Tag Archives: John Ruskin

William Morris – The Lesser Arts (1877, 1882)

Originally a lecture with the title “The Decorative Arts,” given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London, 1877.

Opens with a sentiment consonant with News from Nowhere: neither laments the past, nor despises the present, nor despairs the future…but believes that all the current activity is merely life itself moving toward the betterment of mankind. The lecture explains why the decorative arts are integral to this historical process. In short, they “beautify the familiar matters of everyday life” (234). Morris draws no distinction between the forms of art and the forms of any human product: all must be either beautiful or ugly. Referencing Ruskin’s “Nature of the Gothic,” Morris claims that we should reject the “curse  of labor” thesis, and rather say that labor has become a curse only because of the artificial separation between art and work, which has degraded “the lesser arts” to mere mechanism and “the greater arts” to mere frivolous non-utility.

Morris is not calling for a return to a childish past, in which beautiful things were unconsciously made. Though history itself can be read in these quotidian forms, he does not call for a negative “unconscious intelligence” but rather a “new art of conscious intelligence” (241). Nature and History should be the teachers. Indeed, in 2102, Morris believes that the concept of nature will disappear all together, no longer able to be defined in contrast to a human that somehow would use it for ends exterior to it. History needs to be conceived from the dialectically mediated present. The restoration movement gets this wrong: they hypostasize a romanticized past and seek to patch over the real history that the centuries of “repairs” bear in themselves. [Curious dialogue could be conceived between Morris, Victor Hugo, Jude Fawley, and Jacob Flanders.]

Of course, this means that art loses its status as “useless” or “purposeless”: Morris writes, “nothing can be a work of art which is not useful.” His qualification isn’t enough to make this statement any less strange: “that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, ot which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate in a healthy state” (251). Simply put, the agreeable, the beautiful and the sublime are all lumped together, as is the mind and the body, work and rest, etc… Sympathetic to all this, but Morris needs to engage the history of aesthetics a bit more, perhaps. He also reverses the relation between taste and life. In Kant, the faculty of taste precedes the feeling life. In Morris, “Simplicity of life, begetting simplicity of taste…is of all matters most necessary for the birth of the new and better art we crave for; simplicity everywhere, in the palace as well as in the cottage” (251). One wonders whether the palace reference is a nod to Kant….


William Morris – News from Nowhere (1891)

Page numbers from Penguin (2004)

Sub-titled “An Epoch of Rest,” which is a polemic to keep in mind, since most of the novel describes scenes of labor.

A socialist fantasy that manages to combine Morris’ spiritual-romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages with his radical political beliefs. William Guest, the main character, falls asleep one night and wakes up in the year 2102. He is led around the new England by Dick Hammond. He gets a long history lesson from “old Hammond.” He takes a boat trip up the Thames all the way to Oxford and beyond, to a harvest party. On the way, he meets Ellen, a fairy-like woman prone to making elegant political speeches. Ellen guesses Guest’s secret just before the final dinner. When Guest sits down, he realizes that no one recognizes him. Despondent, he walks back to town, sees an old, dying, ragged man and everything goes black. He wonders, Was it a vision or a dream?

The bulk of News from Nowhere is a thinly veiled didactic exposition on what socialism could/would enable. But the narrative frame should not be ignored. Morris has to work pretty hard to justify the first person–in short, there is a conflation of the first and third person:

But, says he, I think it would be better if I told them in the first person….which will indeed be the easier and more natural for me, since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world. (45)

This cumbersome “getting over into the I” is matched by the task of getting over into the future, one could say. The possibility of assuming the position of self-narrating narrator depends on a temporal problem, which gets staged towards the end of the novel:

I said, falteringly: ‘I was saying to myself, The past, the present? Should she not have said the contrast of the present and the future: of blind despair and hope?’ (222)

Guest is pulled between despair and hope, as “Nowhere” pulls between past and future. So at times he reminds other characters of a melancholic, “wanting to nurse a sham sorrow, like the ridiculous characters in some of those old queer novels” (217). This is precisely what Morris wants to refuse, and what makes this novel so different…almost not a novel. Do we contrast the present with the past (depressed 3rd person) or the present with the future (hopeful 1st person)? [still trying to work this out….] Perhaps this draws the difference between the creation of myth, or the telling of fictional history. The Golden Age becomes something to anticipate rather than long for. Thus the obvious pastoral nostalgia is paired with a practical politics and sustainable environmentalism.

Specific things to remember:

Art is called “work-pleasure.” It is, in short, consonant with modes of self-preservation and community. (160)

People don’t understand the idea of something’s value exceeding its use (81)…and, in line with Morris’ commitment to beautifying the everyday, there is a commitment to making basic things beautiful: clothing, tobacco pipes, etc. “You have added the utmost refinement of workmanship to the freedom of fancy and imagination” (201).

Children are educated in practical things. “Book-learning” is is casually taken up according to their interests. Contrast this utopian vision with Jude the Obscure. Morris’ portrait of Oxbridge dovetails with Hardy’s critique: the centers of learning are catering to an upper class intent on reproducing the relations of production. (103)

Morris is skeptical of technology and labor-sacing machines in general. He follows the Marxist critique: more extraction of labor, etc. Labor itself is glorified as and end in itself. “The reward for labor is life” (122).

As Guest journeys into the heart of England, his intellectual activity slowly gives way to instinctual desires…those things that have been suppressed or perverted by industrial capitalism.

The idea of the sojourner. There is a disturbing unremarkable quality to Guest’s entry and exit into “nowhere,” which could be read in terms of “open secrets.” The intrusion of the narrative voice that would narrate the perfection of the future is both acknowledge and not acknowledged. [work on this…]

Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure (1895-6)

Hardy’s last novel is also his most dense, sparse and brutal. Country bumpkin Jude Fawley (pun on folly) aspires to be an Oxford don, but because of liquor and a weakness for women, as he calls it, ends up marrying Arabella Donn (yes, pun intended), who snags him by lying about being pregnant. Their marriage breaks up over the slaughtering of a pig: Jude refuses to bleed it slowly because of his affection for animals.  Arabella moves to Australia, and Jude moves to Christminster, where he studies hard plies his trade of stone-cutting; he is refurbishing the inside of a cathedral, much like Hardy himself did. He meets Sue Bridehead, a cousin, whom is Aunt Drusilla has expressly told him to avoid. According to her, there is a curse ont he family that makes all wedlock something to be avoided. Jude unintentionally brings her together with his old idol Richard Phillottson, whom Sue agrees to marry. But not before she breaks out of her training school to meet Jude, etc. etc. She marries him but is immediately unhappy, as Jude knew she would be. She leaves with Phillottson’s consent and goes to Jude. But they don’t marry. Arabella has returned (a drunken night ended in Jude sleeping with her once again), and though she is married to a certain Cartell, she informs Jude that she had a child from him, whose name is Father Time. Sue and Jude raise him. They are happy for a while, but never get married (for a fear of the legal bond that would destroy their natural love). Cast out by society, they return eventually to Christminster, where they can’t fin lodging. Father Time (little Jude) kills Sue’s two children and hangs himself because they were “too menny.” Sue goes crazt and becomes religious. She remarries Richard. Jude eventually remarries Arabella. Jude dies, and Arabella is looking for a new man before he is cold.

Critique of the bildungsroman: In short, a systematic subversion of the meritocratic presumptions of the 19th-century bildungsroman.

The letter killeth: This is referring to the letter of the law, but it reverberates in two other significations: Jude carves letters, he etches things like the ten commandments in stone [not sure to connect this..perahps through ideas of permanence?]; Sue writes through letters that express her more free self…that is, her letters allow for the sort of split personality that gets their tragic romance off the ground.

Natural vs. Legal vs. Spiritual: The rather simple notion of a contract in Casterbridge is complicated here. According to the demands of the plot, it functions in one of these tree ways: it effectively empties marriage of its symbolic status and it becomes a device for refracting the various social and religious dogmas that exist in the text.

Fate/Tragic: Yes, Jude and Sue do seem to be beaten about by external circumstances, but they also have an awareness of the tragic from which the consciously draw to make sense of their circumstances. Locating the cause and effect is difficult (making this a proto-modernist text), because the textual allusiveness takes on a force that becomes constitutive of plot itself. Jude exclaims that Sue is “enslaved to forms,” and while that applies, the moment to her rigid adherence to religious forms, it could apply, also to the early moments in the text, when her unconventionality is precisely that which the 19th-century novel needs in order for it to grind along and grind down those excesses necessary for conclusion.

Architecture: The normal descriptions of the Wessex landscape give way, in this novel, to a focus on architecture–above all, architecture in transition. Most obviously, cathedrals are being retrofitted in gothic fashion (Sue wishes Jude had been trained in the classic way–can relate this Ruskin, how the democracy of the Gothic has itself become a form that can be imposed, artificially, on the crumbling remnants of a social order.) But domestic interiors also have an incongruous feel: oak wainscot contrasts with the brass bed stand and the birch furniture. The two styles “nod to each other across three centuries upon the shaking floor” (282).

The University: Needs to be contextualized within Hardy’s own personal history: an auto-didactic that could never quite shake off the image of the rustic…he would try to write urban novels only to be driven by the market to stay within the confines of his Wessex.

Animals: Both Sue and Jude are kind to animals (birds, pigs, rabbits), which distinguishes them most clearly from Arabella, and her father, who run a pork business. The obvious reading is that it demonstrates Jude and Sue’s desire to extricate themselves from the cycle of nature that characterize the “quite desperation” of all those that blithely accept the conventions foisted on them by “culture.” Yet, in so doing, they implicate themselves in a different cycle of literary reduplication that condemns them to misery–moral: resisting the cruelty inherent to man’s existence will just make you the object of that very cruelty. 

Loving-kindness: The term that Hardy associates with the sort of lowest common denominator of human sympathy–and capacity to narrate–in his 1922 poetic “Apology.” In the context of Jude,

John Ruskin

Stones of Venice (1851-3)

Nature of the Gothic: The Gothic not defined by any single feature, but according to the relationship between features. He gives six categories, the removal of the majority of which will result in the edifice not being gothic (but what about half, one wonders?):

  1. Savageness
  2. Changefulness
  3. Naturalism
  4. Grotesqueness
  5. Rigidity
  6. Redundance

He performs the mode of seeing the whole in all of its parts in relation by doing a virtual bird’s eye tour of Europe, past and present. There is a carelessness of spectatorship that matches the carelessness, the savageness of the mode of construction:

Let us stnad by him when with rough strength and hurried stroke, he smites an uncouth animation out of the rocks which he has torn from among the moss of the moorland, and heaves into the darkened air the pile of iron buttress and rugged wall, instinct with work of an imagination as wild an wayward as the northern sea. (174)

The idea is that there is a freedom granted to this crude workmen: the gothic recognizes even in small things, the value of the individual soul. The Gothic is constituted by imperfect fragments united into a coherent whole. It is, in other words, a political genre of architecture. Rusking even admits that such perfection (the perfection of imperfection) requires waste: it’s the cost of freedom. He comes out with his aesthetic dictum: “No good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of the misunderstanding of the ends of art” (183).

We can also seen in his description of active rigidity and particularly Adornian moment:

the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement, and stiffness to resistance, which makes the fiercest lightning forked rather than curved, and the stoutest oak-branch angular rather than bending, and is as much seen in the quivering of the lance as in the glittering of the icicle. (194)

In other words, an erect penis.


Modern Painters (1860)

Definition of the Greatness of Art: that which conveys the greatest number of the greatest ideas to the spectator. A strange adoption of utilitarian language–a system that he elsewhere severely critiques, such as in Unto this Last. Contrast this to Pater: Ruskin is not into pleasure, and that’s why it’s absent from this definition: Pater in Renaissance lifts from Hegel (spirit in sensuous form) and adds Hellenistic, sensuous pleasure…and this is a reaction against Ruskin, Newman, Carlyle.

Pathetic Fallacy: Ruskin argues that this fallacy originates in the artistic mind that is too weak to control emotions. So there are three types of artist: the one sees but does not feel; the one who feels and therefore cannot see correctly; the one who sees correctly despite his feelings. However, Ruskin goes on to argue that when the fact becomes so great…it must disorder the senses of the poet. Not that language becomes insufficient to the event, but a disordered form of language becomes appropriate….BUT, NO event is beyond language…This is therefore a fourth type, but really only different in degree from the second type. Ruskin’s essays often mark out these numerical categories and then go about frustrating them.

Unto this Last (1860)

Mill is an idiot….rips apart political economy, just to say that this could work, yes, but you are forgetting that you do not always have to do things according to material interest, wants to posit moral sphere with vantages from which you can determine interest outside of material necessity…

Thomas Carlyle – Signs of the Times (1829)

Can be read as prototypical critique of the acceptance of utilitarian values (anticipating both Ruskin’s Unto this Last and Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy). Focuses on the fact of transition: “All men are aware that the present is a crisis of this sort; and why it has become so…Those things that seemed fixed (like the church) and immovable; deep as the foundations of the world and lo, in a moment they have vanished, and their place knows them no more” (62)! Carlyle is intent, however, on giving a program for action, which entails a robust Understanding of the Present as the convergence of Past and Future:

The poorest Day that passes over us is te conflux of two Eternities; it is made up of currents that issue from the remotest Past, and flow onwards into the remotest Future. We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us,  for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our own true aims and endeavors in it, may also becomes clear. (64)

He makes the argument that the “Soul-Politic” is being ignored while the “Body-Politic” is “more than ever worshipped” (71). This is the result of a focus on the mechanical rather than dynamical aspects of life. The dynamical refers to those spontaneous, unsolicited gifts of nature: art and science. the point here is that the logic of “Profit and Loss” has no place in the realm of art, since it is completely unable to either produce or regulate its movements. Via art and science, so does “man, in every age, vindicate, consciously or unconsciously, his celestial birthright” (75). Carlyle argues for a proper balance of the dynamic and the mechanic, and locates the process of this balancing act in the individual perfection of the self. That’s the conclusion: but he gets there by way astronomical predictions. (85)

Charles Dickens – Our Mutual Friend (1864-5)

John Harmon, Julius Hanford and John Rokesmith are all the same character: namely, our mutual friend. He is “murdered” early on, but is reincarnated as John Rokesmith, a secretary to the Boffins, the erstwhile servants (now heirs) of the miserly Senior Hamron’s dusty fortune. He falls in love with Bella Wilfer, whom he has supposed to marry as part of the will and contrives to stay disguised as a means of testing her. The Boffins are part of the scheme to test her, and Noddy Boffin appears to be entirely corrupted by money (and at great risk of being swindled by the spurious poet-teacher-salesman Silas Wegg).

Eugene Wrayburn falls in love with Lizzie Hexam, the daugher of the boatman (Gaffer Hexam) who discovers John Harmon’s putative body. He does not marry her at first, b/c of social difference, but seeks to better her and court her. Lizzie’s brother Charley goes off to school (at her bidding) and studies under Bradley headstone, who also falls in love with Lizzie and eventually turns violently against his rival Eugene. Eugene almost dies, but not before seeking out Lizzie and marrying her on his almost-death-bed.

Eventually everything works out. A will is found which hands over all the money to the Boffins, who give it over to Harmon and Bella, a once mercenary woman turned good by the lessons directed by Harmon. Harmon is reborn as a rich inheritor but through the tidy circuit of the Boffins, who render the money “clean,” I guess. Eugene does not die.  Bradley headstone kills himself and Riderhood, a good-for-nothing boatman who attempted to falsely accuse Hexam of murder. Mortimer remains single, and Twemlow (and awkward neutral character) gives the final word on marrying across class lines.

Other important characters include the Lammles (who live beyond their means), Fledgeby (who extorts everyone behind the mask of Riah), Venus (the bone articulartor who helps but then abandons Wegg)

Plot: Wild, more wild then Bleak House. Dickens, in the afterward, admits to its emming implausibility, but used a Sherlock Holmes-style explanation: fact is often less plausible then are most highly wrought fictions.

Central Metaphor: the river Thames serves as driver of plot, but also as a reinforcement of narrative repetition —points in the plot that are similar (either foreshadowing or reversals)…begins with a death in the river, but Eugene Wrayburn is reborn in the river.  Also, track river metaphor from Redgauntlet (as murky dividing line between a Scotland partitioned between Royalists and Rebels) to [As I lay Dying, etc.]

Doubles: Not motivated by plot, but rather are imposed by characters—characters as plot making actors (Bradley Headstone tried to turn himself into a double of Riderhood); John Harmon is replaced by a nameless person in the body bag: he likewise becomes a tripel of himself, each character manifesting different aspects of his personality, itself a device for richer characterization.

Child/Parent Reversals – Bella turns her father (Rumpty, cherub, Reginald) into her child, and The Doll Dress Maker Jenny Wren turns her reprobate father into a child while she in turn looks old and wizened. A trope throughout Dickens, most notable in Skimpole.

Eugene Wrayburn is another instantiation of the aimless, listless bachelor.

Education: Dicknes contrives an entire plot within a plot to manage the moral and domestic education of Bella Wilfer. Compare this to what Marianna undergoes in Sense and Sensibility. Both characters are guilty of types of excess, whether monetary or emotive. While her’s is a gradual education, Eugene is literally reborn, and disfigurement becomes the means to his moral revolution.

Violence, not Sickness – Not nearly as pervasive as in Bleak House (think of Jo), but characters are afflicted by more outright and salient violence.

Jews – Riah stands in as the money-lender, but is, in fact, merely a front for Fledgeby, who extorts everyone in money troubles. Dickens is sympathetic to Jews throughout, and spends a while insisting on their hard-working, sympathetic character.

Orphan plot – See Seth Koven here, Mrs. Boffin goes prospecting for picturesque orphans for quite a while before realizing that it’s counter-productive.

Mirrors – besides the persistence of water as a mirror, Bella uses a mirror to interrogate herself, a mirror reflects the feast at Veneerings (themselves a mirror for society), etc.

Concealment and Revelation –

Narration – largely ominiscient third person, but without warning takes on the perspective of a character in the scene, and not always the main person. Decidely modern in its ability to shift around from consciousness to consciousness.

Literalizing metaphors – this can be comic or tragic depending on situation. Track instances throughout and make list.

Life – When Riderhood is coming back to Life, “Life” becomes an objectified force that exists outside of the individual subject.  Read Gallagher, who says that Our Mutual Friend and Unto this Lastwant to denounce British political economy, but end up importing abstract idea of life, vital labor, that animates political economy and it is exchangeable (when Riderhood is no longer who he is, he is merely bare life, that’s what invests anything with value…cf. Arendt, Agamben, etc.).

How alive does John Harmon have to be in order for him to posses value? From the position of being dead that he will recuperate value that has been tainted by social inequality—from iilth into wealth (Ruskin’s terms in Unto this Last)

Connecting to Hardy as valuing the point of death (the fact that he is dead makes it so that you narrate…but in Hardy…that’s when you know the stakes of chance are identical, lovingkindness is like being dead, because it flattens everything; contradiction: dissolve self/other differentiation…[Sanders’ point:] the precondition for that being a value is that there is a self that can appreciate it by a subject…