Ruskin and the Tired Brow

By Deanna K. Kreisel

1273px A Vineyard Walk Lucca
John Ruskin, A Vineyard Walk, Lucca (1874)*

Whenever I type the word “Ruskin”—which is pretty often—my touch-typing fingers automatically complete it as “Rusking.” So I’ve come to think of Rusking (or more properly Ruskining) as a verb: to Ruskin. What does it mean “to Ruskin”? Of course the answer to that question will depend on which version of Ruskin you currently favor—dreamy young aesthete Ruskin, whimsical interlocutor Ruskin, fiery social reformer Ruskin, or perhaps even brilliant elderly madman Ruskin. For me, now, “to Ruskin” means to be deeply moved by a pressing political or moral issue on the public stage, to fulminate, to translate that passionate fulminating into forceful, stirring, lapidary prose. In short, to exhort. Here is my favorite passage from Ruskin at the moment, from the introduction to The Crown of Wild Olive. (I trust I don’t have to apologize to anyone reading this homage for quoting the man at length.)

If your life were but a fever fit,—the madness of a night, whose follies were all to be forgotten in the dawn, it might matter little how you fretted away the sickly hours,—what toys you snatched at or let fall,—what visions you followed, wistfully, with the deceived eyes of sleepless phrenzy. Is the earth only an hospital? are health and heaven to come? Then play, if you care to play, on the floor of the hospital dens. Knit its straws into what crowns please you; gather the dust of it for treasure, and die rich in that, though clutching at the black motes in the air with your dying hands;—and yet, it may be well with you. But if this life be no dream, and the world no hospital, but your palace-inheritance;—if all the peace and power and joy you can ever win, must be won now, and all fruit of victory gathered here, or never;—will you still, throughout the puny totality of your life, weary yourselves in the fire for vanity? If there is no rest which remaineth for you, is there none you might presently take? was this grass of the earth made green for your shroud only, not for your bed? and can you never lie down upon it, but only under it? The heathen, in their saddest hours, thought not so. They knew that life brought its contest, but they expected from it also the crown of all contest: No proud one! no jewelled circlet flaming through Heaven above the height of the unmerited throne; only some few leaves of wild olive, cool to the tired brow, through a few years of peace.... [T]his, such as it is, you may win, while yet you live; type of grey honour, and sweet rest. Free-heartedness, and graciousness, and undisturbed trust, and requited love, and the sight of the peace of others, and the ministry to their pain; these,—and the blue sky above you, and the sweet waters and flowers of the earth beneath; and mysteries and presences, innumerable, of living things,—may yet be here your riches; untormenting and divine: serviceable for the life that now is; nor, it may be, without promise of that which is to come.

This breathtaking passage (excuse me for a moment while I dab my eyes) is the culmination of a rhetorical tour de force in which Ruskin presents his case that “the wealth of nations, as of men, consists in substance, not in ciphers; and that the real good of all work, and of all commerce, depends on the final intrinsic worth of the thing you make.” What moves me about his injunction to rest is its generosity, its kindness, its tenderness—not qualities for which I normally turn to Ruskin.  (Of course, in true Ruskining fashion he starts out by beating us up a little for our general wrongheadedness before getting to the nice bit about our right to sweet rest and the compensations of love, service, and the beauty of the natural world.) 

Ruskin opens his discussion by confessing the difficulty he feels “of knowing whether to address one’s audience as believing, or not believing, in any other world than this.” It strikes him as impossible to frame his discussion without knowing the basic premises that he and his readers share. I will leave you to re-read the introduction to discover why that question initially seems important to him; he quickly twists himself around into an acknowledgment that it in the end it doesn’t matter: “whomsoever I venture to address, I take for the time, his creed as I find it; and endeavour to push it into such vital fruit as it seems capable of.” And this is precisely what he does in the long passage quoted above: he shows you why you should value the beauty of this world whether or not you believe it is the only world you will ever know.

As beautiful and stirring as his demonstration may be, what strikes me as particularly instructive for our own political moment is this movement of generosity on Ruskin’s part, this ethical decision to meet his interlocutors where they are and find common ground with them. But (of course, being Ruskin) he remains stringent; there is no kumbaya moment here; this is still stern stuff. I am reminded, perhaps somewhat incongruously, of the recent work of the activist and teacher Loretta Ross, who urges us to reject “call-out culture” and instead call each other in; “calling in” seeks “to hold people accountable for the potential harm that they cause” without losing sight “of the fact that you’re talking to another human being. And so you extend a hand of active love and active listening to help them maybe stop and think.” What better way to describe what Ruskin spent so much of his writing, speaking, and teaching career doing?

We are bruised and battered, sick with worry about the pandemic, white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and climate change, perhaps despairing what the future will bring. Let us not only find sweet rest, a modicum of comfort here in this world, together, but let us also hold onto—stringently, sternly, lovingly—the idea of our shared humanity.

* Image is in the public domain.