Proust wrestled with the temptation to read Ruskin uncritically, entranced by the beauty and power of his prose. His unique impressionist style owes something to his seeing how Ruskin erred by equating art with lofty ideas. A simple sketch would, for Ruskin, verge on greatness if it depicted an elevated idea. But how do you resist passages like this, describing a wooden panel in the cathedral of Amiens:
Sweet and young-grained wood it is: oak, trained and chosen for such work, sound now as four hundred years since. Under the carver’s hand it seems to cut like clay, to fold like silk, to grow like living branches, to leap like living flame. Canopy crowning canopy, pinnacle piercing pinnacle—it shoots and wreathes itself into an enchanted glade, inextricable, imperishable, fuller of leafage than any forest, and fuller of story than any book. (The Bible of Amiens, 92)
But Ruskin could devote pages to imposing an intellectual order on beauty. Here is the beginning of pages devoted to the statuary of the cathedral (what he identifies as the bible of Amiens):
Under the feet of His apostles, therefore, in the quatrefoil medallions of the foundation, are represented the virtues which each Apostle taught, or in his life manifested;—it may have been, sore tried, and failing in the very strength of the character which he afterwards perfected. Thus St. Peter, denying in fear, is afterwards the Apostle of courage; and St. John, who, with his brother, would have burnt the inhospitable village, is afterwards the Apostle of love. Understanding this, you see that in the sides of the porch, the apostles with their special virtues stand thus in opposite ranks.
Now you see how these virtues answer to each other in their opposite ranks. Remember the left-hand side is always the first, and see how the left-hand virtues lead to the right hand:—
Courage to Faith.
Patience to Hope.
Gentillesse to Charity.
Love to Chastity.
Obedience to Wisdom.
Perseverance to Humility.
Note farther that the Apostles are all tranquil, nearly all with books, some with crosses, but all with the same message,
St. Paul, Faith. Courage, St. Peter. St. James the Bishop, Hope. Patience, St. Andrew. St. Philip, Charity. Gentillesse, St. James. St. Bartholomew, Chastity. Love, St. John. St. Thomas, Wisdom. Obedience, St. Matthew. St. Jude, Humility. Perseverance, St. Simon.(P113)
1. Clovis. Frank form, Hluodoveh. ‘Glorious Holiness,’ or
consecration. Latin Chlodovisus, when baptized by St.
Remy, softening afterwards through the centuries into
Lhodovisus, Ludovicus, Louis.2. Albofleda. ‘White household fairy’? His youngest sister;
married Theodoric (Theutreich, ‘People’s ruler’),
the great King of the Ostrogoths.3. Clotilde. Hlod-hilda. ‘Glorious Battle-maid.’ His wife.
‘Hilda’ first meaning Battle, pure; and then passing
into Queen or Maid of Battle. Christianized to Ste
Clotilde in France, and Ste Hilda of Whitby cliff.4. Clotilde. His only daughter. Died for the Catholic faith,
under Arian persecution.
5. Childebert. His eldest son by Clotilde, the first Frank
King in Paris. ‘Battle Splendour,’ softening into
Hildebert, and then Hildebrandt, as in the Nibelung.
6. Chlodomir. ‘Glorious Fame.’ His second son by Clotilde.
7. Clotaire. His youngest son by Clotilde; virtually the destroyer
of his father’s house. ‘Glorious Warrior.’
8. Chlodowald. Youngest son of Chlodomir. ‘Glorious
Power,’ afterwards ‘St. Cloud.’
…there is a sort of idolatry which no one has defined better than Ruskin himself, in a passage from the Lectures on Art: ‘Such I conceive generally, though indeed with good arising out of it, for every great evil brings some good in its backward eddies–such I conceive to have been the deadly function of art in its ministry to what, whether in heathen or Christian lands, and whether in the pageantry of words, or colours, or fair forms, is truly, and in the deep sense, to be called idolatry–the serving with the best of our hearts and minds, some dear or sad fantasy which we have made for ourselves, while we disobey the present call of the Master, who is not dead, and who is not now fainting under His cross, but requiring us to take up ours.’Now it certainly seems that at the basis of Ruskin’s work, at the root of his talent, one finds this very idolatry. No doubt he never allowed it completely to overly–even as an embellishment,–to immobilize, paralyse and finally to kill his intellectual and moral sincerity. In every line he wrote, as at each moment of his life, one senses this need for sincerity struggling against idolatry, proclaiming its vanity and humbling beauty before duty, be it an unaesthetic duty. I shall not take examples of this from his life (which was not like the lives of Racine, or Tolstoy, or Maeterlinck, aesthetic at first and later moral, but one in which morality established its rights from the outset and in the very heart of his aesthetic–without perhaps ever liberating itself as completely as in the lives of the other Masters I have just named). I have no need to recall its stages, for they are quite well-known, from the early scruples which he felt at drinking tea while looking at Titians, up until the time when, having swallowed up the five millions left him by his father on his social philanthropic work, he decided to sell his Turners. But there is a more inward form of dilettantism than the active form (which he had overcome) and the real duel between his idolatry and his sincerity was fought out not at certain moments of his life, or in certain passages in his books, but the whole time, in those deep and secret places, unknown almost to ourselves, where our personality receives images from the imagination, ideas from the intellect and words from the memory, and affirms itself in the ceaseless choices it makes from them and ceaselessly wagers in a sense the destiny of our moral and spiritual lives. I have the impression that in those places the sin of idolatry never ceased to be committed by Ruskin. And at the very moment when he was preaching sincerity he lacked it himself, not in what he said but in the manner in which he said it. The doctrines he was professing were moral and not aesthetic doctrines, yet he chose them for their beauty. And as he did not want to present them as beautiful but as true, he was obliged to lie to himself concerning the nature of the reasons which had led him to adopt them. (29-30)