In 1951 my parents took me twice to see a play in the Masonic Temple in downtown Detroit. The one I remember best began with a girl's house — an upright cardboard square that reappeared in the second scene as an oblique trapezoid. It had crash-landed in a magical land called Oz, after traveling through indefinite distances on back of a "cyclone." The other play was also about a heroic child and a wondrous land, but the land happened to be the child's own home country. At its climax, two wicked youths, one after the other, mounted a cliff stage left in order to toss something nasty into a waterfall; each one then tumbled into a concealed device which caught them like a miller's wheel, rotated once, and threw up a black stone instead of a person. And then a third youth, a third offering, but this time, the cliff transformed into a shower of gold — not coins but water. Because his offering was some sort of sacrifice, the boy had caused a river to flow again, immediately restoring the desolate valley to a paradisal place of peace and abundance. The youth did not, as I recall, mourn the loss of his only living family members, any more than Dorothy mourned for the Wicked Witch of the West. (The deserving victims were called the Black Brother and the Brown Brother. If one re-visited that scene today, the most striking fact would have been the complete absence of black or brown faces in the vast, packed crowd — a fact too common to remark on back then, even in the heart of industrial Detroit.) Something else I remember is that for one play, there were only two seats left by the time we arrived for tickets. My father sacrificed his own chance to see the show, waiting outside during the whole performance, so my mother and I could enjoy it inside.
My father was a clergyman, and therefore the most publicly important man I knew — more even than the principal of the elementary school. His audiences were smaller than the numbers that could pack the Masonic Temple, but he could hold their attention all on his own. During the week, he and I shared personal naptimes on twin beds, with my head cradled (not very comfortably) on his arm. Like "The King of the Golden River," the stories he told me then were also about sacrifice. "Why the Chimes Rang" concerned a set of wondrous church bells that rang their ineffable music only on Christmas eve — and then only if a sufficiently precious gift were offered at the altar. (In the story the chimes ring because a boy who's trudging through a snow storm to attend the church service stays behind to warm the body of an old lady, who was freezing to death by the wayside; it's his younger brother who delivers their gift — the gift of a single penny.) I loved that story — far more than the other one I remember. This was about Barrie the St Bernard dog, whose job it was to carrying stragglers up a snowy mountain to the monastery at the top, there to be warmed and nurtured back to health. Barrie discovers a robber in the snow, who in his wretchedness and fear, stabs the loyal dog with a knife. (Barrie dies, of course, but he loyally drags the robber to safety in the minutes remaining in his life.) I understand that Barrie was preserved in a glass case by the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, which of course is the actual name of the holy place, the heavenly haven of the story. I learned much later that the author of "The King of the Golden River" knew the spot well, and even enfolded it into an emblematic episode in Praeterita, the Golden Legend of his own life.
Christian fairy tales, dreams of sacrifice and blessing, the rewards of virtue coming like the kiss of prince charming after long deferral: the gold penny worth a king's crown, the drop of pure water that redeems the waste land, the blood given to save even the least worthy life. (Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" would have belonged to this group; it would become one of my favorite stories — at a distance — being almost too painful to endure in the actual reading.) These are legacies of my father — who, as it turned out, died unexpectedly that very fall. I was never told that the good die young, or that his death had been a sacrifice, like the Happy Prince and the loyal bird in Wilde's fairy tale, but these notions were never far from my mind as the years passed and the memories of my father blurred into an image of ineffable goodness — a hard act for a son to follow. Fortunately, his legacy survived for me in other, more concrete ways. The preacher in the church I grew up in had been my father's best friend in the Detroit-area ministry, partly because they shared the theology of the social gospel. This new family friend had grown up poor in an immigrant family with socialist sympathies; when he preached, his voice sometimes broke, and he would strike the pulpit for emphasis. The themes he emphasized — racial justice, world peace, the ministry of Christian love — stirred me permanently.
I assumed immense, inchoate ambitions for myself, which involved spreading goodness in the world — some day; in real life, I was a pale, skinny kid, absorbed for much of the time in a private fantasy world. My favorite books were either about masculine adventure or tragic passion; in adolescence, I favored the literature of nostalgia — longing, love won and lost, the mysterious passage of time. As for Ruskin's tale, the children's play lodged like a gold penny in my memory, where, I suppose, it quietly incubated and reproduced. Ruskin gave the name "Fors" to the power he liked to fancy governed his life through apparent coincidence, but I think he'd recognize that Fors is also something we weave ourselves, in order to make sense of the past as well as the baffling present. I've just let Fors weave together some motifs from my own early life, not to spin a story about how I found Ruskin but rather to think about why — and also, to reverse that sentence, to describe one temperament (out of many) that Ruskin could "find" in the late twentieth century. I also know that out of the immense tangle of memory, Fors only needs a few strands to construct a causal chain more coherent than the past really was. I would have discovered Ruskin without that faint memory of Gluck and the Black and Brown Brothers and the desiccated valley that could be renewed only with a drop of pure water offered by the pure in heart. But only now have I thought to connect Ruskin with my father's stories, and his sacrifice of his seat so my mother and I could behold the cardboard promised land of Happy Valley (or perhaps it was the Land of Oz). I now doubt I would have come to Ruskin in the same way if I hadn't lost my father so long ago — and if he had not been a clergyman.
His name, by the way, caught one more time on the spokes of memory, via a travelogue I saw as a teenager about England. I recall that the camera panned across the rooms of a Victorian country house overlooking a beautiful lake and then across a (literal) wall of books enclosed in Victorian glass cases. All of them, our narrator explained, were written by a single person — the author of "The King of the Golden River" (he included a very Victorian photograph of the same author in a flowing white beard). It hardly seemed that a fairy tale could lurk in those pale, ranked books; who could imagine actually reading all of them?
As Fors would have it, I did read them all (almost) — but like many Ruskinians of my generation, I first met their author in a different, wonderfully approachable format. As Ruskin is an author like no other, John Rosenberg's The Genius of John Ruskin (assigned to my senior honors class at the University of Michigan) was an anthology like no other. Instead of simply listing titles and dates, the table of contents contained five "lamps" (Art, Architecture, Society, Solitude, Self), enclosing selections with hauntingly poetic titles like "The Lamp of Sacrifice" and "The Springs of Wandel" and "Of Queens' Gardens." The five sections simultaneously denoted subjects and stages in a life, a set of interconnected meditations that comprised an intellectual self-portrait. The prose that moved across these selections was luminous and many-hued, like (shall I say?) stained glass brought to liquid life — as enchanting when it described fierce and ugly things (ash, tempests, waste) as when it described a marble cathedral, or an Alpine river, or fireflies glimmering in the dusk. One couldn't simply call this writing "purple" prose, nor was it exactly "intellectual" prose like, say, Mill's On Liberty.
As winnowed by Rosenberg, Ruskin emerged as a thinker who thought sensuously; viewed in this light, the conflict between the Victorianness of the Library Edition and the charm of the fairy tale almost resolved into a single focus, like a stereoptican viewer. Rosenberg's own commentary — clear and caressing as it was — introduced the figure of a darkening glass, which converted earlier views of Ruskin's "madness" (a term Rosenberg also used) into a certain pathos that in turn drew upon the romantic figure of a broken or fragmented vision. (Ruskin himself used the figure of a broken visual field to define "symbolic grotesque" — reality as grasped by the greatest minds at the moment of their deepest, most intense apprehension — a metaphor that continues to appeal to me.) I was fascinated by the pathos, of course, but even more by the comprehensiveness of the vision — particularly the "joints" between Art/Architecture, and Society. Finally, I was fascinated by the fact that at the middle of his life's journey, this privileged son of the upwardly-mobile Protestant bourgeoisie — like me, the family's designated genius, a dreamy introvert, both ambitious and guilty, pampered and troubled — broke with his family and his social class by writing a radical assault on economic ideology. It seemed to me that he had "flipped" his psychic constitution, converting his moralistic "Puritan" conscience into a public, reforming conscience, speaking truth to power on behalf of the last and the "least." (That Ruskin would repudiate his keenest political insights almost as often as he reaffirmed them was a complication I would confront much later.)
I came of age at the brink of the Vietnam War, on the campus that gave birth to Students for a Democratic Society. I joined SDS, even though I majored in English, not politics or sociology. I had always assumed (without quite articulating it) that the arc of history ultimately curved towards justice, that great literature was coherent only because the world was morally coherent, that to read literature as, say, a criticism of life, was self-evidently to recognize injustice and to be moved to fight it. This recognition and this response were called by Blake "Poetry" (it was Shelley's name for it as well). I therefore assumed, for a while, that in radical times, English professors would be radical by virtue of their subject. In the years after I graduated, I passed through a period of extreme marginalization. Two months after I moved to New York City to study at Columbia, my shinbone was broken by the single swing of a billy club during an anti-war demonstration (I was in a hospital the day I was due to give a seminar report on Baroque architecture). I stayed away from the student strike the following spring, still sensing the blow of the billy club; two years after that, I became a conscientious objector when my student deferment expired. I studied for my oral exam on the night shift at a state mental hospital, burying myself in books — as I'd done as a child. Ruskin gradually became the focus of my intellectual life.
"Relevance" was the word used in the sixties to assail the terrible disjunction between the "ordinary" conscience, which lets most of us pursue quiet pleasures, including pleasures of the mind and the senses, from the demands history makes in times of crisis. Ruskin lived this contradiction; he never resolved it — neither, in my own life, have I — but as a grad student, I continued to be moved by his effort to show that beauty and social justice are, morally speaking, aspects of each other. One reason I chose the Victorian period for my graduate specialization was the English capacity for ferocious and profound self-criticism. But I was also interested in what my undergraduate professor described as the pervasive sense of loss, longing and belatedness in some of the greatest works of the period. These very different literary impulses come together in the Edenic myth. "Eden" is in one sense shorthand for longing, but the myth also implies that the fallen world — however desperate or corrupt the times may be — is never our original condition but exists alongside a potential that is also natural to us, which points to a future that can redeem the past. The arc of much of Ruskin's career, from "The King of the Golden River" to the memory of entering Siena in the final page of Praeterita, can be seen through the lens of the Edenic myth, which became the topic of my dissertation. As Fors would have it, John Rosenberg would be my thesis director at Columbia; Fors had nothing to do, however, with his boundless generosity and astuteness, which no measure of gratitude can easily express.
How then did Ruskin find me? I've always associated my upbringing in the social gospel with Ruskin's eloquent outrage, and the 1960s with the England of Ruskin and Dickens, and the sermons I absorbed as a child with my fondness for lecturing (my largest enrollments were for "Politics and Culture in the 1960s"). I know now that in studying the interplay between nostalgia and radical hope in Ruskin's work, I was also projecting an arc leading from what my father left me into my own future, as a trajectory of redemption or reparation. I started this account with "The King of the Golden River," even though (as I said) Ruskin would have found me in other ways. I'm nevertheless fond of the fact that his first gift to me did come early — in the form of the text that contained so much of his career within it like a seed. Northrop Frye is one of many readers who have noted that Ruskin's radical social ecology was essentially an expansion of Gluck's story. The linkage can be formulated even more tightly, in six words: "There is no wealth but life." Ruskin repeated this sentence often, as if it were an epigraph for his own life and work. Wealth-life, as I call it in my book, is his paradoxical formula for the supreme good, which is both possession and energy, a form of temporality that is also permanence, an expenditure without loss or without end. When he elaborated the idea metaphorically, he would combine images of treasure, like golden sunlight and golden harvests, with the image of purity — that is (since purity for him was an energy) water in the form of a river.
Last modified 22 March 2019