That depreciation of the purist and elevation of the material school is connected with much loss of happiness to me, and (as it seems to me) of innocence; nor less of hope.... It may be much nobler to hope for the advance of the human race only, than for one s own and their immortality; much less selfish to look upon one's self merely as a leaf on a tree than as an independent spirit, but it is much less pleasant. — John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton
In the 1860s Ruskin saw himself as a man in possession of an open secret. Although he swore a pledge to Mrs. La Touche never to write of it, his religious apostasy was well known to his friends. "I've become a Pagan, too"; he wrote Norton in 1862, "and am trying hard to get some substantial hope of seeing Diana in the pure glades; or Mercury in the clouds" (XXXVI, 426). This awakening to the cold, clear dawn of the Greeks, who were strong enough to accept the beauty of the earth by accepting its mortality also, he had presented to his readers in the final volume of Modern Painters:
And herein was conquest. So defied, the betraying and accusing shadows shrank back; the mysterious horror subdued itself to majestic sorrow. Death was swallowed up in victory. Their blood, which seemed to be poured out upon the ground, rose into hyacinthine flowers. All the beauty of earth opened to them; they had ploughed into its darkness, and they reaped its gold.... the fatal arrows rang not now at the shoulders of Apollo, the healer.... strangest comfort fill[ed] the trustful heart, so that they could put off their armour, and lie down to sleep, — their work well done . . ., accepting the death they once thought terrible, as the gift of Him who knew and granted what was best. [VII, 276-277]
This facing down pervades Ruskin's social criticism as well. Steadily we have watched him center more and more preciousness in the works of human hands: the beauty of the earth awakes with the fading of the monk's dream, and the reformer, incorporating all human suffering [227/228] into the scope of his concern, converts the earth power into healing. Bad conscience becomes social conscience. But just as characteristically, the tragic humanism of this passage swerves into a lullaby, and the Good Shepherd steals upon the slumbering scene. Is the "forgetfulness of evil" but the good child's reward for facing a temporary unpleasantness? Henry James, visiting Denmark Hill in 1869, thought he saw in Ruskin the image of "weakness, pure and simple.... he has been scared back by the grim face of reality into the world of unreason and illusion, and. . . wanders there without a compass or guide — or any light save the fitful flashes of his beautiful genius" (quoted in Leon, p. 421). This emotional paradox — the acceptance of tragic humanism and the sensation of the child bereft and abandoned — reflects the complex crisis Ruskin faced in the middle of his life's journey.
At the Middle of the Road
In 1861 Ruskin wrote to Carlyle, "The heaviest depression is upon me I have ever gone through; forms so strange and frightful — and it is so new to me to do everything expecting only Death, though I see it is the right way — even to play — and men who are men nearly always do it without talking about it" (XXXVI, 382)."I... try to feel that life is worth having — unsuccessfully enough," he wrote Norton; "I sometimes wish I could see Medusa." "I am still . . . tormented between the longing for rest and for lovely life, and the sense of the terrific call of human crime for resistance and of human misery for help — though it seems to me as the voice of a river of blood which can but sweep me down in the midst of its black clots, helpless. What I shall do I know not — or if dying is the only thing possible" (XXXVI, 450). "I've been nearly as hard put to it before, only I wasn't so old, and had not the great religious Dark Tower to assault, or get shut up in by Giant Despair. Little Rosie is terribly frightened about me, and writes letters to get me to come out of Bye-path Meadow — and I won't.... as for that straight old road between the red brick walls, half Babel, quarter fiery furnace, and quarter chopped straw, I can't do it any more — Meadow of some sort I must have, though I go no further" (XXXVI, 367).
Ruskin is right: he had been "nearly as hard put to it before," but with the solace of youth and religious faith to fall back on; now he had to give up both solaces. Each renunciation, in its way, was a declaration of mature independence, which finally rendered the tensions between his parents and himself unendurable. Earlier, he had been able to forge compromises between his wishes and the parental will that left [228/229] unchanged the appearance of subservience, a condition sanctioned by the high value placed by his culture on filial duty. But as the son reached his forties the controlling behavior of the elder Ruskins seemed increasingly eccentric, both to Ruskin's friends and to himself — and he vacillated, frustrated by each possible solution and above all by the fact of his vacillation. The man who had scandalized England by his radical economics still submitted his writings to his father, a merchant, for approval; the man who defended the pagan acceptance of physical pleasure still asked his mother for permission to visit the theater. Wishing mightily for a "Roof" of his own, he continued to use the rooms he had occupied as a child; craving the affection of friends, he took solace in a girls' school, where he acted as resident tutor and substitute parent — yet his own father forbade the children to visit Denmark Hill. At the middle of his life's road, Ruskin had a great deal of the child to cast off, yet to do so would have risked the release of overwhelming feelings — loss, aggression, guilt — that his nostalgia kept carefully in check. To use a modern idiom, he was facing a mid-life crisis. This idea has been trivialized by an almost immediate overexposure, yet we should not be blind to the important conception underlying it — the degree to which we think of the self as a progress defined by cultural expectations and biological limits.
Ruskin's experience of mid-life closely resembles the list of traits defined by recent researchers: a radical reconsideration of one's hopes and failings; a temporary revulsion from the career one has forged, which brands even substantial achievements as "mere" success; a gradual emergence of parts of the self previously repressed in the interest of that success — in the case of men, a side of the self seen as feminine (Levinson, chap. 13). The transition is painful, according to the amount of unresolved "business" from the past, and to Ruskin the accumulation of past business seemed insuperable. Earlier he dealt with crises partly by suppression, partly by reaffirming through orthodox faith and natural piety the fiction of original, innocent energy developing painlessly toward maturity — passing over, in other words, the moment posited by the autobiographical literature of his time as crucial and defined usually in terms of a religious crisis. The identifying mark of that crisis is the experience of the self in extremis, in need of radical renovation — and that partial destruction of the old self could only feel like death. "Carlyle says I'm moulting, and I hope that's all," he wrote in 1863. "But it has been a good deal like dying" (XXXVI, 454). But of course as long as his parents remained in control he could confess no unconversion except through a social allegory.
Ruskin expressed many of the conflicts in a crucial letter to Norton [229/230] of 1861. He was tempted, he tells his friend, simply to bolt from his difficulties — to live a life "like Veronese's" or to go "to Paris or Venice and breaking away from all modern society and opinion" — the cities, significantly, that he associated with Adèle. But he did not do so.
Intense scorn of all I had hitherto done or thought, still intenser scorn of other people's doings and thinkings, especially in religion; the perception of colossal power more and more in Titian and of weakness in purism, and almost unendurable solitude in my own home, only made more painful to me by parental love which did not and never could help me, and which was cruelly hurtful without knowing it; and terrible discoveries in the course of such investigation as I made into grounds of old faith — were all concerned in this: and it would have been, but for the pain which I could not resolve to give my parents.
And later he adds, "I've had my heart broken, ages ago, when I was a boy" (XXXVI, 356-357).
The conflict, first, is between the parental will and the possibility of emotional satisfaction, specifically sexual love. Ruskin's love for Adèle dramatized an opposition between emotional fulfillment and the compulsion to work and study, partly at his father's behest. In some form this conflict symbolically structured most of Ruskin's books. After the failure of his marriage, Ruskin's villain becomes a kind of effeminacy fueled by religious purism, which withdraws into lascivious fantasies. Finally it becomes a whole culture destroying and defiling itself by a compensatory and lustful avarice. The activity unifying all these perversions is the careless destruction of life, first symbolized by works of art, then by workers. This destruction consistently induces the most powerful emotions Ruskin expressed in print. Here his career parallels Dickens's in many respects, except that what Dickens expresses as identification through overwhelming pity Ruskin usually expresses as identification through overwhelming, helpless anguish — an anguish over waste and loss and forfeiture that makes time itself a nightmare and drives him to equally strong longings for the personal and historical past.
These emotions arose not only from a stifled need to love but also from a stifled need for the power of self-affirmation that he associated with a father's precious giving. Clearly Ruskin wanted what no father could be — an unfailing source of guidance and affection who would nevertheless not try to guide him-and surely some form of parental repudiation is necessary to every growing person. What made the Ruskins' relationship so anguishing was the particular combination of affection and restraint. A son showered with affection and hopes yet raised to satisfy parental vanity; a love that nourished him yet distrusted and controlled him; a cash arrangement that parodied the [230/231] emotional relationship by giving the son freedom while keeping him dependent: these paradoxes surface in the nightmarish imagery of Unto This Last — the sons as harnessed beasts, the young men thrown into the furnace. His father, as Ruskin wrote to Acland after his father's death, "would have sacrificed his life for his son, and yet forced his son to sacrifice his life to him, and sacrifice it in vain" (XXXVI, 471). But was Ruskin sacrificed to controls or to an unattainable ideal? The letter to Norton cited above contains a characteristic list of might-have-beens:
had my father made me his clerk I might have been in a fair way of becoming a respectable Political Economist in the manner of Ricardo or Mill — I suppose everything I've chosen to have been about as wrong as wrong could be. I ought not to have written a word; but should have merely waited on Turner as much as he would have let me, putting in writing every word that fell from him, and drawing hard. By this time, I might have been an accomplished draughtsman, a fair musician, and a thoroughly good scholar in art literature, and in good health besides. As it is, I've written a few second-rate books, which nobody minds; I can't draw, I can't play nor sing, I can't ride, I walk worse and worse, I can't digest. [XXXVI, 357]
Here Ruskin sets a repellent image of complete obedience — becoming another Mill as clerk in the wine trade — beside apprenticeship to Turner, the ideal father he constructed out of his needs, who would magically communicate strength of selfhood to him without ever interfering with his life.
In December 1863, less than three months before his father's death, Ruskin's resentment broke to the surface in a letter essential to understanding his heart and mind in these years:
Men ought to be severely disciplined and exercised in the sternest way in daily life — they should learn to lie on stone beds and eat black soup, but they should never have their hearts broken — a noble heart, once broken, never mends — the best you can do is rivet it with iron and plaster the cracks over — the blood never flows rightly again. The two terrific mistakes which Mama and you involuntarily fell into were the exact reverse in both ways-you fed me effeminately and luxuriously to that extent that I actually now could not travel in rough countries without taking a cook with me! — but you thwarted me in all the earnest fire of passion and life. About Turner you indeed never knew how much you thwarted me — for I thought it my duty to be thwarted — it was the religion that led me all wrong there; if I had had courage and knowledge enough to insist on having my own way resolutely, you would now have had me in happy health, loving you twice as much (for, depend upon it, love taking much of its own way, a fair share, is in generous people all the brighter for it), and [231/232] full of energy for the future — and of power of self-denial: now, my power of duty has been exhausted in vain, and I am forced for life's sake to indulge myself in all sorts of selfish ways, just when a man ought to be knit for the duties of middle life. [XXXVI, 461]
Struggling to sort out the ambiguities of his past, Ruskin falls back on an explanation drawn from his parents' own beliefs — that mental distress is a form of physical exhaustion. As he imagines it, the fire of life and passion, strengthened by early discipline, is infinite, like an abundant economy, but when thwarted, becomes feeble, like a scarce economy, requiring constant nurture. The thwarting concerning Turner refers, as we have seen, to the watercolors, which Ruskin took as magical emblems of the painter's moral power but which also would have represented his own autonomy in his chosen sphere of competence. In the last sentence he throws his guilt over self-indulgence back on his father, an unfair enough move that nevertheless suggests how he turned money, the inadequate medium of his father's affection, into a form of passive retaliation. And it suggests how an inexpiable burden of obligation forced him into what could seem a futile alternation between duty and self-indulgence rather than activities purposeful and fulfilling in themselves — again like a false economy.
Consequently — it is perhaps the most poignant statement of Ruskin's life-he claims he does not need love. He wrote Rossetti, "I am grateful for your love — but yet I do not want love. I have had boundless love from many people during my life. And in more than one case that love has been my greatest calamity. I have boundlessly suffered from it. But the one thing, in any helpful degree, I have never been able to get, except from two women of whom I never see the only one I care for, is 'understanding.' " (Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters, I, 49, quoted in Leon, 349). It is often remarked that Ruskin's early lack of companionship made the normal give and take of intimate friendship difficult for him, but it surely means as well that he knew no paradigm of love other than the inequalities inherent in the relationship of parent and child. At best this could be what he called "harmonious inequalities" in Unto This Last; at worst it could turn into the kind of repressiveness he showed as a husband. But possibly his need to control Effie and to refuse any real obligations to her partly reflected his own fear of the subservience and obligation he already experienced in his parents' love. The occasional remark in his letters, self-pitying but no doubt genuine, that he could not imagine people "caring" for him suggests a radical uncertainty about his parents' love despite his claim that he had too much of it — a doubt whether he could be loved for himself apart from what he produced as the instrument of his parents' [232/233] vanity. The alternative he excludes in the letter about love and understanding is love that is unconditional, yet many moments in his writings-in the description, for example, of sons as true wealth-seem to be the very emblem of love unconditional and inexhaustible. Another emblem, as I have suggested, is the fantasy of the childhood paradise that precedes the fall into loneliness, ambition, and insatiable need.
In the middle of his life Ruskin developed a new image of heart's desire. "I don't in the least know what might have been the end of it," he wrote Norton in the letter I have cited twice above, "if a little child (only thirteen last summer) hadn't put her fingers on the helm at the right time, and chosen to make a pet of herself for me" (XXXVI, 356-357). Ruskin had met Rose La Touche in 1858, when she was ten, though only gradually, it seems, did she attain a preeminent position in his affections. In 1866 he proposed to her and she asked to defer her answer until she came of age three years later. At that time her parents interposed, and Ruskin ultimately lost her, yet his desire for her, by this time obsessive, brightened and darkened the moments of his life, even after her death from brain fever in 1875. The idea of Rose — for ultimately she lived more vividly and intensely for him as an idea than as a person — in many ways repeated his earlier love for Effie and Adèle and also, perhaps, for his cousin Jessie, who had died with the first phase of his own childhood. Like Effie she was younger than he, which gave him the authority of years and the power to objectify and shape her as he wished; and like the others, she would have made an unsuitable match from his parents' point of view (even the match with Effie was opposed at first because of her relatively humble connections). But more than the others, Rose was to be the idol of his affections and, as Hunt has remarked, their "permanent focus." "I want. . . the sense that the creature whom I love is made happy by being loved: That is literally all I want," he wrote in 1866."I don't care that Rosie should love me: I cannot conceive such a thing for an instant — I only want her to be happy in being loved" (quoted in Hunt, p.306). Treasuring her as he had learned to treasure works of art, he seemed in one sense to repeat the errors of his parents in their controlling yet indulgent idolatry of him, yet the new love is in another sense markedly different: Rose is charged with no ambitious expectations other than being a thing in herself, thus receiving in a peculiar form the unqualified love Ruskin could not give himself except vicariously — she is in fact the vicarious object of his self-love, in particular of his own childhood as a timeless moment before love and duty, and the child's will and the parents' will, were irremediably divided. Possessing her Ruskin could repossess the perfect past in [233/234] his imperfect middle age, a joining that also reflects the doubleness with which he now began to view the world — a place on one hand of courage, combat, and duty; a place, on the other, of timeless and careless felicity, the domain, also, of the aesthetic. Yet Ruskin never possessed her; the more she was removed from him, the more he craved her. Here again he reenacted the past as a repetition compulsion: year after agonizing year he reexperienced the ancient connection of love and loss, passion and absence, fulfillment and denial, until at last Rose invaded his dreams and fantasies, to find a permanent home there.
Most generally, Rose is the embodiment of the unbroken heart, the love anciently thwarted and longed for, the life started over again. Actually, Ruskin constructed two benevolent female symbols: one powerful, protecting and maternal, visualized as a goddess or some other emblematic figure; the other a child inhabiting a permanent paradise of childhood. In either case she brings the unfallen past into the fallen present; the logos once located in nature now appears as a sexual other, but only after the fall has been recognized. She is desire and therefore the self made determinate. Rose enters Ruskin's books of the 1860s and 1870s and is inseparable from them as their radiating center. She is the center, that is, of a mythopoeic construction of the world that mediates between the energies of nature and the persistence of the desired, human other — a construction also of a language capable of interpreting all things as a continuous code of emblems. We turn now to Ruskin's theory of metaphor as it emerged in the context of his continuing interest in economics.
Coins and Words
have argued that Ruskinian economics requires metaphorical exposition, partly because wealth is itself a sign and partly because economic disorders are also disorders of the affections, a connection best expressed in multivalent symbols. The self is an economic system, the economy an affective system. The identity of an individual includes what that person is economically, by virtue of is or her labor, buying and spending, and participation in a social system.
The problem for such an economics would lie in the failure to recognize what social problems cannot be usefully conceived in terms of a collective psyche — to recognize, in short, the limits of Platonism. Munera Pulveris enacts the breakdown in Ruskin's attempt to synthesize empirical and metaphorical language. These essays, first published in Frazer's magazine, continue to explore the problem of money and power begun in Unto This Last. Ruskin's thought remains genuinely utopian as long as he conceives of the state and the person as healthy [234/235] organisms, but once he follows Plato by comparing social hierarchies to emotional hierarchies, he shows himself completely unable to countenance rational social conflict or even a genuine balance of social interests. The rich he magically metamorphoses into a class of wise people and so avoids questioning the absolute sanctity of property rights. The subservience of the poor he then justifies along Carlylean lines, going so far as to repeat Carlyle's foolish argument for slavery in terms suggesting that slaves are for him merely symbols of psychic forces that must be repressed, just as in Unto This Last the oppression of workers was associated with psychic forces that needed to be liberated. Symbolic thinking here becomes a betrayal into abstraction, not a triumph over it. These essays are not altogether fruitless, yet they dramatize the limits of Ruskin's interest in political speculation. Consequently, the excursions into classical and biblical literature, which in the earlier book consummated the argument at several points, here seems an escape from the argument into a subject for which Ruskin had as yet no adequate means of expression. In the chapter on "Coin-Keeping," for example, he distinguishes between coin keepers or merchants and storekeepers or spenders — between, that is to say, his father's mode of economic activity and his own — but he seems unable to push this essentially psychological distinction toward a useful economic generalization. Instead he breaks suddenly into a reading of mythical images in Dante and the Greeks, each of which he interprets as an allegory of economic activity: Dante's Idol of Riches sings enchantingly, "but her womb is loathsome"; for Plato the Sirens are "phantoms of divine desire; singing . . . on the circles of the distaff of Necessity." Circe is the power of "frank, and full vital pleasure, which, if governed and watched, nourishes men" and "pure Animal life"; Scylla and Charybdis represent the "betraying demons" associated with "getting and spending"; and so forth (XVII, 212-213, 215). Again, in the following chapter, Ruskin interrupts his discussion of wise commerce to comment on Portia, whose speech on mercy he associates with the word "charity" and its many connotations.
The first of these excursions Ruskin prefaces with a well-known observation: "It is a strange habit of wise humanity to speak in enigmas only, so that the highest truths and usefullest laws must be hunted for through whole picture-galleries of dreams, which to the vulgar seem dreams only." What follows, he wrote in a late note, was itself at first a footnote but was "of more value than any other part of the book, so I have put it into the main text" (XVII, 208). Its importance is not at first evident, since the lessons Ruskin deduces from his interpretations are commonplace pieties. The point, rather, seems to lie in the linkage of vehicle and tenor: the images are generally sexual, the meanings economic (the word "charity" unites both realms). Specifically, the two [235/236] excursions appear to convert sexual ambivalence into a more tolerable form, first by associating it with true and false uses (of wealth and affection), then by splitting the female figure into the loathsome and unfulfilling on one hand and the pure and nourishing on the other. But throughout the book these two subjects — sexual and material economics — seem as disjoined as the two discourses Ruskin adopts to discuss them. The effect is rather like breaking through a surface of uncertain and frustrated argument into a freer, brightly colored space, a picture gallery of dreams. Many readers have found this disjunction to be a symptom of mental instability, but probably it is more useful to see it as a struggle toward a new language and an expanded region for that language. In the books that followed, Ruskin regained control over that language through two distinct genres: lectures like "Traffic" and "Of Kings' Treasuries," in which imagery once again adequately embodies an argument about social policy, and books like The Ethics of the Dust and The Queen of the Air, which take as their subject the development of myth.
The excursions, then, are indeed the most important parts of Munera Pulveris, not because of what they assert but because of the mythopoeic method they try to clarify. They give us the chance to pause and survey in general terms Ruskin's new way of reading the world as myth, which centers on a unit of meaning that is at once visual and verbal.
Throughout his volumes on art, Ruskin reads nature either as a set of organic unities or as a pattern of interconnections. These techniques develop into a polarity: on one hand, a theory of inspiration which, so to speak, shatters the ordinary metonymic relations among things and re-fuses them as symbols; on the other, a critical technique of reading surface features as though they were a "kind of maze or entanglement" (X, 163). The two procedures merge in a schema that we might call the Ruskinian unit of meaning. This unit is the concentration of related meanings and energies at a single point, which is not absolutely distinguishable from other points but acts as an emotional focus for interconnections that expand indefinitely throughout the human and natural world. Our fullest example so far is Dante's eagle, which concentrates words and images into a system of associations (the eagle of empire, the Holy Ghost, the light of the eye, society as an organism, and so forth, are the images; judge, lex, lego, rex, royal, and so forth, are the words); but word chains and image chains easily interact like cells exchanging genetic material, since all words are at bottom concrete (thus: holy/ helping, Holy Ghost, eagle, "healing in its wings"). Ruskin's innovation in this book is to treat verbal definitions exactly as he had treated visual phenomena before in an attempt to provide meanings that are organically related to real spiritual forces rather than the abstract definitions favored by empiricists. As Elizabeth Helsinger has ably shown, [236/237] Ruskin derived his theory of etymology from contemporary philology, particularly Richard Trench's Study of Words (Helsinger, 255ff), but of course the roots of that theory lie also in Carlyle and, before Carlyle, in the Coleridgean theory of symbol and myth.
Ruskin's clearest statement of procedure appears in a note to Munera Pulveris, added in 1871 as an addendum to his allegorical discussion of Charity: "The derivation of words is like that of rivers; there is one real source, usually small, unlikely, and difficult to find, far up among the hills; then, as the word flows on and comes into service, it takes in the force of other words from other sources, and becomes quite another word . . ., a word as it were of many waters, sometimes both sweet and bitter" (XVII, 292). The etymology of "charity" follows in the form of a miniature narrative: the word began with the Greek charis ("grace," "divine gift"), then became confused with the Latin carus, and finally was weakened by modern sanctimoniousness to a form of almsgiving that implies not "grace" but "disgrace" in the receiver. And yet, Ruskin concludes, "the political economy of a great state makes both giving and receiving graceful"; and the "blessedness" of the giver in the Christian aphorism promises the "bestowal upon us of that sweet and better nature, which does not mortify itself in giving" (XVII, 293). Words, then, like architecture, bear the moral record of a civilization, but must be periodically purged of excrescences so that the original meaning may stand forth as a genuine reinterpretation — like doctrine in Newman's essay on development or like clothes in Carlyle's theory of historical institutions or indeed like the logos in any idealist philosophy that attempts to breach the contradiction between constancy and change. For Ruskin "divine gift" is the "true source" or Idea of Charity, which, rightly reinterpreted as true reciprocity of exchange, would revolutionize English economic life.
Ruskinian philology lets us see in more general terms the quarrel over definitions in "Ad Valorem." Empiricist definitions, we recall, are simply the customary acceptation of words: the terms of economic science refer only to observable instances, and generalizations are simply ways of classifying observable instances. Descriptive or empirical language is therefore analogous to money as a medium of exchange because money is a device for systematizing the exchange of labor and goods, just as empirical generalizations are ways of marshaling data into categories useful for specific purposes. But for Ruskin the real meaning may vary indefinitely from customary usage, just as the real meaning or "sign" of a given body of wealth may vary from its conventionally assigned monetary value. The key words of Ruskin's moral [237/238] science, then, are moral terms, referring to qualities or forces rather than to the observable instances that manifest them more or less adequately. In this sense his terms are analogous to money as a store of value — a character of money that he stresses strongly. As a store of value, money concentrates labor into tangible form, creates social relationships, signifies indebtedness, and pledges future labor. More precisely, Ruskinian words are like gold coins, as they are for Trench, because they concentrate value historically insofar as one may read into them the record of their original significance, their subsequent usage, and their debasement. Words unite many waters, stamping with a dye the roar and flux of temporal experience. In words, as in precious coins, the numinous becomes numismatic.
Where do the real entities to which moral terms refer exist? They exist, first of all, as natural or physiological forces that are embodied in specific instances, just as a landscape painter embodies the energies of nature in concrete representations. We have seen already that Ruskin bases his key economic terms (value, wealth, and life) in physiological well-being; in his reading of art and literature, analogously, power, purity, heat, light, and life itself represent virtues. More accurately, they are virtues, containing physical and spiritual meaning together. It follows that empiricist terms, which merely abstract points of resemblance from classes of data, are inadequate to a true moral science since moral ideas must be felt, not observed. Ruskinian language, then, is a form of physiological idealism, a continuous struggle to join subject and object in every act of conception. The treatment of "value" in Unto This Last is a good example. In its primary signification the word denotes things. Food, water, and light, clean rooms and a warm hearth, pictures, the thrust and curl of the garden vine, are things that "avail towards life"; but in its secondary meaning (which is its primary etymological meaning) of "valor," "value" denotes a subjective state, an experience of fullness, self-possession, and command of resources. Wealth-life proves to be not only a prime instance of the union of subject and object (the phrase joins both in hieroglyphic juxtaposition) but the paradigmatic instance of it. Truly to possess things is to know things in their human aspect and to know the self as substantial, as infinitely capable of incorporating the world into a unity greater than the individual ego with its separate history. Wealth-life or true possession is also the condition of all knowledge. The analogous term for Coleridge is Reason, except that what for Coleridge is impassioned thinking becomes for Ruskin a physico-spiritual condition, grounded in the subjective experience of good health and "well"-being.
Ruskin expresses this epistemological priority through the fiction of primary inspiration, which he takes to be the ultimate origin of moral meaning. But in moments of inspired apprehension, physico-spiritual [238/239] forces appear as personifications. The entities to which moral terms refer exist, then, not only in the system of nature but also in groups of religious and mythological symbols that develop historically but may be read as a synchronous system that is in effect the legacy of human culture. The visionary eye recognizes the universe as animate and moral categories as personal, as groups of life energies, so to speak, so that to understand a virtue we must "stamp" its power with a human shape. In the case of Wisdom, if we contemplate rightly the lady in Proverbs, we will "spin out" from her numerous aspects of the primary idea as we would trace the associated meanings of a word, noticing, for example, her wealth, the products of her right and left hands, her womanliness, and so on. In Christian thought, of course, that paradigm is most clearly knowable through the Incarnation. According to The Stones of Venice, the early Christians did not need either to categorize or to define moral ideas, and for a very good reason:
They never cared to expound the nature of this or that virtue; for they knew that the believer who had Christ had all. Did he need fortitude? Christ was his rock: Equity? Christ was his righteousness: Holiness? Christ was his sanctification: Liberty? Christ was his redemption: Temperance? Christ was his ruler: Wisdom? Christ was his light: Truthfulness? Christ was the truth: Charity? Christ was love. [X, 368]
In Unto This Last Ruskin implicitly develops this point by using word associations to stress the divine elements of virtues, many of which have been secularized by use: for example, holiness/helpfulness (embodied in the Holy Ghost), provident/Providence, saving/salvation (through Christ's sacrifice), wisdom (through Solomon and other figures typical of Christ's rulership), and finally Life itself (Christ being the lord of Life as Satan, the paradigm of all the vices, is ruler over death). Thus Ruskin irradiates economy activity with the divine.6
Because Ruskin valorizes the "original" meanings of words that arise from visionary apprehension, etymology is ontology and therefore a criticism of modern life, providing the key for distinguishing true meanings from accrued false ones. For Carlyle (as for Shelley) words are polysemous in a relationship of meanings that is ultimately metaphorical. "An unmetaphorical style you shall in vain seek for," he writes in Sartor Resartus: "Is not your very Attention a Stretching-to?" (p.54.) But [239/240] for Ruskin the historical relationships of meaning in a word are not necessarily a relationship of primary concreteness to secondary abstraction. We need, for example, to recognize the "divine gift" in "charity," the "well" in "wealth," the "help" in "holy" and the "valor" in "valuable," but the substituted terms are not obviously more concrete than the concepts they redefine. They seem so, however, because the accepted or "tarnished" terms were in danger of becoming technical abstractions for the clergy and the economist. In Ruskin's hands, definition becomes, like preaching, an enhancement or reinterpretation of an original inscription, itself related to other inscriptions in ways complex enough to generate new combinations of thought. Creative definition allows us to envision the possible, not just to see the actual, as the pecus of Carlyle's grazier becomes the seed of the Rothschilds and the English national debt. Etymology combines history and prophecy.
Moral terms, then, concentrate the vague flux of historical experience into discrete and portable units — magic emblems that when analyzed yield portions of the infinitely braided structure of the world. From this point of view, the imperfectly realized project of Munera Pulveris comes clearer. The true money or "gifts of the dust" in that book are verbal emblems; the mythological digressions are abrupt transitions from one form of meaning to another — from the present, empiricist stage of meaning (when words simply describe observable instances and received values) to an original, metaphoric stage, when language expresses the union of subject and object. The late addendum on Charity, which joins the idea of charity with the image of an original source, acts as a miniature myth in addition to being an ontological example, since the stream image suggests how charity itself and the virtues in general are passed down from a divine source, like the meanings of words. By subsuming ideas of loving and giving under the Greek charis, Ruskin summarizes at a stroke his complex notion of original energy that takes the twin aspects of wealth and life, material abundance and erotic exuberance (and permits Ruskin to read sexual imagery from the classics as allegories of economics). Just as succinctly, it embodies the passionate logocentrism that dominates his thinking from the beginning of his career to the end — the division of experience into the fullness of divine presence and the foulness of divine withdrawal. Every word is at first the Word incarnate. For Ruskin the recapture of the Word is also the recapture of original energy at its source — a charismatic father, like Turner, capable of investing him with the earnest fire of passion and life, not a merchant-father caught in a struggle of almsgiving, implying disgrace in the receiver.
In 1840 Ruskin had planned a "new system of ethics in the form of a corrected and amplified Aristotle" (X, 374n). That intention never developed into a system at all but rather became a spiritual physiology, a [240/241] charismatic conception of the moral life. His leaps in Munera Pulverzs from the perplexities of economic theory into the world of religious myth are but examples of a larger leap, from the domain of practical ethical difficulties into a Platonic realm of powers and virtues that when absorbed would create the inward disposition sufficient for moral perfection. In many respects his idealism makes him a retrogressive figure in the history of moral ideas, a theorist who needed to preserve the logos in forms of social and aesthetic order, taking symbols for realities, and investing with magical powers books and pictures and phrases. But in other ways the late writings are the most modern of all — in their very discordances, their almost self-confessed failure to cohere. After 1860 the unities of Ruskin's thought, centering on well-defined subjects explored in large volumes, appear to dissolve into heterogeneous concerns. More than before, he worked on many projects at once, gathering lectures, articles, and public letters together into books that seem fragments of a single, indefinitely evolving opus rather than complete works in themselves. The subject of that opus is myth, which, as Hunt observes, is the unifying center of Ruskin's otherwise aimless and harried ventures. In theory at least, myth is the code capable of describing all things in terms of a natural and cultural system and transforming them into emblems. But in the very act of mythopoeia, Ruskin seems to deny the possibility of coherence by gestures of willed playfulness that consort oddly with his dogmatic insistences. This serious play is a new mode in Ruskin's work to which we now turn.
Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 7 November 2012