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ROBERT CASILLO The Meaning of Venetian History in Ruskin and Pound Although Ezra Pound figures within the aesthetic and economic tradition which Ruskin inaugurated, the paucity of direct references to Ruskin in Pound's work has often discouraged inquiry into their relation. The resemblance between these writers lies not so much in textual affiliations or borrowings or in demonstrable influence as in what Guy Davenport terms the 'contemporaneity' of two discontemporaneous minds, a constant affinity in thought, feeling, temperament, and interest. Whether their concern was Nature or Culture, art or literature, politics or economics, science or history, Ruskin and Pound held similar values, examined the same artefacts and issues, and often reached the same conclusions. The Anglo-Saxon world knows few more notable or savage critics of modern civilization, the break-up of community, the deterioration of the arts, and the money economy in its effects on every aspect of life.' Since no essay can encompass so vast a design, a Single element must serve to focus Ruskin's and Pound's main concerns while implying all the rest. This focus is Venice, whose artistic masterpieces appear frequently in their works. Ruskin's decision to combine aesthetics and art history with social and economic criticism in the late 1850S - the great turn of his career - stemmedlargely from his increasing awareness of the inseparable relation between Venetian art, society, and economics. Pound's career underwent a no less radical turn in the late teens and twenties of this century, partly as a result of his Venetian researches and above all because ofhis exposure to Ruskin's followers among the Guild Socialists.2 For both writers Venice figures as a constant source of aesthetic, economic, social, and political speculation. In its rise and decline it typifies historical phenomena which Ruskin and Pound fear and abhor: the loss ofmedievalspirituality and hierarchy; the emergence ofeconomic individualism and the acquisitive society; the end ofcraftand the triumph of lUXUry and aesthetic formalism; and, perhaps most important, the irresistible sell-aggrandizement of the modern state.' II Ruskin and Pound are amateur historians who share certain assumptions about historical writing.' Unlike many modern historians and philosUNIVERSITY OF roRONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 55, NUMBER 3, SPRING 1986 236 ROBERT CASILLO ophers, they believe that one can learn lessons of morality and conduct from the past. Early in The Stones of Venice Ruskin defines a historical typology within which nineteenth-century England faces the same fate as its illustrious but now decayed predecessors, the maritime empires of Venice and Tyre. Thanks to these examples, England 'may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction' (9.17). In Canto 35 Pound superimposes British imperialistic chicanery during the Victorian period on Venetian nefariousness in the fifteenth century. As Pound implies, the name 'Victoria' (351175-6)5 may someday seem as obscure as 'The Dominant,' as Venice arrogantly called itself in its heyday. The more important similarity between these writers is their common historical methodology. Ruskin and Pound approach history from a combination of what Hayden White terms the 'Organicist' and 'Contextualist' viewpoints. The Organicist historian works unsystematical. ly, relying on the figure or trope of synecdoche as a radically integrative synthesizing device; each historical event or object is a microcosmic component of a larger historical process which comes to 'aggregate' in all its forms into a comprehensive, comprehensible, and finally abstract organic unity: the life of the nation, the state, etc. Contextualism, whose major example is perhaps Jacob Burckhardt, also proceeds unsystematically but is less confident of finding organic unities. The Contextualist seeks to integrate his several intuitions of the historical field into a comprehensive, interrelated, and relatively integrated whole. For him history is a spectacle, panorama, or richly textured fabric, a more or less evenly lighted field in which all the individual threads - artistic, political, economic, philosophical, etc. - retain their individuality and receive more or less equal prominence.6 Both of these methods differ from that metonymic and mechanistic historicism which, in its craving for system, attempts to explain the entire historical field in terms ofexternalelements, agencies, concepts, or causal laws. Pound might identify such reductionism with Marx, whom he for the most part disliked, and who is often criticized unfairly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 235-260
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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