Author’s/editor’s note: In lieu of a dispute about the Igbo assignments of gender, a direct quote by the source of Transgender History & Geography has been added to clear further confusion, as several Igbos have pointed out the author’s information was incorrect (par. 3). Apologies for the mistake.
Africa, a continent comprised of 55 countries, is vast in its histories, ethnic groups, languages, and relationships to colonization. While Western societies glean the reputation of being forward-thinkers in regards to gender-identity and queerness, Africa is renown as being a site of violence and intolerance for queer Black Africans. As Black folks of the Diaspora look to learning about Africa’s past to combat the sting of white supremacy, there is yet another benefit to delving deep into the continent’s history — in particularly, its history of gender non-conformity and queerness erased by the brutality of colonialism (which led to the criminalization of queerness in 34 countries).
“Despite a long history of transgender realities in Africa, many modern transgendered people there experience well-warranted fear because of hostility in their families, tribes, or nations,” writes G. G. Bolich. “Much of this modern hostile response has been placed on the influence of European culture, both because of a colonial past and because of contemporary pressure, or the influence of foreign religions. Nevertheless, as in the past, so now transgendered people are active members of their communities, seeking to effect positive changes.” Africa’s rich past of gender non-conformity, coupled with transgender behaviors and transgender realities, is deeply embedded within various ethnic groups across the continent.
Before the implementation of rigid European rigid binaries, within the Dagaaba tribe of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast, gender identity was determined differently. Shaman Malidoma Somé of the Dagaaba says that gender to the tribe is not dependent upon sexual anatomy. “It is purely energetic. In that context, one who is physically male can vibrate female energy, and vice versa. That is where the real gender is.” The Igbo of Nigeria, also in Western Africa, “appear to assign gender around age 5” (Bolich 246). In Central Africa, the Mbuti do not designate a specific gender to a child until after puberty, in direct contrast to Western society.
In Mali, the Dogon tribe generally maintain that the perfect human being is androgynous; the tribe worships Nommo, ancestral spirits who are described as androgynous, intersex, and mystical creatures, and whom are also referred to as “the Teachers”. In an uncircumcised penis, the foreskin is representative of femininity, while the clitoris is considered to represent masculinity.
The existence of intersex spiritual deities laid the foundation for the acceptance of transgender behaviors for other African tribes in addition to the Dogon:
“African spiritual beliefs in intersexual deities and sex/gender transformation among their followers have been documented among the Akan, Ambo-Kwanyama, Bobo, Chokwe, Dahomeans (of Benin), Bambara, Etik, Handa, Humbe, Hunde, Ibo, Jukun, Kimbundu, Konso, Kunama, Lamba, Lango, Luba, Lulua, Nuba, Ovimbundu, Rundi, Shona-Karonga, Venda, Vili-Kongo, and Yoruba. Transgender in religious ceremony is still reported in the twentieth century in West Africa. And cross-dressing is a feature of modern Brazilian and Haitian ceremonies derived from West African religions” (45)
The Lugbara people of Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda are among those in Central Africa whom still conduct spiritual ceremonies with transgender priests. According to the late Leslie Feinberg, “Female-to-male priests, most importantly, co-exist with male-to-female shamans. Among the Lugbara, for example, male-to-females are called okuleand female-to-male are named agule.” The Zulu of South Africa also initiate transgender shamans, calling them insangoma. Transgender women were diviners in the Ambo tribe of southern Angola, with the Kalunga, the supreme spirit.
Africa’s Eastern region is home to other tribes who appear to embrace gender non-conforming behavior, according to Bolich. When anthropologist Brian MacDermot lived among the Nuer people of Ethiopia, he observed the tribe’s acceptance of a transgender woman in a village:
“He encountered an individual among the Nuer people of Ethiopia who not only appeared in feminine dress, and acted as female, but was actually regarded as having become a woman. No physical change of sex had transpired, yet this person was free to occupy a feminine identity and role, even to the extent that marriage to a man was permissible. MacDermot was informed that the prophet of Deng had consulted the spirits and then declared the change in this individual’s status, which the people accepted. Here transpired an outcome more certain and favorable than many individuals who actually undergo sexual assignment surgery and legal identity change experience in our culture (which so commonly and arrogantly perceives itself as more enlightened” (245)
Elsewhere in Ethiopia, the Amhara, “allow room for intermediate, mixed, or ‘third gender expression.” The Otero, to the north-east in the Sudan, follow the same blue-print when it comes assessing gender identity.
As Africa comes to terms with the repressive legacy of gender essentialism, queerphobia and the violence it incited, transgender Africans in the 21st century are challenging the political and cultural vestiges of colonialism. In Cape Verde, Tchinda Andrade was the first to publicly identify as a transgender woman at the country’s Carnival in 1998, and, in the aftermath, was hailed as a “heroine”. Prior to Tchinda’s coming out, queers on the island of Cape Verde were in the closet : as a result of Tchinda’s local celebrity, LGBT folks, particularly those who are transgender, are now referred to as “Tchindas”. Tchinda’s story, and those of other transgender Cape Verde women, is chronicled in the 2015 documentary film Tchindas. Marc Serena, Spanish journalist and co-director of Tchindas, shared this about the necessity of films centering transgender people on the continent with i-D:
”I think queer people in Africa need films that they can give hope to them,” adds Serena. “So they can see it’s possible to be African and gay or trans and have people respect them. For me, it’s an example, even to the rest of the world. In the film, you see how families if they go to work, they take their children to the ‘tchindas’ and that’s something that maybe even some parents here [in the US] wouldn’t do because they would feel uncomfortable if there was a trans person there.”
Tchindas has been nominated for Best Documentary at the African Movie Academy Awards.
As transgender activists, artists, and writers in other parts of Africa seek to bring beneficial changes to their countries from South Africa to Uganda, understanding the continent’s ancient past is affirming to their work. Queer history is deeply intertwined with African history, and variations of gender identity are just as much essential to Africa’s future as is its past.
If humanity is seen as a single macro-organism, it is as if there is a fissure, a primordial dissociation—a split—deep within its very core. We are living not just in the time of the splitting of the atom, but during a time of the splitting of the human psyche, and as a consequence, the sundering of the world at large as well. Humanity’s “split consciousness,” in which the right hand isn’t in touch with what the left hand is doing, C. G. Jung calls “the mental disorder of our day.”[i] Not in touch with or at one with ourselves, our species is suffering from what Jung calls a “disunity with oneself.”[ii] This tearing apart of an inner unity, what in alchemy is called the “disiunctio” (the antonym of “coniunctio” – the coming together of the opposites) is an inner situation that is being played out collectively, writ large on the world stage.
Our fragmented and polarized world is dissociated like a neurotic – as if our world is suffering from a “neurotic break” (as compared to a “psychotic break,” which our world also might be having). Split in pieces, our species has become neurotic as hell. We can further our understanding of what’s playing out in the world—and potentially, gain insight on how to deal with our world crisis—by deepening our insight into what happens when an individual becomes neurotic.
Lying behind our neurosis (which means “split mind”) and the resultant anxiety is oftentimes concealed all of the naturally-occurring suffering that we, for whatever reason, have been unwilling to bear. We foreclose on the chance of genuine happiness if we refuse the genuine suffering that is sent our way as part of life. Jung famously writes, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”[iii] When we suppress the legitimate suffering that is ours to bear, however, we create an unnecessary additional form of interminable neurotic suffering that can become more painful than the initial legitimate suffering. In an anxiety-producing self-generated feedback loop whose basis is to avoid feeling our legitimate suffering, we only compound our suffering through our continual avoidance.
Neurosis is the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning. Jung considered the absence of meaning (the “senselessness and aimlessness” of life) as “the general neurosis of our age.”[iv] Neurosis oftentimes emerges when people content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. Neurosis is an attempt to escape from our inner voice, and hence, flee from our vocation and ultimately, from ourselves. To quote Jung, “The neurotic is one who falls victim to his own illusions.”[v] Like a psychic barometer, our neurosis can tell us when and where we are straying from our individual path and destiny.
The moment of outbreak of neurosis is not generally a matter of chance – it is usually the moment when a new psychological adaptation is demanded by life. People who have become neurotic are often destined to be the bearers of new creative cultural ideals. Our personal neurotic conflicts, however, are connected with and reflections of the great problems of society and of our time. Jung writes, “Neurosis is nothing less than an individual attempt, however unsuccessful, to solve a universal problem.”[vi] Recognizing the greater archetypal, universal pattern that we are embedded in and expressions of can take our neurosis out of the realm of personal pathology, snap us out feeling isolated and help us to feel connected to—and a part of—humanity as a whole.
The outer divisions in our world, with all of its myriad political, social and militaristic conflicts is an outer reflection of the dissociative neurotic split—and conflict—between the conscious and the unconscious minds of humanity. Jung comments, “there are in a neurosis two tendencies standing in strict opposition to one another, one of which is unconscious.”[vii] When there are no open lines of communication between the seemingly opposing conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves, it can become—like we see in the world today—a very dangerous situation that can potentially lead to the human-created nightmare of endless war.
Jung describes the splitting of personality which characterizes “neurosis” as “the state of being at war with oneself…. What drives people to war with themselves is the suspicion or knowledge that they consist of two persons in opposition to one another.”[viii] War is an inflammation, an outbreak in the world’s body politic reflecting a deeper systemic dissociative split in the underlying psyche of humanity. When we are not able to contain the “warring” elements within our own self, however, this conflict of opposites spills out into the outside world, where it gets acted out—“dreamed up”—in the world theater by way of projection.
Once we realize that our neurotic conflict is inside of us, however, we can understand that its tribulations are in actual fact a means to access our greatest wealth. Instead of squandering our riches by projecting our inner conflict outside of ourselves and attacking others, we can then “attack” the problem at its source, which is within ourselves.
Neurosis is by no means solely a negative thing, it is also something positive, containing a key to accessing the wholeness of our psyche – the hidden “other” part of our self. If a neurosis could be plucked from us like a bad tooth, we would lose an essential means to access our wholeness, as if a part of our body had been amputated. Our neurosis signifies and contains an undeveloped and precious fragment of our psyche without which we would be condemned to resignation, bitterness, despair and depression. To quote Jung, “Follow the way of your neurosis; it is the best thing you ever produced, your real value.”[ix] A neurosis can be viewed as a positive symptom, as it is a manifestation that something is not right in our present state, an expression that something within us wants to grow. Hidden within our neurosis lies a precious seed which if nurtured can help us to grow beyond the neurosis into a more coherent and integrated version of ourselves in ways that would be impossible without the “gift” of our neurosis. If the growth is not accepted, however, then it grows against us. We don’t heal our neurosis, our neurosis potentially heals us.
We need to learn not how to get rid of our neurosis, but how to carry and bear it so that it can reveal its deeper meaning. Our neurosis is teaching us something about ourselves that we clearly haven’t been able to learn in any other way. Trying to get rid of our neurosis is analogous to attacking a fever in the belief that it is the noxious agent, rather than recognizing that the fever is an expression of the process of healing that is underway. Speaking of our neurotic illness, Jung writes, “the illness is nature’s attempt to heal [the person] … what the neurotic flings away as absolutely worthless contains the true gold we should never have found elsewhere.”[x] Neurosis is an attempt of the self-regulating nature of the psyche to restore balance to the overall psychic system, similar to how our night dreams compensate a one-sidedness in the dreamer.
Our neuroses are, ultimately speaking, of numinous origin. “The core of the neuroses of our time,” Jungian scholar Erich Neumann writes, is “the search for the self. In this sense neuroses … are a kind of sacred disease.”[xi] Though our neurosis strengthens and seems to feed into and off of our feelings of alienation, their origin is actually to be found in the wholeness-creating tendency of the Self. Paradoxically, neurosis splits us off from our psychic wholeness, while simultaneously being an expression of that very wholeness attempting to actualize itself through us.
Our neurosis is not a residue or hangover from the past (what in alchemy is referred to by the term caput mortuum – a residue left over after the distillation of a substance). To quote Jung, “The true reason for a neurosis always lies in the present, since the neurosis exists in the present.” Jung continues that it a neurosis is “new-made every day. And it is only in the today, not in our yesterdays, that the neurosis can be ‘cured.’”[xii] Jung points out that the loss of our relationship with our psychic totality “is the prime evil of neurosis.”[xiii] This is to say that the cure for neurosis involves reconnecting with the wholeness of the self, an experience which can only be found right now, in the present moment, which is, after all is said and done, all there ever is.
[i] Jung, Civilization in Transition, CW 10, para. 552
[ii] Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, para. 16.
[iii] Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East, CW 11, para. 129.
[iv] Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16, para. 83.
[v] Jung, The Development of Personality, CW 17, para. 202.
[vi] Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, para. 438.
A pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, Paul Levy is a wounded healer in private practice, assisting others who are also awakening to the dreamlike nature of reality. Among his books are The Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science and Spirituality (SelectBooks, May 2018) and Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil (North Atlantic Books, 2013). He is the founder of the “Awakening in the Dream Community” in Portland, Oregon. An artist, he is deeply steeped in the work of C. G. Jung, and has been a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for over 35 years. He was the coordinator for the Portland PadmaSambhava Buddhist Center for over twenty years. His email is email@example.com; he looks forward to your reflections.
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Since 1970, this book has made assertiveness training a household word, achieving the status of #1 assertive training book and #5 self-help book according to a survey of psychologists’ recommendations to clients as reported in the July 1989 issues of The New York Times and Psychology Today.
Sir John Everett Millais (June 8, 1829 – August 13, 1896) was an English painter and illustrator who was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. He was a child prodigy who, aged eleven, became the youngest student to enter the Royal Academy Schools. Wikipedia
Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti, generally known as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (May 12, 1828 – April 9, 1882), was an English poet, illustrator, painter and translator, and a member of the Rossetti family. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Wikipedia
His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. He wrote essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation.
The elaborate style that characterised his earliest writing on art gave way in time to plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively. In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society.
He was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century and up to the First World War. After a period of relative decline, his reputation has steadily improved since the 1960s with the publication of numerous academic studies of his work. Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognised as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability and craft.
Ruskin first came to widespread attention with the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay in defence of the work of J. M. W. Turner in which he argued that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature”. From the 1850s, he championed the Pre-Raphaelites, who were influenced by his ideas. His work increasingly focused on social and political issues. Unto This Last (1860, 1862) marked the shift in emphasis. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing. In 1871, he began his monthly “letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain”, published under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–1884). In the course of this complex and deeply personal work, he developed the principles underlying his ideal society. As a result, he founded the Guild of St George, an organisation that endures today.
Early life (1819–1846)
Ruskin was the only child of first cousins. His father, John James Ruskin (1785–1864), was a sherry and wine importer, founding partner and de facto business manager of Ruskin, Telford and Domecq (see Allied Domecq). John James was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a mother from Glenluce and a father originally from Hertfordshire. His wife, Margaret Cock (1781–1871), was the daughter of a publican in Croydon. She had joined the Ruskin household when she became companion to John James’s mother, Catherine.
John James had hoped to practise law, and was articled as a clerk in London. His father, John Thomas Ruskin, described as a grocer (but apparently an ambitious wholesale merchant), was an incompetent businessman. To save the family from bankruptcy, John James, whose prudence and success were in stark contrast to his father, took on all debts, settling the last of them in 1832. John James and Margaret were engaged in 1809, but opposition to the union from John Thomas, and the problem of his debts, delayed the couple’s wedding. They finally married, without celebration, in 1818. John James died on 3 March 1864 and is buried in the churchyard of St John the Evangelist, Shirley, Croydon.The grave of John James Ruskin in the churchyard of St John the Evangelist, Shirley, Croydon
Ruskin was born on 8 February 1819 at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, London (demolished 1969), south of St Pancras railway station. His childhood was shaped by the contrasting influences of his father and mother, both of whom were fiercely ambitious for him. John James Ruskin helped to develop his son’s Romanticism. They shared a passion for the works of Byron, Shakespeare and especially Walter Scott. They visited Scott’s home, Abbotsford, in 1838, but Ruskin was disappointed by its appearance. Margaret Ruskin, an evangelical Christian, more cautious and restrained than her husband, taught young John to read the Bible from beginning to end, and then to start all over again, committing large portions to memory. Its language, imagery and parables had a profound and lasting effect on his writing. He later wrote:
She read alternate verses with me, watching at first, every intonation of my voice, and correcting the false ones, till she made me understand the verse, if within my reach, rightly and energetically.— Praeterita, XXXV, 40
Ruskin’s childhood was spent from 1823 at 28 Herne Hill (demolished c. 1912), near the village of Camberwell in South London. He had few friends of his own age, but it was not the friendless and toyless experience he later claimed it was in his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89). He was educated at home by his parents and private tutors, and from 1834 to 1835 he attended the school in Peckham run by the progressive evangelical Thomas Dale (1797–1870). Ruskin heard Dale lecture in 1836 at King’s College, London, where Dale was the first Professor of English Literature. Ruskin went on to enroll and complete his studies at King’s College, where he prepared for Oxford under Dale’s tutelage.
10 Rose Terrace, Perth (on the right), where Ruskin spent boyhood holidays with Scottish relatives
Ruskin was greatly influenced by the extensive and privileged travels he enjoyed in his childhood. It helped to establish his taste and augmented his education. He sometimes accompanied his father on visits to business clients at their country houses, exposing him to English landscapes, architecture and paintings. Family tours took them to the Lake District (his first long poem, Iteriad, was an account of his tour in 1830) and to relatives in Perth, Scotland. As early as 1825, the family visited France and Belgium. Their continental tours became increasingly ambitious in scope, so that in 1833 they visited Strasbourg, Schaffhausen, Milan, Genoa and Turin, places to which Ruskin frequently returned. He developed his lifelong love of the Alps, and in 1835 he first visited Venice, that ‘Paradise of cities’ that provided the subject and symbolism of much of his later work.
The tours provided Ruskin with the opportunity to observe and to record his impressions of nature. He composed elegant if largely conventional poetry, some of which was published in Friendship’s Offering. His early notebooks and sketchbooks are full of visually sophisticated and technically accomplished drawings of maps, landscapes and buildings, remarkable for a boy of his age. He was profoundly affected by Samuel Rogers‘s poem, Italy (1830), a copy of which was given to him as a 13th birthday present. In particular, he admired deeply the accompanying illustrations by J. M. W. Turner, and much of Ruskin’s art in the 1830s was in imitation of Turner, and Samuel Prout, whose Sketches Made in Flanders and Germany (1833) he also admired. His artistic skills were refined under the tutelage of Charles Runciman, Copley Fielding and J. D. Harding.
Ruskin’s journeys also provided inspiration for writing. His first publication was the poem “On Skiddaw and Derwent Water” (originally entitled “Lines written at the Lakes in Cumberland: Derwentwater” and published in the Spiritual Times) (August 1829). In 1834, three short articles for Loudon‘s Magazine of Natural History were published. They show early signs of his skill as a close “scientific” observer of nature, especially its geology.
From September 1837 to December 1838, Ruskin’s The Poetry of Architecture was serialised in Loudon’s Architectural Magazine, under the pen name “Kata Phusin” (Greek for “According to Nature”). It was a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings centred on a Wordsworthian argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their immediate environment and use local materials. It anticipated key themes in his later writings. In 1839, Ruskin’s “Remarks on the Present State of Meteorological Science” was published in Transactions of the Meteorological Society.
Ruskin never achieved independence at Oxford. His mother lodged on High Street and his father joined them at weekends. His health was poor and he was devastated to hear that his first love, Adèle Domecq, second daughter of his father’s business partner, was engaged to a French nobleman. In the midst of exam revision, in April 1840, Ruskin coughed blood, raising fears of consumption, and leading to a long break from Oxford.
Before he returned, Ruskin answered a challenge set down by Effie Gray, whom he later married. The twelve-year-old Effie had asked him to write a fairy story. During a six-week break at Leamington Spa to undergo Dr Jephson’s (1798–1878) celebrated salt-water cure, Ruskin wrote his only work of fiction, the fable The King of the Golden River (not published until December 1850 (but imprinted 1851), with illustrations by Richard Doyle). A work of Christian sacrificial morality and charity, it is set in the Alpine landscape Ruskin loved and knew so well. It remains the most translated of all his works. Back at Oxford, in 1842 Ruskin sat for a pass degree, and was awarded an uncommon honorary double fourth-class degree in recognition of his achievements.
Modern Painters I (1843)
Engraving of John Ruskin by Henry Sigismund Uhlrich
For much of the period from late 1840 to autumn 1842, Ruskin was abroad with his parents, mainly in Italy. His studies of Italian art were chiefly guided by George Richmond, to whom the Ruskins were introduced by Joseph Severn, a friend of Keats (whose son, Arthur Severn, later married Ruskin’s cousin, Joan). He was galvanised into writing a defence of J. M. W. Turner when he read an attack on several of Turner’s pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy. It recalled an attack by the critic Rev John Eagles in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1836, which had prompted Ruskin to write a long essay. John James had sent the piece to Turner, who did not wish it to be published. It finally appeared in 1903.
Before Ruskin began Modern Painters, John James Ruskin had begun collecting watercolours, including works by Samuel Prout and Turner. Both painters were among occasional guests of the Ruskins at Herne Hill, and 163 Denmark Hill (demolished 1947) to which the family moved in 1842.
What became the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), published by Smith, Elder & Co. under the anonymous authority of “A Graduate of Oxford”, was Ruskin’s answer to Turner‘s critics. Ruskin controversially argued that modern landscape painters—and in particular Turner—were superior to the so-called “Old Masters” of the post-Renaissance period. Ruskin maintained that, unlike Turner, Old Masters such as Gaspard Dughet (Gaspar Poussin), Claude, and Salvator Rosa favoured pictorial convention, and not “truth to nature”. He explained that he meant “moral as well as material truth”. The job of the artist is to observe the reality of nature and not to invent it in a studio—to render imaginatively on canvas what he has seen and understood, free of any rules of composition. For Ruskin, modern landscapists demonstrated superior understanding of the “truths” of water, air, clouds, stones, and vegetation, a profound appreciation of which Ruskin demonstrated in his own prose. He described works he had seen at the National Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery with extraordinary verbal felicity.
Although critics were slow to react and the reviews were mixed, many notable literary and artistic figures were impressed with the young man’s work, including Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell. Suddenly Ruskin had found his métier, and in one leap helped redefine the genre of art criticism, mixing a discourse of polemic with aesthetics, scientific observation and ethics. It cemented Ruskin’s relationship with Turner. After the artist died in 1851, Ruskin catalogued nearly 20,000 sketches that Turner gave to the British nation.
1845 tour and Modern Painters II (1846)
Ruskin toured the continent with his parents again in 1844, visiting Chamonix and Paris, studying the geology of the Alps and the paintings of Titian, Veronese and Perugino among others at the Louvre. In 1845, at the age of 26, he undertook to travel without his parents for the first time. It provided him with an opportunity to study medieval art and architecture in France, Switzerland and especially Italy. In Lucca he saw the Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia, which Ruskin considered the exemplar of Christian sculpture (he later associated it with the then object of his love, Rose La Touche). He drew inspiration from what he saw at the Campo Santo in Pisa, and in Florence. In Venice, he was particularly impressed by the works of Fra Angelico and Giotto in St Mark’s Cathedral, and Tintoretto in the Scuola di San Rocco, but he was alarmed by the combined effects of decay and modernisation on the city: “Venice is lost to me”, he wrote. It finally convinced him that architectural restoration was destruction, and that the only true and faithful action was preservation and conservation.
Drawing on his travels, he wrote the second volume of Modern Painters (published April 1846). The volume concentrated on Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artists rather than on Turner. It was a more theoretical work than its predecessor. Ruskin explicitly linked the aesthetic and the divine, arguing that truth, beauty and religion are inextricably bound together: “the Beautiful as a gift of God”. In defining categories of beauty and imagination, Ruskin argued that all great artists must perceive beauty and, with their imagination, communicate it creatively by means of symbolic representation. Generally, critics gave this second volume a warmer reception, although many found the attack on the aesthetic orthodoxy associated with Joshua Reynolds difficult to accept. In the summer, Ruskin was abroad again with his father, who still hoped his son might become a poet, even poet laureate, just one among many factors increasing the tension between them.
Middle life (1847–1869)
Effie Gray painted by Thomas Richmond. She thought the portrait made her look like “a graceful Doll”.
Marriage to Effie Gray
During 1847, Ruskin became closer to Effie Gray, the daughter of family friends. It was for Effie that Ruskin had written The King of the Golden River. The couple were engaged in October. They married on 10 April 1848 at her home, Bowerswell, in Perth, once the residence of the Ruskin family. It was the site of the suicide of John Thomas Ruskin (Ruskin’s grandfather). Owing to this association and other complications, Ruskin’s parents did not attend. The European Revolutions of 1848 meant that the newlyweds’ earliest travels together were restricted, but they were able to visit Normandy, where Ruskin admired the Gothic architecture.
Their early life together was spent at 31 Park Street, Mayfair, secured for them by Ruskin’s father (later addresses included nearby 6 Charles Street, and 30 Herne Hill). Effie was too unwell to undertake the European tour of 1849, so Ruskin visited the Alps with his parents, gathering material for the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters. He was struck by the contrast between the Alpine beauty and the poverty of Alpine peasants, stirring his increasingly sensitive social conscience.
The marriage was unhappy, with John’s reportedly cruel and distrustful behaviour towards Effie the cause. The marriage was never consummated and was annulled in 1854.
Ruskin’s developing interest in architecture, and particularly in the Gothic, led to the first work to bear his name, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). It contained 14 plates etched by the author. The title refers to seven moral categories that Ruskin considered vital to and inseparable from all architecture: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. All would provide recurring themes in his work.
Seven Lamps promoted the virtues of a secular and Protestant form of Gothic. It was a challenge to the Catholic influence of A. W. N. Pugin
The Stones of Venice
In November 1849, Effie and John Ruskin visited Venice, staying at the Hotel Danieli. Their different personalities are thrown into sharp relief by their contrasting priorities. For Effie, Venice provided an opportunity to socialise, while Ruskin was engaged in solitary studies. In particular, he made a point of drawing the Ca’ d’Oro and the Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, because he feared that they would be destroyed by the occupying Austrian troops. One of these troops, Lieutenant Charles Paulizza, became friendly with Effie, apparently with Ruskin’s consent. Her brother, among others, later claimed that Ruskin was deliberately encouraging the friendship to compromise her, as an excuse to separate.
Meanwhile, Ruskin was making the extensive sketches and notes that he used for his three-volume work The Stones of Venice (1851–53). Developing from a technical history of Venetian architecture from the Romanesque to the Renaissance, into a broad cultural history, Stones reflected Ruskin’s view of contemporary England. It served as a warning about the moral and spiritual health of society. Ruskin argued that Venice had slowly degenerated. Its cultural achievements had been compromised, and its society corrupted, by the decline of true Christian faith. Instead of revering the divine, Renaissance artists honoured themselves, arrogantly celebrating human sensuousness.
The chapter, “The Nature of Gothic” appeared in the second volume of Stones. Praising Gothic ornament, Ruskin argued that it was an expression of the artisan’s joy in free, creative work. The worker must be allowed to think and to express his own personality and ideas, ideally using his own hands, rather than machinery.
We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.— John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice vol. II: Cook and Wedderburn 10.201.
Ruskin came into contact with Millais after the artists made an approach to Ruskin through their mutual friend Coventry Patmore. Initially, Ruskin had not been impressed by Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50), a painting that was considered blasphemous at the time, but Ruskin wrote letters defending the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to The Times in May 1851. Providing Millais with artistic patronage and encouragement, in the summer of 1853 the artist (and his brother) travelled to Scotland with Ruskin and Effie where, at Glenfinlas, he painted the closely observed landscape background of gneiss rock to which, as had always been intended, he later added Ruskin’s portrait.
Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Suffering increasingly from physical illness and acute mental anxiety, Effie was arguing fiercely with her husband and his intense and overly protective parents, and sought solace with her own parents in Scotland. The Ruskin marriage was already fatally undermined as she and Millais fell in love, and Effie left Ruskin, causing a public scandal.
In April 1854, Effie filed her suit of nullity, on grounds of “non-consummation” owing to his “incurable impotency“, a charge Ruskin later disputed. Ruskin wrote, “I can prove my virility at once.” The annulment was granted in July. Ruskin did not even mention it in his diary. Effie married Millais the following year. The complex reasons for the non-consummation and ultimate failure of the Ruskin marriage are a matter of enduring speculation and debate.
Ruskin continued to support Hunt and Rossetti. He also provided an annuity of £150 in 1855–57 to Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti’s wife, to encourage her art (and paid for the services of Henry Acland for her medical care). Other artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites also received both critical and financial support from Ruskin, including John Brett, John William Inchbold, and Edward Burne-Jones, who became a good friend (he called him “Brother Ned”). His father’s disapproval of such friends was a further cause of considerable tension between them.
During this period Ruskin wrote regular reviews of the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy under the title Academy Notes (1855–59, 1875). They were highly influential, capable of making or breaking reputations. The satirical magazine Punch published the lines (24 May 1856), “I paints and paints,/hears no complaints/And sells before I’m dry,/Till savage Ruskin/He sticks his tusk in/Then nobody will buy.”
Ruskin was an art-philanthropist: in March 1861 he gave 48 Turner drawings to the Ashmolean in Oxford, and a further 25 to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in May. Ruskin’s own work was very distinctive, and he occasionally exhibited his watercolours: in the United States in 1857–58 and 1879, for example; and in England, at the Fine Art Society in 1878, and at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour (of which he was an honorary member) in 1879. He created many careful studies of natural forms, based on his detailed botanical, geological and architectural observations. Examples of his work include a painted, floral pilaster decoration in the central room of Wallington Hall in Northumberland, home of his friend Pauline Trevelyan. The stained glass window in the Little Church of St Francis Funtley, Fareham, Hampshire is reputed to have been designed by him. Originally placed in the St. Peter’s Church Duntisbourne Abbots near Cirencester, the window depicts the Ascension and the Nativity.
Ruskin’s theories also inspired some architects to adapt the Gothic style. Such buildings created what has been called a distinctive “Ruskinian Gothic”. Through his friendship with Henry Acland, Ruskin supported attempts to establish what became the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (designed by Benjamin Woodward)—which is the closest thing to a model of this style, but still failed to satisfy Ruskin completely. The many twists and turns in the Museum’s development, not least its increasing cost, and the University authorities’ less than enthusiastic attitude towards it, proved increasingly frustrating for Ruskin.
Ruskin and education
The Museum was part of a wider plan to improve science provision at Oxford, something the University initially resisted. Ruskin’s first formal teaching role came about in the mid-1850s, when he taught drawing classes (assisted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti) at the Working Men’s College, established by the Christian socialists, Frederick James Furnivall and Frederick Denison Maurice. Although Ruskin did not share the founders’ politics, he strongly supported the idea that through education workers could achieve a crucially important sense of (self-)fulfilment. One result of this involvement was Ruskin’s Elements of Drawing (1857). He had taught several women drawing, by means of correspondence, and his book represented both a response and a challenge to contemporary drawing manuals. The WMC was also a useful recruiting ground for assistants, on some of whom Ruskin would later come to rely, such as his future publisher, George Allen.
From 1859 until 1868, Ruskin was involved with the progressive school for girls at Winnington Hall in Cheshire. A frequent visitor, letter-writer, and donor of pictures and geological specimens to the school, Ruskin approved of the mixture of sports, handicrafts, music and dancing encouraged by its principal, Miss Bell. The association led to Ruskin’s sub-Socratic work, The Ethics of the Dust (1866), an imagined conversation with Winnington’s girls in which he cast himself as the “Old Lecturer”. On the surface a discourse on crystallography, it is a metaphorical exploration of social and political ideals. In the 1880s, Ruskin became involved with another educational institution, Whitelands College, a training college for teachers, where he instituted a May Queen festival that endures today. (It was also replicated in the 19th century at the Cork High School for Girls.) Ruskin also bestowed books and gemstones upon Somerville College, one of Oxford‘s first two women’s colleges, which he visited regularly, and was similarly generous to other educational institutions for women.
Modern Painters III and IV
Both volumes III and IV of Modern Painters were published in 1856. In MP III Ruskin argued that all great art is “the expression of the spirits of great men”. Only the morally and spiritually healthy are capable of admiring the noble and the beautiful, and transforming them into great art by imaginatively penetrating their essence. MP IV presents the geology of the Alps in terms of landscape painting, and their moral and spiritual influence on those living nearby. The contrasting final chapters, “The Mountain Glory” and “The Mountain Gloom” provide an early example of Ruskin’s social analysis, highlighting the poverty of the peasants living in the lower Alps.
In addition to leading more formal teaching classes, from the 1850s Ruskin became an increasingly popular public lecturer. His first public lectures were given in Edinburgh, in November 1853, on architecture and painting. His lectures at the Art Treasures Exhibition, Manchester in 1857, were collected as The Political Economy of Art and later under Keats‘s phrase, A Joy For Ever. In these lectures, Ruskin spoke about how to acquire art, and how to use it, arguing that England had forgotten that true wealth is virtue, and that art is an index of a nation’s well-being. Individuals have a responsibility to consume wisely, stimulating beneficent demand. The increasingly critical tone and political nature of Ruskin’s interventions outraged his father and the “Manchester School” of economists, as represented by a hostile review in the Manchester Examiner and Times. As the Ruskin scholar Helen Gill Viljoen noted, Ruskin was increasingly critical of his father, especially in letters written by Ruskin directly to him, many of them still unpublished.
Ruskin gave the inaugural address at the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, an institution from which the modern-day Anglia Ruskin University has grown. In The Two Paths (1859), five lectures given in London, Manchester, Bradford and Tunbridge Wells, Ruskin argued that a ‘vital law’ underpins art and architecture, drawing on the labour theory of value. (For other addresses and letters, Cook and Wedderburn, vol. 16, pp. 427–87.) The year 1859 also marked his last tour of Europe with his ageing parents, during which they visited Germany and Switzerland.
Ruskin had been in Venice when he heard about Turner’s death in 1851. Being named an executor to Turner’s will was an honour that Ruskin respectfully declined, but later took up. Ruskin’s book in celebration of the sea, The Harbours of England, revolving around Turner’s drawings, was published in 1856. In January 1857, Ruskin’s Notes on the Turner Gallery at Marlborough House, 1856 was published. He persuaded the National Gallery to allow him to work on the Turner Bequest of nearly 20,000 individual artworks left to the nation by the artist. This involved Ruskin in an enormous amount of work, completed in May 1858, and involved cataloguing, framing and conserving. Four hundred watercolours were displayed in cabinets of Ruskin’s own design. Recent scholarship has argued that Ruskin did not, as previously thought, collude in the destruction of Turner’s erotic drawings, but his work on the Bequest did modify his attitude towards Turner. (See below, Controversies: Turner’s Erotic Drawings.)
In 1858, Ruskin was again travelling in Europe. The tour took him from Switzerland to Turin, where he saw Paolo Veronese‘s Presentation of the Queen of Sheba. He would later claim (in April 1877) that the discovery of this painting, contrasting starkly with a particularly dull sermon, led to his “unconversion” from Evangelical Christianity. He had, however, doubted his Evangelical Christian faith for some time, shaken by Biblical and geological scholarship that had undermined the literal truth and absolute authority of the Bible: “those dreadful hammers!” he wrote to Henry Acland, “I hear the chink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.” This “loss of faith” precipitated a considerable personal crisis. His confidence undermined, he believed that much of his writing to date had been founded on a bed of lies and half-truths. He later returned to Christianity.
Social critic and reformer: Unto This Last
Whenever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty.
John Ruskin, Modern Painters V (1860): Ruskin, Cook and Wedderburn, 7.422–423.
Although in 1877 Ruskin said that in 1860, “I gave up my art work and wrote Unto This Last … the central work of my life” the break was not so dramatic or final. Following his crisis of faith, and influenced in part by his friend Thomas Carlyle (whom he had first met in 1850), Ruskin shifted his emphasis in the late 1850s from art towards social issues. Nevertheless, he continued to lecture on and write about a wide range of subjects including art and, among many other matters, geology (in June 1863 he lectured on the Alps), art practice and judgement (The Cestus of Aglaia), botany and mythology (Proserpina and The Queen of the Air). He continued to draw and paint in watercolours, and to travel extensively across Europe with servants and friends. In 1868, his tour took him to Abbeville, and in the following year he was in Verona (studying tombs for the Arundel Society) and Venice (where he was joined by William Holman Hunt). Yet increasingly Ruskin concentrated his energies on fiercely attacking industrial capitalism, and the utilitarian theories of political economy underpinning it. He repudiated his sometimes grandiloquent style, writing now in plainer, simpler language, to communicate his message straightforwardly.There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has always the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
Ruskin’s social view broadened from concerns about the dignity of labour to consider issues of citizenship and notions of the ideal community. Just as he had questioned aesthetic orthodoxy in his earliest writings, he now dissected the orthodox political economy espoused by John Stuart Mill, based on theories of laissez-faire and competition drawn from the work of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus. In his four essays Unto This Last, Ruskin rejected the division of labour as dehumanising (separating the labourer from the product of his work), and argued that the false “science” of political economy failed to consider the social affections that bind communities together. He articulated an extended metaphor of household and family, drawing on Plato and Xenophon to demonstrate the communal and sometimes sacrificial nature of true economics. For Ruskin, all economies and societies are ideally founded on a politics of social justice. His ideas influenced the concept of the “social economy“, characterised by networks of charitable, co-operative and other non-governmental organisations.
The essays were originally published in consecutive monthly instalments of the new Cornhill Magazine between August and November 1860 (and published in a single volume in 1862). However, the Cornhill’s editor, William Makepeace Thackeray, was forced to abandon the series by the outcry of the magazine’s largely conservative readership and the fears of a nervous publisher (Smith, Elder & Co.). The reaction of the national press was hostile, and Ruskin was, he claimed, “reprobated in a violent manner”. Ruskin’s father also strongly disapproved. Others were enthusiastic, including Ruskin’s friend Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, “I have read your paper with exhilaration… such a thing flung suddenly into half a million dull British heads… will do a great deal of good.”
Ruskin believed in a hierarchical social structure. He wrote “I was, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school.” He believed in man’s duty to God, and while he sought to improve the conditions of the poor, he opposed attempts to level social differences and sought to resolve social inequalities by abandoning capitalism in favour of a co-operative structure of society based on obedience and benevolent philanthropy, rooted in the agricultural economy.
If there be any one point insisted on throughout my works more frequently than another, that one point is the impossibility of Equality. My continual aim has been to show the eternal superiority of some men to others, sometimes even of one man to all others; and to show also the advisability of appointing such persons or person to guide, to lead, or on occasion even to compel and subdue, their inferiors, according to their own better knowledge and wiser will.— John Ruskin, Unto This Last: Cook and Wedderburn 17.34
Ruskin’s explorations of nature and aesthetics in the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters focused on Giorgione, Veronese, Titian and Turner. Ruskin asserted that the components of the greatest artworks are held together, like human communities, in a quasi-organic unity. Competitive struggle is destructive. Uniting Modern Painters V and Unto This Last is Ruskin’s “Law of Help”:
Government and cooperation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death.— John Ruskin, Modern Painters V and Unto This Last: Cook and Wedderburn 7.207 and 17.25.
Ruskin’s next work on political economy, redefining some of the basic terms of the discipline, also ended prematurely, when Fraser’s Magazine, under the editorship of James Anthony Froude, cut short his Essays on Political Economy (1862–63) (later collected as Munera Pulveris (1872)). Ruskin further explored political themes in Time and Tide (1867), his letters to Thomas Dixon, a cork-cutter in Sunderland, Tyne and Wear who had a well-established interest in literary and artistic matters. In these letters, Ruskin promoted honesty in work and exchange, just relations in employment and the need for co-operation.
Ruskin’s sense of politics was not confined to theory. On his father’s death in 1864, he inherited a considerable fortune of between £120,000 and £157,000 (the exact figure is disputed). This considerable fortune, inherited from the father he described on his tombstone as “an entirely honest merchant”, gave him the means to engage in personal philanthropy and practical schemes of social amelioration. One of his first actions was to support the housing work of Octavia Hill (originally one of his art pupils): he bought property in Marylebone to aid her philanthropic housing scheme. But Ruskin’s endeavours extended to the establishment of a shop selling pure tea in any quantity desired at 29 Paddington Street, Paddington (giving employment to two former Ruskin family servants) and crossing-sweepings to keep the area around the British Museum clean and tidy. Modest as these practical schemes were, they represented a symbolic challenge to the existing state of society. Yet his greatest practical experiments would come in his later years.
Lectures in the 1860s
Ruskin lectured widely in the 1860s, giving the Rede lecture at the University of Cambridge in 1867, for example. He spoke at the British Institution on ‘Modern Art’, the Working Men’s Institute, Camberwell on “Work” and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich on ‘War’. Ruskin’s widely admired lecture, Traffic, on the relation between taste and morality, was delivered in April 1864 at Bradford Town Hall, to which he had been invited because of a local debate about the style of a new Exchange building. “I do not care about this Exchange”, Ruskin told his audience, “because you don’t!” These last three lectures were published in The Crown of Wild Olive (1866).“For all books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time” – Sesame and Lilies
The lectures that comprised Sesame and Lilies (published 1865), delivered in December 1864 at the town halls at Rusholme and Manchester, are essentially concerned with education and ideal conduct. “Of Kings’ Treasuries” (in support of a library fund) explored issues of reading practice, literature (books of the hour vs. books of all time), cultural value and public education. “Of Queens’ Gardens” (supporting a school fund) focused on the role of women, asserting their rights and duties in education, according them responsibility for the household and, by extension, for providing the human compassion that must balance a social order dominated by men. This book proved to be one of Ruskin’s most popular, and was regularly awarded as a Sunday School prize. Its reception over time, however, has been more mixed, and twentieth-century feminists have taken aim at “Of Queens’ Gardens” in particular, as an attempt to “subvert the new heresy” of women’s rights by confining women to the domestic sphere. Although indeed subscribing to the Victorian belief in “separate spheres” for men and women, Ruskin was however unusual in arguing for parity of esteem, a case based on his philosophy that a nation’s political economy should be modelled on that of the ideal household.
“We translate perceptions and experiences of being better off than others materially to being better than others. The mind makes that translation, it seems.”
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