Sunday, February 19, 2012
to use his garden
When I said in my last post that Ruskin wouldn't let Carlyle have free run of his garden because he spat, I was thinking of a passage in Joan Abse's book, John Ruskin: the Passionate Moralist. It goes like this: "Later, in Praeterita, Ruskin was to express remorse that he had not in these years given Carlyle complete freedom to use his garden, whenever he wished, as a refuge from the heat and dust of Chelsea. But, in some unpublished passages of the manuscript, he disclosed his reasons for not doing so which subsequently he evidently thought better of making public. The 'insuperable obstacle' had been Carlyle's smoking and, even worse, his spitting! Ruskin confessed that he had liked to keep his garden in pristine condition so that he and sometimes Joan, could always lie down at any time to examine flowers or grass without fear of anything but a little dust on their clothes. With Carlyle in the garden, indulging his bad habit, this would clearly have become an impossibility. So he concluded wryly: 'I never was happy in listening to Carlyle, but when the end of his pipe was up his own chimney."
Ruskin, according to that paragraph, felt no desire for the pleasure Carlyle must have acquired by smoking and spitting, a fact interesting to me, who in his shoes might have felt jealous that I couldn't have that pleasure too, smoking and spitting, spitting and smoking, and tipping out my pipe ash on the lawn, as Carlyle might have done, or injecting samples of my own private liquid into the secretive soil of the planet, leaving my saliva behind to spin away from me into the night with the turn of the earth, leaving it to arrive one day perhaps at the top of a mountain, as Ruskin in Modern Painters imagines a grain of sand doing, elevated by heaving topography from the subterranean strata bed of a dead stream to the peak of a mountain where comets fly past with their arses on fire and clouds precipitate rain or snow, depending on the time of year. (I came across a webpage recently where someone was claiming that the word mystical came from the antique mist-hakel, or mist-hat, a common phrase about seven hundred years ago among English-speaking people who wanted to refer to the clouds that hover around the peaks of mountains or hills, but this is contradicted by every online dictionary I've been able to find. They all say it's plain mystic plus -al, and this is a disappointment to me, imagining, as I wanted to do, that every time anyone described something as mystical they were in fact subconsciously contemplating the qualities of clouds, specifically lingering ones, seen from below by people in valleys, or, another way of putting it, the word mystical would always have suggested looking upwards.)
When he was a boy, John Ruskin I mean, he wanted to play with the anthills in his parents' garden, but the gardener kept sweeping them away. "I had nothing animate to care for, in a childish way, but myself, some nests of ants, which the gardener would never leave undisturbed for me, and a sociable bird or two." If you put this fact next to the adult Ruskin's private dislike of Thomas Carlyle's spit, and let's say for the sake of argument that you knew nothing else about gardens, you might conclude that gardens exist so that people can keep certain things out of them, and that the definition of "garden" is "an area of land from which objects are excluded," with these objects being whatever the controller of that land wants them to be, anthills, body fluids, anything, or perhaps, taking these two examples, you could narrow it down to, "objects which are physical evidence produced by the activities of living creatures" (eg, ants, Thomas Carlyle) for we have seen no proof that any other kind of thing can be excluded, and perhaps nothing else can.