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A man of the hour, and a man for all time

Sesame and Lilies: John Ruskin, Edited by Deborah Epstein Nord, Yale University Press: 212 pp., $35, $14.95 paper

January 19, 2003|Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Capitalism was steaming full speed ahead, spreading progress -- and destitution -- in its wake. Technology was transforming the Earth. Pollution cast its pall over city and countryside. Newspapers were bursting with lurid stories of violent crimes. No wonder so many of the great Victorian poets, prophets and sages were appalled by the spectacle of their "modern world," so close, in so many ways, to our own.

In 1864, in a pair of lectures delivered in the British manufacturing city of Manchester, the already-famous art critic John Ruskin admonished his audience: "Above all, a nation cannot exist as a money-making mob: it cannot with impunity go on despising literature, despising science, despising art, despising nature, despising compassion, and concentrating its soul on Pence."

Published together the following year in a single volume titled "Sesame and Lilies," the first of these lectures, "Of Kings' Treasuries," sought to persuade this industrialist, mercantile audience that there was more to life than making money. "I want to speak to you," Ruskin declared, "about the treasures hidden in books." In the second lecture, "Of Queens' Gardens," Ruskin offered his views on the education of women and their role in society: "[L]et a girl's education be as serious as a boy's," he charged his audience. "You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity." Ruskin's experience teaching in a girls' school convinced him that girls have a natural gift for choosing what they needed to read: "[T]urn her loose into the old library ... and let her alone. She will find what is good for her; you cannot ...."

Part of a Yale University Press series called "Rethinking the Western Tradition," this edition of "Sesame and Lilies" addresses itself to the concerns of the "modern" reader, "modern" here meaning feminist. In her introduction, Deborah Epstein Nord points out that many anthologies of Ruskin's work, like John D. Rosenberg's "The Genius of John Ruskin," have reprinted "Of Kings' Treasuries" but omitted "Of Queens' Gardens," while Kate Millett in her attack on Ruskin ignored the former, focusing her ire upon the latter with its idealizing view of women as queens. Thus, in offering both lectures, this edition of "Sesame and Lilies" has already rendered a valuable service.

Before "Sesame and Lilies," Ruskin had already made his name with "The Seven Lamps of Architecture," "The Stones of Venice" and "Modern Painters," but to describe him as an art critic (although he is assuredly one of the greatest) doesn't begin to convey the magnitude of his vision. For Ruskin, aesthetics and ethics were indivisible. In assessing the beauty of a work of art or architecture, he insisted, we must consider the human conditions under which it was made. No ornate beadwork produced by repetitive, loveless labor, no minuscule embroidery that blinded some poor seamstress could be truly beautiful.

In 1860, with "Unto This Last," Ruskin emerged as full-fledged social prophet. His critique of the cash nexus and laissez-faire economics was so controversial, the magazine that was publishing these essays discontinued the series. "There is no wealth but Life -- Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration," he insisted. "That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings." Ruskin once said that "Sesame and Lilies," taken with "Unto This Last," contained "the chief truths I have endeavored through all my past life to display."

Ruskin was both immensely popular and controversial in his own time, and controversy has continued to surround him ever since. To critics of the mid-20th century, Ruskin's "moralizing," as they called it, was an embarrassment, but his brilliant aesthetic criticism and his powerful critique of capitalism assured his high place in the pantheon. The real trouble, however, began in 1970, when Millett, in her landmark study "Sexual Politics," contrasted what she saw as Ruskin's old-fashioned, chivalric view of women with the progressive, egalitarian position espoused by his contemporary John Stuart Mill. Books like Phyllis Rose's "Parallel Lives" followed suit, vilifying Ruskin as a prissy misogynist unable to consummate his marriage because the naked body of his new bride did not resemble the classical nudes of art.

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