Tuesday, April 20, 2010

a statue in each corner

Reading Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture last night, I came across a sentence that made me think, "Oh Proust," and "Oh, E.R. Eddison," and finally, "Oh, Anne Radcliffe." The sentence was this:

The rolling heap of the thunder-cloud, divided by rents, and multiplied by wreaths, yet gathering them all into its broad, torrid, and towering zone, and its midnight darkness opposite; the scarcely less majestic heave of the mountain side, all torn and traversed by depth of defile and ridge of rock, yet never losing the unity of its illumined swell and shadowy decline ; and the head of every mighty tree, rich with tracery of leaf and bough, yet terminated against the sky by a true line, and rounded by a green horizon, which, multiplied in the distant forest, makes it look bossy from above; all these mark, for a great and honoured law, that diffusion of light for which the Byzantine ornaments were designed; and show us that those builders had truer sympathy with what God made majestic, than the self-contemplating and self-contented Greek.

I'll add the next three sentences as well, because they're beautiful together:

I know that they are barbaric in comparison; but there is a power in their barbarism of sterner tone, a power not sophistic nor penetrative, but embracing and mysterious; a power faithful more than thoughtful, which conceived and felt more than it created; a power that neither comprehended nor ruled itself, but worked and wandered as it listed, like mountain streams and winds; and which could not rest in the expression or seizure of finite form. It could not bury itself in acanthus leaves. Its imagery was taken from the shadows of the storms and hills, and had fellowship with the night and day of the earth itself.

The Radcliffe connection was the easiest to work out. Ruskin's rolling heap had reminded me of the clouds at the beginning of Udolpho.

To the south, the view was bounded by the majestic Pyrenees, whose summits, veiled in clouds, or exhibiting awful forms, seen, and lost again, as the partial vapours rolled along, were sometimes barren, and gleamed through the blue tinge of air, and sometimes frowned with forests of gloomy pine, that swept downward to their base. These tremendous precipices were contrasted by the soft green of the pastures and woods that hung upon their skirts; among whose flocks, and herds, and simple cottages, the eye, after having scaled the cliffs above, delighted to repose.

As for Eddison -- I'd finished his Worm Ouroboros a few days before, with its Ruskinian way of tying the personal and moral qualities of an object to its appearance, and its Ruskinian enthusiasm for things that are beautiful and noble, and its sentences that are sometimes long and always grand.

Day was fading as they stood above the cliff. All the forest land was blue with shades of approaching night: the river was dull silver: the wooded heights afar mingled their outlines with the towers and banks of turbulent deep blue vapour that hurtled in ceaseless passage through the upper air. Suddenly a window opened in the clouds to a space of clean wan wind-swept sky high above the shaggy hills. Surely Juss caught his breath in that moment, to see those deathless ones where they shone pavilioned in the pellucid air, far, vast, and lonely, most like to creatures of unascended heaven, of wind and of fire all compact, too pure to have aught of the gross elements of earth or water. It was as if the rose-red light of sundown had been frozen to crystal and these hewn from it to abide to everlasting, strong and unchangeable amid the welter of earthborn mists below and tumultuous sky above them. The rift ran wider, eastward and westward, opening on more peaks and sunset-kindled snows. And a rainbow leaning to the south was like a sword of glory across the vision.

In order to reach the "deathless ones", which are mountains, Juss and his friends have to work their way through a forest inhabited by tigers, dormice, ravens, unicorns, lemurs, and wombats. "It is very pleasant," says Lord Brandoch Daha. Seven pages later he is smacked off a cliff by a manticore. Juss fights the manticore to a terrific end. The comparisons to everyday lemons and wasps give the animal a wonderful actual meatiness. Eddison's philosophy of life is inhumane, but there is no denying the man's manticores.

So when that noisome vermin fell forward on him roaring like a thousand lions, Juss grappled with it, running in beneath its body and clasping it and thrusting his arms into its inward parts, to rip out its vitals if so he might. So close he grappled it that it might not reach him with its murthering teeth, but its claws sliced off the flesh from his left knee down ward to the ankle bone, and it fell on him and crushed him on the rock, breaking in the bones of his breast. And Juss, for all his bitter pain and torment, and for all he was well nigh stifled by the sore stink of the creature's breath and the stink of its blood and puddings blubbering about his face and breast, yet by his great strength wrastled with that fell and filthy man-eater. And ever he thrust his right hand, armed with the hilt and stump of his broken sword, yet deeper into its belly until he searched out its heart and did his will upon it, slicing the heart asunder like a lemon and severing and tearing all the great vessels about the heart until the blood gushed about him like a spring. And like a caterpillar the beast curled up and straightened out in its death spasms, and it rolled and fell from that ledge, a great fall, and lay by Brandoch Daha, the foulest beside the fairest of all earthly beings, reddening the pure snow with its blood. And the spines that grew on the hinder parts of the beast went out and in like the sting of a new-dead wasp that goes out and in continually.

Proust, of course, loved Ruskin, and translated Ruskin, and, according to Wikipedia, which footnotes this fact back to a book called Proust as Interpreter of Ruskin: the Seven Lamps of Translation, by Cynthia J. Gamble, he knew The Seven Lamps of Architecture by heart. When I looked for Proust as Interpreter I found parts of it at Google Books. Gamble dedicates a page to the question of cathedrals* --

Luc Fraisse and Richard Bales both stress the importance of cathedrals in Proust's attraction for Ruskin. Fraisse suggests that Proust had a pre-existing, keen interest in cathedrals in 1895, which his encounter with Ruskin reinforced: "his interest in Ruskin had its roots in his study of cathedrals." However this contradicts Maurois, who believed that Proust discovered cathedrals because of Ruskin: "It was as a result of his love for Ruskin that he discovered the treasures of our Cathedrals."

-- which sent me off to Monsieur Proust, a reconstruction, by the French journalist Georges Belmont, of an interview with Céleste Albaret, the woman who served as Proust's confidant-housekeeper for the last ten years of his life. Barbara Bray translates.

One night he said to me: "You know, Céleste, I want my work to be a sort of cathedral in literature. That is why it is never finished. Even when the construction is completed there is always some decoration to add, or a stained, glass window or a capital or another chapel to be opened up, with a statue in each corner."

Monsieur Proust is a loving book, a fact that sends me back to Gamble again, and a letter that she quotes. Proust wrote to Georges Goyau about his Ruskin translation:

You know how I love Ruskin. And since I believe that each of us has a responsibility for the souls he particularly loves, a responsibility to make them known and loved, to protect them from the wounds of misunderstanding and darkness, the obscurity as we say, of oblivion, you know with what scrupulous hands ... I handled that particular soul.

Love is one of the reasons why I blog.

* Later in the book Gamble provides us with a passage from The Lamp of Memory, an excerpt from the Seven Lamps of Architecture. This excerpt, she says, was Proust's "first catalyst … for translating Ruskin." It catches my eye because Ruskin is surveying mountains at sunset, just like Lord Juss. Any moment now they'll be off together into the forest of tigers and wombats.

The quote she gives us in the book is a shorter version of this:

Among the hours of his life to which the writer looks back with peculiar gratitude … is one passed, now some years ago, near time of sunset, among the broken masses of pine forest which skirt the course of the Ain, above the village of Champagnole, in the Jura. It is a spot which has all the solemnity, with none of the savageness, of the Alps ; where there is a sense of a great power beginning to be manifested in the earth, and of a deep and majestic concord in the rise of the long low lines of piny hills ; the first utterance of those mighty mountain symphonies, soon to be more loudly lifted and wildly broken along the battlements of the Alps. But their strength is as yet restrained ; and the far reaching ridges of pastoral mountain succeed each other, like the long and sighing swell which moves over quiet waters from some far off stormy sea. And there is a deep tenderness pervading that vast monotony. The destructive forces and the stern expression of the central ranges are alike withdrawn. No frost-ploughed, dust-encumbered paths of ancient glacier fret the soft Jura pastures ; no splintered heaps of ruin break the fair ranks of her forest ; no pale, defiled, or furious rivers send their rude and changeful ways among her rocks. Patiently, eddy by eddy, the clear green streams wind along their well-known beds ; and under the dark quietness of the undisturbed pines, there spring up, year by year, such company of joyful flowers as I know not the like of among all the blessings of the earth. It was spring time, too ; and all were coming forth in clusters crowded for very love ; there was room enough for all, but they crushed their leaves into all manner of strange shapes only to be nearer each other. There was the wood anemone, star after star, closing every now and then into nebulae ; and there was the oxalis, troop by troop, like virginal precessions of the Mois de Marie, the dark vertical clefts in the limestone choked up with them as with heavy snow, and touched with ivy on the edges ivy as light and loyely as the vine ; and, ever and anon, a blue gush of violets, and cowslip bells in sunny places ; and in the more open ground, the vetch, and comfrey, and mezereon, and the small sapphire buds of the Polygala Alpina, and the wild strawberry, just a blossom or two, all showered amidst the golden softness of deep, warm, amber-coloured moss. I came out presently on the edge of the ravine : the solemn murmur of its waters rose suddenly from beneath, mixed with the singing of the thrushes among the pine boughs ; and, on the opposite side of the valley, walled all along as it was by grey cliffs of limestone, there was a hawk sailing slowly off their brow, touching them nearly with his wings, and with the shadows of the pines flickering upon his plumage from above ; but with the fall of a hundred fathoms under his breast, and the curling pools of the green river gliding and glittering dizzily beneath him, their foam globes moving with him as he flew. It would be difficult to conceive a scene less dependent upon any other interest than that of its own secluded and serious beauty ; but the writer well remembers the sudden blankness and chill which were cast upon it when he endeavoured, in order more strictly to arrive at the sources of its impressiveness, to imagine it, for a moment, a scene in some aboriginal forest of the New Continent. The flowers in an instant lost their light, the river its music ; the hills became oppressively desolate ; a heaviness in the boughs of the darkened forest showed how much of their former power had been dependent upon a life which was not theirs, how much of the glory of the imperishable, or continually renewed, creation is reflected from things more precious in their memories than it, in its renewing. Those ever springing flowers and ever flowing streams had been dyed by the deep colours of human endurance, valour, and virtue ; and the crests of the sable hills that rose against the evening sky received a deeper worship, because their far shadows fell eastward over the iron wall of Joux, and the four-square keep of Granson.

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