Like Cynthia Gamble, I came to Ruskin through Marcel Proust – and, more precisely, through his Preface to The Bible of Amiens. I knew almost nothing about the English author, except his famous passage in The Stones of Venice depicting the sharp contrast between Northern and Southern European countries as seen by a bird on its migration, an extract I had studied at University as a first-year student. As is often the case with Proust when writing about another author, he is as much involved in developing and promoting his own literary style and artistic quest as he is in focusing on the other’s ideas and language. Still his intelligent introduction to his translation of The Bible of Amiens convinced me to further study Ruskin.
But the real question I wish to deal with is not so much “how I came to Ruskin?” but rather – and I do hope Cynthia will not resent this outspoken confession – “why I have gradually become more of a Ruskinian than a dedicated follower of Proust? My answer casts aside any attempt at literary comparison, appreciation or assessment (it would be a naive and useless endeavor at all events) Instead, I will concentrate on what I see as the quintessential, ultimate purpose found at the heart of these two writers’ important works.
If I were to put it bluntly, I would say that even if he may have been a genuine admirer of Ruskin, I have the feeling that Marcel Proust is not a heartfelt Ruskinian. Through the entirety of his writings, Ruskin nourishes the ambition to help his readers build a better world, whereas Proust explores and captures some fundamental and universal human experience and emotions. Needless to say, both enterprises are equally noble and invaluable, but I wish to underline the idea that they are intrinsically different.
To illustrate my point, I make use of Jim Spates’ recurring question: “Why is Ruskin important today?” A very pertinent question indeed! Two events that took place in my country, France, this year throw a revealing light on Ruskin’s present relevance. The first is the so-called “Yellow Vests Movement,” a huge social protest asking for more economic justice and better living conditions. The second is the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Through the prism of Ruskin’s works, one can begin to analyze these two major events.
The Yellow Vests protesters - however diversified they may be on the political spectrum – come, in the main, from the working and middle classes. They feel they are the victims of globalization. Unto This Last puts at the fore the “truest, rightest-worded and, most serviceable” sentence that Ruskin said he ever wrote: “There is no wealth but life.” In his view, this belief should not only be the cornerstone of all economic activities, it should also serve as the foundation of all human activities. The value of our acts are measured by their ability to support and foster life. That the lessening of the Yellow Vests alienation should be one of the principal focuses of modern France is obvious, but not less obvious is the cruel fact that it is an inherent characteristic of our modern and globalized world to generate economic alienation and poverty wherever its rules prevail. The voices of Yellow Vest protesters are everywhere to be heard.
Second, in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin reminds us that extreme attention and care should be given to our oldest and greatest monuments and buildings, that we should preserve them as long as we can, that we should never let them deteriorate to the point the need to be restored. Restorers do not possess the same cultural soul as these monuments’ original builders. Restoration is too often a cure that reveals how negligent we have been with our most valued buildings. This negligence tells a lot about our modern societies that too often cut off their cultural links with the past as they are totally absorbed in their quest for growth and profitability. Now our great Notre Dame is greatly damaged and the issue of what to do about that is an important debate. In whatever discussion follows, Ruskin’s deep wisdom about what the answer to this problem should be must be part of our deliberations.
Last, but not least, Ruskin’s maxim “There is no wealth but life” can be applied to nature. If he is of great use in helping us think about how to act in our economic life and how best to preserve our architectural treasures, he also teaches us to respect and protect our environment. One of the first environmentalists, he relentlessly warns his readers of the dangers of industrial waste and pollution and tells them that profit generated at the expense of our environment is not a sustainable and life-supporting wealth.
I still find Marcel Proust one of the richest and greatest of the world’s writers, but I no longer define myself as a person who finds in his works the in-depth inspiration to comprehend our complex world. I find this inspiration in Ruskin. In Why I Write, George Orwell lists four main motives for writing, the fourth being a political intent defined as the “desire to push the world in a certain direction.” I can simply state that I agree with the directions in which Ruskin wants to push the world. His primary teaching is that we should, first and foremost, care for its people, for the environment, and for art, and teaches us that all three are interrelated and interdependent; that, in short, “government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death.” These Ruskinian “laws of life” are all too often forgotten in our modern era.
Last modified 9 July 2019