“What are the unreal things, but the passions that once burned one like fire?”

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Given that Mike Leigh and Timothy Spall are now offering us such a rich, idiosyncratic portrait of the painter J.M.W. Turner, and given that the movie, for whatever silly reason, takes a detour to make fun of the art critic John Ruskin, I should begin with this:

Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery-coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its elaborate symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best, in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s Gallery; greater indeed, one is apt to think at times, not merely because its equal beauty is more enduring, but on account of the fuller variety of its appeal, soul speaking to soul in those long-cadenced lines, not through form and colour alone, though through these, indeed, completely and without loss, but with intellectual and emotional utterance, with lofty passion and with loftier thought, with imaginative insight, and with poetic aim; greater, I always think, even as Literature is the greater art. — Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist,” Part I

My goal here, however, is not to get caught up in some dispute about Turner or Ruskin, or painting versus literature, but to call attention to the genius of Wilde’s text. It may take me several posts to do it justice. I would note, too, that for all this imagined dialogue is a great work, it seems perhaps one instance in which Wilde’s attachment to wit and to bons mots (zingers) undermines him. As regards The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde once proposed that it exemplified his belief that “we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” This seems a good rule of thumb, and yet “The Critic as Artist” may be the exception that proves the rule.

In this regard, and to close this post, I would quote two of the greatest moments in the text. The first is from Part I, the second from Part II. In all these cases, a voluble character, Gilbert, is speaking to an obliging listener, Earnest.

Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it. There is no mode of action, no form of emotion, that we do not share with the lower animals. It is only by language that we rise above them, or above each other—by language, which is the parent, and not the child, of thought. Action, indeed, is always easy, and when presented to us in its most aggravated, because most continuous form, which I take to be that of real industry, becomes simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatsoever to do. No, Ernest, don’t talk about action. It is a blind thing dependent on external influences, and moved by an impulse of whose nature it is unconscious. It is a thing incomplete in its essence, because limited by accident, and ignorant of its direction, being always at variance with its aim. Its basis is the lack of imagination. It is the last resource of those who know not how to dream.


[W]hen one looks back upon the life that was so vivid in its emotional intensity, and filled with such fervent moments of ecstasy or of joy, it all seems to be a dream and an illusion. What are the unreal things, but the passions that once burned one like fire? What are the incredible things, but the things that one has faithfully believed? What are the improbable things? The things that one has done oneself. No, Ernest; life cheats us with shadows, like a puppet-master. We ask it for pleasure. It gives it to us, with bitterness and disappointment in its train. We come across some noble grief that we think will lend the purple dignity of tragedy to our days, but it passes away from us, and things less noble take its place, and on some grey windy dawn, or odorous eve of silence and of silver, we find ourselves looking with callous wonder, or dull heart of stone, at the tress of gold-flecked hair that we had once so wildly worshipped and so madly kissed.

“What are the unreal things, but the passions that once burned one like fire? What are the incredible things, but the things that one has faithfully believed? What are the improbable things? The things that one has done oneself.” Has anyone else ever made this so vital point, and made it so well?

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor


mr turner spallCredits and Links

The painting is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839), which he gave to The National Gallery in London. Click for background on the painting.

The Mike Leigh film, in which Timothy Spall plays the lead role (spectacularly), is Mr. Turner (2014). The picture at right is of Spall, in the role, in the film.

Oscar Wilde’s dialogue is available in the collection Intentions, which also includes, among other pieces, the wonderful “The Decay of Lying.” In a December Zeteo is Looking and Listening post I wrote about the beauty of the edition of this collection as reproduced by Forgotten Books.

The Importance of Being Earnest inspired my essay on The Unsaid, which appeared in Agni last year. This essay is certainly in harmony with “The Critic as Artist,” and particularly with this part:

EARNEST: The highest Criticism, then, is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not; that is your theory, I believe?

GILBERT. Yes, that is my theory. To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises. The one characteristic of a beautiful form is that one can put into it whatever one wishes, and see in it whatever one chooses to see; and the Beauty, that gives to creation its universal and aesthetic element, makes the critic a creator in his turn, and whispers of a thousand different things which were not present in the mind of him who carved the statue or painted the panel or graved the gem.

Many years ago I wrote a very short essay on John Ruskin and his mother. It is a piece to which I remain attached. Originally published in the literary journal Third Coast, it also formed a part of my chapbook, Choices, which was published by Web del Sol.


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