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  • The Victorian Counterarchive:Mikimoto Ryuzo, John Ruskin, and Affirmative Reading
  • Joseph Lavery (bio)

The son of well-to-do parents who, whether from talent or weakness, engages in a so-called intellectual profession, as an artist or a scholar, will have a particularly difficult time with those bearing the distasteful title of colleagues. It is not merely that his independence is envied, the seriousness of his intentions mistrusted, and that he is suspected of being a secret envoy of the established powers. Such suspicions, though betraying a deep-seated resentment, would usually prove well-founded. But the real resistances lie elsewhere. The occupation with things of the mind has by now itself become “practical,” a business with strict division of labour, departments and restricted entry. The man of independent means who chooses it out of repugnance for the ignominy of earning money will not be disposed to acknowledge the fact. For this he is punished.

—Theodor Adorno, “For Marcel Proust”

Personality, Paraphrase, Orthodoxy

The perverse ambition of Mikimoto Ryuzo was to transform Japanese modernity through the dissemination of the writing of the Victorian art critic and socialist John Ruskin, whose work he assiduously collected, translated, [End Page 385] and glossed. Mikimoto—the son of Mikimoto Kokichi, a successful Meiji businessman who developed a technique for artificially culturing pearls—founded both a library and a society in Tokyo to assist in the circulation of Ruskin’s work, and in 1930 he launched a monthly journal, in which he published his own translations of critical essays about Ruskin by major British scholars, including the socialist anticolonial writer J. A. Hobson and the philosopher R. G. Collingwood, as well as many essays and memoirs and sketches of his own composition, in both English and Japanese. Yet while Mikimoto’s careful work in establishing a Japanese readership for Ruskin flourished in Taisho Japan, a place characterized by broad cultural obsessions with labor, aesthetics, and crafts, what remains of that effort is confined to a rarely visited collection in a small Tokyo office, a fragile testimony to the intensity of feelings of an unusually enthusiastic reader of Victorian literature. Mikimoto was a bricoleur, experimenting with and recontextualizing Ruskin in the service of new personal and political demands, his library evidence of the capacity of literary writing to shape, and be shaped by, distant acts of reception. His always insightful and often outrageous writing on Ruskin records the triumphs of a scholarly son of wealth and narrates a relationship with a father whose successful business was a source of a shame freighted with gendered meanings. Yet his work always braids his own familial dissent with broad political reflections, reflections on the violence of Japanese modernization, on the history of racism, and on the crimes of empires, producing an immanent critique of capitalism, the theoretical coordinates of which are to be found not only in Ruskinian socialism but also in Marxist commodity theory and in the syncretic anticapitalist writings of his mentor, Kawakami Hajime. What Mikimoto learned from Ruskin above all were the radical possibilities for a life in which emotional and political commitments could be considered part of a single, breathtakingly complex whole, which was reflected in what Caroline Levine calls “the close intertwining of Ruskin’s iconoclastic aesthetics with his radical political principles.”1

Recent scholarship on Ruskin has striven to find a singular theme underlying his work, a unifying notion that might yoke together texts as diverse as Modern Painters and the Fors Clavigera letters. Questioning a long-held dissatisfaction with what early reviewers called his “crotchety contradictions and peevish paradoxes” and “if not insanity, sheer extravagance,” the aim has been to recover Ruskin as a systematic thinker after all. While scholars such as Levine and Jonah Siegel, among others, have done much to reveal Ruskin’s philosophical sophistication, they have inevitably underplayed the almost manic energy that characterized Ruskin’s literary style from his earliest texts through until his last, almost incoherent, letters.2 Consider the [End Page 386] following passage from “The nature of Gothic,” the excerpt of The Stones of Venice that was printed as a pamphlet in 1854 and that circulated among working men’s clubs:

And, on the other...


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pp. 385-412
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