There is the certain test of goodness and badness, which I am always striving to get people to use. As long as they are satisfied if they find their feelings pleasantly stirred and their fancy gayly occupied, so long there is for them no good, no bad.
I am still in Chapter X, “The Use of Pictures,” of the third volume of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1856), an idea-packed masterpiece of rhetorical prose. Many of the ideas are wrong, or, provocative. For example, it is clear enough that for many consumers of art a pleasantly stirred fancy is the exact definition of good, the more pleasure the better.
Anything may please, or anything displease, them; and their entire manner of thought and talking about art is mockery, and all their judgments are laborious injustices.
I am just continuing the quotation here. The end, Ruskin’s “certain test,” will not be satisfying, I promise. “Injustice” seems awfully strong, no? I enormously enjoy seeing Ruskin work himself up to this high pitch. Pleasure-based judgment of art has its narrow use, the equivalent of matching my tastes against a blogger’s star ratings. I discover with experience that I enjoy any 4 or 5 star book rated by my favorite book blogger, BookGullet, while I consistently enjoy only the 5 star books chosen by BookGrump, and I never get along with even the 5 star books of BookGoon. I am comparing my arbitrary matrix of tastes against everyone else’s and using the results of the algorithm to read bloggers and their recommended books.
So, not an injustice, or even a mockery, but for the reader who arbitrarily values knowledge as much or more than experience (myself, John Ruskin), frustrating. I learn a lot about the taste of readers when I wander around book blogs, but not so much about the literature they read.
But let them, in the teeth of their pleasure or displeasure, simply put the calm question, -- Is it so? Is that the way a stone is shaped, the way a cloud is wreathed, the way a leaf is veined? and they are safe. They will do no more injustice to themselves nor to other men; they will learn to whose guidance they may trust their imagination, and from whom they must forever withhold its reins.
“Simply” – oh please! In Chapter VIII of the same book, Ruskin compares two carved griffins, and preposterously, convincingly demonstrates how one is so, and one is not so – “the Lombard workman did really see a griffin in his imagination, and carved it from the life.” So the “so,” the Truth of a work of art, even of a drawing of a leaf, is an imaginative truth.
The Woman in White is a mystery and a thriller, and Collins’ skill with pacing and tension must still be a model for suspense writers. It is an easy book to enjoy, even if it is often a silly book. Is it so? Obviously not, except that, at its best, it is. Collins really did see it, and wrote it from life.
There's a thread to follow tomorrow.