Friday, January 10, 2014

"but treat him kindly without any economical purpose, and all economical purposes will be answered" Ruskin on Dickens, briefly

Over on Umbagollah's blog Pykk, I have been indulged and allowed to chat about Ruskin, among other things. Umbagollah asks exceedingly interesting questions about what writers are doing on the page and in their heads. Anyway, I am indebted to the abovementioned Umbagollah at the blog Pykk for pointing me to the following, which is a footnote to an essay on economics in John Ruskin's Unto this Last, a footnote which concerns Dickens. I have snipped the first paragraph of the footnote, which reveals that Ruskin has read Bleak House, but my reader can rest assured that Ruskin did read that novel, and apparently a great many (maybe all) of Dickens' other novels. Which fact I find greatly interesting. But here's that footnote:
The essential value and truth of Dickens's writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons, merely because he presents his truth with some colour of caricature. Unwisely, because Dickens's caricature, though often gross, is never mistaken. Allowing for his manner of telling them, the things he tells us are always true. I wish that he could think it right to limit his brilliant exaggeration to works written only for public amusement; and when he takes up a subject of high national importance, such as that which he handled in Hard Times, that he would use severer and more accurate analysis. The usefulness of that work (to my mind, in several respects, the greatest he has written) is with many persons seriously diminished because Mr. Bounderby is a dramatic monster, instead of a characteristic example of a worldly master; and Stephen Blackpool a dramatic perfection, instead of a characteristic example of an honest workman. But let us not lose the use of Dickens's wit and insight, because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire. He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them, but especially Hard Times, should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions. They will find much that is partial, and, because partial, apparently unjust; but if they examine all the evidence on the other side, which Dickens seems to overlook, it will appear, after all their trouble, that his view was the finally right one, grossly and sharply told.
Ruskin mistakes Dickens' intentions, thinking that Dickens writes either "for public amusement" or to address subjects of "importance." Dickens does the latter via the former; that was his art, yes? His great strength and great weakness all rolled into one. Nobody--I am apparently prepared to claim--has carried it off as well as Dickens has.

But John Ruskin was a serious guy, who despite having often lit a circle of fire about his own pronouncements and having often been carried aloft on wings of rhetorical fancy, he never (no, never) resorted to burlesque or caracature. Well, he may have; I've only read something like 2% of his output. See Pykk's blog for an amusing Ruskin anecdote about a Japanese tumbling act, where he resorts to the sort of reductionist tactics for which he chides Dickens.

Meanwhile, in Stones of Venice, Ruskin is telling his reader about the six divisions of architecture:

1. walls
2. piers (columns, etc.)
3. lintels or arches beneath roofs
4. roofs
5. doors and windows
6. buttresses

The last-mentioned item should rightly go before doors and windows, but blogger's text editor and I hate each other so I won't move it up the way I should. Mr Ruskin assures his reader that, once he has been educated in the principles behind the six divisions of architecture, the reader will know enough about building and design to make informed judgments about the rightness or wrongness (aesthetic rightness or wrongness, that is) of any building that hoves into view.


  1. His caricature of the Japanese jugglers is actually so cruel that I didn't quote it. (This is what happens when you enter imaginatively and forcefully into your abstract purpose and withdraw imaginatively from the nonabstract people in front of you.)

  2. That's an interesting note, though one has to be careful with Ruskin and the subject of what is "grossly" depicted. (Though Dickens certainly does make wondrous, extreme flat characters in his minor figures.) I'm recollecting his marriage and remembering that his sensibilities were evidently sometimes over-delicate.

  3. I'm possibly more sympathetic to Ruskin's opinion of Dickens than most fans of the novels because I always find myself having to overlook the unrealistic characterizations Dickens created. I don't believe in a single cast member of Bleak House, for example. None of those people could exist off the page. And I seem to be the only person on Earth who doesn't fall in love with Esther.

    I think I read Dickens for the other halves of his books, the halves that contain the long detailed descriptions of city life, the biting and tightly focused social commentary, those openings (I still get breathless over the first pages of Our Mutual Friend with the dawn on the river, the raft, etc). But I have a hard time caring about the characters, I admit, and I've always found the author's sentimentality to be his greatest weakness. But his strengths so overtop his weaknesses that I enjoy his books, so there you go.

  4. Oh, I think there are some Esther-doubters, particularly when readers reach the end of her tale.

    But I dearly love his flat characters. They fizz with energy, and I don't require them to be "realistic." What's realistic, anyway? Nothing in a book is ever precisely like life. If they didn't have that energy, they would be poor things, but they do. And I think there are a lot of major novels that contain flat characters who work because they bottle energy.

    And I would say that I value a book containing energy or life more than a book containing a solid plot or pretty sentences or many another praised element. I say that even though I have tossed down many books that didn't please my ear.

    I don't like it when he becomes soppy or mawkish; I agree with you there, of course. And I love his sense of a whole active world composed of many people and many working sub-worlds, some of them abusive and evil. And yes, he is marvelous with openings.

    But I can't do without Miss Havisham and the Micawbers and Mrs. Jellyby and Miss Flyte and a whole parade more...

  5. I should know better than to talk about "realism," shouldn't I? But life, yes! Dickens books are so so so alive. It's easy for me to poke at his possible weaknesses, but those "weaknesses" are really just things I wouldn't do, not actual failings in Mr Dickens' technique. I keep reading his books, don't I? I keep finding things to admire and emulate in them, don't I? I don't believe in Jo the Sweeper, but I keep reading about Jo the Sweeper, don't I?

    I'm also aware that, because his books are so immense and complex, his characters (like everything else) have to be painted in bolder shades.