A New Year! The expected moment, our culture tells us, for resolving (yet again?) to do the things we know we should have been doing but, for all sorts of (good?) reasons, didn’t do during the nearly 9000 hours attached to the year that has just disappeared. Time to mend errant ways! In which moment, it seemed to me that, as we begin our march through the next 9000 turnings of the clock, it might be useful to consider some sentences of Mr. Ruskin’s as possible guideposts for the journey.
If you’ve been reading these posts since their beginning, you’ve gotten some sense of Ruskin’s deep and unremitting commitment to using the powers with which he had been blessed to better the world. Some things, of course, he loved as he found them: “The Wondrous Sky.” But some he most assuredly didn’t: “The Great Entail.” Concerning these more problematic of life’s aspects, as we’ve seen, he never shied from telling us what was wrong, nor was he ever chary about saying what we should do to improve such hurtful conditions. Naturally, such unsparing comments and directives ruffled the feathers of many who didn’t want to accept the truth of what he was saying or take any sort of responsibility for making a lamentable situation less so.
Such negative responses do bring with them some responsibilities, however–most importantly, disputants have to find a way to discredit the thinking of the other who had the temerity to voice such unwelcome views. A time tested tactic–in Ruskin’s day as in ours–is to claim that the proffered arguments and solutions proposed by one’s opponent are “romantic” or “utopian” (“idealistic” is a frequent stand-in for “utopian”). If such critique proves successful, if initially sympathetic others can be made to think that the proposer is naive, if they can be convinced that “the real world” either isn’t like what has been suggested, or that, even if a modicum of truth is allowed regarding the contested characterizations, it would be as impossible to implement the suggested changes as it would be to make fish farm or birds be bankers, then–guilt by association with the discredited always a powerful deterrent to public applause–the alternative arguments, and others similar, would cease to be taken seriously, and the status quo–this the prime objective of virtually all dissenters’ rejoinders–would be preserved.
That Ruskin had such stringent–and, not infrequently, talented–critics throughout his career we shall see as these posts go on. That he never avoided such slings and arrows but, instead, met them head on, we shall also see. But, for the moment, let’s see how he dealt with the hardly atypical castigations just noted: that his arguments for making the world a more satisfying place for all were “romantic” or “utopian” (these same criticisms being, I have learned over the course of a long career of teaching, the favored counterarguments used by parents of many of my students after these younger ones return home excited by the thoughts generated by a semester studying what the world’s greatest thinkers have said about how we ought to live if we wish to live well).
Late 1853. Ruskin is in Edinburgh, delivering the first of what would become a series of public lectures which would extend over the next three decades. Only months before he had published the last volume in his three volume work, The Stones of Venice. Because of his fame, the book, like the theses on art and architecture he had published previously, was then in the process of being carefully read by the highly educated of Europe and Britain. The book’s burden was to convince readers that, if one looked carefully at the history of the once-glorious city which floated just above the sandbars of the northern Adriatic, one could learn–it was incontestably evidenced by his painstaking study of the architecture which spanned those centuries–one of the most critical of life’s lessons: how civilizations rise, prosper, and fall. In which lesson, Ruskin said, lay the previously sequestered key which could open the door which would allow his misguided, industrializing, money-mad civilization the chance to survive. In short, Britain could choose to return to the morally responsible, nature-preserving, God-faring ways which had distinguished Venice at her height. Not surprisingly, such arguments and their attending suggestions for altering commercial practices so that the disaster which had descended on unwise Venice could be avoided (suggestions which, if followed, would have dismantled or recast almost all the accepted economic activities of Europe) disturbed some, especially those who saw–correctly–that such changes would immediately curtail what they regarded as their rightful due, their march to remarkable riches. Next (dismissing without a word the astonishing amount of evidence Ruskin had assembled to substantiate his case) came the counters, his critics arguing that Ruskin, smart fellow though he assuredly was when discussing what made art and architecture great, was embarrassingly unsophisticated when it came to understanding how things worked in “the real world,” his analyses of and proposals for altering society were, not to put too fine a point on it, hopelessly “romantic” and “utopian,” ridiculous to countenance, impossible to implement, and, as a result, deserving of little, if any, credence or further attention.
To which critiques Ruskin replied, as he began his remarks on the signal importance of great architecture for enriching our lives that night in Edinburgh, as follows [because he uses, as illustrations, examples likely to be unfamiliar more than a century and a half later, I have inserted some more recognizable examples]:
Before proceeding to the principal subject of this evening, I wish to anticipate one or two objections which may arise in your minds to what I must lay before you. It may perhaps have been felt by you..that some things I [have proposed recently] were either romantic or utopian. Let us think for a few moments what romance and utopianism mean.
First, ROMANCE. In consequence of the many absurd fictions which have long formed the elements of “romance writing,” the word romance is sometimes taken as synonymous with falsehood… [If,] in this sense, I put anything romantic before you, pray pay no attention to it or to me.
In the second place. Because young people are particularly apt to indulge in reverie and imaginative pleasures and to neglect their plain and practical duties, the word romantic has come to signify weak, foolish, speculative, unpractical, unprincipled… If, in this sense, I put anything romantic before you, pray pay no attention to me.
But in the third and last place. The real and proper use of the word romantic is simply to characterize an improbable or unaccustomed degree of beauty, sublimity, or virtue. [Thus, a quiet evening at home with a fine dinner, accompanied, later, by some time sitting before an equally fine fire with one’s beloved is romantic; as is the deserved and rightly desired victory of good against all odds and evil in the film series, “The Lord of the Rings”; as is a gentle, glorious sunset; as is, in Britain and indeed the world, recollection of Mr. Churchill’s indomitable will and courage as, again and again, he implored his beleaguered fellows to withstand the Nazi bombardments until the moment of their finest hour arrived; as is, in the morning, the dazzling first sight of one’s orchid in full and beautiful bloom; as is, in the United States, the widespread remembrance of the all-too-soon-shortened Kennedy presidency, complete with its youth, hope, intellect, energy, wit, and laudable ambition; as is, in deeper history, the inner strength of Sir Thomas More (one of Mr. Ruskin’s heroes) which allowed him to withstand, even to the death, the unrelenting, intensifying pressures of his governors insisting that he betray his most cherished principles; as is, much more recently, the ascendancy to power, power then exercised nobly without hint of either recrimination or revenge, of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.]
So, then, observe, this feeling which you are accustomed to despise–this secret and poetical enthusiasm in all your hearts, which, as practical men you try to restrain–is indeed one of the holiest parts of your being. It is the instinctive delight in, and admiration for sublimity, beauty, and virtue unusually manifested. And, so far from being a dangerous guide, it is the truest part of your being. It is even truer than your consciences. A man’s conscience may be utterly perverted and led astray. But so long as the feelings of romance endure within us, they are unerring. They are as true to what is right and lovely as the needle to the north…
[Now,] UTOPIANISM… Another of the devil’s pet words. I believe the quiet admission which all of us are so ready to make, that, because things have long been wrong, it is impossible that they should ever be right is one of the most fatal sources of all misery and crime from which this world suffers. Whenever you hear a man dissuading you from attempting to do well on the ground that perfection is “utopian” beware of that man. Cast the word out of your dictionary altogether. There is no need for it. Things are either possible or impossible. You can easily determine which… If the thing is impossible you need not trouble yourselves about it. If possible, try for it. It is very utopian to hope for the the entire doing away of drunkenness and misery out of the [world], but the utopianism is not our business, the work is.
And so, for us, another new year arrives. From the first hours of which, perhaps it might not be entirely wrong-headed, considering once more the nearly 9000 revolutions of the clock which will fade away forever as we make this turn about the sun, to resolve to be as romantic as we possibly can and, resolutely shunning all temptation to utopian thought, get to work doing the things which really need doing in this needy world in which we have been given the privilege of drawing breath.