The shattered mirrors of self-images

One hundred and fifty years ago, John Ruskin was a famous name in England and America.

Ruskin was one of those fabled “eccentric” Englishmen who knew a little something about a lot of things and wrote huge, 1,000-page tomes on almost everything.

He didn’t just write about manners and morals and science, though. He drew. He painted. And many famous artists of the 20th century would say Ruskin is the greatest art critic who ever lived.

But as befits a dark age in intellectual attainment-ours-new biographies have focused more on Ruskin’s personal and private lives which were, it turns out, much sadder affairs than his public persona would have suggested.

Ruskin was married six years but never consummated the relationship. He had, to put it delicately, a “problem” with little girls. He was fixated on them but never, as far as anyone knows, acted out his fantasies.

He died mad and broke, his voluminous journals full of his struggle not to admit his problem, but rather to rationalize it away.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Ruskin was venerated for his writings on art and morals. Today he is castigated because, behind the work, was a man with serious behavioral difficulties.

Hemingway, another great writer who wasn’t a very nice man, talked often about people confusing the work with the artist.

Living in the age of Freud, Hemingway understood his own unconscious a little better than Ruskin, and he ruthlessly buried anything in his private life that would detract or distract from the he-man image he cultivated.

Since his death, more critics have written about Hemingway than about any other American writer in our brief literary history. And those biographies all agree that Hemingway was a troubled man, forced by a domineering mother to wear dresses until he was six years old-one pretty good reason he might have decided he had to be mas macho.

In their extreme ways, the lives of Ruskin and Hemingway exemplify a common human problem.

Most people are trapped in images they’ve created. And what’s even sadder is that most people are more like Ruskin than Hemingway: They have absolutely no idea what they are doing. And worse, the more stridently they explain themselves, the more wrong they usually are.

There is no jigsaw puzzle more complicated than the average human being, and I’ve never met anyone who understood themselves as well as they thought they did.

Once, right after my discharge (honorable) from the armed forces ( I was a Vietnam-era veteran, drafted), I sought help to drop a couple of nasty habits I’d picked up while under uncle’s wing.

It bothered me. I’d been raised in a macho Midwestern ethnic family where admitting weakness was tantamount to crying, something else I didn’t like to admit doing.

I’m trying, in a way that’s kind to myself, to say I was a hurting unit, one messed-up puppy.

I resentfully told the shrink who eventually guided me as I righted my floundering mental and emotional ship, that I shouldn’t have to have help with my problems. I’ll never forget what he said: “Trying to do it yourself is like trying to see a card somebody’s holding up behind your head. Nobody can do that by themselves.” I think he was right. But maybe I’m just rationalizing because that’s what wound up working for me.

Staff writer Dennis Wilken can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) and dwilken@pulitzer.net

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