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Psycho babble.




How does one "review" John Ruskin's final book, the autobiography Praeterita? More than five hundred pages in length, it remains among the more self-contained and hence readily accessible of the Victorian critic and social reformer's works, which fill thirty-nine volumes in the Library Edition begun three years after Ruskin's death, in 1900, by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (the index alone runs to 688 pages). Ruskin has scarcely any modern readers outside of certain departments of English literature and art history. Save for a few paragraphs excerpted from The Stones of Venice, or the first volume of Modern Painters, who today has really read Ruskin?

Of course, some people are familiar with the more mythic and "colorful" (read: outlandish and excruciatingly painful) aspects of the writer's life--in particular his inability to consummate his marriage to Effie Gray (reputedly because he was horrified at the sight of female pubic hair, the likes of which he had never encountered in marble sculptures). Ruskin is also known for his perfervid advocacy on behalf of J. M. W. Turner: As executor of Turner's estate, the prudish critic is said to have burned 1,858 pages of the artist's erotic drawings--but in fact the "bonfire of Turner's erotic vanities never took place," Maev Kennedy reported last December in The Guardian. "Ian Warrell, Turner expert at the Tate, has been poring over thousands of Turner drawings and paintings, matching the survivors with the Victorian inventories and records," Kennedy relates. "He is now convinced there was no bonfire, despite Ruskin's claim that he burned a mass of works of art, sparing only a bundle wrapped in brown paper and neatly labeled 'kept as evidence of a failure of mind only.'" And so a block, though not a cornerstone, of the Ruskin myth crumbles: An eminent Victorian of the sort so bitingly lampooned by Lytton Strachey turns out to be somewhat less crazy than we had thought.

Of course he was crazy. "Praeterita was deeply affected by Ruskin's periods of madness," Ruskin's modern biographer Tim Hilton writes in his introduction to the handsome new Everyman's Library edition. "Spells of illness punctuate and also direct the shape of the book."

Praeterita, begun in 1885 and abandoned years later, seldom touches directly on Ruskin's life after the death of his father, and treats his earlier years only very selectively and, often, inaccurately; the reader who longs for an account of Ruskin's disastrous marriage or of his later, stunningly bizarre relationship with a teenage Anglo-Irish girl, Rose La Touche, will be disappointed. In the preface, Ruskin avers that he has written "these sketches ... frankly, garrulously, and at ease; speaking, of what it gives me joy to remember, at any length I like--sometimes very carefully of what I think it may be useful for others to know; and passing in total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing, and which the reader would find no help in the account of." Praeterita is a consciously obliging narrative--Ruskin's friends and relatives hoped that in recollecting happier days he might avert the spells of insanity that increasingly overtook him--but the polemicist could not utterly suppress his appetite for confrontation and controversy.

Ruskin's ideas are utterly out of step with, indeed repulsive to, contemporary sensibilities. This makes them interesting. In a brief review, it is impossible to do anything but adumbrate the perversity of the opinions of this profoundly illiberal and antimodernist "reformer"; as "a violent Tory of the old school;--Walter Scott's school, that is to say, and Homer's," Ruskin was in principle opposed to neither feudalism nor slavery. What's more, his taste in art was pretty lousy. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood endures mostly as a historical curiosity. Perhaps Burne-Jones still enjoys some favor, but Ruskin could only see him through the lens of his tendentious moralizing, seeming almost preposterously insensitive to the artist's intrinsic qualities. "It is not known whether Ruskin was aware of Burne-Jones's relationship with a woman who was not his wife," writes Hilton in his vast, two-volume biography. "We do know, however, that Ruskin disapproved of nudity in contemporary art, and that Burne-Jones at just this period was painting a series of pictures, his interpretation of the Pygmalion myth, in which the female nude is prominent." And yet Ruskin betrays little awareness of the gelid eroticism that pervades Burne-Jones's corpus as a whole.

There is something telling in Everyman's Library's decision to bring out an edition of Praeterita. Maybe autobiography is better suited to the contemporary tenor, although it is hard to fathom reading this book without some considerable knowledge of the other works, as well as of the actual life of its author. Perhaps, then, it's possible to detect the irony in Ruskin's comment on the period during which Praeterita was written: "The reader of 'to-day' who has been accustomed to hear me spoken of by the artists of to-day as a superannuated enthusiast, and by the philosophers of to-day as a delirious visionary, will scarcely believe with what serious interest the appearance of the second volume of Modern Painters was looked for, by more people than my father and mother,--by people even belonging to the shrewdest literary circles, and highest artistic schools, of the time."

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.
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Title Annotation:Praeterita
Author:Rimanelli, David
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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