Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ruskin and Reciprocity


As an English major who's minoring in rhetoric, I spend a lot of time thinking about the role of language in the conveyance of meaning and truth. Literature classes largely consist of close reading and analyzing of stories and poems, which for the average reader tends to spoil the joy of reading. But for English majors, it is an opportunity to discover on a deeper level what it means to be human and why the human experience is valuable. I think this is a purpose that should be of special interest to Christians because of the fundamental belief that relationship with God is our raison d'etre, our reason for being.

In my creative writing, non-fiction class this week, we were discussing the value of reading others' work. Not only can we learn more about others when we read what they write, we can also learn more about ourselves. And as we listen to what others have to say, we can, in turn, respond. In our response, we open our lives to others, providing not only a glimpse of ourselves, but hopefully, providing others deeper insight into their own lives and hearts as well.

It was from this new understanding of "discourse communities" that I turned to John Ruskin, a 19th century art critic. In his lecture on art in the relation to morals, he writes:
No man is worth reading to form your style, who does not mean what he says; nor was any great style ever invented but by some man who meant what he said. Find out the beginner of a great manner of writing, and you have also found the declarer of some true facts or sincere passions: and your whole method of reading will thus be quickened, for being sure that your author really meant what he said, you will be much more careful to ascertain what it is that he means.

And of yet greater importance is it deeply to know that every beauty possessed by the language of a nation is significant of the innermost laws of its being. Keep the temper of the people stern and manly; make their associations grave, courteous, and for worthy objects; occupy them in just deeds; and their tongue must needs be a grand one. Nor is it possible, therefore--observe the necessary reflected action--that any tongue should be a noble one, of which the words are not so many trumpet-calls to action. All great languages invariably utter great things, and command them; they cannot be mimicked but by obedience; the breath of them is inspiration because it is not only vocal, but vital; and you can only learn to speak as these men spoke, by becoming what these men were. (117.68-188.69)
What does this all mean? As we find ourselves entering the discourse, any discourse, on any level, I think it is inevitable that we will find ourselves imitating what we ourselves appreciate. And I think that our imitation must go beyond that of the voice, as Ruskin asserts. To write, or paint, or live well, we must follow the examples of people who achieved what we hope to achieve, imitate their virtues, pray that we might avoid the pitfalls that impeded their progress. In essence, to do well, we must first learn to think well about the stories of others' lives and how their experiences can inform us about our own way in the world.

Image:
William Bouguereau (1825-1905)
Reverie [Revery]
Oil on canvas, 1894
44 x 27 7/8 inches (112 x 71 cm)
Private collection
ArtRenewal.org

Ruskin, John. Lectures on Art. Ed. Bill Beckley. New York: Allsworth Press, 1996.

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