145: Failing

Failing! What business has anybody to fail??

This expostulation and its attendant sentence appear at the beginning of the 26th letter of Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera series. They were set to paper during the first few days of January 1873, by which time their author had been long convinced that his early works on art and architecture of the 1840s and 1850s had been wastes of time and that his sociological works of the 1860s had proved equally useless because of their, by then, demonstrable inability to move the minds of his powerful and rich fellows away from their money-mad dashes toward a commitment to creating a more caring social order; they were also written in the midst of personal despair, as both from afar and close, he watched the love of his life, Rose La Touche, slowly lose her mind as she wasted away from the accumulating effects of severe anorexia nervosa. (Rose would die a little more than two years later, in May, 1875, a heart-breaking shell of her former vibrant self; Ruskin would never get over the loss.)

All that understood, work in the service of good remained to be done.

“Failure!? What business has anybody to fail?”

While there are many sentences which might have been chosen as emblems pointing to the central character of the man who has been the subject of these many posts, none, it seems to me, could serve any better than these.

Until next time.

I trust all’s well out there.



P.S.: The remainder of Fors Letter 26 is devoted to explaining to his readers the true nature of St. George, England’s patron saint, whose eternal charge is to protect his nation from all evil and hurtful things. George’s was, he said, “a sacred soldiership, which conquers more than material enemies, and prevails against the poison, and the shadow, of Pride and Death.” The deeper suggestion being, of course, that all of us should be such soldiers.

P.P.S: This commitment to helping was anything but rhetorical. Following the February of 1873 when this 26th letter of Fors Clavigera appeared, another seventy (each ten to fifteen pages in length) would be printed before the series came to an end in 1884. From this same date until 1889 when mental and emotional upset and failing physical health forced him to set down his pen for a final time, he would publish no fewer than a dozen books: Val d’Arno (showing why the sculpture of Italy’s late medieval and early Renaissance was the finest the world had ever seen), Mornings in Florence (a daily guide to the great city’s greatest art–still eminently useful in this capacity!), The Economist of Xenophon (a reprinting of a Greek socioeconomic classic with commentary, intended to undergird the principles for humane trade he had articulated in Unto this Last), St. Mark’s Rest (a much more compact guide to Venice than the three-volume The Stones of Venice), Proserpina (a paean to the glories that are flowers), Love’s Meine (a similar celebration of birds), Deucalion (yet another celebration; this one focusing his readers’ attention on the usually overlooked beauties of waves, stones, valleys, and mountains), In Montibus Sanctis (like Modern Painter IV,  a toast to mountain beauty), The Bible of Amiens (which argued, as you let its pages walk you around the sculpted exterior and, chapel by chapel, stained glass window by stained glass, the breathtaking sanctuary, that the great cathedral contained nothing less than a complete history of human life and all the lessons one needed to learn about how best to live it), The Pleasures of England and The Art of England (collections of his last lectures as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford), not to mention what many regard as one of his most important public lectures, “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century,” three collections of letters, Frondes Agrestes (“Leaves of the Field,” a selection of his best passages from his Modern Painters series chosen by his beloved friend, Susie Beever), Hortus Inclusus (“delights of the garden,” a collection of letters posted to Susie Beever) and Arrows of the Chase (a large collection of what he saw as his most important, previously uncollected, letters to newspapers), and, hardly least, the majority of his always delightful, always insightful, never-completed autobiography, Praeterita (still viewed as one of the finest in the genre)―all of which pages came to be because of their author’s hope that someday, somewhere, they would do someone some real good.

Failure was not an option.

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2 Responses to 145: Failing

  1. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Beckett.

  2. Arjun Jain says:

    Thank you, Jim, for such a wonderful article. The last sentence touches one; I have been reading- I must confess, rather struggling to read through- Ruskin’s Praeterita. A real fever grips my mind, I have noticed, as I try to.

    It is clear that by no means did Ruskin fail.

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