Friday, November 16, 2012

annotations & its discontents, installment #493

Here's Ruskin in the 11th chapter of Praeterita, describing his Oxford friend Francis Charteris:
I have always held Charteris the most ideal Scotsman, and on the whole the grandest type of European Circassian race hitherto visible to me ; and his subtle, effortless, inevitable, unmalicious sarcasm, and generally sufficient and available sense, gave a constantly natural, and therefore inoffensive, hauteur to his delicate beauty. He could do what he liked with anyone, — at least with anyone of good humour and sympathy ; and when one day, the old sub-dean coming out of Canterbury gate at the instant Charteris was dismounting at it in forbidden pink, and Charteris turned serenely to him, as he took his foot out of the stirrup, to inform him that ' he had been out with the Dean's hounds,' the old man and the boy were both alike pleased. 
Francis O'Gorman's Oxford World's Classics edition of Praeterita (2012) is on the whole a very good one. The introduction is solid and comprehensive, the bibliography is extensive, there's a super-useful chronology of the book's (serial) publication, & there's a handy glossary of characters at the end, as well as an index. But what about the notes, the ultimate test of a teaching text? What does O'Gorman make of that paragraph?

Well, what he annotates is that word Circassian: "JR perhaps means Caucasian, but neither term is very meaningful." Let's leave aside the clunky repetition of "meaning," which makes the sentence stylistically awful, to note that Circassian (referring to the Adyghe, or Cherkess, a northern Caucasian people displaced by the Russians in the 19th century) is a perfectly meaningful word, as for that matter is Caucasian – we just don't happen to know what the hell Ruskin intended by calling his Scottish friend that. Was it for him some vague epithet for "northern"?

I propose that the undergraduate or graduate 1st-time reader of Praeterita is liable to be just as puzzled, if not more so, by the description of Charteris "dismounting... in forbidden pink." What dress code precisely is Charteris transgressing? (And does it somehow also involve gender codes?) "Pink," of course, is the traditional name – no one quite knows why – for the scarlet hunting jacket worn by the British horsey set. That, I would argue, would have been a far more useful annotation than a bit of vaguery about what JR meant by "Circassian."

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