Monday, October 3, 2011

overcome, in this particular area, as we are all overcome

A week ago, or more than a week, I was waiting for a show to begin when I overheard one of the women behind me talking about "my last trip to Italy" and "my next trip to Italy" which had to include Venice, she said, because Venetian architecture was interesting. She had seen the architecture in Rome, and it was interesting and she had seen the architecture in Turin and it was interesting and in fact the architecture in all of Italy was interesting, and there was one place which was not only interesting but clean, "no trash, no graffiti," but I didn't catch the name of that town, wherever it was.

Interesting was the word she liked, and she used it so often that I wondered what she saw or felt when she said it, and what was being subdued into that concertina packed with folds -- the compacted instrument called Interesting -- on one fold the Colosseum, on another fold the Pantheon, on another fold a dome, a tower, a flight of doves (and "craftsmanship" suggests ZMKC), and on other folds the architecture she expected to see in Venice, all the architecture she had heard about, cool walls, archways, canals, an effusion of statues -- Alexander Herzen's "magnificent absurdity" -- "To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself; but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of a genius," he wrote, and then he went on and called the Venetians "eccentric:" "There is no earth, there are no trees, what does it matter?" he imagined them saying, "Let us have still more carved stones, more ornaments, gold mosaics, sculptures, pictures and frescoes. Here an empty corner has been left; into the corner with a thin sea-god with a long, wet beard! Here is another empty recess, put in another lion with wings and a gospel of Saint Mark! There it is bare and empty; put down a carpet of marble and mosaic! and here, lacework of porphyry!" -- a frame of mind the woman must have seen before because it was incarnate only a short way away on Las Vegas Boulevard, a street that anyone could describe with an echo of Herzen: There is no river, we are in a desert, what does it matter? Let us have a lake, a fountain, a canal, a waterfall! Let us have still more gilt statues, more magicians, more lights! There it is bare and empty; erect the Sphinx, the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower!

But the audience is the pivot of a difference: the Venetians lived in their decorated city and enjoyed it proudly, but the decoration in Las Vegas is all in one area, and it is not for the residents, it is not theirs, they do not live in that area, and nobody minds whether they enjoy it or not. The statues and waterfalls are meant for tourists, who have no reason to judge the street with love or sympathy; they can go home. If we could get the decorative frame of mind out into the suburbs then this city would look like the Butterfly Club and the Palais Idéal, and people would feel absolutely eminent --

Around all of Vegas the mountains stand, bare, brown, wrinkled, and beyond that, if you're high enough, you can see the long stripped plain of the desert, a hot death; and Venice is approached by by a plain, a river, and a dusty road, wrote Ruskin in 1851; and if you leave Las Vegas and climb one of the mountains then you will see the city in the sunlit valley like a scatter of glitter, or if you approach at night then this massy airy upshot light of the Luxor rises out of the desert behind a confetti of smaller lights, or if you stand in one of the suburbs then you might not see the casinos at all, only townhouses among stones, or the public library where a huge man comes out of his small bashed white caravan every morning and walks away with his dreadlocks tapping at his ears.

As you come into Venice on your boat, writes Ruskin, you will find yourself with nothing grand in sight, only "dismal arches," and "low and confused brick buildings, which, but for the many towers which are mingled among them, might be the suburbs of an English manufacturing town." This is probably not the interesting architecture that the woman sitting behind me expects to see, these areas are not the Venice she imagines, and yet they are Venice, they are not anywhere other than Venice; they are the stair in the children's poem that can only be described by very simple references to the places where it's not: not at the bottom, not at the top, "It isn't in the nursery / It isn't in the town … It isn't really anywhere / It's somewhere else instead," a place like an English manufacturing town, but not quite, or like a towered region, but not quite.

"Ruskin's was a great and scrupulous mind," writes Geoffrey Hill. The scrupulous mind opens his Stones of Venice by telling the reader that he has not trusted other sources blindly but wherever he mentions a measurement in the book it will be a measurement he has taken himself. However they must excuse him, for he did not travel incorporeally and in his imagination, as they are about to travel while they are inside his book, no, he went with a real body in space and time, a nonideal method which comes with restrictions. Sometimes he couldn't get close enough to see a thing; always his understanding was not as adequate as he would have chosen if he'd had a choice. "Life is not long enough; nor does a day pass by without causing me to feel more bitterly the impossibility of carrying out to the extent which I should desire, the separate studies which general criticism continually forces me to undertake," a fret he has already brought up in his journal:

Several times about the same time on Sunday morning, a fit of self-reproach has come upon me for my idling style of occupation at present, and I have formed a resolution to be always trying to get knowledge of some kind or other, or bodily strength, or some real available, continuing, good, rather than mere amusement of the time.

(June 6th 1841)

The character of the Stones has been won from the struggle of its author: he searches for the right description, the right idea, he draws comparisons, but the further he travels into the comparisons the less accurate they seem to him, and the more adjustments he needs to make, and the more he refines the more he needs to refine, the more he sees the more he finds himself seeing. The row of "dismal arches" is noted, and then his eye carries on like the eye of a picture and sees the end of the row, where the brick buildings begin, and the "line" of these buildings needs to be described; it is "straggling." Then there are "four or five domes" rising over that straggling line, and they are "pale" but "the object which first catches the eye" is not those pale domes, it is "a sullen cloud of black smoke" which broods in the air over the straggle -- not over the whole line indiscriminately, he observes, but over a specific area, "the northern half of it." The black smoke has a source, and his eye finds that too; it is "the belfry of a church." Now finally he relaxes into a simple pronouncement: "It is Venice."

It is his scrupulous nature that compels him to write down this string of words: straggling had to be there because line was there and line had to be there because the brick buildings were there, and each one cried out for its due, and then a movement had to be worked out, from one end of the line to the other, and from pale to black. "Style is not simply the manner in which a writer 'says what he has to say,'" states Hill, "it is also the manner of his choosing not to say." Ruskin would rather choose to say, than not choose, but his own humanity obstructs him -- or so I imagine when I read -- he would like to be superhuman -- "I wish Vesuvius," he writes in his diary, "could love me ..."

That sentence, It is Venice, is not meant to sum up the city or act as a conclusion or a final resting place, it is only a pause, a musical beat, a moment of introduction -- see -- he is going to go on explaining Venice for the length of another two books, and by the end of volume three he is still finding new topics. The last chapter before the one called Conclusion is a digression into a subject he labels "Grotesque Renaissance," and in order to discuss the Grotesque Renaissance he discovers that he has to mention a number of disparate things, the poetry of Samuel Rogers, for example, and cottages in Scotland, "the instinct of playfulness" (in four subsections), the "destructive phenomena of the universe," the greatness of nations, Divine beauty, Flemish streets, Biblical Evangelists, the differences between species of dream, and the Inferno of Dante. The "It" in "It is Venice" is not Venice. It is only the euphoric impression that comes to you before you realise that Venice is impossibly complicated. (False mastery followed by apprenticeship; life is an agony of ignorance for the scrupulous.) A description of the Ducal Palace alone takes up nearly a hundred pages of volume two. There is so much ground to cover that the author shortens his observations into lists --

LXVII. First Capital: i.e. of the pilaster at the Vine angle.

In front, towards the Sea. A child holding a bird before him, with its wings expanded, covering his breast.

On its eastern side. Children’s heads among leaves.

On its western side. A child carrying in one hand a comb; in the other, a pair of scissors.

-- which recur for pages.

LXXVII. Eighth Capital. It has no inscriptions, and its subjects are not, by themselves, intelligible; but they appear to be typical of the degradation of human instincts.

First side. A caricature of Arion on his dolphin; he wears a cap ending in a long proboscis-like horn, and plays a violin with a curious twitch of the bow and wag of the head, very graphically expressed, but still without anything approaching to the power of Northern grotesque. His dolphin has a goodly row of teeth, and the waves beat over his back.

Second side. A human figure, with curly hair and the legs of a bear; the paws laid, with great sculptural skill, upon the foliage. It plays a violin, shaped like a guitar, with a bent double-stringed bow.

Third side. A figure with a serpent’s tail and a monstrous head, founded on a Negro type, hollow-cheeked, large-lipped, and wearing a cap made of a serpent’s skin, holding a fir-cone in its hand.

Fourth side. A monstrous figure, terminating below in a tortoise. It is devouring a gourd, which it grasps greedily with both hands; it wears a cap ending in a hoofed leg.

Fifth side. A centaur wearing a crested helmet, and holding a curved sword.

Sixth side. A knight, riding a headless horse, and wearing chain armor, with a triangular shield flung behind his back, and a two-edged sword.

Seventh side. A figure like that on the fifth, wearing a 337 round helmet, and with the legs and tail of a horse. He bears a long mace with a top like a fir-cone.

Eighth side. A figure with curly hair, and an acorn in its hand, ending below in a fish.

He perseveres, he iterates, but the reader knows that it all feels inadequate to him for he says elsewhere in the book, "The eye is continually influenced by what it cannot detect; it is not going too far to say, that it is most influenced by what it detects least … Indeed there is nothing truly noble either in colour or in form, but its power depends on circumstances infinitely too intimate to be explained, and almost too subtle to be traced." So Venice can't be compassed with lists, or with physical description, or with historical description, or with any description ("too intimate to be explained"), the Ducal Palace is a Questing Beast and he is a Pellinore, chasing it in rings around its columns. His intelligence introduces him to this idea; his intelligence shows him the impossibility; we can all say the word immortality but we are all mortal.

And there are more possibilities. Earlier he saw a piece of work that struck him the wrong way and there his tone changed and he became sarcastic: "The whole monument is one wearisome aggregation of that species of ornamental flourish, which, when it is done with a pen is called penmanship, and when it is done with a chisel should be called chiselmanship, the subject of it being chiefly fat-limbed boys sprawling on dolphins, dolphins incapable of swimming, and dragged along the sea by expanded pocket-handkerchiefs." If he had hated Venice instead of loving it then the tone of all three volumes might have been like that, the Venice of the Stones of Venice would have been a different Venice, because here, although there's no sign that he saw it as he was writing, was a doorway to another Venice, which only sticks its head out of his book now and then, a Venice despised by John Ruskin, hidden usually behind the Venice he respected, and behind that Venice another Venice, to which he is indifferent, and behind that Venice another Venice, which he never visited, and behind that Venice another one, to which he migrated permanently after marrying an Italian woman, and behind that Venice another Venice, where his mother died of food poisoning -- all of these are fantasies now -- and behind that Venice another one where the duty of tourism exhausted him until he didn't want to write the word Venice ever again, and behind that Venice another one, le città invisibili, explains Italo Calvino.

These three volumes are the record of a fight against the despair that has occurred to a conscientious human being who recognises infinity, and Ruskin finds his rest in two places, the idea of Art and the idea of God. He seems most sure of himself when he is sensing the sublime. Geoffrey Hill, who is thinking of a sentence in Unto This Last, writes sympathetically: "He is overcome, in this particular area, as we are all overcome at some time or another in our particular areas of discourse, by a kind of neutral, or indifferent, or disinterested force in the nature of language itself: a force that Coleridge describes incomparably well in the sudden blaze of a sentence at the beginning of Aids to Reflection: 'For if words are not THINGS they are LIVING POWERS, by which the things of most importance to mankind are actuated, combined, and humanized.'"

The woman behind me sounded confident in her single word, she didn't pause or apologise (Ezra Pound said that his great-aunt-in-law used "beautiful" all over Europe but apologised) -- she was happy -- she sounded happy -- she sounded happier with her one word than Ruskin sounded with his three volumes -- she had found a word through which the "disinterested force in the nature of language itself" could be ducked or defeated or ignored (something in her had felt infinity approaching and defended itself with Interesting) -- she had short-circuited struggle -- and then the musician arrived.*

* A Senegalese guitarist named King Ibu. He sounds something like Habib Koité (he pointed this out himself, and it's true). The Herzen excerpt comes from the end of My Life and Thoughts. Constance Garnett translated. Ruskin wished that Vesuvius could love him on April 20th, 1841. "I wish Vesuvius could love me, like a living thing; I would rather make a friend of him than of any morsel of humanity." I was reading Geoffrey Hill's Collected Critical Writings. I found the Pound quote in Hill's book, and then I looked it up online and found it again on Google Books in Pound's Pavannes and Divagations: "she consented to admit that the one adjective, beautiful, was not universally applicable to all European phenomena ... but continued to use it with apologies." The "children's poem" is Halfway Down by A.A. Milne.

The Butterfly Club is a cabaret saloon in South Melbourne.

Later: A post about Ada Cambridge at the Whispering Gums blog sent me away after her poems, and it looks as if she wrote about Venice too:

Numb, half asleep, and dazed with whirl of wheels,
And gasp of steam, and measured clank of chains,
I heard a blithe voice break a sudden pause,
Ringing familiarly through the lamp-lit night,
“Wife, here's your Venice!”


  1. Maybe by interesting'' she is, possibly without knowing it, referring to the craftsmanship and solidity and care with which all that architecture has been constructed, so that it is more than merely showy. It is not flimsy, it is not mere veneer, it is not stapled together et cetera et cetera. Or perhaps that's just my particular preoccupation, projected onto that poor unsuspecting woman.

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  3. It's such an open word, such a vague word, anyone can read almost anything into it, and it's true: I'd be surprised if something in her, some part of this mass of impressions, wasn't muttering at the back, "Those were well-made buildings. The craftsmanship was outstanding. I wish I lived in a place built with that kind of skill." (Ruskin believed in craftsmanship, and said that it was a better to have fewer and less perfect beads than thousands of perfect beads, because the man who stood in the factory going chop chop chop at a thread of glass all day was not a free human being, but the craftsman who made one bead different from the next was a free human being. And he storms at people who buy perfect beads.)

  4. The approach to Venice is, at this point, my favorite chunk of Ruskin. How wonderful to see it here, along with the descriptions of columns and so on.

    The greatest surprise in Stones of Venice, alongside Samuel Rogers and Scotch cottages, was the inexplicable need to elucidate the allegorical meaning of Spenser.

    Wonderful essay, Pykk.

  5. He has so many of these inexplicable needs, and he seems so driven by them (that moment in volume one where he decides that he can prove the superiority of British Christianity over Ancient Egyptian beliefs by looking at the way they plan their shafts -- "and thus the great Christian truth of distinct services of the individual soul is typlified in the Christian shaft; and the old Egyptian servitude of the multitudes ... is typlified also in the ancient shaft of the Egyptians" -- blindsided me massively) that I wondered, seeing some footage of Slavoj Zizek this morning, if a Ruskin today wouldn't look something like that, someone who quivers and sweats words, and seems as if he's about to shatter a vein if he doesn't get this next idea out of his head.

  6. Oh, yes. Have you seen Housman's description of Ruskin as a teacher? It is hard to believe, unless you are familiar with Ruskin.

  7. I hadn't seen that. No. Good grief. Oh that's a beautiful thing. It's The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century in interpretive dance, with props. I went to a free lecture on Monday night at the local university, and, sitting there restless, watching lecturers and writers be polite to one another, this is more like the sort of thing I wished they'd do -- get up and start waving their hands around and say, This is what I think about such and such! and fry us all with electrified mental jolts, and not just smile around in a mild way and clap at one another.

  8. Ruskin was so absolutely right about the beads. The trouble with Ruskin, for me, is that he was so right about so many things but his writing does give me a feeling of wading through mud rather than floating along in a clear stream of ideas. I'm not sure if it's his style or his actual way of thinking, but I find him very hard going.

  9. It's his hatreds that get to me, those dogmatic hatreds that he can't leave alone. Not the hatred of factories and mass-produced beads, but the hatred of, say the painter Claude Lorrain in Modern Painters, or his weird hysteria over a painting of a boy's dusty foot in Stones of Venice ("foulness" he writes) – those times when he develops a hatred of something that doesn't seem worth the huge amount of effort he puts into hating it. He talks in Modern Painters about the importance of clarity, and he took the Puritan sermoniser Richard Hooker for a writer's role model (according to his autobiography) so it's a pity he seems muddy. Hammering persuasive forcefulness seems to have been his goal. D.H. Lawrence with longer sentences.

  10. I was just looking at a Claude Lorrain today and, while I couldn't summon up hatred for it, I was thinking it lacked a great many of the qualities that I find appealing in a picture.

  11. When I become a genius billionaire art thief he's not the one I'm going to steal first. I can't judge him from tiny reproductions on the internet so I'll take Ruskin's word for it when he says that "The brown foreground and rocks of Claude's Sinon before Priam are as false as color can be," or that he paints "conventional foliage, and unarticulated barbarisms of rock" or that his idea of a city wall below battlements is "one dead void of uniform gray" and that this is a bad thing, but after he's rubbed our face in Claude for the twentieth time -- "see here another proof of Claude's erroneous practice" -- I feel that I'm witnessing an attack from a bully who won't ever stop, which is a fierce thing to be in cahoots with.

    But then I'm grateful that there is, or was, someone out there who had such overwhelming thoughts about art that he was willing to rain thunder and fire on its behalf for hundreds and hundreds of mad roaring serious pages, and it seems likely that he needed this anger to sustain himself, otherwise the hundreds of pages would never have been written. (He says he only started Modern Painters because critics were sneering at his lovely Turner and he was furious.) So, better to have a Modern Painters with bullying of Claude than no Modern Painters. Let the man who loves enthusiastic flaws have his enthusiastic flaws. Claude is dead and was dead and if the living writer needed his corpse for nourishment, well, John, away you go. All of this I say to myself. But still.

  12. The thing is, he blows Claude up until he's not a painter any more, not an ordinary mortal who put oil paint on canvas, he's mediocrity itself, he is mental slackness personified, and mediocrity is the devil, the great evil, in Ruskin's ideas about art. Once he's made this equation, that mediocrity equals sin, and Claude equals mediocrity, he's freed himself to attack and rage and pound him as much as he wants, and it's always justifiable, because he, the preacher of paintings, is attacking actual sin.