Thursday, January 9, 2014

he cared for any manner of spectacle

Cockroaches in Las Vegas will appear in the middles of walls, though the thrips sit on the windowsills and at the edges of things; the cockroaches, however, arrive at the centre of a white space with no evidence of their approach, they are always just there at the centre, appearing, as if they have come via spaceships, invisible chairlifts, and so on, in the same way that Ruskin has appeared here suddenly, and I know (as the cockroach knows how it got there) that he is appearing because Tom at Wuthering Expectations and Scott G.F. Bailey at Six Words for a Hat were discussing him a short while ago.

I am still thinking, then, of the way that the attention of a writer expands and contracts in different areas until literature is a sea creature opening and closing its valves, Cambridge expanding into the area of touch, Praed expanding into the area of sight; Cambridge not expanding massively into mood-landscape, and Catherine Martin, however, happy to expand into that area (paragraphs from one, a line or two from the other), Ruskin expanding in Modern Painters when he comes to mountains, and then contracting in Ariadne Florentina when he comes to the Indian artwork, "a black god with a hundred arms, with a green god on one side of him and a red god on the other," contracting down to the word "damnable," and those variations on damnable, "pestilential" and "loathsome," his whole self snapping shut at the sight of an Indian god.

(He has had the same opinion of Indian artwork everywhere I've seen him mention it.)

Also, in Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne, making fun around the idea of expansive deduction itself when, watching a troupe of Japanese jugglers perform on a London stage, he chooses a few impressions out of their act, adds them together, and presents you with a ridiculous patchwork idea of the Japanese -- ridiculous on purpose, because he wants you to understand that the popular entertainment the contemporary theatre gives to its people, is not worthy of them. "There is base joy, and noble joy." He wanted noble joy but London gave him base joy. He went looking for shows on a Thursday and a Friday evening in the February of 1867 and found these jugglers on Thursday and a pantomime on Friday. "These, then, were the two forms of diversion or recreation of my mind possible to me, in two days, when I needed such help, in this metropolis of England. I might, as a rich man, have had better music, if I had so chosen, though, even so, not rational or helpful; but a poor man could only have these, or worse than these, if he cared for any manner of spectacle."

The pantomime was, as I said, 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.' The forty thieves were girls. The forty thieves had forty companions, who were girls. The forty thieves and their forty companions were in some way mixed up with about four hundred and forty fairies, who were girls. There was an Oxford and Cambridge boat-race, in which the Oxford and Cambridge men were girls. There was a transformation scene, with a forest, in which the flowers were girls, and a chandelier, in which the lamps were girls, and a great rainbow which was all of girls.


Presently after this, came on the forty thieves, who, as I told you, were girls; and, there being no thieving to be presently done, and time hanging heavy on their hands, arms, and legs, the forty thief-girls proceeded to light forty cigars. Whereupon the British public gave them a round of applause. Whereupon I fell a thinking; and saw little more of the piece, except as an ugly and disturbing dream.

Humour here in expansion and contraction hugging together, the contraction of everything into the word girls (and lesserly into the word forty, which links or unlinks rhythmically with girls) and then the expansion that makes the contraction visible (saying it again and again); the potential field in which anything could be mentioned being thwarted by the actual composition of the pantomime, which was the only one given to him in the theatre where he had chosen to sit, and all of life going stop-start, stop-start, little imitations of birth and death if you like, little resurrection comedies. "I am like a man in a box," he explains without saying it. "Whichever way I try to go in the world, all it hands me are these girls along with the number forty." Everything is so strange and arbitrary. Why should it be forty? Because it is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. But why forty?


  1. "One morning, when John Ruskin woke from ugly and disturbing dreams of a great rainbow which was all of girls, he found himself transformed in his bed into a pestilential cockroach."

    1. "He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little, he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by buttressed arches into stiff sections as effective and definite as those of any of the northern churches, although the buttresses had been obtained entirely by adaptations of the Roman shaft and arch, the lower story being formed by a thick mass of wall lightened by ordinary semicircular round-headed niches, like those used so extensively afterwards in renaissance architecture, each niche flanked by a pair of shafts standing clear of the wall, and bearing deeply moulded arches thrown over the niche. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment."