18: Desiderata

Good Friends,

Well, I didn’t exactly keep to my promise of “once a week” posts after that 17th effort, did I? Good reasons though (at least think they are). The semester just finished was my last: last courses, last committees, last grading! (I shall much miss the teaching but suspect I shall have little difficulty releasing the other requirements from my consciousness!) Remarkably intense it all was and, for that reason, no time was left for Ruskin posts. But now that’s done and I am a Ruskinian ungainfully unemployed, facing the next years hopefully more like one of those fine “Old Vine” Zinfandels they grow in California than a grape once perfectly drinkable but stored a bit too long in the wine cellar!

At all events, such new status affords the chance to begin mending that dearth of posts situation, To-Day’s being the first attempt at replenishment. Hopefully, you’ll find it a helpful, or, at least, a thought-provoking, one.

Over the course of almost two decades, Ruskin wrote five volumes of an immense book (over 2000 pages!) he called Modern Painters. The first volume appeared in 1843 when he was just 24. The last printed seventeen years later, in 1860. The first–and all subsequent volumes–took literate England by storm, so eloquent was his prose, so marvelous were his arguments about the merits (or demerits) of Western art from its “beginnings” in classical Greece (a debatable “beginning” point I am aware) to the modern era, his modern era. (For some examples of this mesmerizing prose, see Posts 2 and 13.) But, by the time he sat down to compose the last volume in the late 1850s, he was a much wiser, and sadder, man.

There is much to that psychological story but it should suffice for the moment to say that the essential cause of his depression was his conviction that all his work–all his books, all his essays, all his public lectures–to that point had miscarried. He had expended his life’s energy on all solely to show his readers and listeners the beauty of this world as that beauty was expressed daily and eternally in both nature and art. His hope had been that, once they understood his arguments and saw for themselves that he was right, they would cease their headlong sprint for riches and turn their lives toward being in tune with the lovely world they had inherited and were responsible for maintaining. But that hadn’t happened. People adored his prose and bought the work of the painters he championed with avidity. But, for the rest, his case had not convinced. Almost everyone went on getting and spending with the same fervor and glee.

Whatever its other values–and these are many and most rewarding–Modern Painters V is a long meditation on how one should conduct one’s life and what one can hope to accomplish when forced to live in the midst of what Ruskin called “a money-mad mob.” As his book neared its conclusion, he wrote the words below. It seems to me to be good advice, not only for literate Victorians but for any and all of us still. Given that it’s about regeneration, I think that, as we near summer (tomorrow!), a fine deep green is the color we need…yes?

[L]ooking broadly, not at the destiny of England, nor of any country in particular, but of the world, this is certain: that…true perfection…power and happiness are only to be attained by a life which…does not mortify itself with a view to productive accumulation, but delights itself in peace, and its appointed portion. So that the things to be desired for man in a healthy state are that he should not see dreams, but realities, that he should not destroy life but save it, that he should not be rich, but content.

Hope all’s contentment out there.

As always, let me know what you think.



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1 Response to 18: Desiderata

  1. Jack Harris says:

    Contentment — a wonderful word, much better than happy (which is a swindle in the way that we market it). What does contentment comprise, given all of the natural sadnesses that are part of living? The Passover Haggadah expresses longing, and a passion for human liberation, as God graces the Hebrews with increasing degrees of freedom, and each time they shout “dayanu:” If God had stopped here, and gave us no more, we would have been content.

    Thank you, Jim, for reminding us through Ruskin that we need ask for little to get a lot.


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