The 12+12 Books of Christmas #14


History of Aesthetic (1904) by Bernard Bosanquet is the oldest book in my library. It is the second edition of the original that came out in 1892. I bought the book thinking it would be an interesting read, but I also thought it was in rather good shape and would look nice in my bookshelf. It smells pretty old, but that does not bother those of us who have been scouring dusty bookshops for most of our lives. The book must have already been over a hundred years old when I bought it. For hardcore collectors that is nothing, of course, but I thought it was cool to own a book that had been read for so long. It remained on my shelf for years and I barely read it.

Then I was asked to translate a bit from John Ruskin’s Stones of Venice for the Finnish literary journal Avain. After agreeing to do it, it soon became clear that the job was going to be a difficult one. Ruskin’s prose is wonderful, but it is a bitch to translate to anything resembling modern Finnish. The problems were, as you might expect, mostly stylistic and I ended up making decisions that moved the text towards a pastiche. It was probably the right thing to do, because Ruskin came from a different world where morality and aesthetics were so closely linked they were almost indistinguishable. Ours is a cynical age that has long ago discarded the noble Greek doctrine of the good, the true and the beautiful

I was given the opportunity to write a preface to the translation and this was my chance to talk about my approach to Ruskin’s text. While comparing modern and 19th century attitudes to Ruskin’s writings, I remembered my Bosanquet. He said the following:

I do not substantially assent to the criticism passed by popular writers upon Mr. Ruskin, that he turns aesthetic into ethic. We are dealing, of course, with a thinker who cares not a jot for system or formula; but if we try to interpret, we must interpret fairly by the whole drift of his doctrine. […] I do not think that in the main Mr. Ruskin is chargeable with anything but a technical defect in philosophic formulation. I will admit, however, that there are occasional sermons which I cannot altogether defend, and which are chiefly to be regretted because they give a passing interest to malicious platitudes which no one would otherwise attend to.

At the time, I thought Bosanquet was defending Ruskin. “Look,” he seems to say, “this guy is not a philosopher and should not be read like one unless you want to run around in circles looking for an argument that isn’t there!” However, while that may be true, the second accusation is more serious. Bosanquet accuses Ruskin of veering towards platitudes. This is a stylistic sin that tells us that Bosanquet is not impressed with Ruskin’s work.

Had I the chance to rewrite the preface, I might look into this a bit more. If Bosanquet was at all of the opinion that ethics and aesthetics are intrinsically linked, the accusation of being unhip is serious business. If he is not and thinks there is a degree of that in Ruskin, it is still pretty serious. Even the best case scenario would imply that Bosanquet thought Ruskin was a chaotic thinker who sometimes wrote nonsense about nonsense issues. If that is a fair criticism of Ruskin is another matter. Don’t we all do that sometimes?

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