When George Landow asked me to send him an account of how I came to read Ruskin, I re-read an article that I wrote 15 years ago and that touched on the topic. It was in the journal PN Review, and when I opened it a letter fell out. It was from a reader who had seen the article and been struck in it by what he called “… a wonderful quote from Ruskin that I had never seen before.” This was the quotation:
… it is necessary to the existence of an idea of beauty [in the perceiving mind] that the sensual pleasure which may be its basis should be accompanied first with joy, then with love of the object, then with the perception of kindness in a superior intelligence, [and] finally with thankfulness and veneration towards that intelligence itself …
These words of Ruskin’s have always had a special importance for me. They are not the reason why I read him (no one had ever mentioned them to me before I started to read him, and — with the exception of my kind correspondent - no one has ever mentioned them to me since). But they are bound up with the story of how I came to read Ruskin and are in a way its conclusion.
To explain myself simply, let me mention another piece of personal correspondence. A friend, the father of my god-daughter Lily, recently answered a request from me for gift ideas for Lily's birthday. His main suggestion was a “paint-your-own-bird-box”, and — wisely intuiting that on my own I might have difficulty imagining what that might be — he sent me a link to a web-page for buying one and assured me that “It is a thing.”
Well the Ruskin passage quoted above did something similar for me.
I had experienced certain states of bliss sometime previously when I read Joyce’s Ulysses (with, I should say, great concentration over a period of weeks), and the same thing had happened later when I read Proust’s novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu for the first time. These experiences had of course seemed wonderful but they were to me mysterious, unanalyzable, and sadly incommunicable. As time went by all I could do was cherish them as memories of what I thought of as ennobling happiness. However, when I read this passage of Ruskin I immediately recognised it as a description of what I had experienced. And it was a relief and a revelation to me to find that the bliss that I remembered (and had so often wondered about) was a thing! (The "thing" it was is what is normally called “aesthetic pleasure”. Ruskin preferred — for reasons of clarity, which he helpfully explained — to use another term. In any case I was just happy - and felt incredibly lucky — that he knew what it was and could describe it so matter-of-factly and with such, to me, amazing authority.)
So anyway, stepping back, it was the intensity of this bliss that led me to Ruskin. I thought - when I finished reading Proust - that, if Ruskin was (as I knew he was) in some sense a source of Proust’s achievement, then I should read Ruskin to deepen my understanding and appreciation of Proust. I hoped in doing so to ensure the continuation of whatever it was that reading Proust had done to my inner life - I wanted by reading Ruskin to prolong the afterglow from my encounters with Proust and Joyce. And of course I hoped in due course to feel that bliss again.
I can’t say that the story has a straightforwardly happy ending. I haven’t ever experienced again the bliss that led me to read Ruskin in the first place. But thanks to him I do at least now know what it was. And I don’t believe any other writer could have told me so clearly.
Besides, the story isn’t over yet. And there are many other rewards for reading Ruskin. He is a one-man university.
Last modified 26 March 2019