Saturday, January 31, 2015

deny that the impressions of beauty are in any way sensual

He'll find an idea, Ruskin, and follow the force of that idea, unless it is something like the Indian statue of a bull, and then he rams himself shut, "it may rest in the eternal obscurity of evil art" -- but not afraid to follow a small piece of the world, like the dirty foot on one boy in a painting, or the rust on fence rails, and so naked he is willing to be, revolted by his fence railing, saddened by his fence railing, and looking at the audience with this fence railing in his mouth and calling it "an uneducated monster" while the engineers sit and wonder, Did he just tell me that iron is morally good? -- and all his writing is extruded very intimately from his art criticism, which is an aesthetic criticism, or morally "theoretic" for him -- theoretic is the word he picked when he was young, and the man circled around his principle.

Now the term "æsthesis" properly signifies mere sensual perception of the outward qualities and necessary effects of bodies, in which sense only, if we would arrive at any accurate conclusions on this difficult subject, it should always be used. But I wholly deny that the impressions of beauty are in any way sensual,—they are neither sensual nor intellectual, but moral, and for the faculty receiving them, whose difference from mere perception I shall immediately endeavor to explain, no term can be more accurate or convenient than that employed by the Greeks, "theoretic," which I pray permission, therefore, always to use, and to call the operation of the faculty itself, Theoria.

(Modern Painters, Vol. II)

If beauty is moral then the journalists making fun of Turner are not wrong but evil because what other word can express it, "the crying evil which called for instant remedy" (this is feeling, not analysis, you think, reading the whole passage, in which he insists that it is analysis, evil intellectually determined, but I call it the hammer word, the word by which he commits himself, the magical word, evil and good his own shaman words of transcendent explosion); and meanwhile Turner himself is moved upwards by his art: "nothing so great or solemn but that he can raise himself into harmony with it," until painting is "the most exalted truth, and the highest ideal," an idea affecting the writer so much that when he sees it in the artist he will follow the paint with his prose.

"It will be found in this picture (and I am now describing nature's work and Turner's with the same words) that the whole distance is given by retirement of solid surface; and that if ever an edge is expressed, it is only felt for an instant, and then lost again; so that the eye cannot stop at it and prepare for a long jump to another like it, but is guided over it, and round it, into the hollow beyond; and thus the whole receding mass of ground, going back for more than a quarter of a mile, is made completely one -- no part of it is separated from the rest for an instant -- it is all united, and its modulations are members, not divisions of its mass. But those modulations are countless -- heaving here, sinking there -- now swelling, now mouldering, now blending, now breaking --"

(Modern Painters, Vol. I)

"The eye" is "guided over [the sentence] and round it, into the hollow beyond … it is all united, and its modulations are members, not divisions of its mass ... heaving here, sinking there." And this shape of the writing only becomes active when he reaches the description of that painting. A moment earlier he was discussing a painter who didn't impress him, and the prose is not like that. This prose will not be extricated from the subject matter, and he is pressing towards a unity that is a moral unity, believing that the form of writing should not be separated from the form of morality itself, which is the form he understands in Turner; and the words pushing towards that form, fragments in unity, which he loves everywhere, for his entire life, but also the freedom of things, the fireflies that he mentions in two different books, coming into town and seeing them "moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves."

Fine-broken, therefore done beautifully and intentionally by whatever created them. "Broken" on its own would have been different.

"Is it not strange to find this stern and strong metal mingled so delicately in our human life, that we cannot even blush without its help?"

Because the iron in the hills is also the iron in your blood.


  1. this is the Ruskin--the Ruskin discovering and worshiping a new-found beauty and exhorting us to follow him into this religion of beauty--that I find touching and loveable, even when he's hemming himself in and contradicting himself. I think it's pretty common practice to assume one's aesthetics and one's morals are somehow interdependent, each idea defending and justifying the other, but when it's Ruskin doing the circular reasoning, I'm just so charmed.

    Well-pointed-out, the way his language shifts to shape itself around what he loves, and flattens somewhat into a dead wall when he is indifferent to something else. I hadn't noticed that, but there it is.

  2. The vulnerability that he gives himself with those contradictions and strangenesses doesn't get enough credit; it's one of the things that sets him apart from the other aestheticians that came after him, your Walter Paters and your Wildes, and so on. If he'd worked the same way when he was making his drawings and watercolours then they'd be talking about him today as a nineteenth-century exponent of Process Art.

    Right now I'm thinking of a moment in one of his lectures where he stops after describing part of a bird's feather several times as a "web," and then he says, No, after thinking about it I've decided that I don't like the word "web," because we use that word for the foot. I'm going to call it something else. A different author would have gone back and changed "web" to the word he preferred before the piece even went to print. He's an unusual critic because he holds himself to the same standards as the artists. He's brutal on them if they don't show him that they're thinking, and his writing is thinking-writing.

  3. Between some legal documents I found a slip of paper on which he had begun to write a story--there was only one sentence, stopping short but it gave me the opportunity of observing the queer way Sebastian had--in the process of writing--of not striking out the words which he had replaced by others, so that, for instance, the phrase I encountered ran thus: "As he a heavy A heavy sleeper, Roger Rogerson, old Rogerson bought old Rogers bought, so afraid Being a heavy sleeper, old Rogers was so afraid of missing tomorrows. He was a heavy sleeper. He was mortally afraid of missing tomorrow's event glory early train glory so what he did was to buy and bring home in a to buy that evening and bring home not one but eight alarm clocks of different sizes and vigor of ticking nine eight eleven alarm clocks of different sizes ticking which alarm clocks nine alarm clocks as a cat has nine which he placed which made his bedroom look rather like a"

    --V Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

  4. The writer I can think of who comes closest to actually publishing writing like that is Gertrude Stein, in The Making of Americans. (If I had to come up with a reverse-engineered onomatopoeic sound for that book, it would be a demented static buzz.)

  5. (But how would it be if someone did, actually, publish a book that was all like that, and the thinking-writing was not, say, stream of consciousness, or the writer going back in a dignified way and reiterating whatever they had said, and disagreeing with it, as if they -- Ruskin -- were speaking to an audience who needed to be reminded of the subject before they could be re-told, but that same Sebastian Knight bit-bit-bit or residue of thought? They talk about Knausgård pouring out his Struggle books unedited. How much of this bit-bit-bit did he get rid of?)

  6. I've read the first pages of Knausgaard's first volume, and it looks pretty polished. I have a hard time believing in someone who thinks in such an orderly fashion, but there are certainly more orderly thinkers than me running around. Or at least I'd like to hope so.

    I've read some poetry that's a lot like the Sebastian Knight bit-by-bit writing. I'll try to remember who wrote it. It's not that old, just a few years I think.

    Do you know how much editing Stein's writing underwent? As you said above, she really is the real-life writer who is most like this. All those gradually overlapping ideas, lapping forward by inches. Even in her essays.

    One thing about Ruskin, is that he rarely says "perhaps," you know?

  7. It's true, he's not a perhapser. Those words like "good" and "evil" inoculate him against perhapsing. You've got me going off now and checking him for the word itself (and not just the idea assigned to the word), and it looks as if he tended only to use it when things weren't seriously in question. "[T]he reader ... living in this busy and perhaps somewhat calamitous age, has some suspicion that landscape-painting is but an idle and empty business." "[T]he whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong." "It may be well, perhaps, to give one or two more instances." "... not sullying it, not mingling with it; -- darkening it perhaps long or utterly, but still not becoming one with it ..." He likes the sonorous, rhetorical "perhaps."

    I know almost nothing about Stein's editing. She experimented with automatic writing when she was young, I'm aware of that much, but then she said when she was older that she had never subscribed to it. I think it's fair to say that she wanted her writing to look as if it could have been automatic, because it does look that way, but what did she do to give it that look?