Saturday, 25 November 2017

Ruskin and his Critics

Nick Shrimpton’s recent Mikimoto lecture of this title was a knowledgeable and entertaining account of John Ruskin’s contemporary critics: William de Morgan, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, among many others.  I particularly enjoyed the parodist whose jaunty verses spoke of Ruskin aggressively putting his ‘tusk in’ throughout his copious writings.   And as Shrimpton spoke, my mind sometimes drifted off to wider theoretical and political issues implicit in his witty discourse at the lectern.  

For I was struck by how often the Victorian critiques of Ruskin as ‘savage’, excessive, vituperative, recalled those directed at F.R. Leavis after his attack on C.P. Snow in the ‘two cultures’ Richmond lecture of 1962; and here surely is the clue to the matter.  For liberal middle-class English culture, aesthetic and social debate should be conducted within parameters that Matthew Arnold evoked in a series of memorable slogans.  It should be ‘disinterested’, characterised by urbanity, the ‘tone of the centre’, ‘sweetness and light’; it should proceed in an ‘Attic style’ and be, like Arnoldian Culture itself, ondoyant et divers.  In his Criticism in the Wilderness (1980), literary theorist Geoffrey Hartman has written well of this ‘Arnoldian Concordat’ which governs – which is to say, cripples – English cultural discourse.

But for Carlyle, Dickens, Ruskin, Morris, D.H. Lawrence, Leavis himself and Raymond Williams, things are quite otherwise.  When fundamental issues of the cultural health and economic direction of a society are at stake, the writing subject is passionately interested, constituted by interests, not disinterested.  His discourse mutates accordingly, from the Attic to the Asiatic in Arnold’s terms, becoming metaphorically dense, forceful in its rhythms, tones and vocabulary, using all the resources of poetry and invective to get across the death-dealing nature of what Leavis termed ‘technologico-Benthamism’, but which we Morrisians will be content to call capitalism.  Ruskinian linguistic ‘violence’ (as its targets and enemies would see it) is a measure of his increasing desperation about the directions of his culture; and in the neo-liberalism of the last thirty years, the technologico-Benthamites have been even more in control than formerly. 

Lancaster’s Ruskin programme, under its new Director Sandra Kemp, will have to live up to the romantic anticapitalist passion of its subject, rather than retreat to Victorian scholarship, if it wants to be relevant to the multiple crises of our own period, the Anthropocene.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Eagleton on Lenin and Luther

After delivering his lecture on ‘Art and Socialism’ in Leicester in 1884, Morris was introduced to the local clergyman Rev. Page Hopps who, in Fiona MacCarthy’s retelling of this well-known anecdote, ‘said that the Socialist society that Morris was envisaging would need God Almighty himself to manage it.  “Alright, man, you catch your God Almighty, we’ll have him,” cried Morris, jumping up, ruffling his hair and shaking his fist close to Page Hopps’s face’.

One of the figures who has done most to capture God for left-wing politics in our own time is Terry Eagleton, whose talk on ‘Lenin after 100 Years, Luther after 500 Years’ I chaired in the Storey Institute, Lancaster, on Monday evening.  In a series of brilliant comparisons and contrasts which probably only he could pull off, Terry offered us a sweeping account of both Lutheran Protestantism and Leninist Communism as intellectual, cultural and socially transformative projects.  Tackling one crucial political misconception, he argued in some detail that Lenin’s vanguard notion of the party is not as transcendent of (and therefore potentially domineering over) the working class as Luther’s ‘hidden God’ - to borrow Lucien Goldmann’s old term - is over fallen humanity.

A follow-up event yesterday, in which Terry spoke alongside author Sara Maitland on the idea of ‘Creation’, was more single-mindedly theological, though the odd political implication did peep out now and again.  I must say that, as a lifelong atheist whose attitude to formal religion is probably best summed up by Matthew Arnold’s great poem ‘Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse’, I’m still not sure what I make of the ‘theological turn’ of some recent thinkers on the Left.

‘Never look a gifthorse in the mouth’ might be one’s immediate, pragmatic response; anything that can tip people leftwards, in dark political times, should probably be seized at.  But when it comes to longer-term and more principled thinking about the relation of religion to Left politics, well, for me personally, at least, the jury is still out.   Terry Eagleton  has a new book, Radical Sacrifice, coming out from Yale University Press next Spring; it looks, on the evidence of the publisher’s blurb, like one of the most ambitious syntheses of radical politics and theology that he has attempted for some years.  So I await this volume eagerly, and hope that it may resolve some of the issues here for us.