with other British tourists. According to him, such removal has its own benefits, for "if you have sympathy, the aspect of humanity is more true to the depths of it than its words; and even in my own land, the things in which I have been least deceived are those which I have learned as their Spectator" (35.119). Praeterita, then, is an autobiography of Ruskin the Spectator, the man who sees and understands.

The Spectator, Praeterita makes poignantly clear, is also one who stands apart from the flow of life and looks on. Praeterita, which relates that his parents' social insecurities largely deprived him of friends his own age, emphasizes his 'perky, contented, conceited, Cock-Robinson-Crusoe sort of life' and his family's social isolation - what Ruskin calls "our regular and sweetly selfish manner of living". Thus isolated, he concerned himself largely with the visual and the visionary — studying things close at hand or imagining those far away: "Under these circumstances, what powers of imagination I possessed, either fastened themselves on inanimate things — the sky, the leaves, and pebbles, observable within the walls of Eden - or caught at any opportunity of flight into regions of romance" (35.37). Ruskin thus came to love the life of one who sees others without himself being seen: "My times of happiness had always been when nobody was thinking of me ... My entire delight was in observing without being myself noticed - if I could have been invisible, all the better"[76/77] (35.165-6). According to Ruskin, his childhood love of thus being an almost invisible, seeing eye produced his "essential love of Nature" which was the "root of all that I have usefully become, and the light of all I have rightly learned" (35.166). This love, his autobiography tells us, was nurtured by his childhood surroundings, which he continually characterizes in terms of a lost Garden of Eden to which he no longer has access except perhaps in memory.

In addition to characterizing Ruskin's sense of sight and explaining how it developed, Praeterita also documents the education of his eye by relating his various encounters with drawing teachers, specific landscapes, and works of art. It explains, for example, that although his drawing-master, Charles Runciman, did nothing to encourage his gift for "drawing delicately with the pen point", he none the less taught the young Ruskin "perspective, at once accurately and simply" and "a swiftness and facility of hand which I found afterwards extremely useful, though what I have just called the "force", the strong accuracy of my line, was lost" (35.76-7). Most important, Runciman "cultivated in me — indeed founded — the habit of looking for the essential points in things drawn, so as to abstract them decisively, and explained to me the meaning and importance of composition" (35,77).

Ruskin's autobiography also explains that encounters with specific works of art or artistic sites directly influenced his life and career. Sometimes such encounters took place under the guidance of a more experienced eye, such as occurred at a gathering at the home of Samuel Rogers, the banker-poet. Ruskin relates that when he "was getting talkative" in praise of a Rubens sketch that his host owned, the artist George Richmond asked why he hadn't commented upon the much greater Veronese hanging beneath it. To Ruskin's surprised response that the Venetian seemed quite tame in comparison with the Rubens, Richmond answered that, nevertheless, "the Veronese is true, the other violently conventional" (35.33 7). Comparing Veronese's clear shadows with Rubens's use of ochre, vermilion, and asphalt outline, he thus led the young,[76/77] art critic to a new understanding of Venetian colour and the nature of artistic convention.

Samuel Prout and Ruskin in his Proutesque style — Left to right: (a) Prout's The Old Ducal Palace, Ferrara. (b) Ruskin's Fisher Street, Carlisle (1837). Click on these images for larger pictures. [Not in print version]

Most of the encounters Ruskin describes, in contrast, took place without the assistance of others and were purely individual discoveries. For example, when visiting Genoa in 1840 Ruskin saw "for the first time the circular Pietà by Michael Angelo, which was my initiation in all Italian art. For at this time I understood no jot of Italian painting, but only Rubens, Vandyke, and Velasquez' (35.264), and, similarly, his 1845 visit to Lucca first taught him that architecture was more than an excuse for the picturesque. Ruskin, who had a Romantic love of picturesque time-worn structures, suddenly encountered twelfth-century buildings built "in material so incorruptible, that after six hundred years of sunshine and rain, a lancet could not now be put between their joints" (35.350). As a young man he had learned, like all romantically inclined, artistically sensitive people of the time, to seek out the pleasing irregularities and age mark of the picturesque, and for a time he patterned his own drawing style after that of Samuel Prout, who invented a particular kind of urban picturesque. Lucca taught him, however, that great architecture was more than merely an excuse for picturesque seeing. In fact, it had its own rules of form which the seeker of the picturesque inevitably failed to perceive. The picturesque, for all its delights, therefore turned out to be another one of those artistic conventions that ultimately did more harm than good because it masked, rather than aided, seeing what was really there. Having approached this beautiful medieval town to enjoy the delicate pleasures of the picturesque, Ruskin unexpectedly found anti-picturesque buildings, for instead of succumbing to the effects of time, these Gothic structures still retained their strength, firmness, and precise outline.

Ruskin's watercolors of Venice, 35 years apart — Left to right: (a) The Palazzo Contarini-Fasan, Venice (1841). (b) The Scuola di San Marco (1876). Click on these images for larger pictures. [Not in print version]

Venice, one of the centres of his life and thought, also at first appeared to him largely as a stimulus for Romantic imaginings. Like so many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travellers, he easily fell under its spell. Ruskin, whose autobiography takes form around moments of perception, characteristically[78/79] describes his love of Venice originating in a single sight, although one less obviously exciting or epiphanic than those he describes occurring in the Alps: "The beginning of everything was in seeing the gondola-beak come actually inside the door at Danieli's, when the tide was up, and the water two feet deep at the foot of the stairs; and then, all along the canal sides, actual marble walls rising out of the salt sea, with hosts of little brown crabs on them, and Titians inside" (35.295). Having approached Venice through Byron and Turner, Ruskin immediately fastened the nuances of their art to his own perceptions. According to him, the great moment of revelation about Venice came, not when he encountered the palaces along the Grand Canal or the Ducal Palace, or even Saint Mark's, but when he first saw Tintoretto's great cycle of paintings on the life of Christ. At the urging of his friend and drawing-master J. D. Harding, he visited the Scuola di San Rocco (photographs), where his encounter with Tintoretto's masterful cycle forced him, he says, to study the culture and history of Venice, and thus he came to write The Stones of Venice.

The most important discoveries Ruskin reports in Praeterita appear in several skillfully narrated parables of perception that explain how he learned to see for himself. His presentation of the famous incidents of the Norwood ivy and the Fontainebleau aspen reveals that an encounter with Turner's work, specifically his sketches of Switzerland, prepared him for these crucial moments of discovery which, in turn, prepared him to understand Turner even better. Ruskin realized that the sketches of Switzerland, which he so coveted "were straight impressions of nature - not artificial designs, like the Carthages and Romes. And it began to occur to me that perhaps even in the artifices of Turner there might be more truth than I had understood ... In these later subjects Nature herself was composing with him" (35.310). Immediately after relating how he came upon this insight into Turner's mode of working, Praeterita tells us how Ruskin himself began to see with a cleared vision:[79/80]

Considering of these matters, one day on the road to Norwood, I noticed a bit of ivy round a thorn stem, which seemed, even to my critical judgement not ill 'composed'; and proceeded to make a light and shade pencil study of it in my grey paper pocket-book, carefully, as if it had been a bit of sculpture, liking it more and more as I drew. When it was done, I saw that I had virtually lost all my time since I was twelve years old, because no one had told me to draw what was really there! (35-311)

Ruskin purposively contrasts "critical judgement" and the act of drawing, sculpture and ivy round a thorn stem, man's art and nature's higher creation. Years of sketching according to the rules followed by the amateur artist in search of the picturesque had left him with a few useful records of place, but not until he forgot himself and casually began to draw this little bit of vegetation did he realize that he had never before "seen the beauty of anything, not even of a stone - how much less of a leaf!" (35.311)

Two examples of Ruskin's drawings of trees and tree growth — Left to right: (a) Study of Stone Pine at Sestri (1845). (b) Study of Trees at Sens (1846). Click on these images for larger pictures. [Not in print version]

The next stage in his progress came at Fontainebleau when, weary from walking, he began to draw a little aspen tree and once again experienced a crucial moment of vision after he had almost casually tried to represent a natural fact without paying attention to any rules.

Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced — without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they "composed" themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere! (35.314)

Ruskin remarks that his experience of drawing the Norwood ivy had not "abased" him so completely because he had always assumed that ivy was an ornamental plant. Drawing a[80/81] randomly selected tree, however, finally convinced him that nature was greater than art.

That all the trees of the wood (for I saw surely that my little aspen was only one of their millions) should be beautiful — more than Gothic tracery, more than Greek vase-imagery, more than the daintiest embroiderers of the East could embroider, or the artfullest painters of the West could limn — this was indeed an end to all former thoughts with me, an insight into a new silvan world.

Not silvan only. The woods, which I had only looked on as wilderness fulfilled I then saw, in their beauty, the same laws which guided the clouds, divided the light, and balanced the wave. (35.315)

Ruskin believed that his experiences of Turner's Swiss sketches, the Norwood ivy, and the Fontainebleau aspen provided the comer-stone, the foundation, of his future career.

Tomb of Ilaria del Caretto, Lucca Cathedral. c. 1874. Click on image to enlarge it and to obtain links to other versions of this work so important to Ruskin. [Not in print version]

The lessons he learned form the Norwood ivy and the Fontainebleau aspen were continued by his drawing of the Gothic in Rheims. Once again his moment of discovery took him by surprise; for as he drew the tomb of Ilaria de Caretto, he suddenly realized that its beautiful lines followed the same laws that governed the Norwood ivy and the Fontainebleau aspen: The "harmonies of line ... I saw in an instant were under the same laws as the river wave, and the aspen branch, and the stars' rising and setting" (35.349). At each stage Ruskin found himself taken by surprise as his eyes and hands taught him to recognize something of crucial importance that his mind did not take in. First, he discovered that the ivy embodies laws of beauty far greater than those inventible by the imagination, and then he found out that trees, which are far more majestic creations of nature, also follow such rules. The third stage in his development arrived when he discovered such laws embodied in the Gothic, a discovery that suggests that the great medieval sculptors and architects had themselves instinctively made this same recognition of the intrinsic beauties of nature which no theorist can encompass or predict.[81/82]

All of these visual discoveries taught Ruskin the artist that he had to learn to see for himself, and other experiences taught him the same lesson about criticism. Although he occasionally received invaluable guidance, as when Richmond taught him to see Venetian colour, he still had to experience each fact with his own eyes and feelings, and it was for this reason that Ruskin placed such importance upon the act of drawing as a means of the artist's self-education. He traces his independence as a critic to his 1840 visit to Rome when, having been told by parents, friends, and guidebooks what to like in Rome, he quickly discovered that he had to decide about these great buildings and paintings himself: "Everybody told me to look at the roof of the Sistine chapel, and I liked it; but everybody also told me to look at Raphael's Transfiguration, and Domenichino's St. Jerome" (35.273), which he did not like, and he thus realized he had to make his own judgments.

Like his encounters with the Norwood ivy and the Fontainebleau aspen, Praeterita's most powerful epiphanies reenact occasions when he first encountered some beauty of nature. These more dramatic set pieces present Ruskin seeing something, not close at hand, but far away, for they dramatize prospect visions and Pisgah Sights — moments, that is, when he caught sight of a distant, unattainable paradise. For instance, in 1833, when he was fourteen years old, he arrived in Schaffhausen with his family and at sunset saw the Alps for the first time. Looking out upon a landscape that at first glance resembled "one of our own distances from Malvern of Worcestershire or Dorking of Kent", he suddenly saw mountains in the distance.

There was no thought in any of us for a moment of their being clouds. They were as clear as crystal, sharp on the pure horizon sky, and already tinged with rose by the sinking sun. Infinitely beyond all that we had ever thought or dreamed — the seen walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful to us; not more awful, round heaven, the walls of sacred Death. [82/83]/p>

It is not possible to imagine, in any time of the world, a more blessed entrance into life, for a chid of such a temperament as mine — True, the temperament belonged to the age: a very few years — within the hundred — before that, no child could have been born to care for mountains, or for the men that lived among them, in that way. Till Rousseau's time, there had been no "sentimental" love of nature . . . The sight of the Alps was not only the revelation of the beauty of the earth, but the opening of the first page of its volume - I went down that evening from the garden-terrace of Schaffhausen with my destiny fixed. (35.115-16)

In relating this and other crucial experiences, Ruskin, like so many Victorians, including Carlyle, Tennyson, and Mill, employed the pattern of a religious-conversion narrative. Praeterita, though it does present climactic moments, does not, like most conversion narratives, build towards a single climax or moment of illumination. Rather Ruskin organizes his materials into a series of climactic illuminations, such as that attained by drawing the ivy and the aspen, each of which can stand to some extent by itself. I write "to some extent" because each moment of vision, each new perception, does join to others in a sequence to form a whole greater than the sum of individual parts. None the less, his primary organization is around centres or moments of personally achieved vision, each of which is accommodated within a segment, a fragment. In other words, Praeterita, relies upon the same structural principles that inform Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and his other major works.

Such a recognition helps explain how Praeterita, although incomplete, can be one of the greatest of autobiographies. Specifically, it explains how an unfinished work deliberately written in a fragmented manner creates such powerful effects. Such a recognition also leads to a better understanding of a peculiar form of narrative technique — or possibly of an entire genre - which provides a sense of aesthetic completeness and[83/84] rhetorical effectiveness, even though it apparently lacks the formal completeness of narrative.

Thackeray's daughter thought Ruskin's portraits in language so brilliant that she believed he should have been a novelist — a point that brings to the fore the nature of narrative and Ruskin's structures of interpretation. The problem, at least as Ruskin saw it, was that he could not relate a story effectively, and one way of looking at Praeterita is as an alternative to conventional narrative, to which he did not feel himself particularly suited. This is no confession of major weakness since genius always builds upon its limitations. Tennyson, for example, did not have much of a gift for conventional narrative structure either, so he developed a poetic form in In Memoriam and The Idylls of the King which avoided it, relying instead upon complex interweaving of juxtaposed climactic moments, visions, and dreams. In doing so, this supposedly conservative poet managed to create the kind of narrative mode for which Conrad, Faulkner, and Woolf generally receive credit in histories of the novel. Praeterita, which had such a major influence on Proust, relies upon a similar, if more diffuse, narrative mode. By organizing his 'visionary flowers', as he called them, into a series of self-sufficient narratives, Ruskin created a literary form that proceeds by juxtaposition and accumulation more than by narrative progressions.

Of course, Ruskin settled upon such a literary structure, to which he was so temperamentally inclined, because he believed conventional narrative falsified the kind of tale he wished to relate. According to him, the complexity of history necessarily conflicts with the simplifying tendencies of narrative: "Whether in the biography of a nation, or of a single person, it is alike impossible to trace it steadily through successive years. Some forces are failing while others strengthen, and most act irregularly, or else at uncorresponding periods of renewed enthusiasm after intervals of lassitude. For all clearness of exposition, it is necessary to follow first one, then another, without confusing notices of what is happening in other directions" (35.169).[85/86]

Essentially, Ruskin's literary structure organizes the work itself and the reader's perception of it into discrete yet individually satisfying segments or episodes. This description of Ruskin's characteristic literary structure strikes a familiar note with readers of his other works. The five volumes of Modern Painters and the many numbers of Fors Clavigera share the segmented, episodic, and yet strangely satisfying structure of the autobiography. All these works progress by means of a series of illuminations, moments of vision, and epiphanies,

Ruskin saw his own experiences as taking the form of a pattern of loss and gain. The losses include time lost, but more importantly, people lost, for this. gentle memory fugue contains an astonishing number of deaths and death-bed scenes. The gains, the recompense for all this personal loss, occur almost entirely in terms of vision, in learning to see things correctly, whatever the cost, whatever the pain. Another way of putting this point would be to refer to his repeated emphases upon Paradise, earthly edens, and paradises lost which appear throughout this autobiography. Autobiographers frequently organize their experiences, thereby giving them order and meaning, in terms of central metaphors, images, or analogies. Ruskin, one of the most metaphorical of writers, uses many such chains of analogy to interpret his past experience, but the dominant one in Praeterita consists of a series of juxtaposed lost edens and Pisgah Sights.

Although Ruskin's autobiography, like the autobiographcal elements in his, other writings, draws upon the literature of religious conversion for image, rhetoric, and structure, it differs from it in an important way. For it does not attempt merely to testify to the experience of spiritual, aesthetic, or political truth; it tries, instead, to make the reader reexperience something of crucial importance to Ruskin by placing him, as it were, inside Ruskin's consciousness. Ruskin's autobiographical prose, like his art criticism, thus fulfils his own frequently stated requirements for imaginative art. According to him, we recall, great art and literature[85/86] provided an essential means of enabling the audience to share the emotions and imagination of the artist and poet. To enable the audience to share his past, he relies upon a literature of experience, upon a kind of literature whose primary rhetorical strategy is to make the reader experience his feelings, thoughts, and reasonings. Praeterita, like In Memoriam, uses its data primarily for an imaginative, emotional effect. Each argument encountered, each person experienced, each landscape confronted is a stage of experience, a rung on the ladder of a developing and liberating vision. The costs of attaining that almost unique vision were great, and one of them was that he became too much a creature of the eye, that is, too much a being who lives isolated and apart and lives only in what he sees.

Therefore, when the world of Praeterita appears at Ruskin's bidding, he does not raise a curtain and have us observe a continuing series of happenings. Instead, he takes us by the arm and shows us a gallery of pictures. One picture suggests comparison with another, we move back and forth; and whether or not we arrive at the end of the gallery, we have a sense of being with Ruskin, the spectator of his own life.[86/87]


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Last modified 5 March 2014