I first encountered Ruskin in a format that might not have met with his approval, but that, in a suitably Ruskinian paradox, was a result of the practice of immersive reading he enjoined: a single slip of paper, a handout that contained a few paragraphs from “The Nature of Gothic.”
The academic year was 2009-2010, the setting was a session of the curiously precise Special Period of English Literature (1847-72) class at the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. I had recently arrived from India, having completed my first degree in English at Delhi University, and had embarked on a second, two-year degree in English as a Gates Scholar. Until the moment Professor Stephen Heath handed us the paper, I had not encountered Ruskin’s writing (the Victorian literature course at Delhi University focused on novels and poetry), and only vaguely knew of Ruskin as one of the nineteenth-century writers who had influenced the thought of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the foremost leaders of our independence movement. I knew nothing of Ruskin’s aesthetic theories, nor of the specific topic before me – the definition and defense of Gothic architecture. And yet, from the moment I began reading, I was enraptured by what seemed to me a boldly counterintuitive argument: that the Gothic was beautiful precisely in its ugliness, that its asymmetries and imperfections made it a more vital and richly expressive mode of architecture, and of aesthetics more broadly, than the perfect classical forms that dominated contemporary aesthetic hierarchies. As impressive as the import of Ruskin’s argument was its shape: a richly digressive line of thought that swerved in unexpected directions and sprouted into live deviations and debates that incarnated in writing the aesthetic forms that Ruskin defended.
Though I did not realize it at the time, my encounter with Ruskin had altered the direction of my interests, and set me off on a journey of which I am only concluding the initial phase, as a graduate student at Rutgers University. While my training in India had heavily favored cultural studies, with a focus on issues of gender, race and class, I had caught a glimmer of something further in Ruskin’s counterintuitive argument in “Nature”: namely, how aesthetic forms can thoroughly unsettle and complicate intellectual and material concerns in the process of giving shape to them. One might look to aesthetic forms to have one’s experience validated and beliefs confirmed, but more rewarding is the way these forms challenge those beliefs, by suggesting epistemic and affective possibilities that demand a critical awareness precisely because they refuse fixity.
The specific aesthetic forms I am interested in are the seemingly marginal ornamental details of Gothic architecture that Ruskin places at the center of the Gothic, and recreates in his writing. What particularly fascinates me is how Ruskin configures “Gothicness” – the “essence” of Gothic architecture – as an abstract wholeness that paradoxically exists, and is governed by, in the concrete, irregular, and unique details of Gothic architecture.
The details of Ruskin’s writing, like those of the Gothic buildings he describes, call for a critical practice where the difference between close and distant reading is blurred: where one is required to be keenly attentive to details, while also drawing back to construct them into conceptual wholes that are nevertheless responsive to the particulars of embodiment. At the same time, the necessarily incomplete nature of this task requires one to maintain a critical self-awareness, to read and revise oneself as one reads details. Self-conscious subjectivities can be generated in the gap between general and particular, between theoretical abstractions and the particulars of practice. In this case, Ruskin’s art of reading (in) detail becomes the art of creating critics.
Last modified 11 March 2019