QOTD (2011-02-12); or, Past and Present

Today’s episode of History and Morality dawned on me on an absolutely glorious sunny Saturday morning in the Upper Reading Room, as I sat at my usual desk, U95, with the dreaming spires of All Souls pricking the beams of sunlight right in my field of vision, reading Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy:

Oxford, the Oxford of the past, has many faults; and she has heavily paid for them in defeat, in isolation, in want of hold upon the modern world. Yet we in Oxford, brought up amidst the beauty and sweetness of that beautiful place, have not failed to seize one truth, – the truth that beauty and sweetness are essential characters of a complete human perfection. When I insist on this, I am all in the faith and tradition of Oxford. I say boldly that this our sentiment for beauty and sweetness, our sentiment against hideousness and rawness, has been at the bottom of our attachment to so many beaten causes, of our opposition to so many triumphant movements. And the sentiment is true, and has never been wholly defeated, and has shown its power even in its defeat. We have not won our political battles, we have not carried our main points, we have not stopped our adversaries’ advance, we have not marched victoriously with the modern world; but we have told silently upon the mind of the country, we have prepared currents of feeling which sap our adversaries’ position when it seems gained, we have kept up our own communications with the future….

And who will estimate how much the currents of feeling created by Dr. Newman’s movement, the keen desire for beauty and sweetness which it nourished, the deep aversion it manifested to the hardness and vulgarity of middle-class liberalism, the strong light it turned on the hideous and grotesque illusions of middle-class Protestantism, – who will estimate how much all these contributed to swell the tide of secret dissatisfaction which has mined the ground under the self-confident liberalism of the last thirty years, and has prepared the way for its sudden collapse and supersession? It is in this manner that the sentiment of Oxford for beauty and sweetness conquers, and in this manner long may it continue to conquer!

My essay this week is on how criticism and the role of the critic were gendered in Victorian Britain, and it is this critical-of-the-critics attitude I had in the back of my mind as I read the passage in Arnold. I remembered a conversation I had a few days ago with a fellow history student who told me that she couldn’t get interested in Ruskin because of the strangeness, to us today, of his relationships with young women; that, as someone who studied women’s history, she didn’t approve. Sitting in the Upper Reading Room, I remembered that it is always difficult to reconcile romance with reality, the seductive allure of the city of aquatint with the knowledge that it seemingly only was so because so many women for so many centuries were denied a place in it. When Arnold sings his hymn to Oxford, and locates culture there and in the Church and in Hellenism and in the other great institutions of Victorian homosociality, it is important to remember that there are many who are and have been excluded from the promise of perfection through “sweetness and light.”

But there’s something about sunlight that encourages optimism, and the sweetness and light in the air of the Upper Reading Room this morning caused me to remember that our human impulse to perfect ourselves and our institutions and our culture has exceeded Arnold’s intentions, because here I am doing right by my academic ancestors, the early faculty wives who fought for their Bodleian readers’ tickets before there was even any such thing as an Oxbridge women’s college, and reading about culture in their time from the vantage point of my Upper Reading Room desk. Here I am, a woman in academia with a room of my own, and trying to live by a version of “sweetness and light” that I’ve learned by carefully paying my respects to my Victorians, men and women alike. My job right now, learning to be a critic of the critics, must entail goodwill and generosity: the moral character not to overlook the faults by our measures of writers like Arnold and Ruskin, but to forgive them; to take from them and their contemporaries what they give us as decriers of Mammon and Moloch, as believers in truth and beauty, but to retain enough critical distance to know that seeing them as they really are entails realizing that they are not the apogee of the perfection they promise.

I love my Victorians despite their faults because their utopianism can transcend their own time while still retaining the values that their time caused them to hold dear. I love my Victorians because they were not perfect, but they wanted to be. I love my Victorians because they gave those of us who labor in a world changed (but not so changed) the language to say that our lives must be guided by more than material concerns, and that the fight against evil—the fight for sweetness and light—can take many forms, and can be furthered by many kinds of people.

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