2. You Kids Get Off My Lawn
Don’t be afraid of John Ruskin. Just think of him as I do, shouting at the neighbor kids who are on his lawn (it’s also useful to think of him as one of the early Game Board Throwers; I get the sense from his writing that he would spend a lot of time playing an aggressive game of Monopoly or Risk, have all of his armies in Australia and Asia or a dozen hotels on Park Place, and suddenly just pick up the board and hurl it across the room. Think of him that way, in church, with his head up his own ass, like this guy.) .
Where was I? Oh yes, John Ruskin (hush, child, I know I haven’t mentioned a single poem yet, but right now, I’m setting up dominos. It’s going to be wicked cool when I knock em down. It’s gonna be like, as the poet Doug Anderson says, Apollo building the house while Dionysus sets fire to the curtains. That’s what this blog is gonna be. By Saturday.). But before I talk about Ruskin, I want to talk about the word “yucky”.
Adam Gopnik is bringing this word “yucky” back into fashion the way I want to bring Ruskin back into fashion. One of the overarching themes of his new The Table Comes First has to do with the way you might say, “That ground beefheart is yucky”, and then I would say, “I like that ground beefheart” and then you would probably say, “You’re yucky.” Because taste so easily becomes morality. (N.B. I’m still reading Gopnik’s book, and I am paraphrasing a moment on a “Moth” podcast starring the author, so I can’t academically cite a page number with this theme in it. Sue me; it’s finals week and I have to grade 25 essays on the subject of literature and the environment. And also, God invented the blog so you don’t have to cite everything to within an inch of its damn life.)
Turning personal tastes into moral code, I think, is true with a lot of aesthetics issues. De gustibus non disputandum est, but we seem to hold to our “schools” in art, literature, music, and so forth as if we were clinging to the last bastion of ethics. I was talking about this just this morning with my colleague Eula Biss, who pointed out that in matters of food, we do seem to respect people who widen their experiences of aesthetic pleasure as much as possible, but in most of the plastic arts, such a lack of belief constrained makes us become, as J.V. Cunningham put it, scatterbrained. (there! A poet! Are you freakin happy?)
Ruskin (there, see? I got back to him! We are going forward!) was no exception on this point. He actually argued once that red was a more moral color than other colors. I shit you not, as my mother would say. (It’s in Modern Painters. If you’re looking for footnotes, go read a David Foster Wallace novel.).
While assigning a moral code to artistic intention and perception seems, when I put it that way, ludicrous, it does seem important to me that art have a moral center. Or anchor. Or tether. It comes down to a failure or success of the imagination, pure and simple, but that’s far too pure and simple an explanation.
But morals suggest the straight and narrow road. And the road of enthusiasm seems crooked and wide. If you cast your net too wide in the reading and scholarly world, if you don’t focus, you’re a libidinous Walt Whitman grasshopper dinking around while the army ants, under the leadership of General Glarey von Frownyface. And yet isn’t it a writer’s task to see as much of the world as possible, to be a witness to its goings on, and still be able to transform it, make heavy things light? Can lightness be an anchor, a tether, a center?
I think Ruskin wanted to be light, and enthusiastic. But his big brain weighed heavily in the pan. And there were all those kids that wouldn’t get off his lawn. Ruskin was a Victorian writer force-fed the Bible as a boy; he learned to tier his sentences like Powerpoint bulleted abominations of Leviticus (which is where he got that whole idea that red was a more sacred color), or an overwrought wedding cake. Don’t get me wrong: Ruskin is my guide here, and I wanted to borrow from him, in order to create yet another cliffhanger before I desperately try to keep your interest by offering more boobs in church.
Just look at them now, on that melusine (a mermaid with, conveniently, two tails), and look over there in that shrimper’s boat, isn’t that poet and enthusiast Doug Anderson, leering away?
"A soul is like a shrimper’s net they never haul up
and it’s full of everything:
A tire. A shark. An old harpoon.
A kid’s plastic bucket.
An empty half-pint.
A broken guitar string.
A pair of ballerina’s shoes with the ribbons
tangled in an anchor chain.
And the net gets heavier until the boat
starts to go down with it and you say,
God, what is going on?
In this condition I say love is a good thing.
I’m ready to capsize."
-Doug Anderson, from "Blues", first published in The Massachusetts Review