‘Because men have said so many contradictory things about Ruskin, it has been concluded that he was himself contradictory.’ — Marcel Proust, ‘John Ruskin,’ p. 60

Illuminated initial H

e became, ultimately, his own subject’ (Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass 147). John Rosenberg’s comment on the gradual entanglement of Ruskin’s private obsessions with his public work states a fundamental problem. An approach to Ruskin’s ideas via the mind that made them — and Rosenberg’s is the best example of the method — greatly increases our understanding, but there is a danger of reducing vital critical concepts to mere manifestations of a diseased brain. In 1933 R. H. Wilenski opened up a new approach to Ruskin when he wrote: ‘There is hardly a page of his writings which can be properly apprehended until it is collated with the condition of his mind and the circumstances of his life not only at the general period within which the book falls, but on the actual day on which that particular page was written’ (10). The difficulty with this approach is that the study of Ruskin becomes simply a problem of biography, and at worst completely ignores the overt content of what he was saying. It does not seem to help very much to say that ‘Ruskin associated Gothic architecture with sexual potency, and came to admire Gothic largely because it represented this quality,’ or that Ruskin liked mountains because they reminded him of his mother.3

Ultimately, of course, Ruskin was his own subject — his last work was his autobiography. The images I have pointed to do have psychological significance. Kingship and Queenship may well be explicable in terms of the Jungian animus and anima, and quite obviously relate to his parents; the storm-cloud and plague-wind might seem explicable totally in terms of psychological stress, were it not for the fact that the skies of England were indeed getting darker because of pollution. Alternatively, is it not possible that what has been seen as psychological needs finding their expression in his work could be a reverse process, and that his work imposed itself on his life rather than the other way round? Thus Rose La Touche could be the projection on to real life of the ideal he [191/192] sought. There was, after all, more than one Rose: Adèle Domecq, Effie Gray before he married her, a fisherman’s daughter at Boulogne, and all the pupils of Winnington School. Twelve years after Rose’s death, in 1887, Ruskin began a tender relationship with a young art student, Kathleen Olander. Mark Alston, a roman à clef by Jessica Sykes, suggests that there was an emotional link between herself and Ruskin.4

John Rosenberg has himself pointed out the danger of reducing Ruskin’s books ‘to mere biographical or psychological ‘‘evidence,” thus eroding their importance as independent works of mind’ (‘Style and Sensibility’ 193). It is as works of mind, comprehending all the cultural and social influences at work as well as the psychological stresses, that Ruskin’s writings must be treated. I have tried to show that there is a consistency in his critical ideas, as critical ideas, throughout his life: even in the last years when they are expressed through eccentric and obsessional private themes. To begin at the level of personality, and work towards the theories, is moving in the wrong direction, and it is not the direction in which his ideas developed. The storm cloud, for instance, is present at the level of argument in ‘Mountain Gloom’ and ‘Mountain Glory’ and in Unto this last; only later does it turn into an obsession. His grip on reality was such that even when he was mad he was able to recognize the horrors of these attacks as fantasies, and clearly distinguish between them and normal life. For a time he was able to survive shattering bouts of madness, and then go back to work.

Ruskin did not regard the existence of personal psychological dispositions as anything more than another factor to be understood in the totality of an artist’s work: ‘Certain merits of art (as energy, for instance) are pleasant only to certain temperaments; and certain tendencies of art (as, for instance, to religious sentiment) can only be sympathized with by one order of minds’ (16.451). Of Turner he said: ‘his work was the true image of his own mind’ (7.422). So, too, was Ruskin’s, and that all-consuming mental appetite, which at times overwhelms the line of argument in a wealth of details and associations, is the distinctive quality that makes reading him rewarding. It is precisely his refusal to distinguish between the normally accepted divisions and compartments of thought — aesthetic, ethical, social, economic, philosophical and personal — that is the source of his most important insights. As Kenneth Clark has said, ‘We should read Ruskin for the very quality of his mind which, when abused, makes him unreadable’ (xx).

If we accept, then, that there are strong psychological undertones in [192/193] Ruskin’s work, but do not stop our investigations there, the fact remains that from a purely literary point of view Ruskin’s imagery is obsessive. This led Marcel Proust (for whom studying and translating Ruskin was an important step in his development) to accuse Ruskin of ‘fetishism.’ Comparing him with the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, a surprising but perceptive comparison, Proust detected an ‘adoration of the symbol for the symbol’s sake.’ At first Proust considered this a useful consequence of the close study of Christian art, ‘a form of fetishism not likely to do harm to minds like theirs, which, fundamentally, were so deeply attached to the feeling symbolized that they could pass from one symbol to another without finding any obstacle in mere surface differences’ (‘John Ruskin’ 69). But he developed this concept of Ruskin’s ‘iconolatry’ into a potentially damaging criticism.

Proust accused Ruskin of insincerity. Quoting him against himself on the dangers of idolatry, ‘the serving with the best of our hearts and minds, some dear or sad fantasy which we have made for ourselves’ (20.66), Proust finds this idolatry at the root of Ruskin’s work. The object of his idolatry was beauty, which he felt obliged to sacrifice to duty, but could not. The result was a perpetual struggle between idolatry and sincerity, fought over every page of his books, and within his psyche. In Proust’s words:

It is in those hidden regions that the imagination receives the record of things seen, that intelligence stores up the influence of ideas, that memory is impressed by the impact of thought. By very reason of the choice which a man's essential nature is compelled to make of these things, it performs, incessantly, an act of self-assertion, and so is for ever determining the bent of its spiritual and moral life. It was in these regions, I feel, that Ruskin never wholly ceased to commit the sin of idolatry. At the very moment that he was preaching sincerity, he lacked it. It was not what he said that was insincere, but the manner of his saying. The doctrines he professed were moral, not aesthetic, yet he chose them for their beauty. And because he did not want to present them formally as things of beauty, but as statements of truth, he was forced to lie to himself about the reasons that had led him to adopt them.8

Proust’s cynicism shows the extent to which the unified moral vision of mid-nineteenth century thinkers like Ruskin had broken down by the beginning of the twentieth century. Proust cannot believe that Ruskin genuinely saw beauty as a gift from God, and the forms of beauty as examples of the right ordering of society. It is true that Ruskin chose ideas for their beauty, but there is no contradiction with morality, since he regarded beauty as an expression of moral truth. Proust, influenced [193/194] by the décadence, confuses beauty and truth; Ruskin in Modern Painters 2 dismissed this as ‘asserting that propositions are matter, and matter propositions’ (4.66). Beauty was the result of truth, the by-product of more important activities, be they worshipping God, or harmonizing man’s relationships. He vehemently resisted the doctrine of art for art’s sake — or beauty for beauty’s sake, which Proust claims was his secret motivation. This was not the resistance of a man who loves what he fears, but of a man who wished to preserve the truth of what he saw from distortion.

Proust was harsh because he needed to break away from the influence of Ruskin, and because he recognized the obsession with imagery in himself. His accusation of idolatry was a valuable insight; but where Proust saw only the pathetic worship of empty images, Ruskin had faith that the values he venerated in image form could guide human conduct.

The difficulty of Ruskin’s idolatry is that it takes a particularly visual form. Another French writer, Robert de la Sizeranne, noticed: ‘Occupied always with visual sensations, Ruskin passes without transition from the red of vermilion to the red colour of blood — because in colour there is no transition. His images, as successively he calls them up, warp and destroy his argument’ (96). More recent critics have also pointed to an over-reliance on the visual dimension. ‘Ruskin's wildest extravagances in economics contain a hardcore of perception not at first noticeable. The perception is the consequence of seeing the evidence with the same naïve, unspoiled eye which he turned upon the Val d’Aosta; the extravagance is the consequence of pushing the analogy too far’ (Townsend 57). One writer goes so far as to dismiss the visual element in Ruskin’s arguments as a weakness: ‘He had, in fact, a visile mind, and nothing is harder to convey in words than the processes of a logic that moves from one picture to another. . . . Ruskin, indeed, lacked the fundamental qualities of mind needed for making a system or a synthesis’ (Evans 411).

This book has tried to show that it is through the visual imagination, and the images thrown up by it, that Ruskin becomes accessible, and that the visual dimension is not his weakness, but his strength. The images are the constructs of his argument, they do more than ‘convey’ what he is saying: they are what he is saying. At times the technique is taken to extreme, so that a visual reading is the only way we can trace the line of argument, for instance in the montage of images which concludes ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries,’ or in Unto this last and The Queen of the Air. The images have the power to transcend superficial muddles and contradictions, and this too Proust has noticed: ‘The manifold but [194/195] constant obsessions of his thought are what ensure his books a unity more real than the unity of construction — which admittedly is generally lacking.’12

This ‘more real’ unity is supplied by Ruskin’s visual imagination. If we are to be concerned with the study of his mental processes, then the operation of his vision will be as important as that of his reason. The tension in Ruskin’s work between verbal construction and visual image can be reduced to a conflict between word and picture, a conflict which began as early as his illustrations to his first stories and poems. His education was biased against the picture: the training in draughtsmanship, however fruitful, was designed to go so far and no farther; his literary education fostered hopes that he would be Poet Laureate or Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact he made no claims for himself either as a creative writer or as a creative painter. But there is a conflict between his literary training as a critic, and his experience as an analytical draughtsman. It is remarkable how well in practice the two disciplines managed to blend.

The bias of the critical tradition was against images as such. Following Sir Joshua Reynolds, Ruskin began with a literary attitude to art: ‘Painting . . . is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing’ (3.87). Using the argument of ‘ut pictura poesis,’ he sought to raise the status of landscape painting to that of literature and landscape poetry. His discussions of the imagination and fancy, of the pathetic fallacy, have their origins in literature; in Modern Painters 3 his history of the appreciation of landscape is based on literary evidence. Since techniques of illustration were crude and expensive (originally Modern Painters was to have none at all), even the visual aspects of his arguments had to be expressed through the medium of words. But the power of purely visual sensation could not be ignored. In 1849, that is after the somewhat separate work of Modern Painters 1 and 2 was behind him, Ruskin visited the Louvre in Paris. Before Veronese’s vast Marriage at Cana he experienced emotions as intense as those he had felt before Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco in 1845:

I felt as if I had been plunged into a sea of wine of thought, and must drink to drowning. But the first distinct impression which fixed itself on one was that of the entire superiority of Painting to Literature as a test, expression, and record of human intellect, and of the enormously greater quantity of Intellect which might be forced into a picture, — and read there — compared with what might be expressed in words. I felt this strongly as I stood before [195/196] the Paul Veronese. I felt assured that more of Man, more of awful and inconceivable intellect, went into the making of that picture than of a thousand poems. [D2.437]

This was the direction in which he was to move, not by any means excluding the word, but linking it with the picture, so that in the end his arguments were actions entirely, Museums and the Guild of St. George.

In spite of the biases of Ruskin’s education, the picture asserted itself over the word. Not so surprising, when one considers that he noted his youthful ‘sensual faculty of pleasure in sight, as far as I know unparalleled’ (35.619). Throughout his life he was worried about his eyesight — and enjoyed very good vision. He makes many references to his eyes being weak or bad, but chiefly because he had tired them in drawing; only in moments of depression, in 1847, in 1867, in 1873, does he seriously consider that his eyes will fail. And in 1880, in a good mood, he noted ‘Eyes wonderfully strong’ (D3.993). R.H. Wilenski has suggested that he was ‘fascinated and frightened by spots of light surrounded with darkness. Such phenomena affected him in morbid moments with a kind of horror’ (138). Thus, as an example, Wilenski claims that it was the floating sparks of colour in Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket which caused his libellous outburst. It is difficult to accept this; there were other good reasons for attacking Whistler, or Rembrandt, whom Wilenski also mentions as a victim of Ruskin’s subconscious fear. The closing words of Praeterita, which Wilenski quotes against him, show rapt attention, not morbid horror: ‘How they shone! . . . the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars’ (35.562)

Sight was always associated with spiritual insight, and all the rich imagery of the Bible was available as confirmation: ‘Have you ever considered how much literal truth there is in the words — “The light of the body is the eye. If therefore the eye be evil” — and the rest?. . . to be evil-eyed, is not that worse than to have no eyes? and instead of being only in darkness, to have darkness in us, portable, perfect, and eternal? (22.199). In Fors Clavigera for August 1872 he meditates on Luke 10:23: ‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see’ (27.341), and in St. Mark’s Rest he notes that several Doges of Venice who had been deposed were afterwards blinded as the city’s ‘practical law against leaders whom she had found spiritually blind: “These, at least, shall guide no more” ’ (24.269). His fascination with the serpent [196/197] symbol was partly that ‘The word “Dragon” means “the Seeing Creature” . . . here was a creeping thing that saw!’ (27.483).

Spiritual insight could be so strong that it was independent of light: ‘Darkness to the spirit means only seeing nothing for its own fault. Have you ever felt the dimness of the bodily eye in extreme sickness? — so also of the spiritual eyes in sickness or weakness of heart. . . . This faculty of seeing Him or the higher creatures, which to mortal eyes are invisible, we properly call “imagination” ’ (22.527). Sight, insight, and imagination are all part of the same visual dimension.

Ruskin was aware of the philosophical and Biblical traditions of the importance of sight. Locke’s psychology treated it as the highest perceptual faculty, and both Plato and Aristotle, in spite of their prejudice against the ‘deceptive’ art of painting, emphasize the connection between vision and wisdom. Ruskin refers to Plato’s analogy of the shadows in the cave: ‘respecting the sun and intellectual sight, you will see how intimately this physical love of light was connected with their philosophy, in its search, as blind and captive, for better knowledge’ (20.152-53). For Ruskin, sight was a great deal more than the passive reception of visual stimuli, it was ‘an absolutely spiritual phenomenon; accurately, and only, to be so defined; and the “Let there be light,” is as much, when you understand it, the ordering of intelligence, as the ordering of vision’ (22.195).

Since sight was ‘the ordering of intelligence,’ Ruskin’s purely visual perception inevitably had a direct effect on his intellectual arguments. This was certainly the case in his breakthrough from the picturesque vision, and the discovery of the penetrative imagination; but in the perceptual field the most significant change is the gradual acknowledgment of the primacy of colour over chiaroscuro.

At first he was inhibited by the Lockeian psychology in the same way as he was inhibited by the literary tradition in criticism. Locke, while exalting sight, distinguished between primary and secondary qualities of objects. Primary qualities, ‘bulk, figure, number, situation, and motion or rest of their solid parts’ (3.158), exist independently of our perception of the object. Secondary qualities, such as colour, sound or smell, have an effect on our senses and are therefore susceptible to the subjective influences on perception. Forgetting that even primary qualities must be subjectively perceived, Ruskin summed them up as ‘form,’ and labelled form a primary, colour a secondary quality. In his concern for form in Modern Painters 1 he consequently derogated colour in favour of chiaroscuro, since in practice the latter told more about the [197/198] shape of an object: ‘he, therefore, who has neglected a truth of form for a truth of colour has neglected a greater truth for a less one’ (3.159). Such a prejudice was not entirely derived from Locke, it was inherent in the Neoclassical taste with which Ruskin had been brought up, and he may have been directly influenced by his teacher J. D. Harding, whom he describes as despising colour (1.425).

Whatever the critical tradition induced him to say, the fact that Ruskin was extremely sensitive to colour is clear from his descriptions of the colour of natural scenery in Modern Painters 1 — his outburst, ‘I cannot call it colour, it was conflagration’ (3.279), for instance, as the sun breaks through after a storm. The battle between his sensitivity to colour and the importance of light and shade for form was fought throughout Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice, and in the end colour asserted itself. The distinction between form as an objective attribute and colour as something shared by the object with its surroundings remains, but the truth of contextual colour, what is usually called local colour, is treated as equal in importance to that of form:

The hue and power of all broad sunlight is involved in the colour it has cast upon this single thing; to falsify that colour, is to misrepresent and break the harmony of the day: also, by what colour it bears, this single object is altering hues all round it; reflecting its own into them, displaying them by opposition, softening them by repetition; one falsehood in colour in one place, implies a thousand in the neighbourhood. [7.418-19n]

Attention to truth of colour as well as form involves a greater realism, more truth, and less self-deception, ‘as long as you are working with form only, you may amuse yourself with fancies; but colour is sacred — in that you must keep yourself to facts’ (7.419n).

In his Lectures on Art at Oxford, Ruskin divided the elements of delineation into Outline, Light and Shade, and Colour. He based this on purely perceptual information:

All objects are seen by the eye as patches of colour of a certain shape, with gradations of colour within them. . . . The outline of any object is the limit of its mass, as relieved against another mass. . . . Usually, light and shade are thought of as separate from colour, but the fact is that all nature is seen as a mosaic composed of gradated portions of different colours, dark or light. . . . Every colour used in painting except pure white and black is therefore a light and shade at the same time. [20.121-23]

The practice of painting distinguished chiaroscuro from colour, and Ruskin makes this the basis of his division of the schools of painting: [198/199] all schools have a common origin in outline; but the history of art split into two paths, that of light and shade, and that of colour.

The followers of light and shade, the chiaroscurists, from the Greek sculptors to Leonardo and Michelangelo, followed one path; the colourists, in Ruskin’s terms the ‘Gothic’ school of painters like Angelico and Giotto, followed the other. The synthesis was the work of Tintoretto and Titian, Velazquez and Correggio, who combined the glory of their colour with the formal accuracy of the chiaroscurists. The problem is finally solved perceptually, in Aphorism VIII of The Laws of Fésole:

Every light is a shade, compared to higher lights, till you come to the sun; and every shade is a light, compared to deeper shades, till you come to the night. When, therefore, you have outlined any space, you have no reason to ask whether it is in light or shade, but only, of what colour it is, and to what depth of that colour. [15.361]

Ruskin solved the problem of colour versus light and shade by treating them as coexistent factors in the same field of vision. But the purely perceptual problem is complicated by his metaphysical notion that there existed a spiritual opposition between them. Since the opposition between light and dark is a basic theme in his work, it would be surprising if it did not structure his interpretations here. The result is a complicated moral and psychological distinction between the Greek and Gothic schools.

The way by colour is taken by men of cheerful, natural, and entirely sane disposition in body and mind. . . . The way by light and shade is, on the contrary, taken by men of the highest powers of thought, and the most earnest desire for truth; they long for light, and for knowledge of all that light can show. But seeking for light, they perceive also darkness; seeking for truth and substance, they find vanity. They look for form in the earth, — for dawn in the sky: and seeking these, they find formlessness in the earth, and night in the sky. [20.139-40]

Thus, although the school of colour is free to express visionary beauty, the chiaroscurists, ‘the school of knowledge,’ acquire a human wisdom through the contemplation of darkness and death:

Farther, the school of colour in Europe, using the word Gothic in its broadest sense, is essentially Gothic Christian; and full of comfort and peace. Again, the school of light is essentially Greek, and full of sorrow. I cannot tell you which is right, or least wrong. [20.140] [199/200]

A preference for light, whether in terms of colour or chiaroscuro, did however provide Ruskin with a workable answer.

I never speak of this Greek school but with a certain dread. And yet I told you that Turner belongs to it, that all the strongest men in times of developed art belong to it; but then, remember, so do all the basest. The learning of the Academy is indeed a splendid accessory to original power, in Velasquez, in Titian, or in Reynolds; but the whole world of art is full of a base learning of the Academy, which, when fools possess, they become a tenfold plague of fools. [22.40]

A love of colour was an essential sign of life; the Renaissance schools first showed their decay when they turned away from it. It was consistent with his earliest views on art that Salvator Rosa should lack ‘the sacred sense — the sense of colour’ (7.307). The more ‘faithful and earnest the religion of the painter,’ the purer his colour, whereas ‘where colour becomes a primal intention with a painter otherwise mean or sensual, it instantly elevates him, and becomes the one sacred and saving element in his work’ (10.173).

To Ruskin, colour, and light the vehicle of colour, represented faith; colour, he said, was ‘the type of love’ (7.419). Colour and light without darkness was possible in an age of faith, as in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy, but darkness showed the whole truth. Light with its necessary darkness represented the facts of man’s fallen state; the battle of light and dark exemplified the heroic struggle between good and evil. When light and colour dominated, even for a moment, there was hope; but to convey the truth, the darkness must be shown as well as the light. In an appendix to the Lectures on Art entitled ‘final notes on light and shade’ Ruskin states, in terms as aphoristic as the Laws of Fésole, the resolution between the rival means of expressing form: ‘Light and shade, then, imply the understanding of things — Colour, the imagination and the sentiment of them’ (22.489).

Ruskin’s interpretation of the role of light, dark, and colour in art is both practical and symbolic at the same time. The argument based on perception works in parallel with the argument based on a moral worldview. Light, the type of energy and purity in Modern Painters 2, is a form of physical beauty; it also represents the creative harmony of man and God. For Ruskin this connection was absolutely real:

All up and down my later books, from Unto this last to Eagle’s Nest, and again and again throughout Fors, you will find references to the practical connection between physical and spiritual light — of which I would fain state in the most [200/201] unmistakable terms, this sum: that you cannot love the real sun, that is to say physical light and colour, rightly, unless you love the spiritual sun, that is to say justice and truth, rightly. That for unjust and untrue persons, there is no real joy in physical light. . . . And that the physical result of that mental vileness is a total carelessness of the beauty of sky, or the cleanness of streams, or the life of animals and flowers: and I believe that the powers of Nature are depressed or perverted, together with the Spirit of Man; and therefore conditions of storm and of physical darkness, such as never were before in Christian times, are developing themselves, in connection also with forms of loathsome insanity, multiplying through the whole genesis of modern brains. [28.614-15]

Ruskin moved between the physical and the spiritual, the actual and the symbolic, the temporal and the eternal, because he believed that ultimately there was no difference between them. The problem now is to follow the processes of thought which led him to that conclusion.

Time after time, in spite of superficial incoherences, Ruskin reverts to a central core of ideas. Whatever the subject matter, and however entwined the different disciplines become, there is an underlying unity. John Rosenberg has commented on the difficulty of separating the aesthetic, moral and social strands in his thought: ‘This inability to keep his subjects apart is at once the vice and virtue of Ruskin’s mind. It makes chaos of single chapters, confusion even of entire books; but the whole of Ruskin’s opus is dedicated to the Oneness of the many’ (The Darkening Glass 41-42). But is ‘the Oneness of the many’ a sufficient description of what Ruskin was trying to demonstrate? It is true that he was trying to bring things towards unity, and the very multiplicity of the subjects he dealt with expresses this aim, but it should be possible to show more closely how this unity exists.

There is no doubt that Ruskin himself thought in terms of Oneness: ‘Do you think that I am irreverently comparing great and small things? The system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole’ (7.452). James Sherburne has shown how Ruskin is in the Romantic tradition of Coleridge and Carlyle in emphasizing organic unity, and how this tradition is supported by the Platonic, Aristotelian and Christian philosophers, who found unity in the idea of God (3-4). An emphasis on bringing things together is found throughout Ruskin’s books, sometimes in their titles. Munera Pulveris — ‘the rewards of the dust’ — attacks the divisive competition of political economy; Ethics of the Dust uses mineralogical imagery to show people [201/202] brought together, crystallized, not atomized. It is hardly surprising that his attack on industrialization should begin by condemning the division of labour.

The danger of misunderstanding Ruskin’s sense of unity lies in the temptation of treating it as a greater and greater inclusion of elements, so that we end up with no more than a vague description of everything being found in everything else, a universal unity that can only be broken down into its separate parts. Although Ruskin did widen his horizons continually, to take in more and more aspects — the expansion of a defence of Turner into Modern Painters, and of Modern Painters into social criticism, for instance — he did this in order to show not that they were all contained in some greater whole, but that they held, within themselves, common elements. Catherine Williams has said that

Ruskin’s major faculty was the ability to synthesize information by isolating its essentials. He objected to scientific learning processes because they tended to accumulation, often based on hypothesis. Given a few ‘phases,’ his own opus was reiterative, repeating conclusions instead of adding facts. It was a series of experiments to say the same thing. [107]

This is a much more satisfactory description of the unifying process, as a synthesis which reveals the common fundamental structure of things. It accounts for the consistency of Ruskin’s imagery, and for the apparent obsession with certain themes, for it is these images which express, symbolically, the common elements in the multiplicity of matter.

For the moment, this description must be left as tentative, for there is an immediate objection to it. If one major theme has been the unity of Ruskin’s thought, another has been its progression by opposites. Ruskin could never be described as a linear thinker, and he regarded such a method of thought as a limitation in other people: ‘Every archaeologist, every natural philosopher, knows that there is a peculiar rigidity of mind brought on by long devotion to logical and analytical enquiries’ (12.391). The linear thinking of science was one of his objections to it.17

Ruskin’s system of opposites should not be confused with Aristotle’s method of finding a mean between two extremes: ‘If a man were disposed to system-making he could easily throw together a counter-system to Aristotle’s, showing that in all things there were two extremes which exactly resembled each other, but of which one was bad, the other good; and a mean, resembling neither, but better than one, and worse [202/203] than the other’ (5.385-86n). In practice Ruskin tended to use contrasting terms which acted as separate but parallel categories, each category containing polarities of an idea within it. Thus the terminology of The Aesthetic and Mathematic Schools of Art in Florence (1874) takes two characteristics of the whole school of Florentine painting, and traces their development out of a synthesis of Lombard-Norman art, on the one hand (the Aesthetic), and Greek-Arab, on the other (the Mathematic). In turn the Aesthetic becomes ‘Christian Faithful’ and the Mathematic ‘Christian Classic’; the two terms are then further synthesized into ‘Christian Romantic.’ Ruskin was trying to change what he called the pitiable weakness of the English mind, ‘its usual inability to grasp the connection between any two ideas which have elements of opposition in them, as well as of connection’ (6.482).

If Ruskin’s terminology is thought of as a series of polarities containing their own extremes of good and bad, the apparent contradictions in what he says about art become comprehensible. Thus he is able to contrast colourists and chiaroscurists, and at the same time distinguish between good and bad colourists, good and bad chiaroscurists. His critical theories depend upon a series of dynamic opposites, between one order of truth and another, between imagination and accurate perception, between realism and expression, between the particular and the ideal. The relationship between the artist and his society is a two-way process, the artist leading society, society creating the conditions in which an artist may lead. A static reconciliation is impossible, and the tension is a source of energy and movement, which Ruskin detected in the physical world: ‘all forms are thus either indicative of lines of energy, or pressure, or motion, variously impressed or resisted’ (D2.370-71).

Polarities, however, depend on the absolute opposition of north and south — in Ruskin’s case, of good and bad. The conflict of good and bad could not be resolved by an Aristotelian middle way of moderate behaviour; the opposition had to be resolved on the side of good. Man himself was the battleground:

We find ourselves instantly dealing with a double creature. Most part of his being seems to have a fictitious counterpart, which it is at his peril if he do not cast off and deny. Thus he has a true and false (otherwise called a living and dead, or a feigned and unfeigned) faith. He has a true and a false hope, a true and false charity, and, finally, a true and a false life. [8.191]

Such was his view of man in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and in 1880 [203/204] he endorsed it, though he preferred to put the problem more simply, in terms now familiar: ‘the real question is only — are we dead or alive?’ (8.192n).

Although it is an essential first step to think of Ruskin’s work in terms of polarities (Kingship and Queenship) and opposites (Life against Death), it is reasonable to ask whether he got further than that, and achieved any adequate synthesis. John Rosenberg has pointed out that Ruskin’s prose, in individual passages, or in the whole scheme of Modern Painters is structured round opposing visions of heaven and hell: ‘It may be that the greatest creative artists are all Manichees in spirit, possessed of a vision of blessedness beyond our grasp of joy and of an inferno more profound and actual than we can fathom’ (‘Style and Sensibility’ 189). The Manichean philosophy holds that the Devil exists co-eternal with God; the consequence of such a dualistic philosophy must be pessimistic, for it means that there can be no resolution of the struggle between heaven and hell. There are times when Ruskin seems close to such a view. His moments of madness and sanity were a double vision of evil on the one hand and loving Christianity on the other. His diary entries oscillate from day to day between happiness and misery. The life of a plant, he notes, is divided between that of the leaf, which seeks light, and the root which seeks darkness (22.194). All the oppositions in his life between theory and practice suggest an irreconcilable conflict. But there is a way out, by examining more closely the philosophy which had to deal with these oppositions at work.

What then was Ruskin’s philosophy? It was this question that the philosopher R. G. Collingwood tried to answer in a lecture delivered in 1919, the centenary year of Ruskin’s birth. Collingwood’s first point was that Ruskin never elaborated anything resembling a formal philosophical statement of his position, but that he did have a series of fundamental principles, a nucleus of ideas, ‘a ring of solid thought — something infinitely tough and hard and resistent,’ which may be called a philosophy (6). Collingwood distinguished between two currents of ideas in nineteenth-century thought, ‘Logicism,’ which treated individual facts as examples of general laws, and ‘Historicism,’ which treated facts in terms of their individual history. Logicism, he argued, the traditional, empirical (and I would add linear) philosophy, was giving way to Historicism, of which Hegel was the most systematic exponent: ‘Of this historical movement Ruskin was a whole-hearted adherent, and every detail of his work is coloured and influenced by the fact. In a quite real sense he was a Hegelian’ (14). [204/205]

This statement must be rapidly qualified — as Collingwood does instantly — by the fact that Ruskin never read Hegel. The suggestion of a link between Ruskin and Hegel was not new in 1919; it had been made first by Collingwood’s father W. G. Collingwood, in his book The Art Teaching of John Ruskin (1891). W. G. Collingwood had acted as Ruskin’s secretary, and was in a position to know the facts of the case. He too pointed to Ruskin’s lack of training in philosophy, and the fact that Ruskin knew no German; ‘His extraordinary aptitude for picking up a hint, and making the most of it, inclines me to believe that what he knew of Hegel was gathered orally from some enthusiastic friend’ (17). The most obvious source of German ideas would be Carlyle, who encouraged Ruskin to read Fichte; but the elder Collingwood, if he knew the identity of the pro-German friend, did not reveal it. When one looks at the references to German ideas in the collected Works, the overall impression is of a strong anti-German prejudice, based on unfamiliarity.

Although, as in the case of Marx, this is a question of parallels and not of influences, the echoes of Hegel in Ruskin are strong, and R. G. Collingwood, himself trained in Hegelian philosophy, is quick to point them out. The first of these is a parallel belief in ‘the unity or solidarity of the human spirit’ (16). Thus the problem of distinguishing between the moral faculty and the aesthetic, or the religious and creative, does not really exist, since all faculties are one. This is a fundamental assumption in Ruskin’s work, and in this context the concept of an all-embracing unity does have some meaning. If the human spirit is indivisible, so is external reality. Proust makes the point to show how Ruskin was able to perceive the same truth in so many different forms: ‘If reality is one and undivided, and if the man of genius is he who perceives it, what does it matter whether the material in which he expresses his vision is paint, stone, music, laws or actions?’ (63).

The essential nature of this unity is that all objects are seen in their context, both local and historical, influenced by their present and past surroundings, and influencing them in turn, just as the colour of an object affects and is affected by its context. This is the point of view that made Collingwood call both Hegel and Ruskin ‘Historicists.’ For Hegel life existed in Becoming, not Being; Ruskin’s attitude to Turner shows a similar concern:

The great quality about Turner’s drawings which more especially proves their transcendent truth is, the capability they afford us of reasoning on past and future phenomena, just as if we had the actual rocks before us; for this [205/206] indicates not that one truth is given, or another, not that a pretty or interesting morsel has been selected here and there, but that the whole truth has been given, with all the relations of its parts. [3.487-88]

Above all, a historical and contextual world-view places the study of art at the centre of any study of society. Hegel gave an important lead to Marxist aesthetics when he said: ‘It is in works of art that nations have deposited the profoundest intuitions and ideas of their hearts; and fine art is frequently the key — with many nations there is no other — to the understanding of their wisdom and of their religion.’24

It is on the question of contradiction that the parallels between Hegel and Ruskin are most important. Ruskin made his most celebrated statement on the issue in an address given in 1858:

Perhaps some of my hearers this evening may occasionally have heard it stated of me that I am rather apt to contradict myself. I hope I am exceedingly apt to do so. I never met with a question yet, of any importance, which did not need, for the right solution of it, at least one positive and one negative answer, like an equation of the second degree. Mostly, matters of any consequence are three-sided, or four-sided, or polygonal; and the trotting round a polygon is severe work for people any way stiff in their opinions. For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times. [16.187]

Collingwood comments that it was Ruskin’s firm belief that by contradicting himself he got nearer the truth: ‘It was an idea which he certainly did not get from Hegel; but I need hardly remind you that it is at the very centre and core of Hegel’s whole philosophy’ (R. G. Collingwood 22).

The idea that truth is arrived at dialectically through a series of contrary propositions was fundamental to Plato and Aristotle; Hegel’s contribution was to apply this process to history as well as thought. Ruskin was familiar with the classical Greek dialectic, and there is a suggestion of the triad of thesis, antithesis, synthesis in his discussion of ‘the Unity of Membership’ in Modern Painters 2:

It cannot exist between things similar to each other. Two or more equal and like things cannot be members one of another, nor can they form one, or a whole thing. Two they must remain, both in nature, and in our conception, so long as they remain alike, unless they are united by a third different from both . . . as we rise in order of being, the number of similar members becomes less, and their structure commonly seems based on the principle of the unity of two things by a third, as Plato states it in the Timaeus, ¶ 11. [4.95-96] [206/207]

Ruskin’s humorous talk of polygons conceals a serious point: ‘the more I see of useful truths, the more I find that, like human beings, they are eminently biped . . . it is quite necessary that they should stand on two, and have their complete balance on opposite fulcra’ (5.169). Such truths have their stability in the synthesis of opposite positions, and may themselves partake of a higher opposition, without losing their validity. Ruskin speaks of ‘principles of religious faith which are so universally dependent upon two opposite truths (for truths may be and often are opposite though they cannot be contradictory) (11.xvii). Indeed, he states elsewhere, ‘in almost all things connected with moral discipline, the same results may follow from contrary causes’ (5.385). By relying on opposing truths he is able to resolve the apparent conflict between light and shade and colour in painting:

There are many truths respecting art which cannot be rightly stated without involving an appearance of contradiction, and these truths are commonly the most important. There are, indeed, very few truths in any science which can be fully stated without such an expression of their opposite sides, as looks, to a person who has not grasp of the subject enough to take in both sides at once, like contradiction. [13.242]

What could be more contradictory, he asks, than the propositions that perfection in drawing and colouring are inconsistent with one another, and that they depend on one another? His answer is that they find their synthesis in form: without an eye for colour we will not correctly discern the form, without draughtsmanship in light and shade we will be unable to outline the form the colour has to take.

The problem of thinking in dialectical terms is that each resolution of a contradiction leads to a new proposition, and therefore to the need for a new synthesis. This may explain why Ruskin thought of ‘perfection’ in art as the cause of its own decline. Venice, itself a historical synthesis of Lombard and Arab out of the wreck of Roman architecture (9.38), saw the coming together in Titian and Tintoretto of the two schools: that of light and shade, and that of colour. Having reached this pinnacle it could go nowhere but into its opposite, and decline. His own solution to a seemingly permanent dualism was to translate ideas into action, and turn the energy created by the conflict of opposites to some use. The problem then was that action itself produced its own contrary difficulties, which Ruskin never resolved.

There is however one important aspect of Ruskin’s theories where dialectical as opposed to linear thinking is the only valid method: his system of the three orders of truth. The orders of truth are a triad in [207/208] which the truth of fact is thesis, the truth of symbol antithesis, and the truth of thought exists between them, in what may be called dialectical suspension. Evangelical typology had familiarized Ruskin at an early age with the practice of treating objects both as real and symbolic, without regarding one condition as cancelling out the other. The result was his ability to move in parallel along separate levels of argument, of the actual and the symbolic, without any sense of contradiction. Rather, the two levels were mutually supporting, so that a visual analogy meant more than the dramatization of intellectual thought: it was a fact. Similarly, it was not possible to look at the real world without considering the moral laws it exemplified. Thesis and antithesis remain in a state of perpetual interchange; the synthesis does not produce its opposite, since it exists in the eternal movement between the other two.

Although the comparison with Hegel is a useful one — there can be no doubt that Ruskin was a dialectical thinker — it is not a complete explanation of Ruskin’s habits of mind because it is concerned only with the way he processed information, and does not take into account the way in which the information was gathered in the first place. To do that it is necessary to examine the mechanics of visual perception.

Visual perception is a two-fold operation: first the information is gathered by the eye, and then it is passed on to the brain, which processes what it receives. But, as Rudolf Arnheim has shown in his study Visual Thinking, the information the brain receives has already been partly processed by the eye (13-36). The visual stimuli are filtered and selected, and give only partial information about the object at any one time. It is our memory of objects which enables the brain to interpret the information which we receive. The brain restores the sense-impression to a recognizable object, and adds to it all the other things we may know and think about the object, which may not be the result of purely visual information. The information as processed by the eye may be called a percept; that information as processed by the brain may be called a concept. In Ruskin’s mental processes there is unusual emphasis on the work of the eye.

To begin with, sight is essentially the sense of the simultaneous. Sound or touch is comprehensible only as a sequence; in sight, however, we are able to see many things juxtaposed, existing independent of each other, and yet continuous, and unified by the field of vision. If we translate this percept into concept, then it is not a question of holding contradictory views, which, as in logic or mathematics, exist in sequence, but simultaneous views. If we look at a picture, the dark areas and the [208/209] light areas do not contradict one another, and their opposition is also interdependence. As Ruskin says, ‘every light, is a shade, compared to higher lights, till you come to the sun; and every shade is a light, compared to deeper shades, till you come to the night’ (15.361).

Such a viewpoint accepts a relativity in the object which may be inconvenient if we wish to establish its permanent identity. Arnheim suggests that there are two main ways in which we may view an object if we wish to establish its ‘constant’ identity.27 We may deliberately try to exclude from the information we receive all those aspects which we think are the inconstants brought about by whatever context the object happens to be in; on the other hand, we may choose to accept the object and its surroundings, and observe how its identity continuously evolves within its context. The first type of perception Arnheim labels ‘scientific,’ the second ‘aesthetic,’ and it is this form of vision which he finds the richest and the most rewarding:

The permanence of the object, its inviolate identity, is realized by the observer of the [aesthetic] type with no less certainty than by the one of the [scientific], but his approach creates concepts quite different from those envisaged in traditional logic. A concept from which everything is subtracted but its invariants leaves us with an untouched figment of high generality. Such a concept is most useful because it facilitates definition, classification, learning, and the use of learning. The object looks the same, every time it is met. Ironically, however, this eminently practical attitude leaves the person without the support of any one tangible experience since the ‘true’ size, shape, colour, he perceives are never strictly supported by what his eyes show him. Also the rigidity of such constants may make the observer blind to revelations. [45]

This distinction in modes of perception explains the difference between Ruskin and linear, ‘logical’ thinkers, and his hostility to analytical as opposed to descriptive science. It also explains why experiences in front of pictures play such an important part in the development of his thought; it explains why he chose to describe even those key moments which were the result of long meditation — the aspen tree at Fontainebleau, or the unconversion at Turin — in pictorial terms. This interaction between eye and mind, and I stress that it is a dialectical relation, is the closest we can get to a description of the processes of his imagination. It does not look for fixities, and so is able to comprehend change — and contradiction.

There is a further way in which a study of visual perception may help us to understand Ruskin. Perception is a continuous process, it moves in the dimensions of time and space just as objects move in the [209/210] dimensions of time and space. Through each individual moment of perception we establish the constant identity of an object; our experience enables us to accumulate the constant factors of an object, and discount the inconstants. Thus as we walk round a cube its image changes shape, yet we recognize it as a cube, although we have never seen, and never will see, all its six sides at once. In other words we abstract the invariant structure of an object from a series of variants. But the abstraction is made by recognizing that the invariants are a sequence, and that we are continuously perceiving the same object. Thus each momentary vision of the object indicates a part of its general structure, and the general structure is inherent in every partial view (Arnheim 47-50). It seems to me that Ruskin was using this method when he tried to show the underlying coherence and unity of things. He read each partial view as showing that the same structure existed inherently in economics or crystallography. This explains what might otherwise be a paradox, that the images illustrating this underlying structure are not strong visual images.

Life-death, light-dark, kingship-queenship, clouds, air, water, do have visual content — otherwise they could not be called images — but they do not have a determined visual form. Light and dark clearly do not; clouds and water are formless; even Athena is dissolved into the air. Of course, if these images did have strong visual associations they would be less flexible and less useful to Ruskin. It is not a question of a theme illustrating an idea in a certain picture, but of discovering the same theme more or less exemplified by all pictures. The image can easily reside within a certain fixed and delimited form, but like the Biblical type its significance is not that particular entity, but a continuous reference forward and back. Finally, the ambiguity of the image is its advantage, for it can be read as particularity, or generality, and can comprehend change within itself. Another non-linear thinker, Ezra Pound, has expressed this more simply, and in visual terms: ‘The image is not an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing’ (106).

What, then, is Ruskin’s own interpretation of visual perception? I will not repeat all the references already quoted to the importance of sight, but I would add this one, which shows that Ruskin recognized a distinction between scientific and aesthetic perception: ‘Not by “mathesis,” not by deduction or construction, not by measuring, or searching, canst thou find out God, but only by the faithful cry from the roadside of the world as He passes — “Open Thou mine eyes that I may behold the wondrous things out of Thy law” ’ (23.250). [210/211]

As I have said, perception does not depend on the eye alone, and Ruskin, speaking in nineteenth-century language of the relation between physiology and psychology, stresses that ‘the physical splendour of light and colour, so far from being the perception of mechanical force by a mechanical instrument, is an entirely spiritual consciousness, accurately and absolutely proportioned to the purity of the moral nature, and to the force of its natural and wise affections’ (22.208). Mind and eye work together, and Ruskin found in the language of the Greek philosophers exactly the word he needed to describe such a function: theoria.

Ruskin’s conception of the theoretic faculty dates from the Evangelical period when, unconsciously, he learned to practise dialectical thought. The theoretic faculty represents the dialectical relationship between eye and mind, involving both, but resting finally in neither. The area in between he defined as the moral: ‘Ideas of beauty, then, be it remembered, are the subjects of moral, but not of intellectual perception’ (3.111). The idea of beauty — the Evangelical type — is abstracted from the undifferentiated mass of information bombarding the eye, but it does not reach the level of conscious thought. ‘I have throughout the examination of Typical Beauty, asserted our instinctive sense of it; the moral sense of it being discoverable only by reflection’ (4.211). Ruskin, I suggest, is distinguishing between a concept and a percept, something already structured by the perceptual process, but not yet at the level of thought. The forms of beauty are detected in each momentary view of reality; the artist, through his imaginative faculty, translates these perceptions into a work of art.

The very word theoria contains two levels of meaning: as the perceptual process ‘contemplation,’ and as the highest intellectual activity of man. Ruskin quotes Aristotle: ‘Perfect happiness is some sort of energy of Contemplation’ (4.7). Hegel — a dialectician — uses the same word to describe the same function, and Ruskin originally drew a parallel between theoria and the German Anschauung, but he later revised this view, significantly because he thought it did not take sufficient account of the physiological element in perception. ‘Anschauung does not (I believe) include bodily sensation, whereas Plato’s does, so far as is necessary, and mine, somewhat more than Plato’s’ (25.124).

Ruskin abandoned the theoretic faculty almost as soon as he had found it, and in the middle period of his life often disparaged Modern Painters 2. But it was the Evangelical trappings that he was attacking. The symbolism which he first learnt as Evangelical typology was vital to his work, for it taught him dialectical thought. He continued to use [211/212] the Evangelical method although he no longer believed in the specifically Evangelical application of types. I do not believe that his view of perception changed either.

At the end of his life Ruskin came to recognize the significance of what he had said in Modern Painters 2 and decided to republish the volume, intending to leave out ‘the passages concerning Evangelical or other religious matters, in which I have found out my mistakes’ (25.123). In 1877 he publicly acknowledged the importance of the theory he seemed to have neglected: ‘I find now the main value of the book to be exactly in that systematic scheme of it which I had despised, and in the very adoption of and insistence upon the Greek term Theoria, instead of sight or perception, in which I had thought myself perhaps uselessly or affectedly refined.’

Theoria includes sight, and it includes imagination. Musing on the words he had written so long ago, he wrote: ‘ “Intellectual lens, and moral retina’’ — the lens faithfully and far collecting, the retina faithfully and inwardly receiving. I cannot better the expression’ (22.513).