John Ruskin’s Traffic in Penguin Little Black Classics

by Mark Wallace

In celebration of their 80th birthday, Penguin have introduced 80 short volumes (55-ish pages each) on sale for 80p in England or one Euro here in Ireland in a range called Little Black Classics. It’s somewhat of a “best that has been thought and said” (Arnold) range, not unlike the Penguin Great Ideas series of a few years back. It even has quite a few of the same authors: Dickens, Ruskin, Nietzsche. There is only one text, I think, that is included in both series: Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. According to a sales ranking I think I saw somewhere (but I can’t find it now), the Manifesto is actually the biggest selling of the new series, despite its availability in many editions.

But unlike the wholly non-fiction Great Ideas, Little Black Classics mixes fiction with non-fiction and poetry. The volumes are also smaller and much cheaper than the earlier series. One euro per volume is a fantastic price. Of course, all these Classics are well out of copyright, which makes costs of publication much lower than it would otherwise be. On a recent trip into Hodges & Figgis in town, I picked up a selection of five from the large shelf devoted to Little Black Classics. Given their sleekly stylish black-and-white cover design, they look good together on a shelf. Penguin always tends to come up trumps for simple and elegant cover design.

Ruskin's Traffin in the Little Black Classics edition

Ruskin’s Traffin in the Little Black Classics edition

Of the five I picked up, I immediately went to read Traffic by John Ruskin (#5). The volume contained the titular essay (or rather transcribed speech) and “The Roots of Honour”, the first essay in Unto This Last (1862). I had read both before, but Ruskin is always worth a re-read. Ruskin is unfashionable in some senses: his politics is resolutely paternalist, and his gender attitudes were influentially rebuked by Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1969), wherein his work was contrasted with that of his proto-feminist contemporary John Stuart Mill, thus rendering him something of an exemplar of outdated and offensive gender politics. He also featured in the recent biographical film Effie Gray (2014), portrayed rather negatively as the husband of the titular character, an oppressive and sexually inadequate spousal presence.

He has his good points, though, and “Traffic” shows some of them. It was initially a speech given to merchants and citizens of Bradford, ostensibly to give them guidance as to how their projected exchange building should be designed (Ruskin was a noted architecture critic [The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice]). But Ruskin had other ideas, as he makes clear at the outset. I do enjoy Ruskin’s opening gambit in “Traffic”:

My good Yorkshire friends, you asked me down here among your hills that I might talk to you about this Exchange you are going to build: but earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to do nothing of the kind. I cannot talk, or at least can say very little, about this same Exchange. I must talk of quite other things, though not willingly; — I could not deserve your pardon, if when you invited me to speak on one subject, I wilfully spoke on another. But I cannot speak, to purpose, of anything about which I do not care; and most simply and sorrowfully I have to tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this Exchange of yours.

If, however, when you sent me your invitation, I had answered, ‘I won’t come, I don’t care about the Exchange of Bradford,’ you would have been justly offended with me, not knowing the reasons of so blunt a carelessness. So I have come down, hoping that you will patiently let me tell you why, on this, and many other such occasions, I now remain silent, when formerly I should have caught at the opportunity of speaking to a gracious audience.

In a word, then, I do not care about this Exchange, — because you don’t; and because you know perfectly well I cannot make you.

(Available at Victorian Web)

His first move is to tell his audience bluntly that he is not going to do what he has been engaged to do. His next is to attack his audience’s motives and their ideology. His word choices are perhaps just polite enough to escape hostility from his listeners, but combative enough to call into question all of the presumptions of a capitalist enterprise. He goes on to especially attack the idea of “getting on”, which he cites as the ruling practical ideal of his countrymen. In place of Christianity is the worship of the Goddess of Getting On. But the difficulty about Her is, Ruskin notes, that “while to one family this deity is indeed the Goddess of Getting on, to a thousand families she is the Goddess of not Getting on.”

So that’s the problem with Getting On as a ruling idea: it privileges competition over co-operation; one gets on at the expense of another. What Ruskin ultimately calls for is for that the notion of Getting On and the amassing of wealth be discarded, and that commonwealth should be the ultimate notion to which all practical politics should be subordinate. Commonwealth has little to do with material wealth, and much to do with finding ways towards a simpler life. What the commercial classes of Bradford thought of it I do not know, but to my eyes it remains a mainly sensible, eloquent, and effective piece of writing.

It is important as much as anything as an example of an intellectual speaking outside of the intellectual classes, something academics need to pay attention to. Ruskin doesn’t place himself among his audience – he is decidedly oppositional, not one of them. But he does address them with great straightforwardness, not afraid to place his ideas before them unadorned by verbiage or technical language. Not afraid also, to start by annoying rather than placating them, a technique well worth studying, if one wishes to bring unpleasant subjects before the public – and what other subjects are worth bringing forward?