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.

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