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«RUSKIN ON POLITICAL ECONOMY, OR ‘BEING PREACHED TO DEATH BY A MAD GOVERNESS’ G.C.G. Moore* Willie Henderson. 2000. John Ruskin’s Political ...»

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G.C.G. Moore*

Willie Henderson. 2000. John Ruskin’s Political Economy. Routledge. London.

Pp xv + 200. ISBN 0-415-20067-9.

Willie Henderson has drawn upon recent literary theory to write a good book on a

much neglected topic, namely John Ruskin’s views on classical political economy, and

consequently the arguments and conclusions contained in this publication deserve to be reviewed at length. Before proceeding to my highly qualified criticisms of this book, however, the now relative obscurity of its central character, at least within the narrow world inhabited by economists, calls for some prefatory biographical remarks.

Ruskin was one of the most influential art and social critics of the nineteenth century and, indeed, his writings conveniently frame the Victorian Age, his first piece appearing in 1830 and his last in 1900. He was also a tragic figure of theatrical, if not Greek, proportions. He was delicate, exceedingly thin and possessed an unshapely mouth, having been savaged by a dog in early childhood; his unhealthy filial devotion to his grim evangelical mother and doting vintner father, which continued into middle age, clearly retarded his emotional development; and his disposition to morbidity and hypochondria constantly threatened to push him over to madness, as the following passage, written at 43, reveals: “I feel as if I were living in one great churchyard, with people all around me clinging feebly to the edges of open graves” (quoted in Harrison 1911:310). Although Ruskin sufficiently mastered these and other fragile character attributes to develop a charming disposition and to attain fame in his chosen career as a prophet and seer, he unfortunately did not have the strength of mind to overcome his very public travails of finding a suitable companion. The initial woman of his affections spurned his callow advances and, on the rebound, he married Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers Gray in 1848. This marriage remained unconsummated and soon disintegrated, with Effie at one stage describing it as “worse than suffering the pains of eternal torment” (Ruskin 1854:12). The marriage was annulled in 1854 on the prompting of Effie, who, driven by her hatred for Ruskin, publicly declared him to be impotent. Ruskin privately claimed that this was not the case, stating that consummation initially did not take place due to the financial anxieties of Effie’s parents, and, though he quickly realised that they were incompatible, that he continued to offer his services from time to time. He added: “I can claim my virility at once, but I do not wish to receive back into my house the woman who has made such a charge against me” (ibid:16). The scandal worsened when Effie shortly after ran off with the bohemian and pre-Raphaelite, John EverettMillais, who was a close friend of Ruskin and with whom Effie eventually had eight children. Ruskin’s private life then sank into further turmoil when he became madly infatuated with Rose La Touche, whom he first encountered when she was nine and a half (some say eleven) in his capacity as her private art tutor. He waited until 1866, when she was eighteen, to make the first of his proposals, but her mother finally forbade such a union after corresponding with Effie, Ruskin on Political Economy 71 _______________________________________________________________________________

who still bore ill feelings towards Ruskin. Rose, who was also mentally unhinged, died prematurely in 1875, and Ruskin subsequently began to experience intermittent bouts of more obvious mental illness, before experiencing a major collapse from ‘brain fever’ in 1889 and unrelenting madness until his death in 1900. The drawing room gossip that followed these travails was less painful to Ruskin than his belief that his emotional needs and passions—the natures of which we should not be too quick to infer—remained unmet. He is recorded as having stated that the major calamity of his life was not finding love.

Ruskin’s tortured private life and occasional want of mental balance patently influenced his intellectual endeavours, although, as numerous Ruskin scholars have repeatedly argued, this influence has been over-stated in the secondary literature and, worse, incorrectly used to dismiss his more opaque judgments as the natural issue of a disturbed mind. The precise nature of these intellectual endeavours, whatever their source, initially took the form of single-handedly redefining the nature and purpose of art for a Victorian middle class that was then all but begging to be directed in matters of culture. Ruskin’s theories of art, as articulated in his multi-volume Modern Painters (1843-60) and other celebrated works, are far too complex even to be adumbrated in this brief review. It is sufficient to state here that they were, from the beginning, constituted by a philosophy of life, the central theme of which was that contented and ‘whole’ individuals working within a just society, and striving to capture the essence of nature, produce fine and noble art (and commodities in general), while corrupt and despondent individuals working within an unjust society, and drawing upon the tools and images of the machine age, produce shoddy and depraved art (see Williams 1961 for a pithy introduction to this philosophy). It was consequently a very short step for Ruskin to shift his focus from art criticism to social criticism, which he did in the late 1850s. His primary target was the spokespeople for the new Victorian order, the political economists. His first concerted attack on the received economic vision of his times appeared in a series of lectures entitled ‘The Political Economy of Art’ in 1857, which were eventually published with additions as A Joy for Ever in 1880, and in which he argued that England should appoint a paternal head steward to manage the economy like an estate, directing industry and controlling the flows of resources, especially in the production of art and those endeavours that give rise to sub-standard commodities. He then turned his attention to political economy proper with four essays in William Makepeace Thackery’s Cornhill Magazine in 1860, which were published as Unto This Last in 1862, and in which he insisted that production and consumption patterns should be re-drawn in a way that would create a just society and allow individuals to achieve a higher plane of being or wholeness (a “felicitous fulfilment of function”), and, most importantly, sought to prove that the political economists employed faulty reasoning and the implausible concept of economic man to prevent the emergence of this just society and the associated ‘whole’ or perfected man. This was followed by ‘Essays on Political Economy’ in James Froude’s Fraser’s Magazine in 1862, which were eventually published with substantial changes as Munera Pulveris in 1872, and in which he embarked upon the ambitious (and seriously flawed) project of constructing an entirely new axiomatic economic system on terms of his own defining. He then made further attacks within Sesame and Lilies in 1865, which, though ostensibly about the art of reading and female education, is really yet another diatribe against modern life and economic relations. Ruskin also repeatedly returned to many of these issues in more general social commentaries, such as Time and Tide (1867) and the discursive and often startling epistolary series, Fors Coligera (1871History of Economics Review _______________________________________________________________________________

The response to Ruskin’s assaults on classical political economy was brutal and acerbic, if not scandalous. Thackery cut short his series of articles in the Cornhill and Froude, on the prompting of the publishers, ended his contributions to the Fraser. One critic facetiously stated that Ruskin’s true sphere was art and that ‘Unto this Last’ should be his field of research (quoted in McCarthy 1903:336). Ruskin’s views on political economy were singled out for particularly harsh ridicule partly because, unlike the many other social commentators of this time, he attacked political economy directly and systematically, rather than with the occasional acid remark or striking parable within a broader call for reform. Thus, whereas Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle and other social critics were tolerated for their references to ‘grandgrindism’, ‘pig philosophy’, ‘the dismal science’, and so forth, Ruskin could not be forgiven for caustic phrases such as the ‘goddess of getting-on’ and ‘Britannia of the market’, as they were coupled with analytical appraisals that ended with the indictments that Adam Smith was a blasphemer and the blackest of ‘devils’ and John Stuart Mill was ‘cretinous’ and a ‘goose’ (quoted in Henderson 2000: 34-5). The different reception given to Ruskin’s close friend, Carlyle, is particularly telling, since Ruskin explicitly stated that Carlyle’s tirades against the machine age were a source of inspiration and he laced his own narratives with Carlylesque abuse. Anthony Trollope was one of the first to contrast the wisdom of Carlyle with the rashness of Ruskin: “But I doubt whether many men will receive Carlylesque denunciations from Mr. Ruskin with any good to their souls. He produces them with the grace of poetic expression and the strength of well-arranged, vigorous words; but they do not contain that innate, conspicuous wisdom which alone can make such preaching efficacious” (1865: 298).

Leslie Stephen was even more explicit about the implications of attacking political economy directly: “The craftsmen still believed implicitly in their Diana of the Ephesians. Carlyle’s huge growls had passed over men’s heads like distant thunder, too vague to be effective. Ruskin meant to be the lightening, striking distinct and tangible points” (1900: 420). Any umbrage taken over this systematic assault on political economy was then compounded by Ruskin’s audacity in not only proposing an alternative to the laissez faire system with which this science was then associated, but in making this alternative authoritarian in nature. The paternalistic command economy promoted by Ruskin, especially in ‘The Political Economy of Art’ and Munera Pulveris, was censured for its orientalism, caeserism and, worse still, its Jacobin overtones. It was a blueprint to be classed with Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia or Bishop Berkley’s Bermuda project, and consequently dismissed as an impractical socio-economic system (see especially Thomas 1857:207).

The critical assault against Ruskin was then all but carried with the accusation that he was incapable of writing in a systematic and coherent manner. This supposed fault with Ruskin’s writings needs to be elaborated upon, as it is a judgment with which Henderson takes issue and upon which my few critical comments of Henderson’s book rest. Ruskin wrote long, elaborate sentences, building clause upon clause, and conveyed his ideas by drawing upon rich metaphors, endless classical references, biblical parables and personal experiences. It was an extremely impressive prose style, which, according to J.B. Priestley, was deliberately imitated by Marcel Proust, who also happened to translate some of Ruskin’s writings into French (1960:159). It nonetheless often became over-elaborate and excessively ornate (even by Victorian standards), and frequently entailed lurching between an immoderate number of metaphors and as many as twenty classical references within a few pages. It was also often discursive and chaotic, with Ruskin frequently leaving lines of reasoning unfinished in favour of pursuing needless digressions, allowing arguments Ruskin on Political Economy 73 _______________________________________________________________________________

to become inexorably entangled, and giving the impression that his assertions were driven by emotion rather than reason. It certainly maddened the champions of classical political economy, who were raised on the ordered and precise reasoning of John Stuart Mill. They duly contrasted Ruskin’s ‘hysterical’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘effeminate’ reasoning with the ‘manly’ scientific rigour of Mill. One critic wrote that “it is intolerable that a man whose best performances are deformed by constant eruptions of windy hysterics should be able to avail himself of the pages of one of our most popular periodicals for the purpose of pouring out feminine nonsense, in language which women would have far too much self-respect to employ, upon so grave a subject as political economy” (Anonymous 1860:274). This critic added that it was like, as with Sydney Smith’s dean, being “preached to death by a mad governess” (ibid: 275). He then contrasted Mill’s “vigorous logic and simplicity of style” with Ruskin’s “intolerable twaddle about Ixiom, Demas, Dante, and Ezekial’s vision of wheels”, and concluded that the reader’s judgment of him will be determined according to his “preference for strong exercise on the one hand, or hysterics on the other” (ibid: 278;

see also Anonymous 1862a: 286). A more sympathetic reviewer argued that Ruskin’s power lay in a different direction: “So subtle a critic had not probably appeared since the time of Coleridge. He was unrivalled in the somewhat feminine faculty of entering into the thoughts of others. He could expound the half-unconscious intentions of poets and painters. Add to this subtlety an intense love and minute observation of nature, and a purity and generosity of spirit without which both his sympathy for nature and the works of genius would have been impossible, and then set forth his thoughts in a pomp of magnificent words, and we cannot be surprised that Mr Ruskin captivated many readers” (Anonymous 1862b: 292). This critic consequently concluded that Ruskin was unsuited to the study of social life and that it was inevitable that he would take refuge in sentimentalism and loose reasoning. He justified these forthright remarks on the grounds that a “half-delirious man, however highly gifted, cannot be

allowed to move about unchecked with a lighted candle in a powder magazine” (ibid:

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