ven as a middle-aged adult, John Ruskin referred to Carlyle as his "master," writing almost daily letters to "Papa" Carlyle with a reverence he had never felt for his own father.l Late in life, in an appendix to Modern Painters entitled "Plagiarism" Ruskin recorded his great intellectual debt to Carlyle: "I read [Carlyle] so constantly," he confessed, "that, without wilfully setting myself to imitate him, I find myself perpetually falling inro his modes of expression" (5.427). Carlyle may have been Ruskin's intellectual master, and indeed John Rosenberg has traced the literary debt that political works like Unto This Last and Munera Pulveris owe to Past and Present.3 But in Praeterita the Carylean modes of expression are noticeably absent—as are the modes of interpretation that Carlyle applied to his personal experience in Sartor Resartus.
Perhaps the difference between the two autobiographers was one of experience. Unlike Carlyle, John Ruskin had no single, dramatic conversion to record, only a gradual loss of faith and a quiet decision in 1858 that he would "put away" his evangelical beliefs, "to be debated of no more" (III.i.23). But perhaps the difference is more fundamentally one of intention. Had he desired, Ruskin might have transformed this religious falling away into a variant of the spiritual autobiography—not into a revision of the form like Carlyle's, but into a secular account of vocational conversion or into a parodic inversion of the traditional spiritual narrative, one taking his rejection of [60/61] evangelical faith as its central incident. He might have used, in other words, the conventional forms of the spiritual autobiography for different, but still personal, ends.
When Ruskin began Praeterita, however, he seems to have had little desire to work with the conventions of a genre he found emotionally and intellectually distasteful. As his 1845 criticism of Bunyan's Grace Abounding suggests, he considered much spiritual autobiography to be nothing more than "a particular phase of indigestion, coupled with a good imagination and a bad conscience," and if his language forty years later was less extreme, it is still clear from the preface to Praeterita that he found intensive concentration on "the relations of the Deity to his own little self" to be a "painful" and "morbid" enterprise (4.349n4). Indeed, the prefatory comments suggest that he intended to take a radically different approach to autobiography, one that avoided the dominant generic tradition and the religious modes of introspection and interpretation characteristic of it. Praeterita was to be a collection of "sketches of effort and incident," an informal assemblage of memories written "frankly, garrulously, and at ease."6 The principle for selecting the memories (if memory could be subjected to principle at all) was to be a highly personal application of dulce et utile. "I have written," Ruskin states, "of what it gives me joy to remember at any length I like—sometimes very carefully of what I think it may be useful for others to know; and passing in total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing, and which the reader would find no help in the account of."
However congenial its tone, this preface firmly rejects the traditional generic demands of the spiritual autobiography. The emphasis upon incidents "it gives me joy to remember" avoids the introspective and often painful method of the genre; the insistence on "total silence" about matters that yield "no pleasure in reviewing" excludes many of the episodes crucial to the form, those which recall the autobiographer erring and then struggling to regain his way; and the decision to write of individual incidents "at any length I like" resists the conventional proportions of the genre, which dictate that narration should occur for the sake of interpretation and interpretation continue until providential design has been discovered and accepted. [61/62] In general, the preface denies the hermeneutic imperative of autobiographical writing—the imperative that had motivated Bunyan to search repeatedly through the Old and New Testaments for a biblical type who, like himself, had "sinned grievously" yet been forgiven, and that motivated Victorian autobiographers like Carlyle, when they found typology inadequate as a method, either to revitalize it or search for hermeneutic alternatives.
Praeterita attempts neither to revitalize nor to substitute. Rather, Ruskin attempts to dissociate his work from the tradition of English autobiography and from its distinctive hermeneutic method. Dissociation from a literary tradition is no simple matter, and much of the literary (as opposed to biographical) interest of Praeterita lies in the distance between intention and achievement. For, Ruskin's statements to the contrary, the autobiography is not simply a collection of pleasant sketches, nor is it a memoir of external events and forces— "of what my life has taught me, or made of me," as he puts it in one version of the preface.7 It is a record of Ruskin^s personal struggle with evangelical modes of thought and thus an example of a major literary writer's struggle with generic conventions and the hermeneutic issues that autobiography as a genre entails. As such, Praeterita is one of the most significant instances of the self-conscious literary autobiography in the Victorian period.
For Ruskin, the hermeneutic issues were difficult to avoid. The methods of interpretation that spiritual autobiographers had appropriated and then modified from biblical typology had been fundamental to his own religious training and later to the development of his aesthetic and critical theories. As a child, he had learned biblical typology from the sermons of the Reverend Henry Melvill, dutifully writing on Sunday afternoons abstracts of the sermons he had heard on Sunday mornings (35.72). As a young author, he had adapted typological principles for his work in Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, using them, as George P. Landow has explained, not only to defend the achievement of Turner and "convince Evangelicals to build costly Gothic houses of worship," but more significantly, to develop his "theories of imagination and imaginative conception of truth" and his "notion of the artist-poet as prophet."9 Naturally, then, Ruskin [62/63] might have turned to typological methods of self-interpretation in his autobiography. Typology had been part of his past experience as well as of his interpretive practice; it might have provided both substance and method for Praeterita. Ruskin chose, however, the more difficult task of generic dissociation, a choice which reflects his increasingly complex understanding of hermeneutic issues.
The formal difficulties that this choice poses become apparent, in microcosm, in the second half of the preface. There, as Ruskin explains the occasion for publishing the first volume (and just titter he denies the traditional demands of autobiography), he succumbs to conventions of the genre he has just rejected:
I write these few prefatory words on my father's birthday, in what was once my nursery in his old house... .What would otherwise in the following pages have been little more than an old man's recreation in gathering visionary flowers in Holds of youth, has taken, as I wrote, the nobler aspect of a dutiful offering at the grave of parents who trained my childhood to all the good it could attain, and whose memory makes declining life cheerful in the hope of being soon again with them.
A life trained "to all the good it could attain" suggests the ideological arrangement of episodes conventional in spiritual autobiography, whether the force guiding the arrangement be God or God acting through his parents. The final "hope of being soon again with them" repeats the traditional closure of the spiritual narrative, with its vision of future bliss, like Bunyan's vision of the milk and honey beyond this wilderness. If the preface has no religious conversion to offer, there is a metaphorical substitute: the conversion of sensual, mortal flowers into an everlasting tribute to his parents. Such language testifies to the power of generic precedent over private desire.
Yet even as Ruskin succumbs, he manages a dissociation from the autobiography's hermeneutic mode. It is difficult to identify, for example, the agent of the conversion. Ruskin says that "a delight in visionary flowers" has "taken on a 'nobler aspect," but he does not say from what or from whom. The metaphor suggests that Praeterita as transformed naturally into a filial tribute—as if interpretations [63/64] grow on trees or in fields. There is no acknowledgment of the autobiographer's conscious arrangement of narrative or of any herme' neutic acr, nor is there acknowledgment of a system ofhermeneutics, biblical or otherwise, within which such arrangements and acts occur. Moreover, the conversion is presented within (or as) a metaphor. The effect is to efface its theological origin and the basis upon which the arrangement of much autobiography, including Ruskin's own, depends. Bunyan had been able to arrange his life "to all the good it could attain" because he applied the patterns of biblical typology: he may have bemoaned periods of bondage in Egypt and wandering in the wilderness, it is true, but he knew also that the biblical types promised redemption and a final entry into Canaan. Ruskin's language dissociates Praeterita from these origins.10 This choice is made despite the fact that his parents had "trained" their son's life "to all the good it could attain" by applying biblical types—by devoting him ro God's service before he was born, by forcing him "to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart," by giving him Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress to read in order "to make an evangelical clergyman of [him]" (I.I.I).
The fact is, the only dutiful offering Ruskin could have given his parents was a full-fledged spiritual autobiography. And therein lies the source of Ruskin's difficulty as autobiographer and the conflict within the preface. Pur biographically, the conflict was one between a need to satisfy his parent's expectations and a desire to write his own form of autobiography. Put generically, it was one between a decision to avoid the literary tradition of spiritual autobiography and a seemingly inevitable submission, in the act of writing, to conventions of the genre. The personal and generic were not separate issues. Ruskin faced a powerful alignment of parental with generic authority.
It is one of the ironies of literary history that modern readers have aligned themselves with Ruskin's parents, identifying in Praeterita those narrative patterns that place it within the tradition of spiritual autobiography. Pierre Fontenay unwittingly started the critical trend when he identified patterns of quest, purifying trial, and lost Edens regained in "The Simplon" chapter; then, George P. Landow pointed out the numerous Paradises Lost and Pisgah Visions in the work, [64/65] linking them to the practice of biblical typology; and Elizabeth Helsinger discussed the repetition of the emblematic scenes of the book's beginning, scenes that allude to or reproduce Ruskin's infant paradise and that culminate in the final passage of "Joanna's Care," with its "Elysian walks withJoanie, and Paradisiacal with Rosie." Most recently, the critical trend has been continued by Heather Henderson, who suggests that the "Rome" and "Cumae" chapters use 'the Exodus account to describe a period of physical and spiritual crisis and re-emergence," and by Avrom Fleishman, who argues that Praeterita is dominated by "figures of the garden and the Fall."11 Summing up the critical tradition, Fleishman concludes that "what appears to be locally significant motif and metaphor achieves a wider resonance when related to the fund of biblical language and iconography, which writers of Ruskin's culture assimilated early and harbored long" (175)12
These biblical patterns—of lost Edens, wilderness wanderings, and paradises regained—are certainly present in Praeterita, and they represent common biblical types that autobiographers have used to understand their experience. Yet in Ruskin's hands, this "fund of biblical language and iconography," as Fleishman calls it, creates as much dissonance from, as resonance with the tradition. Praeterita challenges the hermeneutic imperative of autobiography and its traditional hermeneutic mode.
The personal motives for this challenge appear early in Praeterita. In the first paragraph of "The Springs of Wandel," Ruskin denies that evangelical writers and their practices had any lasting effect upon the course of his life, even though his parents intended to model his life after biblical patterns, both those traditionally recognized as Old Testament figurae and those transmitted through the popular forms of the spiritual autobiography. John James and Margaret Ruskin may have allowed their son to read Walter Scott's novels and Pope's translation of the Iliad on weekdays, but "on Sunday their effect was tempered by Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim's Progress'—those two classics of spiritual bondage, struggle, and redemption. To the young boy, the parental strategy was clear: "my mother [had] it deeply in her heart to make an evangelical clergyman of me" (I.i. 1). [65/66] Ruskin insists that the two books were about as palatable as the cold mutton his evangelical aunt served him for Sunday dinner. But his wit in this opening passage, the wit of the retrospective autobiographer, betrays a real anxiety. These spiritual classics threaten to shape his life in a more insidious way. Despite the fact that he has not become an evangelical clergyman and has even renounced his evangelical faith, the books continue to influence the way he recollects his past; they threaten now to predetermine the design of his autobiography.
The opening of "The Springs of Wandel" sounds the dissonance that resounds throughout the book. Later in the chapter, Ruskin recalls that his mother had solemnly devoted him to God before he was born, "in imitation of Hannah." Very good women," he comments, once again attempting to deflect parental influence with wit, "are remarkably apt to make away with their children prematurely, in this manner" (35.19). Imitation of Old Testament types defines precisely what Ruskin rejected in his life and resists still as autobiographer. His wit turns on the disparity of a good woman committing a bad deed and provides him with a seemingly gentle way of abnegating his mother's typological habits. But the effect is not gentle at all. The point is that typological thinking results in death— death first to the child, for it takes away his ability to live his life as he chooses, but death also to the autobiographer, for typological patterns prematurely make away with his life, the life that he as author should have within his power to create.
Claudette Kemper Columbus has written tellingly of Praeterita as a work in which the recurrent pattern is one of "negation of any positive value" and of its silences as a revelation of Ruskin's "repressive ways of not coming alive." She wonders, as many readers have, about Ruskin's awareness of his repression and especially about his self-consciousness in Praeterita of his depiction of that repression.13 In terms of modern psychoanalytic theory, Ruskin was of course unaware of what he revealed. In theological and literary terms, however, Ruskin was acute. The comment about pious mothers making away with their sons suggests that he understood the theological source of the repression, as well as its literary consequences. [66/67]
Ruskin's acuteness reveals itself in more than witty exposures of parental maneuvers. It appears in direct criticism of typology as an interpretive mode, whether for autobiography or such didactic forms as the sermon and spiritual "progress." Commenting in "Christ Church Choir" on his spiritual state while at Oxford, Ruskin notes that it "had never entered into [his] head to doubt a word of the Bible," although he realized that "its words were to be understood otherwise" than as he had been taught:
[Tlhe more I believed [the Bible], the less it did me any good. It was all very well for Abraham to do what angels bid him,—so would I if any angels bid me.... Also, though I felt myself somehow called to imitate Christian in the Pilgrim's Progress, I could'nt see that either Billiter Street and the Tower Wharf, where my father had his cellars, or the cherry-blossomed garden at Herne Hill, where my mother potted her flowers, could be places I was bound to fly from as the City of Destruction. Without much reasoning on the matter, I had virtually concluded from my general Bible reading that, never having meant or done any harm that I knew of, I could not be in danger of hell. [35.216-17]
As these comments imply, young Ruskin understood perfectly well the interpretive assumptions of the evangelical religion in which he had been raised. The Bible was first to be read literally for the truth it contained. Then, the Old Testament was to be read typologically and us lessons applied correlatively to events in contemporary life. Moreover, spiritual allegories like The Pilgrim's Progress were to be read asmodels for Christian behavior and their narratives transposed onto the everyday activities of the individual believer.
If Ruskin understood all this, his comments also suggest why and how he resisted. He not so much ignores the literal truth of the Bible (as he claims he did), as he declares it irrelevant to his own situation: angels no longer visit men, and Christ no longer walks the earth. Ruskin's literalmindedness involves a fine irony that nicely underlines the typological applicability of the biblical text. Since evangelcals argued that typology (unlike allegory) proceeded from and, [67/68] indeed, depended upon the literal meaning of the Bible, typology could not legitimately provide a means of Self-interpretation for Ruskin, whose life failed to supply the necessary data of experience at the literal level. In effect, Ruskin separates one tenet of typological henneneutics from the other, and here makes literal truth exclude typological application.
Such tactics, with their claims of disregard and irrelevance, are similar to those of the preface, and they are as problematic in the text itself as there. Even if Ruskin had successfully ignored biblical and didactic texts as a boy, he could not ignore rhem as an autobiographer, for typology supplied the episodic structure, narrative patterns, and interpretive framework of the genre as Ruskin and the Victorians knew it. In the end, Ruskin finally succumbed to parental and generic pressure. But he did so only after he had resisted at every important point, revising the generic materials and using that resonant "fund of biblical language and iconography to undo the typological basis upon which the spiritual autobiography rests.14
f Ruskin attempts to resist the forms of spiritual autobiography in Praeterita and signals his intention in the preface and early chapters, be also employs more comprehensive strategies to avoid or resist the traditional forms, the first of which is his treatment of the autobiographical episode. As we saw earlier, the conventional structure of the episode, one developed by Bunyan in Grace Abounding and revitalized by Carlyle in Sartor Resartus, originated in the practice of biblical hermeneutics. It placed an unremitting emphasis upon interpretation, each episode beginning with narration as a prelude to selfconscious and systematic interpretation.
For Ruskin, the strongest form of resistance to this conventional Structure would have been a refusal to interpret at all—or, given the impossibility ot such an extreme, a refusal to interpret systematically. In a sense, Ruskin came close to the extreme. As he wrote the initial draft of Praeterita he carried out the plan of the preface, "speaking of what it gives me joy to remember at any length I like" and "passing in [68/69] total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing." He composed the draft as daily entries in his diary for 1885, each day recalling some segment of his past, the next day continuing that segment or beginning another as he chose. Only later did he combine the diary segments and add the chapter endings so famous for their "felt' summarizing effect. The original entries, what now comprises volume I and the first four chapters of volume II, were as free from interpretive summary as any autobiographical account can be.
In the final version of Praeterita, Ruskin chose a form of resistance less extreme. For most episodes, at least in volumes I and II, Ruskin offers some sort of interpretation, whether in terms of his vocational development or of his social or emotional state. His interpretations, however, avoid typological hermeneutics—as, indeed, they resist any hermeneutic mode that presents itself as systematic and authoritative. We can see this avoidance in three key episodes, all of them suggestive of the direction in which Ruskin revises the episodic structure, each of them dissociating Praeterita further and further from any specifically biblical frame of reference.
In the Schaffhausen segment of Volume I, for instance, Ruskin describes a series of scenes: his first dreamy midnight entry into the medieval city, his delight the next morning in the quaint houses with their "bow-windows projecting into the clean streets," and then his view of the countryside from "high above the Rhine"—"Infinitely beyond all that we had ever thought or dreamed,—the seen walls of Lost Eden could not have been more beautiful" (II.vi. 132—34). Although the description includes an allusion to Eden, it is given for the record, for the clarity of the description itself. This allusion does not introduce a section of typological interpretation; instead, the comments that follow focus on the facts of this world, not the possibilities of the next.
Ruskin's interest in the episode is overtly historical. How could he have found delight in the mountains and their inhabitants, he wonders, when less than a century before, "no child would have been born to care for mountains, or for the men that lived among them, in that way" (II.vi. 134)? His speculations cite the influence of Rousseau and Scott upon the modern consciousness, upon modern man's love of [69/70] nature and "all sorts and conditions of men." Implicitly, they deny the possibility of discovering spiritual meaning in nature—at least in the nineteenth century. Centuries ago, Ruskin notes, St. Bernard of La Fontaine saw "above Mont Blanc the Madonna" and St. Bernard of Talloires, "not the Lake ofAnnecy, but the dead between Marrigny and Aosta" (11.vi. 134). In the Alps, Ruskin sees only what a nineteenth-century man can see: "snow" and "their humanity." His explanation of why he can see only these things binds the autobiographical episode to historical circumstance, not to a realm of spiritual meaning which is the traditional goal of biblical hermeneutics.
If in the Schaffhausen episode Ruskin interprets within a purely historical context, in the Abbeville segment (I.ix) he again reports a natural and historical scene without reference to a biblical or transcendent realm. The segment includes a brief history of the town, followed by a description of its social organization in 1600 and then in 1835, the year he first visited. In Ruskin's analysis, Abbeville represents "the preface and interpretation of Rouen"—by which he means that there he first saw "art,.. .religion, and present human life" existing "in perfect harmony," just as he would later observe them working together in Rouen. He also means that in Abbeville he found the praxis of his later aesthetic and critical theories, there embodied in the daily activity of the town, with its Gothic churches, bustling commercial square, quiet courtyards and "richly trellised" gardens in family dwellings.
As in the Schaffhausen episode, Ruskin extracts meaning from this scene, and one might say that this very extraction betrays the characteristic hermeneuric impulse of the genre. For Ruskin, however, meaning is not found within a typological framework. His interpretation includes a religious component, but religion offers no special key to understanding; rather, it is an ordinary, unprivileged mode: 'Tor here 1 saw that art (of its local kind), religion, and present human life, were yet in perfect harmony. There were no dead six days and dismal seventh in those sculptured churches" (II. ix. 181). Moreover, as Ruskin articulates this meaning, he does so within a narrative framework that avoids biblical patterns. Abbeville is another stage of an earthly journey, not of an exodus. It is preface to Rouen, not to a celestial city. [70/71]
(I Like other episodes in the first half of Praeterita, the Schaffhausen and Abbeville passages reverse the traditional method of interpreting experience. Instead of using a biblical framework to discover meaning in nature or human events, Ruskin speaks only "of what he had seen, and known" (I.viii. 173), thereby giving priority to his own experience and judging even the Scriptures by the witness of historical fact. Such a reversal of priorities, as Hans Frei has argued, is primary evidence for the demise of biblical typology as a viable hermeneuric system (3-8). By the nineteenth century, Frei explains, "the real events of history" began to constitute "an autonomous temporal framework of their own": "Instead of rendering them accessible, the [biblical) narratives, heretofore indispensible as a means of access to the events^ now simply verify them, thus affirming their autonomy and the fact thai they are in principle accessible through any kind of description than can manage to be accurate either predictively or after the event" (4-5).
That the meaning of experience is accessible through channels other than the biblical text is nowhere more subtly illustrated than ia the Fontainebleau episode (2.iv). On the face of it, the episode belies any reversal of interpretive method or conventional structure, for it begins with a brief narrative that ends in a biblical allusion. After a languorous walk along a cartroad, Ruskin recalls that he stopped to rest among some young trees, "and the branches against the blue sky began to interest me, motionless as the branches of a tree of Jesse on a painted window" (11.75). The allusion seems to promise an interpretation that will connect the iconographical tree with the natural trees—perhaps one that, as in Hopkins' poem "The Windhover" (text) reveals figurations of Christ in all natural objects. The narrative avoids such interpretive speculation, however, and continues with an account of Ruskin's drawing of a "small aspen tree against the blue sky" and his discovery of the natural composition of the branches, "by finer laws than any known of men." Finally, the episode closes, now using a biblical text to interpret the experience: "He hath made everything beautiful, in his time' became for me thenceforth the interpretation of the bond between the human mind and all visible things; and I returned along the wood-road feeling it had led me far" (II.iv.77). [71/72]
The parts of this episode repeat those traditional in the spiritual autobiography: an event, a moment of insight, an illuminating text. The arrangement, moreover, with its frame of biblical allusions, gives the appearance an episode that follows the conventional pattern. But Ruskin has altered the pattern, just as he lias done in the more obvious examples of Schaffhausen and Abbevilk. At Fountainebleau, the biblical text is not the key to his self-understanding, nor is it the authority upon which his interpretation depends. What is most crucial at Fountainebleau is the act of drawing itself: as Ruskin traces the lines of the aspen trees, "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 laws finer than any known of men" (II.iv.77). The biblical quotation that closes the episode is an afterthought; it merely illustrates an interpretation that Ruskin has already conceived through his own experience and observation.
In this sense, the Fountainebleau episode reverses the formula. The biblical text is interpreted by experience, not vice versa. Viewed historically, this reversal in the form of the autobiographical episode from Bunyan to Ruskin parallels the shift in biblical hermeneutks from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Like Ruskin, the rationalist and mythological critics who succeeded the older typologists found their authority not in divine revelation, but in what reason and experience taught. To explain Praeterita using Frei's argument that the biblical narratives, once "indispensible as a means of access to [historical] events, now simply verify them," we might say that Ruskin treats biblical texts not as a means of access to his life, but merely as a verification of his interpretation. If it happens, as in this episode, that the Bible contains the appropriate description, that fact might be evidence of providential design. But it might also be evidence of authorial creation—or of neither or both. Ruskin's text makes no judgment on the matter.17
ne can explain Ruskin's treatment of the autobiographical episode [72/73] historically, as I have done, as evidence of the eclipse of biblical narrative. Ruskin himself, however, understood his authorial stance as the result of a literary influence—specifically, a Byronic one. Ruskin was peculiarly preoccupied with Byron as he composed the first volume of Praeterita. In the draft of the autobiography, he included long segments about his youthful decision to take Byron 'as his master in verse, just as Turner was in colour"; about his adolescent attempts at verse writing, much of it in a Byronic mode; and about a poetic diary, written during a Swiss journey in 1835 and done "in style of Don Juan, artfully combined with that of Childe Harold."18 The preoccupation has an obvious personal source: years before, his father had desired that he should become a poet like Byron, "only pious," and that desire must have been on his mind as he wrote the account of his early years and then the prefatory tribute to the parents who had "trained [his] childhood to all the good it could attain."19
Little of this Byronic material survives in Praeterita. Ruskin concluded the diary draft on 21 April 1885 with an analysis of his lack of poetic gifts and with a realization that he "never could be Rubens, or Roubilliac, or even (by this time I knew so much) Byron."20 Rereading his diaries and thinking again about his poetic failures seem to have brought on depression: in his diary on 22 March 1885 he notes, "I desperately sad, after two days of headache, and sorting and destroying"; on 4 April 1885, "Tore up some old diary—pas[sed] a bad night." Still, the Byronic influence had been significant in his formative years. And the need to acknowledge Byron's influence coincided with a more immediate need to explain—whether to his parents, himself, or his readers—his motives in avoiding the traditional forms of autobiography.
This explanation is embedded, I believe, in the discussion of Byron's "essential qualities" (l.viii)—so deeply embedded, in fact, that it is easy to miss Ruskin's intention. At some point in 1885, Ruskin substituted the "Vester, Camenae" chapter for the Byronic segment of his life, in it providing an analysis of Byron's literary achievement rather than the account of his own poetic failure that appears in the draft.21 The "essential qualities" that he associates with Byron are creditable enough: sense, learning, effect, imagination, [73/74] passion, and invention.22 But what is significant is less the Catalogue oi Byronic traits than Ruskin's identification of other texts that lack these "essential qualities."
The texts Ruskin cites are "the stories of Pallas and Venus, of Achilles and Æneas, of Elijah and St. John." Such classical and biblical texts, indeed "the whole world as it was described to me either by poetry or theology," he dismisses as "shadowy and impossible" (I.viii. 172), whereas he praises Byron as a poet "who spoke only of what he had seen, and known; and spoke without exaggeration, without mystery, without enmity, and without mercy." Byron "felt the facts, and discerned the natures with accurate justice." When Byron reports on man or nature, Ruskin insists, he tells no more than what "he was and knew": not "the Alps voided their rheum on the valleys," but "the glacier's cold and restless mass moved onward day by day" (I.viii.173)
That Ruskin can write of theology as "shadowy and impossible" and Byron's poetry as real and "accurate" testifies to the hermeneutic revolution that the nineteenth century witnessed. Ruskin presents the case in Praeterita, however, as simply an imitation of Byron's method in Childe Harold and Don Juan, a late tribute to the poet he had once made "his master in verse." Typically in Childe Harold, at least as Ruskin might have read it, Byron has his protagonist descend upon a new scene, observe the natural or social milieu, and draw from it "fresh lessons to the thinking bosom" (96-97). In the opening episode, Childe Harold confronts the squalor of Lisbon, where "hut and palace show like filthily" (1.17); he then sees, in immediate geographical contrast, the "glorious Eden" of Cintra with its "horrid crags," mountain torrents, moss and cork trees, "mix'd in one mighty scene, with varied beauty glow" (I.18-19). The contrast prods him to consider the lack of influence that the natural landscape exerts upon the men living within it, a lack that belies the Wordsworthian doctrine of Nature's ennobling power. In a similar episode at the end of the poem, Harold approaches Venice from the water and sees
a sea-Cybele fresh from Ocean
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion. [IV. 2]
Once on land, he finds a less delightful city: [74/75]
In Venice, Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her Palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear. [IV. 3]
The contrast between what he sees from afar and what he sees in place comes to stand for a contrast between a Venice created by the literary imagination, the Venice of "Shylock and the Moor, / And Pierra," and the Venice of historical reality. What puzzles Harold is that written texts seem to have little power to shape the reality. With its rich literary and historical heritage, Venice should be virile and free, but it is not, having failed "to cut the knot" which ties it to tyrants.
In Ruskin's view, such scenes from Childe Harold and Don Juan deal with "felt facts": " 'That is so—make what you will of it,' "Byron seems to say (I.viii. 172). Nature, contra Wordsworth, does not necessarily ennoble man; cultural achievement does not necessarily ensure political wisdom. The key to these episodes, according to Ruskin, lies in their commitment to "fresh lessons." Byron refuses to repeat the conventional wisdom, reporting "only of what he ha[s] seen, and known."
Ruskin must have realized that Byron's "fresh lessons" often contradict the teaching of theology and poetry: in the Lisbon episode, for example, Byron questions the poetical claim for moral influence at the same time he undermines the theological view of Nature as a second revelation. Yet under Byron's influence, these traditional sources of illumination came to represent "the words of Peter to the shut up disciples—'as idle tales; and they believed them not'" (I.viii. 172). The quotation, expressive of the disciples' disbelief in the resurrection of Christ (Luke 24.11), shows how far Ruskin's own skepticism about religious systems of meaning had taken him as early as the 1830s.
Yet even if Byron's "fresh lessons" had not contradicted the teachings of Scripture, the influence of Byron's method would still have altered Ruskin's mode of self-interpretation in Praeterita. Byron does not present his lessons as authoritative; the key word in Childe Harold is "piecemeal" (IV.157). As Jerome G. McGann has argued, the [75/76] technique of Childe Harold suggests "the necessity of a 'piecemeal' apprehension of a life which we can never fully comprehend precisely because it involves us in constant passage and possibility. Human life is not something that can be 'gained or 'concluded' or 'fulfilled,' but must simply be 'kept' in our experience of consecutive vital particularities" (38). Thus the lessons Byron offers are transitory and partial, only pieces of a frame and only useful for a brief time. They teach a poetic method that has, in Michael Cooke's phrase, "the insistence of experience or evidence, rather than of dogma" (96-97).
Throughout "Vester, Camenae" Ruskin repeatedly insists that it was his parents who gave him Byron to read and that the poetry never caused "the slightest harm" (I.viii.164). When he refers specifically to such sexually charged tales as "Juan and Haidee," we can scarcely disagree. Yet judging from the perspective of his evangelical mother, who had tucked a copy of Grace Abounding into his traveling bag, we can only conclude that Byron's influence did great harm. If it did not lead him into sexual sin, it lead him into hermeneutic ambivalence. The evidence lies in the combination of admiration that Ruskin expresses and guilt that the chapter betrays. It lies also in the structure of Ruskin's episodes and the narrative pattern ofPraeterita as a whole.
f the individual episodes of Praeterita, under the influence of Byron, show a self-conscious deviation from the traditional forms of autobiography, the narrative structure of the work suggests a similar strategy of resistance, particularly in the second volume. Again a key influence was Byron. Ruskin had once intended to write an autobiographical account of his European tours in the combined style of Don Juan and Childe Harold, and as he wrote the draft of Praeterita in 1885, he reread his European diaries and the tw^o cantos from 1835, letting the shape of the earlier works suggest a narrative form for the autobiography. More particularly, Ruskin used the pattern of the Byronic tour to avoid the pattern of the exodus conventional in spiritual accounts. To understand the extent of this avoidance, we need only consider how he might have shaped the material in volume II. [76/77]
Had Ruskin intended, he might have transformed the second volume of Praeterita into a classic reversal of the conversion narrative, beginning with his position of narrow Protestantism in 1839 and ending with his decision in 1858 to put away his evangelical beliefs, "to be debated of no more" (III.i.23). The raw data of Ruskin's life certainly fit the pattern: his European tours suggest a parallel to the wilderness wandering; the episodes, like those of the Exodus, are associated with geographical places and represent points of discovery; and the series ends with a vision in Turin from the upper windows of an art gallery—not exactly Mount Pisgah, but elevated nonetheless. Moreover, the time scheme takes Ruskin up to 1859, the fortieth year of his life. The critic who looks for evidence of the traditional pattern will find it, for the pieces are there. Indeed, in the opening chapters of volume II, Ruskin seems himself to have decided to tell a classic, if inverted conversion story.
In the first chapter, "Of Age," he begins by depicting himself, at age twenty, as a violent anti-Papist, "as zealous, pugnacious, and self-sure a Protestant as you please" (II.i.8). Two chapters later, he notes the modifications that exposure to Catholicism, medieval and modern, made in his convictions. Describing his experience in Rome, he recalls that there he learned to take pleasure in a combination of natural beauty and religious splendor:
The weather was fine at Easter, and I saw the Benediction, and sate in the open air of twilight opposite the castle of St. Angelo, and saw the dome-lines kindle on St. Peter's, and the castle veil the sky with flying fire. Bearing with me from that last sight in Rome many thoughts that ripened slowly afterwards, chiefly convincing me how guiltily and meanly dead the Protestant mind was to the whole meaning and end of mediaeval Church splendour; and how meanly and guiltily dead the existing Catholic mind was, to the course by which to reach the Italian soul, instead of its eyes. [II.iii.53]
The criticism of Catholicism still persists, but balanced by an admission of Protestant failures and a pleasing awareness of his own capacity for intellectual development. [77/78] Significantly, the autobiography connects this awareness with a new understanding of vocational responsibility. As Rusk in describes the Roman experiences, where he first encountered "mediaeval Church splendour," he uses an image of new birth: "the chrysalid envelope began to tear itself open here and there to some purpose" (II.iii.5 1). A few paragraphs later, he narrates an episode of vocational crisis. At Lans-le-bourg "at six of the summer morning," with "the red aiguilles on the north relieved against pure blue" and "the great pyramid of snow down the valley in one sheet of eastern light," his self-doubts seem to dissolve in a moment of illumination: "I had found my life again;—all the best of it. What good of religion, love, admiration or hope, had ever been taught me, or felt by my best nature, rekindled at once; and my line of work, both by my own will and the aid granted to it by fate in the future, determined for me" (II.iii.57). The discovery of a true "line of work" follows as the result of (and compensation for) a change in religious beliefs. This, at least, is the interpretation that Ruskin suggests as retrospective autobiographer.
After the opening chapters, however, Ruskin finds it increasingly difficult to continue this interpretation. Instead of describing his loss of evangelical faith and the simultaneous development of a vocational commitment, Ruskin becomes increasingly obscure. Midway through the second volume, as many readers have noticed, Praeterita loses its coherence, and by the end Ruskin refuses to interpret at all.
Usually, biographers explain the loss of coherence as the effect of recurrent and increasingly severe bouts of insanity that plagued Ruskin from 1885 onward: Rosenberg stares, for example, that by the end of volume II "the life of the book and of Ruskin's mind were failing" (223). Undoubtedly, the bouts of insanity made the task of organizing the notes and drafts of the autobiography more difficult. During a particularly troublesome period, as Ruskin pored over the materials for the "Otterburn" chapter (2.xii), on 3 March 1887 he recorded in his diary his utter frustration: "Have had a weary sick time all February—'gone to water.' Could do neither Otter nor Potterburn (Diaries, III, 1141). Yet the incoherence of volume II originates in afflictions more than physiological. It suggests the same convergence of personal desires and generic demands that we saw earlier in the preface. [78/79]
As before, Ruskin wants both to honor the memory of his parents and narrate his experience freely, avoiding those things that give "no pleasure in reviewing." For the events of volume II, these needs are not easily fulfilled. The experience involves a process of de-conversion, the derails of which had caused his parents much grief. Moreover, even to think of the experience as aprocess of de-conversion means co impose the conventions of the spiritual autobiography upon it and thus to begin an account of what it gave Ruskin no joy to remember.
Evidence that Ruskin cannot resolve the conflict begins to appear in chapters like "The Campo Santo" (II. vi), where he defines the essence of Christianity and reports that he was prepared for its new lessons, but fails to continue with an explanation of the effects of these lessons upon his religion and his work. The "total meaning" of Christianity, Ruskin writes,
was, and is, that the God who made earth and its creatures, took at a certain time upon the earth, the flesh and form of man; in that flesh sustained the pain and died the death of the creature He made; rose again after death into glorious human life, and when the date of the human race is ended, will return in visible human form, and render to every man according to his work. [ll.vi.ll7]
His definition has the clarity and concision of the Apostles Creed, two characteristics that the account itself lacks. Although he writes that he was "prepared at this time for the teaching of the Campo Santo," that his study "put into direct and inevitable light the questions I had to deal with," and that these questions were "clearly not to be all settled in that fortnight" (II.vi. 119), he never measures his own faith by the clear definition he has given. Instead, he continues the narrative with an evasion, "Meantime, my own first business was evidently to read what these Pisans had said of it," substituting what he calls reading for what he knows should be interpreting (II.vi.120).
Ruskin's rationalization for this substitution indicates the larger confusion he faces as autobiographer. He explains that his mind was [79/80] not yet ready to interpret: "I had to read its lessons before I could interpret them." (II.vi.124). While this distinction may explain his inability to interpret at the time, it does not explain his inability (or refusal) to interpret as autobiographer in 1886. In retrospect, surely he knew how to judge his experience by the lessons of the Campo Santo. "Anything less than this, the mere acceptance of the sayings of Christ, or assertion of any less than divine power in His Being," will "not make people Christians" (II.vi.117), he observed after his definition of the "total meaning" of Christianity. Surely he knew that, while studying in Pisa, his commitment to orthodox Christianity was "less"—and his commitment to an, more.
The reluctance to admit that, during the middle two decades of his life, he was losing his orthodox Christian faith grows worse in the final chapters of volume II, and eventually Ruskin refuses to ask the meaning of his experience in any terms—Christian or otherwise. This refusal is expressed in a variety of ways. In "Crossmount," for instance, he tries to postpone the account of what he calls "this trial," saying only "All that I had been taught had to be questioned; all that I had trusted, proved" (II.x.201). Instead of an account of de-conversion, he offers a fragment from his 1847 diary that is supposed ro substitute, in some sense, for what he will not tell. The fragment itself interprets nothing. But it is revealing as a substitute, for in structure and content, it prefigures the episode at Turin which Ruskin knows must be the final scene, the telos, of his autobiography.
The "Crossmount" fragment (II.x.202) records an encounter with a poor cottager and her mother in which the narrowness of the women's religion becomes painfully clear. It continues with a walk home in the freshness after a storm, during which "a bright bar of Streaky sky in the west, seen over the glittering hedges.. .made my heart leap again" (II.x.202). Here is the story of a pious mother, like his own, who limits the household reading to serious books of religion and who entreats him to participate in her mode of worship, a participation he is characteristically unable to resist. Here, too, is the contrast between the drabness of evangelicalism and the brilliance of nature that will become, in the Turin episode, the final evidence for Ruskin's rejection of evangelical faith. What is absent from the diary [80/81] fragment, however, is any admission of a diminution of his own faith. Similarly absent from the "Crossmount" chapter is any attempt at interpretation. The fragments are not, in essence, true autobiographical episodes. They are old diary entries. Thus the chapter closes with the words of the 1847 diarist, not the insight of the 1886 autobiographer.
One would expect interpretation to come easier after this prefigurative fragment. In "L'Hotel Du Mont Blanc" (II.xi), however, Ruskin finds it even more difficult to impose the perspective of the retrospective autobiographer, and the chapter becomes an even more confusing pastiche of old diary fragments. Once again, the fragments allude to a growing tolerance for a variety of religious beliefs, as in the sketch of the "undisturbed Catholicism" at Sallenches (II.xi.220). They also refer to Ruskin's own irreversible loss of faith: "many signs [of the coming Apocalypse] seem to multiply around us, and yet my unbelief yields no more than when all the horizon was clear" (II.xi.222). Yet connections among these fragments are not offered, and the episodes receive little commentary that could be called interpretation.
It is possible for the reader of Praeterita to supply a connection among these episodes and Ruskin's motives in quoting them. One possibility is that many, perhaps all, of the diary fragments involve Mont Blanc, and as we know from the poem that introduces volume III, Mont Blanc represents the last point at which Ruskin attempted to express an orthodox religious faith. In 1845 he had sought there "Such thoughts as holy men of old / Amid the desert found." There again in 1849, the year of the diary entries, he sought no such holy thoughts (or, at least, he found no such thoughts). Implicitly, then, the fragments signify another stage in the process of de-conversion, another episode in the undoing of his faith. Yet to suggest such a signification of the Mont Blanc entries is to move closer to interpretation than Ruskin himself was willing to go. At this stage, he merely repeats the entries, avoiding or obfuscating their meaning for his readers and perhaps also for himself.
Eventually, Ruskin ceases such obfuscation, and in "The Grande Chartreuse" (IIl.i) provides a forthright account of his loss of faith at [81/82] Turin in 1858. What must perplex the reader of Praeterita at this point is the utter confusion of "Otterburn," the final chapter of volume II, in contrast to the utter lucidity of "The Grande Chartreuse." Chronologically, the Turin episode belongs in the "Otterburn" chapter: it occurred in 1858, precisely at the end of the twenty-year period covered in volume II and at the end of the process of de-conversion the volume records. But Ruskin does not record the experience there with any coherence, and instead seems to attempt something else.
What he attempts is imperceptible to the reader of the "Otterburn" chapter in its published form—unless, perhaps, one can guess from the opening lines which speak of a "want of affection to other people" and a "wonder that ever anybody had any affection for me" (II.xii.225). The proof sheets for the chapter make sense of these remarks, however, and suggest what it is Ruskin needed to achieve and why his need resulted in such incoherence. At the end of the proofs, as part of the original text as planned in 1887, Ruskin transcribed two letters: one from his father, the other from his mother. The first, dated 8 February 1850, was written on Ruskin's thirty-first birthday:
My dearest John—
You see by the date, I write on your birthday, and you are, I hope, as happy in it as your mamma and I are. I can truly say that with all that remains of illness and weakness left, 1 never felt my heart more rejoicing in the unmingled blessings heaped upon my undeserving head, unmingled with a single sorrow or a single want; and the completion of this happiness, owing to that son who, during thirty-one years, has scarcely given his father a single pang beyond the anxieties for his safety, and these engendered only by that parent's own mistrusting and impatient temper iiment.
The second, dated 23 August 1869, was written by his mother when Ruskin was fifty:
I should be thankful to pay you with double interest the more than comfort and pleasure 1 have had, and I think latterly [82/83] more than at any former times, I have had from your letters....
I am, my dearest, with a thousand thanks for all the pains
you have taken to give me pleasure and save me anxiety, always,
Your affectionate Mother,
The letters include much more information, all of it irrelevant to the naterial in "Otterburn," some of it jarringly out of place. There is, for instance, an allusion to a "beautifully written" letter from Effie Gray, then still Ruskin's wife. Effie is nowhere else named in Praeterita.)
Ruskin must have had an unusually compelling motive for includng these letters and giving them the authority of closure in volume I. In the proof sheets he explains his fear that he will be unable to arry on the story of those he cares for—an explanation that complenents the introductory remarks about his failures to express and eceive affection. Similarly, in an alternate draft of the chapter's onclusion, he refers to his inability to carry on, "-being disturbed by nstant troubles which take away my powers of tranquil thought, vhether of the Dead or Living who have been and are yet dear to me."28 And we can extend Ruskin's explanations to make them account for certain formal difficulties in the chapter, particularly the queer transitions between episodes. Perhaps the discussion of Scott's novels and of Scottish types reminded him of his parents, who read Scott to him as a child and who were themselves Scottish types. Afraid that he might be forced to abandon Praeterita before he could reach logically or chronologically) his parents, Ruskin may have decided to abandon order and tninscribe the letters as substitutes for the account "ie could not give. His book, begun as "an offering" to his mother and father, would thus close with a memory of—and a tribute to—them both.
However satisfactory this explanation may appear, factually or &ven formally, it still fails to account for the narrative lapse. Instead of family letters, the closing chapter of the second volume should have included the Turin episode and interpreted it in terms of Ruskin's loss of faith or new vocational commitment. Despite his apologies, I suspect that Ruskin could not himself account for the lapse, even in [83/84] the unpublished proofs, because for him it was an unintended, if unavoidable act.
The transcribed letters represent, then, an emotional prelude to an episode demanded both by the facts and by convention, but which Ruskin would have preferred to avoid. Perhaps the literary craftsman in him decided, by 1887, that it was easier to let his life conform to the conventions of the genre than it was to resist its narrative patterns at every point. Perhaps he realized that, far from being possible to narrate his life "frankly, garrulously, and at ease," the act of autobiography inevitably involved concealment and pain. Before facing the pain, however, he published the letters first. The letters offer assurance: despite his loss of faith, he need not fear loss of love. In 1849, in the midst of Ruskin's religious crisis, his father had written that much of his happiness was "owing to that son who . . . ha[d] scarcely given his father a single pang"; in 1869, when the crisis was over, his mother had thanked him for words that brought "comfort and pleasure" and had praised him for seeking always to spare her anxiety. Armed with these assurances, Ruskin had the evidence that he could proceed with the Turin episode and still satisfy both the generic demands and his own emotional desires.
n 26 April 1887, Ruskin sent "Otterburn" to the printer, complete with transcriptions of the letters from his father and mother. Between April and October, when the chapter was in galleys, lie revised its ending, substituting for the letters a description of a sea horizon at sunset whose clouds he had attempted to draw fifty-five years earlier and whose skies, to his amazement, "were still bright above the foulness of smoke-cloud or the flight of plague-cloud" (II.xii.23). It was as if in the interval the plague-cloud had disappeared for Rusk in, too. By January, 1888, he was working on the new volume of Praeterita thinking over the "Turin bit," as he called it, and writing the episode he had postponed for so long.29
The opening chapter of the new volume, "The Grande Chartreuse," handles the Turin episode and the events leading up to it [84/85] with a clarity and sureness of purpose unimaginable in "Otterburn." I have already intimated the emotional factors contributing to this shift from confusion to clarity. Another factor was that of repetition: Ruskin had narrated the episode before in Fors Clavigera, and once the emotional blocks were cleared away, he had only to re-interpret the story within the context of a spiritual autobiography. The most important factor, however, was Ruskin's solution to another formal problem: how to be faithful to his experience, which ended in an episode of de-conversion, without merely imitating the patterns of spiritual narrative in which he no longer believed.
The solution is a chapter formed on the principle of de(con)struction. What Ruskin gives the reader in "The Grande Chartreuse" is, I believe, first the text of a conversion experience—or, rather, a text written at the time of a conversion experience. This text is "Mont Blanc Revisited," the poem written at Nyon in 1845 and reproduced as the epigraph to the chapter. Then, Ruskin deconstructs the text by undoing it, by "depriving it" (as the OED tells us the prefix de- will do) "of the thing or character therein expressed." The "thing therein expressed" is not only the spiritual experience, but also the typological hermeneutics which Ruskin used in 1845 to invest the experience with meaning. Finally, the de(con)strLictive process accomplished, he narrates his "Turin bit," the episode we label his de-conversion but he treats as the result of an undoing.
Mont Blanc Revisited" is an autobiographical poem, a record of conversion which makes Ruskin's choice of it as an epigraph to a chapter about de-conversion itself significant. Midway through Praeterita, Ruskin refers to the poem as the "last serious exertions of my poetical powers" (II.vi.109). When he composed the verses in 1845, however, he had thought himself at the beginning of a new line of vocational work: "I had rhymed to his snows in such hope and delight, and assurance of doing everything I wanted, this year at last" (II.vii.l46). His optimism was in part created by a solution to a familial dilemma: he had left for the Continent alone for the first lime, and removed from daily contact with his parents, he could manage their demands at a distance.30 The optimism was created in greater part by a solution to a vocational dilemma: Ruskin discovered [85/86] how to re-channel his religious training and spiritual impulses into the service of beauty and morality.
That solution came at Nyon, after he had been reading John Bunyan and George Herbert. In Bunyan, as we have seen, he found little to commend. Grace Abounding he thought "a most dangerous book," for it suggested "a most false impression of God's dealings" and gave the skeptical ammunition against religion (4.349n4). Herbert's The Temple he found, in contrast, a model of man's "communings with God." Equally as "immediate" as Bunyan's, they were nevertheless the communings of "a well bridled and disciplined mine." Ruskin in fact disapproved of Bunyan because the man, in true Calvinistic fashion, found God by gazing at himself. Too literal an application of Calvin's tenet, "Without the knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God" (Institutes, 35) would not work for the sort of poetry he intended to write.32 In 1845 Ruskin wanted a model, poetic and religious both, who found God by gazing at the external world.
What Ruskin thought he had discovered in 1845 was a species of poetry that answered his requirements. Romantic and religious both, it found God by gazing at nature, and thus allowed him to write as successor to the Romantics, fulfilling his parents' desire that he become a second, but pious Byron. He experienced this discovery as a moment of conversion. According to his diary, "all the way to Nyon," where he composed the poem, he felt a "strange spiritual government of the conscience": "I began to wonder how God should give me so much reward for so little self-denial, and to make all sorts of resolves relating to future conduct. . . In the state of mind in which I then was it seemed a lesson given by my own favourite mountain—a revelation of nature intended only for me."33
"Mont Blanc Revisited" thus embodies what Ruskin experienced in the mid-1840s—that is, the poem is both autobiographical and exemplary of the poetry Ruskin intended to write. As such, it is fitting that Ruskin should make it an epigraph, apiece of waiting that has marked and still makes its mark upon his life. It is also, however, an epigraph whose experience the remainder of "The Grande Chartreuse" will undo and whose hermeneutic assumptions the chapter will challenge and finally deprive of authority. [86/87]
The experience itself is readily deprived of its autobiographical significance. To begin, Ruskin suppresses a crucial stanza of the poem, one in which he had asserted his vocational calling by comparing himself to Moses and Elijah:
Yet let me not, like him who trod
In wrath, of old, the mount of God,
Forget the thousands left
Lest haply, when I seek His face,
The whirlwind of the cave replace
The glory of the cleft.34
This stanza simply does not appear in the epigraph to "The Grande chartreuse," as if the experience itself had never included a call to become a poet-prophet. Then, the chapter denies the worth of the literary work that Ruskin produced subsequent to the calling: "The events of the ten years 1850— I860," he writes in perhaps the most startling statement of Praeterita, were "for the most part wasted in useless work" (III.i.10). These "wasted years" are those that saw the publication of Modern Painters III, and The Stones of Venice.
If Ruskin deprives the experience of the significance he once assigned, he further denies the validity of the hermeneutic system thai led him to it. Like traditional spiritual autobiography, "Mont Blanc Revisited" draws upon biblical typology for its method of self-interpretation. The poet understands his state in terms of the Exodus and the Psalms, making himself a typological correlative of the Israelites receiving manna and of the wild hart in Psalm 42:
Ah, happy, if His will were so,
To give me manna here for snow,
And by the torrent side
To lead me as He leads His flocks
Of wild deer through the lonely rocks
In peace, unterrified.
He understands his calling, too, in terms of the prophets Moses and Elijah, who serve as types of the poet-prophet's stance in the modern world. Such uses of typology are doubly autobiographical: the poem [87/88] not only applies types as patterns of moral behavior; it also uses them to confirm providential design in the experiences of Ruskin's life and to assert a poetic calling.35
Lest Ruskin fall into the hermeneutic extremities of Grace Abounding, he restricts the method of self-interpretation: there is to be no "unreigned state of a strong imagination," as in Bunyan, but as in George Herbert, only "the communings of a well bridled and disciplined mind." Thus the poet seeks the "frontier waste" with "religious haste / And reverent desire, but once there, he becomes passive as observer and interpreter. Interpretation is grounded outside of the self in an objective source, and thoughts are attributed not to the self but to the mountain:
They meet me, 'midst thy shadows cold,—
Such thoughts as holy men of old
Amid the desert found.
The interpretive act is self-consciously passive throughout: the mountain initiates the thoughts; the thoughts come to meet the poet, not vice versa; and they teach the poet to be "more resigned," to imitate the "trustful rest" of the animals.
The hermeneutic assumptions that "Mont Blanc Revisited" embodies are, like the experience itself, put through a process of deconversion in the text that follows, so that the chapter is not only about de-conversion but assumes the form of a de-conversion. Despite their diverse settings, the episodes of "The Grande Chartreuse" all concern themselves with hermeneutics and hermeneutic practices that challenge Ruskin's own in 1845.
The first episode records an encounter with a monk who "rebukes" Ruskin for assuming that men receive special revelations in the shadows of mountains: "We do not come here," says the monk, "to look at the mountains." In narrating the episode, Ruskin stresses the aesthetic disappointments of his visit to the Carthusian monastery: "the building was meanly designed and confusedly grouped," the mountains surrounding "were simplest commonplace of Savoy cliff," the monks were "ungraciously dull" and "without sagacity" (IIl.i.2). But the crux of the visit lies in the monks' failure to respond to the [88/89] natural beauty around them, as Ruskin assumed all religious minds would, and in their challenge to his own hermeneutic assumptions. To the monk's rebuke, the young Ruskin makes no reply: "I bent my head silently, thinking however all the same, 'What, then, by all that's stupid, do you come here at all for?' "
Critics have argued that Ruskin's silence betokens his inability to take command of his autobiography, that it reveals the "near extinction" of "the inner magnitude which was the source of value in the forties."36 Although there may be an extinction of earlier values, this argument mistakes, I think, the function of the episode. The silence is that of Ruskin at age thirty, not the silence of Ruskin the autobiographer. In the monastery the young man's assumptions about mountain scenery as a source of religious revelation are challenged sharply. The mature Ruskin uses the episode to acknowledge, in retrospect, his youthful error: at Mont Blanc the lessons came from the self, not from the mountain. Narrow and unappealing though it may have been, the monk's rebuke nonetheless raises crucial questions about the source of revelation and hermeneutic authority.
The next episodes add to the questions by describing the hermeneutic practices of Ruskin's contemporaries and thus raising the issue of objectivity and certainty in interpretation. In the first, F. D. Maurice reads the story of Jael's slaying of Sisera as an instance of "dreadful deeds" done "in the Dark Biblical ages," implicitly denying thai Old Testament characters can be read typologically as patterns for the modern Christian (III.i.13-15). In the second, set at a "fashionable seance" in Belgravia, an evangelical named Molyneux discourses on "the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son." Molyneux ignores the implications of the elder son to his affluent audience and, when questioned, denies that a character in a New Testament parable need have meaning to be interpreted or significance to be applied personally (III.i.16). For both episodes, Ruskin notes the error the interpreter makes: Maurice forgets that the Bible, through the song of Deborah the prophetess, "declared of Jael, 'Blessed above women shall the wife of Heber the Kenite be'"; Molyneux forgets that Jesus included the elder sibling as a warning to the selfish and the selfrighteous. The function of these episodes, however, is less hermeneutic [89/90] correction than a recognition of lack of grounding. They suggest that one will find in the Bible, as in nature, what one goes looking for—or what one has been taught to look for.
This recognition sets the stage for the final episode in the de(con)srructive process. In the episode, an old preacher of the Waldensian faith, taking Genesis 14 as his text, discourses on "the wickedness of the wide world" while assuring his congregation of their "exclusive favour with God," though they live "in the streets of Admah and Zeboim" (III.i.23). His sermon is a sincere but parodic application of biblical typology, yet another example of self-assured or self-interested interpretation, another example that challenges the authority of typological hermeneutics. This time Ruskin, "neither cheered nor greatly alarmed" as he tells us, attempts no correction. He simply abandons the scene, the process of de-conversion complete, his evangelical beliefs "to be debated of no more."37
All of these episodes in "The Grande Chartreuse" call into question the hermeneutic assumptions of its autobiographical epigraph: that the interpreter can be a passive recipient of divine revelation; that interpretations can be authoritatively grounded outside the self, whether in a biblical or natural text; that typology can confirm providential design or poetic calling. And they mark the distance that Ruskin as self-interpreter traveled over the course of forty years. In 184s) he may have believed that "a well bridled and disciplined mind" could proceed confidently upon solid hermeneutic principles, and he may have written autobiographical poems based upon that belief. But as the writer of Praeterita, he had come to recognize the perils of self-interpretation. It is no wonder, then, that in 1885 Ruskin avoided the traditional forms of the autobiography, with their demands that the autobiographer interpret his experience and discover within it a providential design. If Praeterita was to be a dutiful offering, it had to be dutiful first to Ruskin himself and to the complexity of his experience.
Last modified 8 February 2014