Brilliant Writer, Awkward Man

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 13, 2005 | Go to article overview

Brilliant Writer, Awkward Man


Byline: Merle Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It is impossible to overestimate the influence - or the abiding relevance - of the Victorian art critic and social prophet John Ruskin (1819-1900), whose impassioned critique of a society obsessed with getting and spending struck a chord that has continued to reverberate with thoughtful individuals across the political spectrum. Ruskin was a seer in both senses of the word: an acutely perceptive observer of art, architecture, literature, and Nature, and an uncannily prescient Cassandra who warned of developing threats - moral, social, economic, cultural, and environmental - to human life and happiness.

Ruskin's politics were something of a paradox. A forceful critic of greed, the profit motive, the degradation of labor, and economic injustice, he was also a staunch believer in hierarchy and authority. As he wrote at the outset of his unfinished autobiography, "Praeterita":

"I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school; - Walter Scott's school, that is to say, and Homer's. . . .From. . .Scott and Homer, I learned the Toryism which my best after-thought has only served to confirm. That is to say, a most sincere love of kings, and dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them. Only, both by Scott and Homer, I was taught strange ideas about kings, which I find for the present much obsolete; for. . .both [Homer and Scott]. . .made their kings do harder work than anybody else. . .[they] not only did more, but in proportion to their doings got less, than other people - nay, the best of them were even ready to govern for nothing! . . .Of late it has seemed to me that the idea of a king has become exactly the contrary of this, and that it has been supposed the duty of superior persons generally to govern less, and get more, than anybody else."

But as confident as he was in his aesthetic, moral, and social judgments, Ruskin's personal life was clouded with frustration, doubt, and anxiety. In a letter written to his American friend and confidant, Charles Eliot Norton, in 1868, he wondered if he would even be able to write an autobiography: "I have often thought of setting down some notes of my life. But I know not how - I should have to accuse my own folly bitterly - but no less - as far as I can judge - that of the fondest - faithfullest - most devoted - most mistaken parents that ever child was blest with - or ruined by."

Ruskin's father, a prosperous sherry importer with a passion for Scott's novels and Byron's poetry, had died in 1864, but his mother, a devoutly evangelical Protestant, was still alive. Both had been devoted parents to their cherished only child, but to call them "over-protective" would be an understatement.

The little boy was brought up in virtual isolation, his every step watched over, worried over. Later, when he embarked on what would prove to be a disastrous marriage to Euphemia (a.k.a. Effie) Gray, he left his new bride behind to go with his parents on a trip to Europe. He seemed unable to break away from their well-meaning domination, and his marriage, never consummated, ended when Effie fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Millais.

Subsequently, Ruskin, at this point 39, fell in love with 10-year-old Rose La Touche and eight years later, when she came of age, proposed to her.

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