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Agreeing and disagreeing with the pugnacious John Ruskin
In summer 2009, I received a letter from Professor Michael Thorne of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, letting me know that that venerable institution had decided to award me an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters. My reaction to the news was threefold.
First, gratified astonishment at the discovery that the University Board, probably in a state of midsummer whimsy, had picked my name for this splendid honour.
Second, shameful acceptance of the fact that, while most of my learned colleagues have had to work hard in school for many years, I, having dropped out of university after a single semester, was about to receive a doctorate free of charge. If further evidence were needed of the unfairness of all things human, there it is. However, in his kind letter, Professor Thorne speaks of honouring individuals “who will serve as a role model to those graduating.” This, I explained with regret in my answer to Professor Thorne, was a role I felt obliged to decline. I would accept the honour with great pride—but on condition of not having to act as a role model. Role models are always disappointing. James Joyce, in his old age, was stopped by an admirer on the street, who bowed to him and exclaimed: “Master! May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?” To which Joyce answered: “No, it’s done lots of other things besides.” All appointed role models have done “lots of other things besides.”
Third, and more seriously, my reaction to the news was delight in the knowledge that this university, so recklessly granting me this honour, was named after one of my best-beloved writers, the pugnacious John Ruskin. He is not one of my role models: I wouldn’t want to follow the example of his private life, nor do I endorse all of his fiery opinions. However, I wholeheartedly share most of Ruskin’s beliefs: that art and literature, far from helping us escape from reality, push our noses into reality and encourage us to take action against daily acts of injustice; that beauty has a restorative power; that greed is society’s greatest evil. And, above all, that people are in general more intelligent than they are led to believe, and that art is for everyone. On all this I agree with Ruskin.
On November 12, I was asked to address the students graduating this year from Anglia Ruskin University. I began by pointing out that these students, receiving their diplomas after many years of hard work, were about to enter a world in which the things Ruskin fought against are still rife: a world in ecological danger, in which the policies of greed make it very difficult to find decent jobs, a world that puts forward the values of the quick and easy instead of the values of reflective slowness and the pleasures of difficulty to which the university would have accustomed them.
In spite of this, I said, I believed that they could, and would, succeed. The reason is that every one of these students (from all over the world and ranging in age from seventeen to seventy) had an ability that has enabled us, as a species, to survive up to now—and, if we use it wisely, will enable us to survive in the future: the ability to imagine. The biologist Richard Dawkins has argued that imagination was developed by humans in order to experience the world before we experience it in the flesh; to learn, for instance, that a lion will bite you if you put your hand in its maw, before you physically put your hand in its maw.
Ruskin’s mother didn’t believe in this educational imagination. Once, when baby Ruskin reached out to touch a lit candle, his mother stopped the nurse who was about to pull away his hand. “Let him do it,” she said. “Then he will learn.” And presumably, Ruskin did learn that flames can burn us. But we don’t need to burn our hand in order to learn that. We can read about it in books, and about all other manner of dangers and delights. We can learn about the world in the stories that we have imagined in order to put the world into words. Reading can be a pleasant cautionary experience.
Maybe, if we had read Dickens’s Martin Chuzzelwit more carefully, we would have recognized in the dealings of the Eden Land Corporation the dynamics of the American real estate schemes that crashed the world economy; if we had remembered the words of the ’umble Uriah Heep in David Copperfield we would have understood what these companies’ speeches of contrition really meant. Maybe, if we had paid more attention to the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, as he tells Alice that there’s no room at the tea table when, in fact, as Alice points out, there’s plenty of room, we would have spotted the selfish Mad Hatters who say that there’s no room for new Alices at the work table. Maybe if we had stopped to consider the ruthless, power-hungry motives of Agamemnon in the Iliad, ready to sacrifice his daughter to obtain fair winds for his fleet, we would know the real motives behind the warmongers of today.
Again, I don’t agree with Ruskin on everything. For example, in spite of being a brilliantly keen reader, Ruskin was rather shy in recognizing the extraordinary power we readers have. He said that we read in order to get at the author’s meaning—not to find our own. I think he was wrong. I think we very much read to find our own meaning, in the author’s meaning. We read to lend words to our experience. As we read, we translate, as it were, the author’s words into our own experience, enlarging the meaning of those words, generation after generation. Not finding just any meaning, of course, if we read honestly, but meanings that many times escaped even the author, who is often the least shrewd of the readers of that text. We read to understand our intuition of the world, to discover that someone a thousand miles and years away has put into words our most intimate desires and our most secret fears. Reading is a collaborative act.
This power that we, as readers, have, is one of the many powers society tries to keep hidden from us. Consumer society is afraid of our individual powers, and wants us to believe that we are too stupid to make our own choices. We mustn’t let anyone tell us that we are not clever enough, or talented enough, or fit enough for whatever it is we want to do. There will be (because there always are) financial considerations, family considerations, considerations of health and prejudice and lack of opportunity, but in most cases, in spite of the overwhelming odds against us, we can and will imagine ways to overcome them. G. K. Chesterton said that the most extraordinary thing about miracles is that they happen. I believe we are capable of performing miracles.