A man of the hour, and a man for all time

Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Capitalism was steaming full speed ahead, spreading progress -- and destitution -- in its wake. Technology was transforming the Earth. Pollution cast its pall over city and countryside. Newspapers were bursting with lurid stories of violent crimes. No wonder so many of the great Victorian poets, prophets and sages were appalled by the spectacle of their "modern world," so close, in so many ways, to our own.

In 1864, in a pair of lectures delivered in the British manufacturing city of Manchester, the already-famous art critic John Ruskin admonished his audience: "Above all, a nation cannot exist as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence."

Published together the following year in a single volume titled "Sesame and Lilies," the first of these lectures, "Of Kings' Treasuries," sought to persuade this industrialist, mercantile audience that there was more to life than making money. "I want to speak to you," Ruskin declared, "about the treasures hidden in books." In the second lecture, "Of Queens' Gardens," Ruskin offered his views on the education of women and their role in society: "[L]et a girl's education be as serious as a boy's," he charged his audience. "You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity." Ruskin's experience teaching in a girls' school convinced him that girls have a natural gift for choosing what they needed to read: "[T]urn her loose into the old library ... and let her alone. She will find what is good for her; you cannot ...."

Part of a Yale University Press series called "Rethinking the Western Tradition," this edition of "Sesame and Lilies" addresses itself to the concerns of the "modern" reader, "modern" here meaning feminist. In her introduction, Deborah Epstein Nord points out that many anthologies of Ruskin's work, like John D. Rosenberg's "The Genius of John Ruskin," have reprinted "Of Kings' Treasuries" but omitted "Of Queens' Gardens," while Kate Millett in her attack on Ruskin ignored the former, focusing her ire upon the latter with its idealizing view of women as queens. Thus, in offering both lectures, this edition of "Sesame and Lilies" has already rendered a valuable service.

Before "Sesame and Lilies," Ruskin had already made his name with "The Seven Lamps of Architecture," "The Stones of Venice" and "Modern Painters," but to describe him as an art critic (although he is assuredly one of the greatest) doesn't begin to convey the magnitude of his vision. For Ruskin, aesthetics and ethics were indivisible. In assessing the beauty of a work of art or architecture, he insisted, we must consider the human conditions under which it was made. No ornate beadwork produced by repetitive, loveless labor, no minuscule embroidery that blinded some poor seamstress could be truly beautiful.

In 1860, with "Unto This Last," Ruskin emerged as full-fledged social prophet. His critique of the cash nexus and laissez-faire economics was so controversial, the magazine that was publishing these essays discontinued the series. "There is no wealth but Life -- Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration," he insisted. "That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings." Ruskin once said that "Sesame and Lilies," taken with "Unto This Last," contained "the chief truths I have endeavored through all my past life to display."

Ruskin was both immensely popular and controversial in his own time, and controversy has continued to surround him ever since. To critics of the mid-20th century, Ruskin's "moralizing," as they called it, was an embarrassment, but his brilliant aesthetic criticism and his powerful critique of capitalism assured his high place in the pantheon. The real trouble, however, began in 1970, when Millett, in her landmark study "Sexual Politics," contrasted what she saw as Ruskin's old-fashioned, chivalric view of women with the progressive, egalitarian position espoused by his contemporary John Stuart Mill. Books like Phyllis Rose's "Parallel Lives" followed suit, vilifying Ruskin as a prissy misogynist unable to consummate his marriage because the naked body of his new bride did not resemble the classical nudes of art.

It says something, perhaps, about the current state of academe that the able and intelligent defenders of Ruskin found in this new edition of "Sesame and Lilies" feel compelled to argue his case in terms of feminist ideology, as if current standards of political correctness were eternal verities. We're being told, in effect, that it's all right to read "Sesame and Lilies" again: Turns out, its pro-feminist elements outweigh its anti-feminist ones after all. It is also unfortunate that a thoughtfully produced critical edition like this one delivers somewhat less than promised in terms of actual scholarship. Ruskin mentions three figures from literary history with whom he feels an affinity: Guido Guinicelli, Marmontel and Dean Swift. None of these is glossed, even though the glossary needlessly identifies figures as well known as Chaucer, Homer and St. Paul.

But this is not to detract from the very real virtues of the excellent critical essays in this volume. Jan Marsh helpfully places "Sesame and Lilies" in the context of debates about education in Ruskin's time. Seth Koven's fascinating discussion of Victorian responses to "Sesame and Lilies" highlights Ruskin's power to inspire progressive hearts and minds but also helps us understand the shift in zeitgeist that transformed one of the heroes of 19th century feminists to a reactionary in the eyes of early 20th century suffragists.

Indeed, as Nord astutely suggests, far from patronizing women by emphasizing their special qualities, what Ruskin actually proposes in "Sesame and Lilies" is "that men and women might profitably exchange those characteristics that are commonly associated with their own sex." Having urged men to cultivate their nobler faculties, Ruskin proceeds to extol the superior feminine attribute he calls "tact" or the "touch-faculty": in his words, the "fineness and fulness of sensation, beyond reason; -- the guide and sanctifier of reason itself." Woman, Ruskin maintains, has more of a natural instinct for what is right, just, true and good than Man; therefore Man should submit to her guidance. It is thus quite possible to read Ruskin as a precursor of modern feminists such as Robin Morgan, Andrea Dworkin and Helene Cixous.

Beyond questions of gender, "Sesame and Lilies" is a meditation on the act of reading itself. Elizabeth Helsinger's subtle and penetrating essay focuses on this aspect of Ruskin's work while relating it to his praise of the traditionally "feminine" qualities of passion and sensitivity. Ruskin, she reminds us, "sees and encourages the potential fierceness of girls." Passion, sensitivity and fierceness also happen to be the qualities that make Ruskin's own writing so extraordinarily moving.

A self-described "Tory of the old school," Ruskin also described himself as "a Communist of the old school." Although his "Tory" view of society was hierarchical, what now might be called "elitist," he fiercely deplored the inequities brought about by extremes of wealth and poverty. His indignation on behalf of the poor kindled the imagination of countless reformers and philanthropists. But perhaps the best way to characterize him is as a Romantic visionary with radical leanings. Ruskin was one of the Victorian Age's great myth-makers, a prose poet whose erudite and imaginative metaphors offered a fresh way of seeing things. Too literal a reading can render him ridiculous. If some women may have felt daunted by the pedestal on which Ruskin seems to place them, how many Victorian lawyers would have cared to live up to his ideal of a lawyer who would rather sacrifice his life than perpetrate an injustice?

Impassioned, protean and richly suggestive, Ruskin's voluminous body of work was vastly and variedly influential. He, and not Karl Marx, was the writer most often cited by Britain's first Labor members of Parliament as having shaped their views. The range of his influence is astonishing: from the radical American economist Henry George to William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement; from empire-builder Cecil Rhodes to anti-imperialist Mohandas K. Gandhi; from Leo Tolstoy to Oscar Wilde. For Marcel Proust, who translated "Sesame and Lilies" into French, Ruskin revealed the inherent morality of aesthetics and refreshed his sense of the value of life itself.

Intellectual fashions keep changing. Lionel Trilling, in a headnote introducing Ruskin to students in the (post-Millett) 1970s, still felt it incumbent upon himself to apologize, not for Ruskin's politically incorrect idealization of women but for his tendency to "moralize." But to read Ruskin in the open and imaginative spirit with which he himself urged readers to approach great books is to realize that his writings will survive any number of shifts in intellectual fashion.

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