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John Ruskin’s Mental Breakdowns

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ruskincigar

October 13, 2016

John Ruskin’s essential biography is well known and you can find all you need to know in Wikipedia, so I’m not going to compete with that. I do, however, want to talk about a few more famous episodes in his life that might make him more than just a face on a cigar box to you. I mean, go to a good university library and just look at the rows upon rows of all Ruskin’s works on the shelves. There you will see his expansive multivolume works like Modern Painters in five volumes (1843-1960) or Stones of Venice in three volumes (1851-1853), and many more. You’re not going to read John Ruskin on your Kindle.

So what were the tabloid news stories of 19th century that our man here participated in? Well, first his mental breakdowns. By 1860, his career in full swing, the famous John Ruskin, eminent man of letters, critic, and trending influencer if ever there was one, began to despair. Seemingly his fame had peaked and his followers were beginning to turn away from him. He had been seeing himself as a prophet for his age. Here was the man who was determining in chapter after chapter, volume after volume, the opinions on painting and architecture for his time. Here he was pointing out problems with all that was current, including strong criticism of economic and environmental policy. You may not have agreed with him, but his ideas mattered.

Yet the age seemed to be moving in directions opposite his own. Then it all came crashing down. The first collapse came in 1860. He recorded these times in Fors Clavigera (1880): “The doctors said I went mad, that time two years ago, from overwork.” Such was preposterous because he had not been working any harder than usual. Instead, he said, “I went mad because nothing came of my work . . . because after I got [my work] published, nobody believed a word of them.”

Ruskin continued to suffer periodic mental breakdowns from 1875 to his death in1900.

Well, ok, but both Ruskin and his doctors may have been glossing over much bigger problems than merely his perception that he was losing his following due to his ideas. Actually, while his ideas met sharp criticism, matters in his relationships with women were the real news of the day. But his was not the same old story. Not at all.

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Paul Varner

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