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“All great and beautiful work has come of first gazing without shrinking into the darkness” – John Ruskin

John Ruskin, crazy only in retrospect?

John Ruskin, crazy only in retrospect?

When we see or experience the bizarre in the universe, but cannot explain it within the bounds of science and rationality, society in general prefers to attribute our recognition of them to apophenia (a posited human tendency to seek meaningful patterns within random data) or alternatively, insanity (a loose term for abnormal mental or behavioral patterns).  Apophenia rather obnoxiously presumes a randomness that may or may not exist, but as we frequently observe, translating a Nazi neurologist’s (party member Klaus Conrad coined the phrase to describe delusional thinking in psychosis) term “Apophänie” back into Greek gives it an air of comfortable authority and reasonableness.  Or at least makes it slightly less threatening.  Now, I’m clearly not suggesting that those skeptics that explain away millennia of observations of strange phenomena as apophenia are intellectual Nazis.  That would just be rude.  Although, slightly less goose-stepping might be in order.  Just saying.  The human fascination with gambling is often trotted out as an applied instance of apophenia (“hey, I’m on a roll” despite the fact that the probability of the next throw of the dice coming up in my favor is the same probability as the last), thus the implication is that we desire slightly less randomness and therefore celebrate a perception that the cruel universe has momentarily looked upon us with favor.  Especially when the mortgage is due.  Daddy needs a new pair of shoes.   What links apophenia to insanity is that both offer solidly teleogical explanations for our apprehension of the uncanny, that is they are explanations of phenomena by the purpose they serve, rather than necessarily identifying the cause of the phenomena, should such a cause even be discernible.  This becomes particularly clear when well-respected, analytical, and otherwise eminently “sane” folks start reporting anomalous experiences.  We retrospectively tend to rewrite such unexplained experience among the biographies of intellectual luminaries of a given age as a symptom of their descent into madness.  Why?  Because if they are insane, we have nothing to fear.  Consider the case of John Ruskin (1819-1900), the leading art critic, prolific author, and a prominent social thinker of the Victorian Era.  His experiences with strange phenomena would later be rewritten as reflecting a descent into insanity, with hint towards heartbreak, implications of odd sexual fixations, and ultimately the finer points of going bat-shit crazy.

There are a few problems with such a characterization.  John Ruskin was widely regarded, and by many still is, as one of the sharper tools in the Victorian shed.  Like many of his contemporaries, he had a certain passing fascination with spiritualism, but apart from being both a prominent art critic/theorist and respected watercolorist himself, his interests and insightful writings ranged widely from architecture to geology to ornithology to political economy, not to mention the fact that he was something of a world traveler and humanist.  Ruskin’s puzzling and disastrous marriage to Effie Gray (whom he met as a child, and married when she was 17), is also regarded as hinting at the potential for insanity, as the marriage was reportedly unconsummated and later annulled.  Gray maintained that Ruskin found her physically repulsive (which most agree she was not, and the implication is that Ruskin found women in general repulsive).  Ruskin maintained that he just didn’t like her personality.  The marriage was dissolved and Effie Gray went on to marry Ruskin’s protégé Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais.  Very Melrose Place.  While it might be safe to say that a cursory examination of any of our love lives would be grounds for an insanity plea, it is amazing how large the amorous failings of Ruskin later loom as indicators that he one day go nuts.

Ruskin later tutored a family friend in painting, a certain teenager named Rose La Touche, with whom it is reported he fell deeply in love, although she steadfastly rejected his marriage proposals based on the religious differences of their families.  Rose died at the age of 27 (variously attributed to madness, anorexia, a broken heart, religious mania or hysteria), which seems to have deeply affected Ruskin, who as was not uncommon at the time, turned to spiritualists seeking some sort of comfort.  It is said by later art historians that this is when Ruskin’s first bouts of madness emerged. The precise nature of his madness does not seem to be specified, and in fact his reactions to spiritualist contacts with Rose La Touche are decidedly understated and level-headed, as described by contemporaries.

Ruskin’s beloved Rose La Touche died in May, 1875. In the following October and again in December Ruskin visited the Cooper-Temples at Broadlands and was in a mood to listen to a spirit message which Mrs. Cooper-Temple and the medium Mrs. Ackworth assured him came from Rose. The evidence, he noted in his diary, was overwhelming. Temporarily he was happy, feeling that he had found the truth which he had “truly sought so long.” Early the next year the conviction had faded, and he wrote to Charles Eliot Norton that at Broadlands either the most horrible lies were told him without conceivable motive “or the ghost of R. [Rose] was seen often beside me.—Which is the pleasantest of these things I know, but cannot intellectually say which is likeliest—and meantime take to geology” (Cook and Wedderburn, Works of Ruskin, XXXVII, 189).

Ruskin, ever analytical, recognized that he was receiving emotional comfort from the experience, but did not find it necessary to come to an ultimate conclusion about its reality.  Frankly, when faced with the possibility that he was deluded or being tricked, he determined it didn’t really matter, and he would go back to his interests in geology. Later scholars would look back on the period of time in which Ruskin dabbled in spiritualism and conclude that this is where his insanity began, but his contemporaries observed no such madness, and remark upon how little intellectual sway spiritualism seemed to have for him.  “Frederick Myers, who was one of the company at Broadlands, wrote regretfully of Ruskin’s “leaving the unseen world in its old sad uncertainty and going back to the mission of humanizing the earth.” It does not seem from available evidence that spiritualism had a sufficient hold on Ruskin to warrant our trying to establish any connection between it and his early mystical experiences or his later madness (Porter, 1958, p149).

It seems that our inclination is to examine the lives of prominent folks that take an interest in strange phenomena, either instrumentally or out of sheer curiosity, and establish biographical signposts that will retroactively account for later experiences of the bizarre.  While Ruskin never appeared overly obsessed with the occult or the anomalous, he did not shy away either from recognizing his own limitations at accounting for his experiences, nor did he seem to exhibit raving lunacy in his reactions.  In fact, while vacationing in the Alps, a story regarding a puzzling preternatural phenomena was related to him, and his reaction, far from frothing at the mouth and shouting at the devil, exhibited a remarkably lucid, and scientific approach, recorded in the autobiography of his travelling companion at the time, journalist Walter Stillman.

I was very much interested in his old guide, Coutet, with whom I had many climbs. He liked to go with me, he said, because I was very sure-footed and could go wherever he did. He was a famous crystal-hunter, and many of the rarest specimens in the museum of Geneva were of his finding. There was one locality of which only he knew, where the rock was pitted with small turquoises like a plum pudding, and I begged him to tell me where it was. There is a superstition amongst the crystal-hunters that to tell where the crystals are found brings bad luck, and he would never tell me in so many words; but one day, after my importunity, I saw him leveling his alpenstock on the ground in a very curious way, sighting along it and correcting the direction, and when he had finished he said, as he walked past me, “Look where it points,” and went away. It was pointing to a stratum halfway up to the summit of one of the aiguilles to the west of the Mer de Glace, a chamois climb. He told me later that he found the crystals in the couloir that brought them down from that stratum. A dear old man was Coutet, and fully deserving the affection and confidence of Ruskin. Connected with him was a story which Ruskin told me there of a locality in the valley of Chamounix, of which the guides had told him, haunted by a ghost which could be seen only by children. It was a figure of a woman who raked the dead leaves, and when she looked up at them the children said they saw only a skull in place of a face. Ruskin sent to a neighboring valley for a child who could know nothing of the legend, and went with him to the locality which the ghost haunted. Arrived there he said to the boy, “What a lonely place! There is nobody here but ourselves.” “No,” said the child, “there is a woman there raking the leaves,” pointing in a certain direction. “Let us go nearer to her,” said Ruskin; and they walked that way, when the boy stopped, saying that he did not want to go nearer, for the woman looked up, and he said that she had no eyes in her head, —”only holes” (Stillman, 1901, p312-314).

As a curious side note, the road to Chamounix, where Ruskin conducted his experiment is very specifically associated with a particularly odd group of Alpine faerie-like creatures.

On the way to Chamounix, far above the road, you can perceive the entrance of the famous stalactite Grotte de Balme, the supposed abode of all the fairies of that region. These creatures resembled human maidens, except that they were dark of skin and had no heels to their feet. Clad in long rippling hair, which fell all around them like a garment, the fairies of Balme often sought to lure young shepherds and hunters into their retreat. Sometimes, too, they met these men on lonely mountain paths, where they tried to win their affections by gifts of rare Alpine flowers, of fine rock crystals, of lumps of gold and silver, or by teaching them the use of the healing herbs and showing them how to discover hidden treasures. The youths who refused the fairies’ advances encountered such resentment that they were sure to meet shortly afterwards with some fatal accident. Those who ventured on the Diablerets, or the Oldenhorn, for instance, were suddenly pushed over the rocks into abysses and crevasses, from whence they never escaped alive. But the young men who received the fairies’ overtures graciously were very well treated, and a few of them were even taken up to the grotto, where they feasted on choice game, and quaffed fiery wine as long as they obeyed their fairy wives. If, however, they proved untrustworthy, or tried to pry into the fairies’ secrets, they were ignominiously dismissed; and while some of them managed to return home, the majority never prospered again, and as a rule came to an untimely end (Guerber, 1899, p41-42).

Now Ruskin may very well have been as mad as a hatter, but when otherwise sober individuals report encounters with strange phenomena, we have a tendency to examine their autobiographies for indications that such an experience was inevitable, and unsurprisingly find that all roads lead to madness, even despite the fact that such anomalies are sometimes approached with a calm rationality, intellectual curiosity, and an unwillingness to jump to conclusions.  Perhaps, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked”.

Guerber, H. A. 1859-1929. Legends of Switzerland. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1899.
Porter, Katherine H. Through a Glass Darkly: Spiritualism In the Browning Circle. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1958.
Stillman, William James, 1828-1901. The Autobiography of a Journalist. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. , 1901.