Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Ruskin on Imagination: A Via Negativa

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Ruskin on Imagination: A Via Negativa

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY RELATES RUSKIN'S "PATHETIC FALLACY" for the first time to his theory of the ideal as it develops in the course of the early volumes of Modern Painters. Tracking, through these volumes, a progression of ideas rather than a set critical position, it reads, in their sequence, the growth and direction of Ruskin's version of realism. Beginning in Modern Painters I with a theory of art centered on the ideal, Ruskin is led, not through a break from, but through an intensification of, the key emphases of his own theory, to the rejection of idealism in the framing of "pathetic fallacy" in Modern Painters III. Analogous to the via naturaliter negativa, the path through nature to its negation, famously shown in Wordsworth's poetry by Geoffrey Hartman, (1) in Ruskin we might discern the opposite trajectory, through the ideal to its negation. The end point of that trajectory is his great realist manifesto, "Of the Pathetic Fallacy," premised on an irreducible moral relation between self and other. At that end point, Romantic imagination is superseded by a new emphasis on feeling, and Ruskin's departure from his Romantic precursors is fully and finally achieved.

The various aspects of Ruskin's thought that comprise his realism have been ably and extensively treated in the existing scholarship; in particular, his turn from Romanticism in the explication of pathetic fallacy is well established. (2) This scholarship, now of many decades' standing, continues to define our current understanding of Ruskin's aesthetics. My justification for revisiting these topics is the attempt to draw them together into a more complete conceptual picture. Taking my cue from Thomas Pfau's recent powerful advocacy of the hermeneutic method in humanistic enquiry, (3) my recourse is to conceptual analysis rather than historical or biographical contextualization. Such analysis, in this far more bounded study than Pfau's, follows his lead in taking the form of an intellectual genealogy, or explorative source study. My title recalls Hartman, not to suggest an exact template, but to point up an analogy for Ruskin's turn from his intellectual sources, a turn directed by the very allegiances from which he departs. The conceptual logic of Ruskin's progression from a Romantic to a post-Romantic aesthetics has rarely been set out as such. Nowhere is that progression shown to be, as I shall show it here, a transition from imagination to feeling.

I retain the term "feeling" deliberately, in place of the more modish "affect," to eschew the emphasis on the noncognitive so frequently associated with affect, and so contrary to Ruskin's own usage. (4) Although the topic of feeling in Victorian realism has been the subject of widespread critical scrutiny in the past, the primacy of feeling in Ruskin's realism in particular, with its decoupling or dissociation from imagination as the condition for that primacy has hardly been fully acknowledged, largely because of the centrality of the paradigm of "seeing" in the classic accounts of Ruskin's realist view. The dominance of that paradigm, securely established by seminal works such as John D. Rosenberg's The Darkening Glass (1961), Patricia Ball's The Science of Aspects (1971), and Robert Hewison's The Argument of the Eye (1976), has impeded the adequate discrimination of other aspects of Ruskin's aesthetics in subsequent reexaminations up to the present day. Alexandra Wettlaufer, for instance, recalls Rosenberg's characterization of Ruskin as "eye-driven, even photoerotic," (5) to argue that Ruskin's "belief in the visual capacities of mind, memory and imagination" led him to develop a "visual prose" that sought "to convince his readers, by making them see". (6) Even those recent studies that set out explicitly to correct or complicate the assumption of the mimetic basis of Ruskin's aesthetics, leave undisturbed the primacy of visuality in his account of artistic perception and so fail to nuance the non-ocular constituents of that account. …

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