Ruskin is, as he has been for a decade and a half, seriously depressed. He is also, and such a state is common to him these days as well, furious. It is 1870, and he remains strikingly famous in the UK, Europe, and North America. In addition, he has recently been appointed as Oxford University’s First Slade Professor of Fine Art. On the surface, things seem well.
But, as we all know, appearances are often deceiving. As we have learned from a welter of previous Posts, as Ruskin aged, his sense that he had failed in all the most important things he had tried to do, grew inordinately. His brilliant and critically applauded books on art, architecture, Beauty, and the glories of Nature, as he saw it, had all fallen far wide of their marks. Rather than convincing his readers that their “rage to be rich” was destroying nature and all things beautiful with impunity, realizations he believed would inspire them to curtail their perfidious ways; they shook their heads at his criticisms and did nothing as their deeply cathected Industrial Revolution marched on, ravishing mountains, polluting the air, even beginning to melt the purest snows of the Highest Alps ( compare Posts 134, 135 and 103-106: to access any of these, at the top of this page, click on “Previous Posts in Sequence,” scroll to the desired number and click). As he saw it, he had labored long and diligently to tell them the truths contained in his pages and they were just too stupid or befuddled to recognize them. (I am not being harsh in using these descriptors; in many of the Fors Clavigera letters to come, Ruskin, in his frustration and anger, would use them–or worse–to describe his readers: “blockheads!” “moral cretins!” “plunderers” “brigands,” “a community of thieves!” hoping to shock them into action.. They were decidedly neither amused,, nor, not very surprisingly, moved to alter their days as he directed.
How had all his good intentions gone so awry? There could only be one answer. At his core he was a writer. It was His excellence at wordsmithing that had won him all his early accolades. Now, whatever he published was received with indifference or disdain. An instance: In reaction to the tepid response to his art writings, he had gave up writing on such subjects almost entirely during the 1860s, devoting himself instead to explicating his virulently anti-laissez-faire version of “political economy” in his great works of social criticism, Unto this Last, The Crown of Wild Olive, Munera Pulveris, Sesame and Lilies, and Time and Tide. But infuriatingly, these too had fallen on deaf, or pointedly censorious, ears, had “been reprobated in a violent manner” was one of his choleric summaries of their receipt.
Was it Fate? had his efforts been doomed from their start by stars misaligned from the day of his birth? Many thought, never having taken any time to study the issue, that our Individual Fates were fixed from the moment of our first breaths, and that there was little we could do to alter our pleasant or painful futures. To find the answer he took to re-reading what he considered to be the greatest of the hundreds of books that formed the great library in his home, eventually emerging from the process with an unexpected answer: that however painstaking and entertaining his compositional efforts had been, they had been severely flawed, simply had not been written persuasively enough to effect the changes he knew were needed if the badly listing ship of his society was to right itself before it reached the tipping point of no return, a point toward which it was now tacking at break-neck speed.
By the end of 1870, his patience failed him. He must, if he was to use what remained of the considerable authorial powers bestowed on him by his Creator, find a way to reach a new audience. The elites of his society had bought his books, had read and applauded them and him enthusiastically and now wanted nothing to do with pages or the man who continued to compose them. Indeed, his hope of lessening the horrific plight of the impoverished who barely scraped by on the nethermost rungs of his society–those for whom his heart broke in empathy as he continued to live his life of privilege–had come to nil. It was to them and to improving their lot that he must now devote his compositional energies.
And so a broad plan was imagined and begun to be put into practice. On January 1, 1871, he published the first of would become, over the course of the next13 years a series of monthly letters–short essays–addressed to “The Workmen and Laborers of Great Britain,” a series to which he gave the enigmatic title, Fors Clavigera. The purport of the series was to explain in clear language (a goal not attained with great regularity) how his readers must henceforward act if they were to ameliorate or eliminate the ills that plagued them. The title of his first foray was “Looking down from Ingleborough,” the name identifying the second highest mountain in the Yorkshire Dales (about 1300′),always imposing as one approaches it from any direction. From its summit, one has a commanding view of a wide swath of the English north. It can easily be seen dominating the horizon from “Ruskin’s View” at Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard (Post 189).
He never introduces, let alone defines, the concepts of “Fors” or “Clavigera” in his first letter. That missive begins as follows below; notable, as was everything he ever published, in its being framed to communicate something he believed would benefit the life being lived by anyone perusing his sentences. From his first paragraphs he points his audience toward the crisis he believes they are all living through and tells them what he and they must do to lessen it.
Friends, We begin today another group of ten years–not in happy circumstances. Although for the time exempted from the direct calamities which have fallen on neighboring states[in Europe], believe me, we have not escaped them because of our better deservings, nor by our better wisdom; but only for one or two bad reasons, or for both: either that we have not sense enough to determine in a great national quarrel which side is right, or that we have not courage to defend the right, when we have discerned it…
I have listened to many ingenious persons who say we are better off than ever we were before. I do not know how well off we were before, but I do know positively that many deserving persons of my acquaintance have great difficulty in living under these improved circumstances: also, that my desk is full of begging letters, eloquently written either by distressed or dishonest people; and that we cannot be called, as a nation, well off, while so many of us are either living in honest or villainous beggary.
For my own part, I will put up with this state of things, passively, not an hour longer. I am not an unselfish person, nor an Evangelical one; I have no particular pleasure in doing good;
neither do I dislike doing it so much as to expect to be rewarded for it in another world. But I simply cannot paint, nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I like, and the very light of the morning sky, when there is any—which is seldom, nowadays, near London (see Post )—has become hateful to me, because of the misery that I know of, and see signs of where I know it not, which no imagination can interpret too bitterly.
Therefore, as I have said, I will endure it no longer quietly; but henceforward, with any few or many who will help, do my poor best to abate this misery. But that I may do my best, I must not be miserable myself any longer; for no man who is wretched in his own heart, and feeble in his own work, can rightly help others.
- Now, my own special pleasure has lately been connected with a given duty. I have been ordered to endeavour to make our English youth care somewhat for the arts [his Slade Professorship];and must put my uttermost strength into that business. To which end, I must clear myself from all sense of responsibility for the material distress around me, by explaining to you, once for all, in the shortest English I can, what I know of its causes; by pointing out to you some of the methods by which it might be relieved; and by setting aside regularly some small percentage of my income, to assist, as one of yourselves, in what one and all we shall create, be it ever so small, a National Store instead of a National Debt [ a deep conviction; a National Debt–what we owe ourselves because of borrowing in contrast to a National Store filled with the things that strengthen life–food, building materials, clothing]. Store which, once securely founded, will fast increase, provided–only you take the pains to understand–and have perseverance to maintain, the elementary principles of Human Economy, which have, of late, not only been lost sight of, but willfully and formally entombed under pyramids of falsehood.
- And first I beg you most solemnly to convince yourselves of the partly comfortable, partly formidable fact, that your prosperity is in your own hands. That only in a remote degree
does it depend on external matters, and least of all on forms of government [another conviction: the paeticular form of government matter i wirgin which ov\ne lives s as nothing compared to the probity of those living within: it. Indeed, in] all times of trouble the first thing to be done is to make the most of whatever forms of government you have got, by setting honest men to work them; (the trouble, in all probability, having arisen only from the want of such;) and for the rest, you must in no wise concern yourselves about them. More particularly, it would be lost time to do so at this moment, when whatever is popularly said about governments cannot but be absurd for want of definition of terms.(where a National Debt is understood to be the money we owe ourselves because of, largely intemperate, borrowing, while a National Store is conceived of as bring filled with rhose thiings that promote health and well-being.)
- Consider, for instance, the ridiculousness of the division of parties into “Liberal” and “Conservative.” There is no opposition whatever between those two kinds of men. There is opposition between Liberals and Illiberals; that is to say, between people who desire liberty, and who dislike it. I am a violent Illiberal; but it does not follow that I must be a Conservative. A Conservative is a person who wishes to keep things as they are; and he is opposed to a Destructive, who wishes to destroy them, or to an Innovator, who wishes to alter them. Now, though I am an Illiberal, there are many things I should like to destroy: I should like to destroy and rebuild the Houses of Parliament, the National Gallery, and the East end of London; and to destroy, without rebuilding, the new town of Edinburgh, the north suburb of Geneva, and the city of New York. Thus, in many things, I am the reverse of Conservative. Nay, there are some long-established things which I hope to see changed before I die; but I want still to keep the fields of England green, and her cheeks red; and that girls should be taught to curtsey, and boys to take their hats off when a Professor or otherwise dignified person passes by; and that Kings should keep their crowns on their heads, and Bishops their crosiers in their hands; and should duly recognize the significance of the crown, and the use of the crook.
As you would find it thus impossible to class me justly in either party, so you would find it impossible to class any person whatever who had clear and developed political opinions, and who could define them accurately. Men only associate in parties by sacrificing their opinions, or by having none worth sacrificing; and the effect of party government is always to develop hostilities and hypocrisies, and to extinguish ideas.
And so the great series, by monthly turns (according to the author’s mood) inspirational, choleric, helpful, or intensely off-putting, began. It would be, all told, Ruskin’s last monumental effort. As a number of its readers have remarked, there is simply nothing like it in the English language. If there is one message that repeats and repeats throughout its more than 1500 pages. it is, as foreshadowed in the passages from the first letter above, it is that the ills that always beset us are NOT FATED; The Creator of this fundamentally beneficent universe gave the creatures made, at least partially, in His image, choice. Thus, the fault, dear readers, was not in our stars, but in ourselves, a consequence of our multiple–and on-going–decisions to, for selfish ends, obviate the core energy centers of the three great fors that shape all; a view that meant that the rectifying of the painful parts of our lives was eminently possible if we would but decide to change our ways. He was, after all, and to the end, Ruskin the Teacher. Both redemption and resurrection were, in other words, always possible.
Until next time, please DO continue well and safe out there.