Monday, October 17, 2011

convulsed with a hellborn fever

On Monday I asked a security supervisor from one of the Strip casinos if he thought Ruskin would have made good security or not, and the conclusion we sort of came to was, Perhaps. "Was he judgmental?" "Extremely judgmental." Then maybe yes ... Or maybe not, but, adds the supervisor, sometimes you get a weird one who surprises you. Could he make decisions? He could. Well that's a good sign.

His pedantic steadiness might have been helpful when he had to write out incident reports, but to get to the report-writing stage he would have had to talk to the guests, gamblers, and visitors, greeting and smiling, following various procedures, being polite and patient, and coping with comatose drunks, who, once woken, would have thrashed and hooted, tearing at his clothes, arms, and hip-mounted radio equipment, not knowing who he was or where they were, or what was going on, in fact knowing almost nothing, having moved purely into the realm of those senses the author would have called animal, sensual, and lower -- an inhabitance he would have despised, surely, respecting knowledge as he did, and writing in his diary, after dinner parties, that the evening had been "boring" because nobody had taught him anything new.

His impatience with smalltalk would present problems in the security world; he would struggle to execute that part of the engagement procedure known in some casinos as Delight.

In Modern Painters, in the category of visual "facts [that] are unimportant" or not worthy of an artist's attention, he placed "a gambler quarrel[ing] with another gambler" and "a sot enjoying himself with another sot." A history painter should not take either of these scenes as his subject, he warned, otherwise the painting will be "trivial." Employed as a casino security guard he would have to work in the land of the Historical Trivial, "the entirely infernal atmosphere of the common cafes and gambling-houses ... infecting every condition of what they call 'aesthesis,' left in the bodies of men, until they cannot be happy with the pines and pansies of the Alps" -- or, in the case of Vegas, happy with the rocks and flowers of the Spring Mountain ranges, the fields and peaks outside the city, along with those other parts of the state so little remembered that you can buy a frame for your license plate that reads Nevada at the top and then Outside Las Vegas at the bottom, dividing all 286,350 square kilometres of the region as people usually divide them, into the one thousand and sixty two square and valley-kept kilometres of Clark County where the city sits, and then afterwards, the rest, an open mysterious wedge-shaped place where someone must live but nobody knows who, and something must happen but nobody knows what, and nobody knows these things because they are too busy getting drunk on the Strip and gurgling and trying to tear off security's trousers and throw up on its shoes.

And therein lies another problem, because Ruskin went vivid with horror at the sight of stain, filth, or dirt, and this vomit on his shoes would have repelled him even more than that time Bartolomé Esteban Murillo pointed a foot at him.

But observe another point in the lower figure. It lies so that the sole of the foot is turned towards the spectator; not because it would have lain less easily in another attitude, but that the painter may draw, and exhibit, the grey dust engrained in the foot. Do not call this the painting of nature: it is mere delight in foulness. The lesson, if there be any, in the picture, is not one whit the stronger. We all know that a beggar’s bare foot cannot be clean; there is no need to thrust its degradation into the light, as if no human imagination were vigorous enough for its conception.

(He's describing Murillo's Two Children Eating a Melon and Grapes.)

The pavement of the Strip is dirty, dotted, spittled with spit,** and covered with the escort service cards, each one smaller than a playing card, that are handed out by Latin American men who rattle the stacks in their hands; you can pick up dozens of soft-porn illustrations this way, women with stars or bubbles on their nipples to keep the pictures legal, women in leotards bending over, women gnawing their bra straps, etc -- and as he lifted his eyes away from these cards in convulsive distress Officer Ruskin would have noticed that the refurbished erupting volcano outside the Mirage was an even stranger imitation of the real thing than the handpainted Victorian marble and fake woodgrain that he hates across several of his books, and as he fled from the volcano to the huge gilt statue of three severed heads outside the same casino -- Siegfried, Roy, and a tiger -- he would have noticed that there was no sign of workmanship on the surface, that it was absolutely free of the human fingerprint of creation, a smooth and flawless object made from no evident natural material.

"Their work should be full of flaws," he said, of young artists, "for these are the signs of effort." Be wary of gloss and finish. But there is no sign of effort around him here; every effect along the whole Strip is achieved by a power that removes flaws. There is ambition and spectacle but none of the personal evidence he liked, signs that people with fingers and minds had been at work -- the hidden carving at the top of the spire, put there by the sculptor who made it for the exuberant human pleasure of making it, the independently-imagined griffon that hangs its paws forward like a "sleepy puppy," and the uneven glass bead that was not clipped out in a factory.

But here, around him on the Strip, the only clear evidence of individual effort has been placed inside all the things he hates, like the dirty spit-marks on the concrete, each positioned there with an individual and induplicate aim, as varied as the leaves that he sees nature provide in infinite arrangements for his joy; and there is your hidden carving and your flawed glass bead and griffin, in a blob of spit (but not made -- not good, not human, because not intelligent, he thinks, as a great brainless tide closes in, and he works out his categories, sorting and numbering the different kinds of intelligence into lists, and unknowingly in spite of his dislike of German philosophy,* he demonstrates one of the observations of Kant, who saw people sort and organise things); and the protest against smooth surfaces is carried out by the thrashing drunk, who knocks one of the guards' factory-manufactured radios off its belt-clip and smacks it to bits.

George Eliot opened Daniel Deronda in a "scene of dull, gas-poisoned absorption" which was a European casino's gaming room, and "gambling" she wrote privately, was "a vice I have no mind to, it stirs my disgust even more than my pity. The sight of the dull faces bending round the gaming tables, the raking-up of the money , and the flinging of coins toward the winners by the hard-faced croupiers, the hateful, hideous women staring at the board like stupid monomaniacs -- all this seems to me the most abject presentation of mortals grasping after something called a good that can be seen on the face of this little earth." Michael Flavin's book on Gambling in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel comes with the subtitle, "a leprosy is o'er the land," a quote, he says, from "a prize-winning entry in the National Anti-Gambling League's hymn-writing competition," and as I try to imagine leprosy o'er the land, seeing it whitely misty drifting down, I realise that I'm remembering two Alice Oswald lines describing frost: "Last night without a sound / a ghost of a world lay down on a world." My leprosy is frost. Baudelaire saw --

Around the gaming tables faces without lips,
Lips without color and jaws without teeth,
Fingers convulsed with a hellborn fever
Searching empty pockets and fluttering bosoms

-- writing like this so that later Walter Benjamin could observe, in his essay, Some Motifs of Baudelaire, that gambling might obtain money for you, like work, but it was unlike work in that it did not build on your past knowledge, and experience was no use to you, each dice-roll was as likely or unlikely to come up trumps as the last one or the next one or the one yesterday or the one next week. Perhaps this would appeal to Ruskin least of all, this spectacle in which learning, knowledge, experience, history and everything else he valued, loved, and stormed over -- the past, in a word: the intelligent past -- had absolutely no importance.

The past, he always had his eye on the past, the childhood root of an adult's knowledge -- and there's a long-lost good little boy that I think I see running through Ruskin's work, a bossy child, subordinate and praiseworthy, showing the latest draft of Modern Painters or The Stones of Venice to his mamma and papa at the breakfast table "as a girl shows her sampler" he tells us in Praeterita, explaining his writing methods in the language of an obedient student. "My own literary work, on the contrary, was always done as quietly and methodically as a piece of tapestry." (He is comparing himself to Thomas Carlyle, the student who is not so quiet and good.) He looks at a picture by Turner and thinks, "The painter has returned affectionately to his boyish impression, and worked it out with his manly power." Turner was like him, he thinks, Turner needed his childhood too, Turner was faithful to the past, Turner would not have been great had he not loved his boyish impressions, and it was not only Turner who was like this but other geniuses as well -- and even the "imaginative mind" itself agreed with him, the very food of it was the past, and the gut of it was memory.

How far I could show that it held with all great inventors, I know not, but with all those whom I have carefully studied (Dante, Scott, Turner, and Tintoret) it seems to me to hold absolutely; their imagination consisting, not in a voluntary production of new images, but an involuntary remembrance, exactly at the right moment, of something they had actually seen.

Imagine all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in their memories as in vast storehouses, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonations of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and, with the painters, down to the minute folds of drapery, and shapes of loaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as shall justly fit each other: this I conceive to be the real nature of the imaginative mind ...

There's a void when he looks at the rolling dice, an absence where the past should be, and in fear he picks the coin out of Rosencrantz's hand at the start of the Stoppard play and throws it into that darkness, this coin that defies chance and proves it too, by continually coming up heads, making a pattern across what should be a patternless open reach, marking the void, like a spoon that can take bites out of the ocean.

A hard-working cardsharp would be closer to Ruskin's ideal than an ordinary lucky gambler. At least the cardsharp is applying some knowledge.

Benjamin draws parallels between gamblers and factory workers. "Gambling even contains the workman's gesture that is produced by the automatic operation, for there can be no game without the quick movement of the hand by which the stake is put down or a card is picked up." This is even truer today when all the pokie player has to do is press a button, rest, watch, wait, and press the button again, archetypical factory work. "Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labour is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler."

The German goes on to make refinements, to quote Goethe and muse about the gambler's job of wishing. "A wish, however, is a kind of experience … The further a wish reaches out in time, the greater the hope for its fulfilment." But Officer Ruskin, who hated factories, would never have moderated his view into anything sunnier than condemnation. The only wish we should project far forward in time, he would perhaps have said, is the wish to enjoy eternal life in heaven (feeling a pang if this is happening during the doubting phase of his life, loftiness if he's still an Evangelical), as, staring at this Benjamin essay with rage, he wonders if he sees gambling trying to take the place of God.

* "The reader," he writes in Modern Painters, "must have noticed that I never speak of German art, or German philosophy, but in depreciation." Pretty much, replies the reader.

* although it depends where you are. You can eat off the pavement in front of the Bellagio.

Baudelaire was translated by William Aggeler. The poem is called Le Jeu. Alice Oswald's two lines were borrowed from Pruning in Frost, which you can find in The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, or, if you're in North America, in a collection named Spacecraft Voyager I published by Graywolf Press with a front cover illustration that looks like one of the giant crystal trees in WoW's Northrend, or if you want you can read it online. I like everything I've heard about her new Memorial. Plans afoot to get hold of that somehow. Benjamin was translated by Harry Zohn and I read the essay in the Schocken Books paperback edition of Illuminations.

"The entirely infernal atmosphere …" appears in the footnotes to Love's Meinie: Three Lectures on Greek and English Birds. Footnote one hundred and thirty four if you're keen. The "beggar’s bare foot" comes from Stones of Venice. All the other stray quotes come from Modern Painters. That "boring" and its cousin-words can be picked out of several entries in his journals. Eliot wrote about the "dull faces bending round the gaming tables" in a letter to her friend Mrs William Cross. I want to give the woman a less anonymous title but I can't find her referred to as anything other than "Mrs William Cross:" a widow with ten children, wearing her husband's name over her own, a breathing tombstone. With all the Cross children around her she made a necropolis.

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