Sunday, February 15, 2015

the infidelity of this outer world

Ruskin has a fidelity to the nonhuman world, either material and dumb, or religious and not materially existent, or the unity of the two. There was the time he was lying by the Fountain of Brevant and saw a thunderstorm. "Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dorm du Goûter a crash -- of prolonged thunder; and when I looked up, I saw the cloud cloven, as it were by the avalanche itself, whose white stream came bounding down the eastern slope of the mountain, like slow lightning." The power of the thunderstorm crushes him; it is not "mingled [with] the associations of humanity." "It was then only beneath those glorious hills that I learned how thought itself may become ignoble and energy itself become base -- when compared with the absorption of soul and spirit -- the prostration of all power -- and the cessation of all will -- before, and in the Presence of, the manifested Deity." It is sublime; he is sublimated. "It was then only that I understood that to become nothing might be to become more than Man." That was in the footnotes to Modern Painters, Volume II, but he doesn't take his own advice; he spends years mingled with the associations of humanity, and decades later in the Fors Clavigera letters he will write:

Looking back upon my efforts for the last twenty years, I believe that their failure has been in very great part owing to my compromise with the infidelity of this outer world, and my endeavour to base my pleading upon motives of ordinary prudence and kindness, instead of on the primary duty of loving God.

The iron is in the hills, the iron is in your blood -- permanently and indelibly -- not anything happening from my point of view: it is just there, Ruskin says, I am the one who is seeing, I am the one who will see, I am not imagining anything; the thing is in two places and connected by physical sympathy. This sorting-out of the world's parts into its own society which the human being can observe and learn is a fundamentally magical arrangement.


  1. "...Beauty cannot be loved in a fruitful manner if one loves it simply for the pleasures it affords. And just as to seek for happiness for its own sake leads only to tedium, and to find it one must seek for something other than it, so aesthetic pleasure is given to us in addition if we love Beauty for its own sake, as something real existing outside of ourselves and infinitely more important than the joy it affords us. Very far from being a dilettante or an aesthete, Ruskin was the precise opposite, one of those Carlyle-like men warned by their genius of the vanity of all pleasure and at the same time of the presence close beside them of a timeless reality, intuitively perceived by their inspiration. Their talent is given to them as an ability to capture this omnipotent and timeless reality, to which they dedicate, enthusiastically and as if in obedience to a command from their conscience, their fleeting lifetimes, in order to endow them with value. Such men, attentive and anxious, faced by a universe needing to be deciphered, are warned as to those elements of reality on which their special gifts will shed a peculiar light for them, by a sort of demon who guides them, of a voice that they can hear, the timeless inspiration of beings of genius."

    --Marcel Proust, "John Ruskin"

    1. One day I'd like to see someone estimate the role that his mother played in that "intuitive perception," He's the world's best advertisement for severe Evangelical upbringings.

    2. "on 2nd September sent my mother my love, by telegram, for breakfast-time, on her birthday, getting answer of thanks back before twelve o’clock; and began to think there might be something in telegraphs, after all."


    3. I mean someone besides the son who used to show her his work every morning "as a girl shows her sampler."