"There is a tradition respecting this statue, that a Venetian lady was once so fond of looking at her mirror, that she habitually carried one to church with her in her missal. One day as she was gazing into it she saw the reflection of her own face change into that of a death's-head, and was immediately turned into stone as she sate." — John Ruskin
"Neither shalt thou be afraid of destruction when it cometh... for thou shalt be in league with the Stones of the Field." — Job 5:21, 22
uskin began his first lectures as the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1870. In 1871, the year also of his mother's death and the sale of his childhood home, he purchased Brantwood on Coniston Lake and proposed the establishment of an agricultural community to be called St. George's Guild, endowed with a tithe of his fortune and organized and publicized by him as its sole Master. These changes removed the external impediments of a decade earlier, when he was blocked by his parents' will and the problems of finding a roof of his own. With a home in the lakes, a podium for his ideas on art, and plans for a utopian community that might put at least some of his radical economics into practice, he was free fully to accept his vocation. Never before did he write so much nor intertwine his writings with such a multiplicity of projects, a multiplicity that has become the burden of his readers and his biographers. Without either the major insights or the dramatic turning points of his most creative years, the mass of writings from 1870 to the final breakdown of 1889 threatens to dissolve into a fathomless miscellany of fragmented and interrupted topics, while the projects and travels grow into compelled and repetitious busyness. His life also took on a new, tragic rhythm of sudden, debilitating attacks of illness alternating with periods of incomplete recovery. Faced with the [263/264] inexorable realities of illness and decline, he clung ever more resolutely to dreams of the past that provided intermittent shelter from his sense of failure and loss yet condemned him to an underlying solitude: even his most urgent projects, like Toby Shandy's, seem partly a private play, disguised recreations of older times and places. The wonder is not that Ruskin's late works are often disturbed and chaotic but that they contain so much that is genuinely innovative, challenging us to read them as new forms of utterance, new ways of interpreting and confessing experience.
Ruskin's passion for traveling and collecting, like his love for the rich and turbulent variety of Gothic, or the mosaiclike juxtapositions of the symbolic grotesque, fulfilled what John Dixon Hunt has called the idea of the world as museum. A museum, Ruskin remarked, is "neither a preparatory school, nor a peep show; but it may be made more delightful than either" (XXVI, 1); they are boxes of wonders and ways of teaching the world less as a system of classification than as an assemblage of paradigms. But a private collection would also be a gathering of memorabilia, a way, like landscape, of making the macrocosm coincide with the personal past: the "this is" becomes the "I am." The clutter of Denmark Hill, with its specimens of ferns and flowers and rocks, its manuscripts and books and paintings, became an even denser clutter at Brantwood, which Ruskin converted into a memorial by decorating it in his parents' taste and furnishing it with artifacts from the old home (a vindication, as Ruskin ironically remarked, of the associationist theory of beauty). But a more literal form of curatorship occupied him during these same years. At Oxford he set up four related series of drawings and paintings for use by his students; for the Guild museum at Sheffield he assembled minerals and other artifacts, as well as a series of translations he called "Bibliotheca Pastorum"; and for the British Museum at Kensington he arranged yet another geological series — all of this accompanied by theoretical remarks on curatorship and original designs for display cabinets. And the books themselves, as Hunt points out, become display cases for receiving all of heaven and earth.1 As any subject potentially becomes any other subject, the "cases" become arbitrary subsections of a single, evolving opus, each topic (to change the metaphor) a strand in an infinite arabesque. Ruskin himself becomes the world of his books, giving himself to us in a flow of paintings and places, of memories and emblems and hopes. [264/265]
This new, informal intimacy is particularly characteristic of the books not drawn from Oxford lectures but composed rather of connected essays, reflections, or public letters that first appeared serially. Through these fragmentary public diaries, Ruskin accustoms himself to writing in the present tense, offering thoughts and impressions as they spin off spontaneously from his life activities and achieving in the process a continuous presence before a national audience. Space prevents me from considering more than a few works from Ruskin's later decades. I have chosen to focus on three. Deucalion and Fors Clavigera take the form of a polemical journal that includes occasional reminiscences of a carefully woven kind. From their shaped units Ruskin built Praeterita, the autobiography he wrote on the brink of night.
Myth and Science
Ruskin's insatiable curiosity about the created world unified his adulthood as well as the multitudinous enthusiasms of his childhood. His first publication was an essay on the color of the Rhine. Later, while continuing his art lessons at Oxford he attracted the attention of several men of science, including William Buckland, geologist and divine, who had contributed to the Bridgewater Treatises. Modern Painters I set the young man in his career as an art critic rather than a geologist, yet the five volumes of his massive work contain hundreds of pages devoted to the characteristic energies of rocks and plants, of wind and wave. He considered these pages to be of scientific interest in their own right, for he retained to the end of his life the model of scientific inquiry he had learned as a youth — an activity, predominantly, of description and classifying, possible at that time for the botanizing clergyman or the gentleman amateur exploring the Alps on foot. By the second half of the century, science had become almost exclusively the province of the professional experimentalist, who devised laboratory methods to explain what the senses alone could not perceive and the word poet could not describe. Yet Ruskin continued to collect and observe and describe, partly as diversion, partly as a serious contribution to science and the philosophy of science. Beginning in 1856 he published a number of notes and papers on such geological subjects as the banded formations of agates, the structure of the limestone Alps, and the varieties of silica. In the 1870s he began to draw his fragments together into books or book-length works in progress — Deucalion, the geological diary; Proserpina, the book on flowers; the Oxford lectures on the relations of natural science to art; and other miscellaneous lectures, including the famous pair on The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth [265/266] Century. Merely the mention of these reminds us that Ruskin is the unique example in English of a romantic writer who laid claim to scientific originality.
The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters IV contain an art critic's indirect responses to the "dreadful hammers" of Lyell and the Higher Critics, both of whom specialized in legible materials. The later scientific writings respond, sometimes directly, to Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall — indeed, to the whole tendency of what Ruskin called "materialist science." Some such response was integral to his entire enterprise. The belief in a religious apprehension of nature — an apprehension of which Saussure, Wordsworth, Turner, the Bible, and the Greek poets, to say nothing of the pastimes and hopes of ordinary people of goodwill, are but individual moments in a single articulation of praise — requires for its completion some notice of purely empirical knowledge. But Ruskin in his later years was hardly adequate, either by training or by temperament, to that response. His technical contributions are minor, his philosophy of science is reactionary, and his books are disturbed by private obsessions — the same that burst out in the psychotic episodes of 1878 and after. Nevertheless, Ruskinian science does not deserve the almost complete neglect it has received. Its chief interest lies in its character as drama — a drama, first, of romantic nature philosophy in a late encounter with scientific materialism and, second, of Ruskin's struggle against overwhelming emotional chaos, fought out through his faith in a sensuous language adequate to fixing and propitiating the created world. But the late essays first require an understanding of Ruskin's thinking about science as it evolved in the first thirty years of his career.
Modern Painters I presents nature as an infinity of divine thought which is humanly experienced as affective power, so that any good transcript of nature, such as a drawing, is necessarily both accurate and expressive. Far from suggesting a rivalry between science and art, as the romantics had conceived it, Ruskin denies the difference between them by assuming that the empirical investigator constitutes the model for the artist, since the man of science, by surrendering the self, achieves at once purity of heart and mastery of knowledge. This synthesis is in part a rejection of the romantic imagination in favor of virtues like watchfulness and sympathy, since imagination is for Ruskin the disturber, not the forger, of the bond between mind and nature. But by the 1850s he had to come to grips with the role of art in relation to imagination (the faculty that perceives what is not empirically present) and the role of science in relation to faith (the faculty that perceives God as not empirically present). Modern Painters III dramatizes in historical terms the broken harmonies of fact and fancy, thought and feeling, and truth and faith, with the aim once again of defining forms [266/267] of seeing that are both religious and true — an art that is not fictional and a science that is not impious. Even so, Ruskin refuses to ally himself with Wordsworth's contempt for analysis, partly because of his own early interests, partly because of his continuing respect for the scientific sensibility. For Ruskin the modern mind is represented best by a feeling person, whose indulgence of essentially nostalgic emotion marks a departure from literal truth, and by the sturdy, practical man of facts, who is more likely than the other to become a benefactor of the race. The inspired visionary, on the other hand, transcends both: great poets like Homer and Dante produce the myths by which the apprehension of nature becomes morally and culturally significant, joining the circuit between the matter of art (God's works) and the moral perfection of human life. But this appears possible only in an age of faith. Can such myths survive in an age of science?
Ruskin turns to the traditional romantic resolution of this problem. In a well-known passage in The Friend, which Ruskin may have read and remembered, Coleridge distinguished between the faculty that perceives the inward principles of things and the faculty that perceives only the phenomenal manifestations of those principles. The first he calls reason, "that intuition of things which arises when we possess ourselves, as one with the whole"; the second he calls mere understanding, "that which presents itself when... we think of ourselves as separated beings, and place nature in antithesis to the mind, as object to subject, thing to thought, death to life." Elsewhere he attacks the empirical sciences of the eighteenth century, particularly chemistry and taxonomy, precisely for missing the principle or essence of things; the chemist, for example, who "reduces the chemical process to the positions of atoms would doubtless thereby render chemistry calculable, but... he commences by destroying the chemical process itself, and substitutes for it a mote dance of abstractions" (IV, 520-521). The relationship of such passages to Ruskin's attack on secular rationalism is obvious enough, but Ruskin could not refute Lyell's theories, either in Coleridgean terms or in the kind of attack that " was soon to launch on Darwin. Instead, Ruskin provides a somewhat tentative distinction in Modern Painters III between the science of essences and the science of aspects. The first, he writes, is useful in lifting the mind from "the first state of inactive reverie to the second of useful thought," but it is dangerous in that it "check[s] the impulses towards higher contemplation" and tends to "chill and subdue the feelings, and to resolve all things into atoms and numbers. For most men, an ignorant enjoyment is better than an informed one: it is better to conceive the sky as a blue [267/268] dome than a dark cavity, and the cloud as a golden throne than a sleety mist" (V, 386-387).
Nevertheless, the poignance of this formulation is manifest, since the claims of knowledge and feeling run counter to each other: "useful" knowledge, which has been a greater benefactor to the human race than all the artists and poets who ever lived, may deaden the feelings. If by "essences" Ruskin means simply the undiscernible objects of inquiry — atomic processes, the magnitudes of space, the laws of physics — then the two "sciences" may simply complement each other, as for Coleridge, but as yet he omits mention of the severer challenges of modern cosmology to faith. That is precisely the topic of the next volume — but there, as it turns out, even the grimmest implications of modern science are no more disturbing than the present condition of humankind, as revealed to the compassionate and unaided eye. Consequently, both the geological chapters and the chapters on art drive toward a single, synthesizing idea — the revelation of overwhelming human need, which becomes the basis for both a humane practical science and a genuine tragic art. Such an art can survive the loss of orthodox belief, which Ruskin relinquished himself, even though he maintained his faith in nature as a presence, mysterious and living.
But in the 1860s Ruskin launched an increasingly bitter attack on science. He did so because his theory of natural myth had not only a pragmatic basis (the greatest minds have perceived nature imaginatively, so that it "is" so for us necessarily) but also a scientific basis, as firm as the fundamentalist's belief in a seven-day creation. According to Ruskin, the life force is a scientific reality that is, at the very least, probable; and for this reason the science of aspects derives from the science of essence. In The Queen of the Air, nature bears two separate but complementary descriptions, very much as in contemporary descriptions of mental activity. (Mental activity is, on the one hand, a continuum of states of consciousness, from which we construct the necessary fictions of self, free will, and moral responsibility.) In this respect Ruskin's view is consistent with that of many nineteenth-century natural philosophers who assumed life to be a mystical, unanalyzable force and so took refuge in the biological sciences against the mechanistic assumptions of physics and chemistry. But Darwin's theory of natural selection effectively put the term to romantic vitalism. According to Darwin, species, instead of evolving by some innate drive or telos, develop according to random, purposeless factors similar to those that govern the inorganic world. Ruskin may not have read Darwin in this light, but there can be no doubt of his response to another contemporary theorist, John Tyndall, who in his celebrated Belfast Address of 1874 triumphantly proclaimed the unbroken continuity of organic and inorganic processes. According to Tyndall, the highest achievements of [268/269] the human spirit are theoretically deducible from molecular activity in the primal cloud of gases. Although Ruskin leaves us no direct testimony, it is at least likely that Tyndall's materialism catalyzed his decision to make modern science the object of a new attack on nineteenth century infidelity, continuous with his assault on political economy. As always, Ruskin's concern is less with the theories themselves than with the state of mind that would find in materialism an exclusive explanation of natural phenomena. This frame of mind, Ruskin believed, was hostile to the sanctity of life and the life of nature.
Tyndall appears peripherally in The Ethics of the Dust as the author of Heat, A Mode of Motion, a book that explained organic processes as the simple interaction of sunlight and complex molecules. In a lecture several years later, Tyndall fabricated an "artificial sky" by reproducing in a test tube the chemical processes occurring naturally in the atmosphere. In the introduction to The Queen of the Air, Ruskin juxtaposes Tyndall's "bit of sky more perfect than the sky itself" with a description of the Genevan Alps polluted by tourists, then concludes with an imprecation: "Ah, masters of modern science, give me back my Athena out of your vials, and seal, if it may be, once more, Asmodeus therein" (XIX, 292, 294). Asmodeus, in LeSage's novel, had escaped from a vial, very much like Satan in the garden, whom Milton compares with another, mythical Asmodeus. The allusions comprise the germ of a new Ruskinian fiction in which modern science, the latest incarnation of the spirit that denies, has despoiled the Swiss Eden and has rendered Eve captive. Ruskin broadened his attack two years later in the fifth letter of Fors Clavigera. There he refutes a botanist who had claimed in a lecture that there are, properly speaking, no such things as flowers — only modified leaves. In a sense, Ruskin says, the lecturer is right ("There are no such things as Flowers — there are only — gladdened Leaves"), but he proceeds to turn his adversary on his head by showing that "leaf, and root, and fruit, exist, all of them, only — that there may be flowers. [The lecturer] disregarded the life and passion of the creature, which were its essence. Had he looked for these, he would have recognized that in the thought of Nature herself, there is, in a plant, nothing else but its flowers" (XXVII, 84). In this Blakean antithesis between the truth of imagination, according to which there is nothing but the flower, and the false categories of "science," according to which there are no flowers at all, Ruskin closes his attack on two ideologies that specialize in denying the life and passion of the creature Man — Darwinian biology, which sees man as "a transitional form of Ascidians and apes," and laissez-faire economics, which describes man's "constant instinct" as the "desire to defraud his neighbor" (XXVII, 84,95). But Ruskin also sets these doctrines on their heads: "The real fact is, that, rightly seen with human eyes, there is nothing else but [269/270] man; that all animals and beings beside him are only made that they may change into him; that the world truly exists only in the present of Man, acts only in the passion of Man" (XXVII, 84-85). The conflict here is not between scientific fact and pathetic fallacy, since Ruskin upholds vitalism, the theory that both individuals and species develop according to a teleological energy. The anthropomorphizing of the plant is an emotional "reading" of its inner life that is at least consonant with the biological fact, a procedure somewhat similar to Coleridge's nature philosophy in The Statesman's Manual. The botanist, of course, had a reading of his own that was fallacious, since he confused the lower term with the higher exactly as the political economist does (the flower is no more a mere leaf than man is a mere animal or a digestive mechanism). Ruskin's description is, finally, an accurate account of the flower's aspect for the human viewer, which is a part of scientific truth — a truth possible when, as Coleridge writes, "we possess ourselves, as one with the whole," instead of separating subject and object in such a way that both become detached. The issue, then, is between good and bad science, that is, between two competing myths, only one of which makes place for the human — the issue, as Ruskin says, between "savoir vivre" and "savoir mourir."
What, then, ought the scope of scientific investigation to be? The Oxford lectures on the relations of science to the arts, written half a year after the Fors letters, are frankly reactionary. In opposition to the tendency of contemporary thought, according to which scientific inquiry should be separate from religious belief; Ruskin asserts what is essentially the traditional Christian argument about the use of reason. Science, he writes, ought to be the activity of a peculiar wisdom or "sophia," "the faculty which recognizes in all things their bearing upon life"; the wise man ought "to know himself, and his place; to be content to submit to God without understanding Him; and to rule the lower creation with sympathy and kindness." Ruskin infers that there is no place in science for speculation or what he calls theory: "It is not the arrangement of new systems, nor the discovery of new facts, which constitutes a man of science; but the submission to an eternal system, and the proper grasp of facts already known" (XXII, 144, 150). For the worth of theory is to be judged not by some abstract standard of objective truth but by its human effect, and the effect Ruskin cites is a nation bent on converting its meadows into railroads and its skies into smoke, on producing munitions and artificial famines, on stoning birds in the woods and vivisecting dogs in laboratories, and on discovering monsters in the earth.
These multiple evils, all of them the progeny of infidelity, drive Ruskin into an autocratic pipe dream, a symbolic return of the green and golden past through the forcible reinstatement of the science he [270/271] had known as a youth — the science of Saussure and Humboldt and Modern Painters I. Yet even here, his central intuitions partake of the romantic critique of secular rationalism at its most interesting. In the orthodoxy of modern naturalism, scientific truth is distinguishable, if not from the limitations of human perception, at least from the cultural assumptions of the observer, and also from technological uses. The restraint on these applications — on nuclear weaponry, for example, or genetic engineering — is a political and not a scientific problem. Ruskin, on the other hand, sees science as inextricably part of a nation's cultural life and insists that the organization of science, its technical applications, and even to some extent the model of the world that scientists present are cultural expressions. These are most clearly evident in the motive to power and the motive to abstraction. To prefer generalization to the description of particulars implies that the aim of science is intellectual mastery and therefore the expression of a culture's aggressivity. As Ruskin was quick to notice, the association of knowledge with aggressive prowess was very much a part of organized science among the Victorians. The controversies fought out in scientific journals could seem like an inflamed form of Mill's marketplace of ideas, and among the members of the Alpine Club, the peripatetic observer of old times was succeeded by amateur athletes testing themselves against the elements (Tyndall, for example, was a noted mountain climber).
These activities were for Ruskin expressions of industrial capitalism — a response, as he puts it, to "the demand of a sensual economy for originality in science" (XXII, 146). In his critique of the Renaissance spirit and of the economic theory it spawned, abstraction is simply the mental reflection of the will to power: one severs oneself from the phenomenal world in order to dominate it; but the aesthetic apprehension of things (what Ruskin once called the theoretic faculty) marks the spirit's bonds of sympathy and communion. Ruskinian science, then, counters knowledge as aggressivity — figured in The Eagle's Nest as a bird of prey — with knowledge as sensuous meditation, the humility that conquers pride. The undertaking of course means a return to the project of Modern Painters I — "wise art," as he tells his students, "is only the reflex or shadow of wise science" — except that, instead of arguing for factual knowledge as a condition of genuine aesthetic response, he now argues for aesthetic response as a condition of genuine scientific knowledge. Even the scientist must read the world as articulate speech. Thus the reform of natural science, like the reform of economic science, must show itself verbally, in a language that transcends the distinction between subject and object by evoking things in their full sensuous actuality. Ruskin is ambiguous about the scope of this reform, which shifts with his temper and audience. At times the energy of his [271/272] attack on abstraction allies him with the Coleridgean critique of Western science. At other times, his project seems appropriately modest, a way of making nature study useful and delightful. Science, for example, should conserve rather than exploit, not only through the essentially mnemonic activity of intimate description but also through practical beneficence: the whole aim of Modern Painters IV, he wrote in retrospect, was to make a case for Alpine irrigation in order to prevent erosion and flooding. Science ought also to be an act of teaching and dissemination. In his popular writings, Ruskin proposes to make available for all some of the joy and even playfulness he had known as a child. To do so he argues, among other things, for illustrations that are beautiful and accurate, nomenclature as clear and descriptive as possible, and essays that describe the "human" as well as the natural qualities of an object — the history of its uses and mythological associations. Much of the whimsy in these books comes from a deliberate questioning of the canons of seriousness, an attempt, as we have noticed earlier, to reconsider the whole category of play. What, he asks characteristically, directs the form of the leaf, making the fibers seek what they want "in woollen wrinkles rough with stings, or in glossy surfaces, green with pure strength, and winterless delight? There is no answer" (XIX, 378). From this perspective it is clear that the moral aesthetic is itself a defense of the play impulse as both expression and worship.
As has often been noted, Ruskin here anticipates, as dramatically as he anticipated anything, the ecology movement and the new forms of scientific journalism correlative to it. Like Ruskin, our contemporaries have tacitly reconceived science as a kind of attitude or interest rather than as a method of inquiry: key words like "environment," "ecology," and "conservation," with their connotations of nurture and cooperation, succeed the older paeans to technical progress and the virtue of intellectual curiosity. But just as obviously, Ruskinian science stands opposed to the essentially practical and cheerful spirit of the ecology movement. For him nature is not so much an ecosystem as a system of real Manichaean forces, whose appearances constitute a mythical structure similar, as it turns out, to a delusional system. As Ruskin's writings become increasingly obsessional, the term "literal" shifts from a phenomenological region, in which it refers to the invariability of human perception, to a region like that of the unconscious, where symbols become realities and thoughts become deeds. Just as, for the Evangelical, God must be recognized in order to be obeyed and Satan recognized in order to be defeated, so for Ruskin infidel science denies the existence of evil and the life of nature, only to discover diabolical forces in the form of monstrous bones and to assault the earth in a kind of rape. Forbidden knowledge now becomes the defilement of a literal mother and commerce with a literal devil. The system of nature, [272/273] sensuous, personal, and Manichaean, is the embodiment of the human soul; the system of scientific abstractions is the collapse of psychic structure, viewed as a release of primitive, destructive energy. To enter the haunted region of Ruskinian science is to enter the region of the grotesque — the playing, sometimes fanciful and sometimes terrible, with an ultimate dread.
Ruskin coupled his two chief works of science by naming both after mythological personages — Proserpina, the book on flowers, and Deucalion, the book on stones. The titles suggest that their subjects are to be conceptualized in terms of myth rather than theory. According to Proserpina, which I will consider only briefly, plants are creatures that strain upward toward the light and downward toward the dark, like the seasonal goddess of the underworld (and like Ruskin's own Rose, now banished to the shades). At the same time Ruskin proposes a half-serious revision of Darwin, considering species in their "aesthetic" rather than their genealogical relations. The whole book is a kind of grave tweaking of the Darwinian nose, although in another sense, the nose being tweaked is that of Linnaeus. Linnaeus had classified flowering plants according to the sexual characteristics of its flowers, a procedure Coleridge had criticized because it touched only on superficial traits and not on the "constitutive nature and inner necessity of sex itself."3
Ruskin, on the other hand, replaces Linnaeus' Latin names for families with English neologisms derived from girls' names — a deliberately sportive gesture that has the serious purpose of connoting the "constitutive nature" of each family by anthropomorphizing them. He justifies his procedure, moreover, by the ruling dictum that the fruit and seed exist for the sake of the flower, not the flower for the sake of the fruit and seed: the flower, in other words, loses its sexual nature and gains an erotic one — it is to be enjoyed aesthetically, in and for itself, and not as the means to a reproductive end. But since the seed also carries within it the germ of death, Proserpina conceives of biological species in terms of a timeless pattern of aesthetic relationships, as in Eden before the fall and not in terms of a process of death and procreation proceeding through geological time. Like The Ethics of the Dust, Proserpina presents the world from the perspective of innocence rather than from that of experience — a looking glass world mirroring the real world of science and governed by the playful grotesque. (For a fuller study of the scientific works in general, see Alexander.) [273/274] Deucalion, on the other hand, belongs to a different order of seriousness, for here Ruskin turns to the genuine combats of science, evolving along the way an extended rumination on the process of time.
n his introduction, Ruskin tells his readers that Proserpina and Deucalion are Greek myths of the betrayal and redemption corresponding to the Hebrew myths of Eve and Noah. Deucalion, survivor of a universal deluge, was told by the oracle that he could repopulate the earth by throwing behind him the bones of his mother, that is to say, the stones of the earth — "lifeless seeds of life," Ruskin calls them elsewhere (XXVI, 555). It follows that geology, like Turnerian landscape, is a kind of anatomy of our mother, but one that traces out the living lineaments, not one that analyzes her into dust.
The antithesis of life and death also governs Ruskin's antithesis of myth to theory: myth records "a natural impression on the imaginations of great men" and theory "an unnatural exertion of the wits of little men."
The writings of modern scientific prophets teach us to anticipate a day when even these lower voices shall be also silent; and leaf cease to wave, and stream to murmur, in the grasp of an eternal cold. But it may be, that rather out of the mouths of babes and sucklings a better peace may be promised to the redeemed Jerusalem... at the gates of the city, built in unity with herself, and saying with her human voice, "My King cometh."[XXVI, 99]
As in Modern Painters IV, stones emerge paradigmatically as antithetical signifiers, the things that may be either living or dead, while geology emerges as the paradigm of antithetical perception. In allegorical terms, the higher forms are dead at the present moment, as after the Flood, but the stones and the minerals (which, as Herbert says, marry "earth and plants" [XXVI, 344]) may knit together into a new race. Once again seeing, for Ruskin, is alchemy: the "eternal cold" of Dante's Caina (mentioned at XXVI, 346) is the ultimate "prophetic" vision of "theory," but the Heavenly City, like Deucalion's conversion of stones to seed, is the ultimate vision of the mythopoeic imagination — a new form of Wordsworth's "apocalyptic marriage" of mind and nature. The self can be redeemed only by knowing the world truly, and the world can be redeemed only by knowing the self truly. It follows that the writing of Ruskin's geological diary becomes part of its subject.5 In [274/275] a playful moment, he claims he is presently planning seventy-four volumes (a Babel enterprise, evidently) and then calls his present works a "heap of loose stones collected for this many-towered city which I am not able to finish." Deucalion, then, as the "fragments of good marble... useful to future builders" (XXVI, 96), corresponds to the bones of the Mother and also, perhaps, to the sowing of the author's own seeds as the figurative offspring of the marriage. By attempting once again to make nature humanly available to human viewers and to rescue it from all in modern science that renders it abstract, frightening, and inhuman, Ruskin also attempts to vindicate his own way of seeing, his own right to speak as an elder statesman of the mountains.
Throughout the fragmented heterogeneity of Deucalion, Ruskin attempts again and again to construct an affective language that will compete with the scientists' purely empirical procedures. In one chapter he proposes to codify stones in the form of a grammar, and in another chapter, as an alphabet.6 Most interesting for our purposes is the particular style, at once ruminative, associative, and elliptical, that becomes general in the writings of the 1870s and 1880s — the style that seems to present, as Rosenberg has remarked, the "lineaments of thought without the intervening medium of words" (Rosenbeerg, p.187). One particularly homely and memorable example is the chapter on silicas of lava, an [275/276] extended grotesque that quickly takes on the character of a diarist's private mutter. He has walked, Ruskin tells us, on "ghastly slags" of lava, where he practically burned his soles, slags that have congealed from the liquid state into
ropy or cellular masses, variously tormented and kneaded by explosive gas; or pinched into tortuous tension, as by diabolic tongs, and are so finally left by the powers of Hell, to submit themselves to the powers of Heaven, in black or brown masses of adamantine sponge without water, and horrible honey-combs without honey, interlaid between drifted banks of earthy flood, poured down from merciless clouds whose rain was ashes. [XXXVI, 234]
As in Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," Ruskin builds his evocation of sterility by conjuring up absence. There is no honey or water, the clouds are not merciful, the flood is not a flood, the rain is not rain. The lava is kneaded, but it is not bread; it is cellular, but there is no life. The basic analogy of earth and water calls upon hunger and thirst, then denies it by the evocation of dryness. There is no moral pretext for the description, as there would have been in Fors, and yet it suits the mood of the rest of the chapter. There Ruskin's mind lurches back and forth in stubborn irritability. He demands answers, "with illustrative specimens," from the geologists. He rails at the infirmities of himself and others (he is "weary of . . . losing the powers of observation and thought which are connected with the complacency of possession, and the pleasantness of order" [XXVI, 236]). He harps on his age ("but I find silica enough . . . for my life, or at least for what may be left of it" [XXVI, 235]). In these dry thoughts of a dry season, rock seems transformed into the medium of prose, which then becomes its own subject, the condition of a particularly crabbed music.
But the most pervasive subject of Ruskin's tactile music is glacial ice. A glacier, he says, building a characteristic matrix of metaphors, is "a tide which takes a year to rise, a cataract which takes fifty to fall, a torrent that is ribbed like a dragon, and a rock that is diffused like a lake" (XXVI, 163n). But in a series of kitchen experiments, relating the frigid and vast to the cozy and domestic, he builds mountains out of blancmange and presses dough hills into folds; one "mellifluous glacier" of honey flowed across his plate through "magnificent moraines composed of crumbs of toast" (XXVI, 162). The Alps are themselves "one great accumulation of ice-cream" poured out like "melted sugar... on the top of a bride-cake." Remarks such as these fall into a strange mix of the earnest and the playful, as though Ruskin were parodying the scientists in the very attempt to upstage them. At another point he dines in a Swiss hotel, "disturbed partly by the invocation... of calamity on the heads of nations, by the howling of a frantic [276/277] wind from the Col; and partly by the merry clattering of the knives and forks of a hungry party in the salon" (XXVI, 219). His remarkable aside, revealing in a flash two worlds of consciousness, recalls his early remark that, in the grotesque, the mind "plays with terror, and summons images which, if it were in another temper, would be awful, but of which, either in weariness or in irony, it refrains for the time to acknowledge the true terribleness" (XI, 166). Here the clattering of knives and howling of winds correspond to the avalanches of honey, as though Ruskin were using the kitchen to shore up the fear of elemental forces and the desolate world discovered by the natural sciences, but his absorption with the ooze and fall of treacle also suggests something else — an aging man's symbolic play with the inexorable, embodied in a child's treat.
In the structure of Deucalion as a whole, the motion of ice unites the flow of thought with the flow of time. Like time, glaciers fascinate Ruskin because they move yet seem not to move. The Alpine snows, for example, "will lie in the hollows like lakes, and clot and cling about the less abrupt slopes in festooned wreaths of rich mass and sweeping flow"; yet this charmed stasis is deceptive.
Yet never for an instant motionless — never for an instant without internal change, through all the gigantic mass, of the relations to each other of every crystal grain. That one which you break now from its wave-edge, and which melts in your hand, has had no rest, day nor night, since it faltered down from heaven when you were a babe at the breast; and the white cloud that scarcely veils yonder summit... has strewed it with pearly hoar-frost, which will be on this spot, trodden by the feet of others, in the day when you also will be trodden under feet of men, in your grave. [XXXVI, 1 34-135]
To give a sense of such slowness, Ruskin cites measurements — the glacier moves two feet a day, an inch an hour, three times slower than the minute hand of a watch — then concludes, "Between the shores of the vast gulf of hills, the long wave of hastening ice only keeps pace with that lingering arrow [i.e., the minute hand], in its central crest; and that invisible motion fades away upwards through forty years of slackening stream, to the pure light of dawn on yonder stainless summit, on which this morning's snow lies — motionless" (XXVI, 135). "Motionless" brings us back to "yet never for an instant motionless" and emphasizes the contrast between motion that is frozen ("sweeping flow" and "breaking away," above) and ice that is moving, however imperceptibly. One paragraph moves forward to death and backward to birth, encompassing both limits of human time; the next paragraph freezes forty years in a single view, yet collapses time at the mountain peak, since the peak is at once forty years "back" and as recent as this [277/278] morning. Both paragraphs create an almost mystic sense of visual mastery over time even as the viewer is humbled before an object that will survive him almost indefinitely. The glacier, then, allows the viewer to put himself into an extraordinary and paradoxical relationship to time, while the icy flow finally becomes the flow of consciousness itself — inscrutable when examined, immense in its cumulative effect.
Around the glacier as a figure for inexorability, the book sets up a double scheme of historical discontinuities — between the human present and the remembered past, and between the human past and geological antiquity. Nowadays, according to Ruskin, tourists plunge through the Alps in trains, flourish Alpenstocks, and pass off seeing nothing. "We used to do it differently in old times," he declares, showing his audience Turner's first study of the Lake of Thun (XXVI, 111), where a boat sails peacefully across a crystalline surface. Both art and memory occupy a timeless region of imaginative experience, which is shattered in the present: the blindness of the mechanized tourist is a symptom like the visions of materialist science — the boiling of seas, the heaving of mountains, the extinction of monstrous beasts, all of which Ruskin would banish by a kind of visual bracketing. "I do not care, — and I want you not to care," he tells his students, "how crest or aiguille was lifted.... I do care that you should know ... in what strength and beauty of form it has actually stood since man was man" (XXVI, 113). Seen in this way, the world is restored as an ancient and familiar place, "practically eternal," with its local traditions and names that endure for longer than we shall know: "But yonder little rifted well in the native whinstone by the sheepfold, — did the grey shepherd not put his lips to the same ledge of it, to drink — when he and you were boys together?" (XXVI, 121) The point is strengthened by a theoretical contribution of Ruskin's own: streams, he asserts, do not wear down their beds, but gradually fill up the valleys, so that in fifty years he has recognized no change in any of his "old dabbling-places." As in Modern Painters IV Ruskin insists that the earth's decline is inexorable: "All character is being gradually effaced; all crooked places made straight, — all rough places plain; and among these various agencies . . . none are so distinct as that of the glacier" (XXVI, 123). As interpreted by Ruskin, Lyell's three eras correspond roughly to his own theory of the cresting and decline of nations, so that Deucalion transfers to the Alps the time scheme of The Stones of Venice. Thus, he has it both ways: just as the glacier, when we watch it, appears to move and not to move, so does the clock of the earth. If we bracket at one end of the time flow the revelations of atheist science (a kind of Apocalypse before Creation) and at the other the equally hideous depredations of recent civilization, we will find the works of men most worthy of enduring figured in an Edenic valley that is "practically eternal." [278/279]
So far Ruskin's quarrel with science seems but a vague attack on a state of mind, since he has found no means to question the methods of the geologists, or their findings, or their prestige as discoverers and theorists. This opportunity came in the controversy over glacial movement. In 1843 James David Forbes published the theory on which Ruskin's poetic description of glaciers is based — the theory that ice, although apparently brittle, behaves as a viscous substance when subjected to steady pressure. In the 1860s John Tyndall, on the suggestion of Huxley, proposed an alternative view, drawing upon recent discoveries in mechanics, particularly Michael Faraday's theory of regelation. The resulting controversy was bitter even by the standards of the times, partly because Forbes was accused of failing to acknowledge his predecessors. Of Forbes's challengers, Tyndall was by far the most distinguished. An articulate advocate of philosophical materialism and a brilliant physicist, whose theories had beneficent practical applications, he was also a passionate lover of nature — he had published his own record of Alpine travels in a poetic, descriptive mode not unlike Ruskin's — and the only scientist to become a close friend of Carlyle's. In several ways, then, he was Ruskin's scientific counterpart, if not indeed a type of the practical, sturdy man of science praised in Modern Painters III. Stung perhaps by unconscious rivalry, Ruskin chose to make Tyndall the focus of attack by entering the defense of Forbes, exactly as he had entered the defense of Turner thirty years before, picturing Tyndall as an arrogant johnny-come-lately and Forbes as the traduced representative of the "old ways," of a science modest, accurate, and loving. The hysteria of Ruskin's diatribe suggests the degree to which he displaced onto the glacier question his generalized rage at an atheistic and technological society and, more deeply still, the fear of his own diminished power and uncontrollable anger. [279/280]
The centerpiece of his attack appears in "Thirty Years Past," which defines the glacier question as essentially a conflict between past and present and between vision and desecration. The chapter is as remarkable for its emotional disequilibrium as for its mastery of structure. The title refers to an incident in 1844, when Ruskin and his parents met Forbes by chance during their travels in Switzerland. (It also alludes to the subtitle of a Scott novel and therefore indirectly to the fact that Forbes was the son of Scott's "first love"; Forbes is thus made to occupy the timeless region of Ruskin's boyhood reading and his boyhood visits to Scotland.) The old geologist appears in this chapter through a haze of memory as he and the Ruskins fall into conversation in a hotel. Afterward we follow young John on a morning hike up the fresh slopes of yesteryear. The rest of the narrative interlaces past and present with the skill of the best Fors letters: Ruskin in the present reads Dante as his coach climbs the slopes (in the poem Bernard is looking down from Paradise upon an unused Jacob's ladder and the disarray of the order he founded), then beholds the sky clear over the Aletsch glacier ("the intermittent waves of still gaining seas of light... as if on the first day of creation" [XXVI, 226], or indeed as if looking down from the celestial spheres), only to have his epiphany befouled when a guide shows him a "hôtel" built by Professor Tyndall on the Bell Alp — a sight that stirred up "every particle of personal vanity and mean spirit of contention which could be concentrated in one blot of pure black ink" (XXVI, 227). The scientific Hotel is a nest of philosophical fleas, "puces des glaces," facing the house of Christian Hospitallers that now lies vacant. The connections in the passage are typically complex: the empty hospice recalls St. Bernard and the lapsed orders, a symbol of the age of faith like Arnold's Grande Chartreuse; Forbes appears as a great shape from the past, like Bernard, quiet, dignified, and absorbed; spiritual aspiration is succeeded by earthly ambition, as the "philosophers," prophets of a new religion of materialism, swarm over the glacier they desecrate like antithetical angels on a frozen ladder.
The image is a moment of Faulknerian horror, seeming to mark the death of the romantic dream of nature. As for Tyndall, he is a poor writer, a sloppy draftsman, and a dishonest controversialist — a "scum of vanity," "unsteadied by conceit, and paralyzed by envy," and so forth. The attack on Forbes's opponents is an attack on discontinuity, but the defense of Forbes is a defense of continuity, of which the discussion of continuous flow in nature is the unconscious emblem. In addition to the kitchen experiments mentioned above (themselves borrowed from Tyndall), Ruskin analyzes the process of flow by tireless verbal qualifications and distinctions. There is, for example, the "perfect and absolute plasticity of gold," "the fragile, and imperfect... plasticity of clay, and, most precious of all, the blunt and dull plasticity [280/281] of dough"; "the vigorous and binding viscosity of stiff glue," the "softening viscosity of oil, and tender viscosity of old wine" (XXVI, 156-157). Or again: "You can stretch a piece of India-rubber, but you can only diffuse treacle, or oil, or water.... let [honey] be candied, and you can't pull it into a thin string.... You can't stretch mortar either. It cracks even in the hod, as it is heaped" (XXVI, 141). Exactly as in the attack on Mill, Ruskin attempts to crush Tyndall on his own ground by means of an apparent refinement of logic — he distinguishes, for example, between "plastic," "viscous," "ductile," and "malleable." The reason Tyndall cannot see that ice could be viscous is his inattention to words and the phenomena that words reflect. By implication, however, Ruskin's use of language would refute not only Tyndall but the empirical method as well. For Ruskin, verbal distinctions increase the mind's sense of concrete particulars in nature — the natives of Cumberland, for example, have six words for "valley" (XXVI, 244) — and also have a real correspondence to the forms of nature. The mark of bad science is the coinage of vague and ugly terms like "sub-aerial denudation" — a dissolution of the passionate and concrete into the pompous and abstract.
The defense of Forbes is a reassertion of what we might call a moral empiric: the belief that scientific truth, like great art, can be the product only of direct and sensuous apprehension and an expression of the perceiver's moral state. Tyndall is wrong, finally, because he is a wicked and irreverent man. But his selfish conceit is also, in effect, an oedipal revolt directed against both nature and his predecessors. Ruskin, in attacking him as an arrogant schoolboy, exorcizes everything in himself that is unruly, contentious, and discordant and then, by joining himself with an ideal paternity represented by Forbes, heals the breach with his own past — the same structure as that of Modern Painters I. But now the sublime ecstasy that marked the union with Turner is replaced by a spot of time remembered as a vision.
"The Vale of the Cluse" narrates such a moment, an occasion of almost mystical rapture occurring on Ruskin's last walk through the valley in 1874. He has just returned from six months in Italy, a nation already delivered, it would seem, to the fiends: "monstrous and inhuman noises..., wild bellowing and howling of obscene wretches..., clashing of church bells ... dashed into reckless discord ... as if wrung by devils..., filthy, stridulous shrieks and squeaks." Then, suddenly, he "found himself..., as in a dream," walking through the Swiss vale, a favorite spot of his youth, "unchanged since I knew it first ... quite forty years ago." The sudden transition turns the experience into a vision, rendered with hallucinatory clarity:
But presently, as I walked, the calm was deepened, instead of interrupted, by a murmur — first low, as of bees, and then rising into distinct harmo [281/282] nious chime of deep bells, ringing in true cadences — but I could not tell where.... I turned about and stood still, wondering; for the whole valley was filled with the sweet sound, entirely without local or conceivable origin; and only after some twenty minutes' walk, the depth of tones, gradually increasing, showed me that they came from the tower of Maglans in front of me; but when I actually got into the village, the cliffs on the other side so took up the ringing, that I again thought for some moments I was wrong.
Perfectly beautiful, all the while, the sound, and exquisitely varied, — from ancient bells of perfect tone and series, rung with decent and joyful art.
"What are the bells ringing so to-day for, — it is no fête?" I asked of a woman who stood watching at a garden gate.
"For a baptism, sir." [XXVI, 151-152]
But soon the beauty and peace of Cluse (the "closed valley") will be lost forever, for a railroad is about to be thrown across it. When in his concluding paragraph Ruskin contrasts the "claims of all sweet pastoral beauty" with the "present state of science" ("dispute, and babble, idler than the chafed pebbles of the wavering beach"), he enacts for us the Betrayal and the Redemption: for the Cluse with its archetypal elements — the woman by the garden, the bells, the baptism — is the valley of the Edenic past and the baptism its temporary recapture. The waters of the sacrament, like the "refluent sea" of Jordan contemplated by Bernard, reverse the flow of time — the torrents and glaciers of the Alps, the falling rocks, the slow pollution of history that becomes one with the pebbly chatter of the materialists. Juxtaposed against that chatter, the discord in effect of damned spirits, is the valley's low hum like a single bell, the union of human and divine and also the music of the spheres as Bernard would hear it.
As in the garden of old, the diabolic agencies of the present bring the temptation to forbidden knowledge. In a lecture in Cumberland, Ruskin warns that the Mylodon, or giant sloth, was created by the devil and is now exhibited by "the fiends" in the British Museum (XXVI, 264), where it unnerves and brutalizes schoolchildren: they become what they see. The diabolical is also the subject of a lecture on snakes, entitled "Living Waves," which makes its way incongruously into a book on geology. First Ruskin warns his audience against the venom of snakes (his accounts of actual deaths by snakebite are repellent in their detail) and then, more important, against their significance as "hieroglyphs" of evil. Lest his hearers forget the latter, he shows them an engraving of Eden from Giotto and concludes with a bizarre account of young men stuffing themselves with serpentine knowledge until they turn into human sausages, goaded on by the vanity of well-meaning fathers: "And the fathers love the lads all the time, but yet, in every word they speak to them, prick the poison of the asp into their young [282/283] blood, and sicken their eyes with blindness to all the true joys, the true aims, and the true praises of science and literature" (XXVI, 329).
Ruskin's interest in the demonic hieroglyph had intensified in the 1870s into obsession: the Fors letters, which he wrote as a symbolic reenactment of St. George's struggle, had their nocturnal counterparts in the huge serpents he wrestled in his dreams, a protracted mental torment that reached its climax in 1878 with his first attack of madness. "Living Waves," delivered two years afterward, speaks with authority, then, on the question of demonic temptation; yet the snakes also embody in hieroglyphic concentration the phenomena of motion that Ruskin has been describing throughout the Deucalion series. The analogy between glaciers and serpents is not capricious. Any aerial photo will show the long, nestling arms of ice, marked by dirt bands that indicate the direction of invisible flow. Sometimes Ruskin makes the association explicit: the glacial torrent is "ribbed like a dragon," and even the Alps themselves may seem monstrous. We have already noticed the importance of grotesque connections in this book's descriptions — a lava specimen, for example, can be "an oolite with yolks of its eggs dropped out" or a "gaseous wasp's nest." The technique reaches an almost hysterical climax in "Living Waves," where Ruskin "classifies" snakes as lizards who have lost their legs, fish who have lost their fins, birds who have lost their wings, and honeysuckles with heads stuck on. The matrix of associations makes the object seem anomalous, while the formula of "like a this without a that" emphasizes disjunctions and vacancies, as though to show that all species, the beneficent and the sinister, if not indeed all valuations, shift perpetually in an arabesque of joinings and dissolutions that the serpent symbol cannot contain.
The obsessions of Ruskin's declining years — the adders of "Living Waves," the phantoms in the bedchamber, the demonic hisses and plague winds — seem far removed from the springtime exultation of Modern Painters I, yet they are simply more horrific versions of the primal energies in nature and man that have been Ruskin's concern at every point of his career. We have not yet considered the leitmotif of the serpent and its related ideas — religious dread, sinfulness, and time — in their central position in Ruskin's evolving myth. "Living Waves" provides a chance to do so before we return to the final episode of Deucalion, which in some ways calms the disturbed energies of that book.
n Modern Painters I, the Ruskinian speaker tests his equanimity before extreme occasions of elemental fury that never become uncanny because they are always legible: sublime experience is always the warning [283/284] or teaching of an Evangelical deity, even though the ecstasy of beholding arises from the terror of a potential indeterminacy. In the next volume, however, awe takes a slightly different form, arising from the possibility of fanciful associations repressed by the first volume's adherence to fact. The partially glimpsed serpent in Turner's Jason, for example, terrifies by its suggestion of the unseen, a terror that Ruskin links with the power of the deity and of the artist's overmastering intellect. But the artist's power is never quite overmastering, because it evokes and confirms a corresponding power in the viewer. Similarly, in the theory of the symbolic grotesque, Ruskin attributed sublime effects not to elemental phenomena in themselves but to those phenomena as signs of the unseen. Grotesque gaps and combinations are essentially a reshuffling of natural logic to reflect an underlying supernatural logic. This act of revealing follows the moment of dread at the ninth hour of the Apocalypse, the moment of uncanny recognition that things are not themselves but signifiers. I suggest that this thrilling dread is a person's own repressed desire experienced as alien — figured as objects that do not move of their own will but in accord with some inscrutable intent.
Prophetic art, in which the terror and beauty of the creation are partially accommodated to distorted human speech, requires in the seer a correspondent power to withstand and absorb. The art of the great naturalists, in which human evil is recognized for the purpose of redeeming it, requires a similar power to withstand and absorb, which in "The Nature of Gothic" is figured as organic energy — the prickly waywardness, rigidity, and exuberant redundance of vegetable growth. It is as though the inspired seer, having reconstituted his ego as the point of coherence in a landscape, may now reconstitute his ego as the point of coherence in the human community: in Christian terms, the believer, nourished by the true vine, absorbs Christ's power to suffer affirm, and triumph. But although the old Adam, who fell, is reborn in a religion of mercy, the old enemy survives. If the unfallen Venice represents the condition by which desire and the object of desire are merged, the Renaissance pride of knowledge is the condition in which desire chooses a false object.
Ruskin's conception of pride as repression derives partly, I have suggested, from biography — from the loss of Adèle and from the emotional breakdown following the pressures of study at Oxford. The diary of those troubled months, which Ruskin divided into Head and Heart, reflects a deeper division with the family: the son, fusing his ambition with his parents', sacrificed his heart's deeper need — and this sacrifice he called in his book knowledge, venomous and puffed up. But as repression can stifle desire only by distorting it, Renaissance knowledge is paradoxically both ascetic and debauched. Just as the loss [284/285] of Adèle repeated an earlier, unconscious loss, so the knowledge gained from the famous wedding night, we may speculate, revived an earlier, unconscious fear, the primal recognition that puts the term to the childhood Eden. According to Freud, the child infers from the sight of the female body the father's power to castrate. In the overdetermined symbol of the Renaissance spirit, sexual knowledge and the repression of desire — the two threats to the primal union of object and desire — fuse into a single principle of self-isolating separation, the activity of a castrated self that experiences itself and its creations as lifeless husks. The principle of separation is also the death brought by the serpent into the garden, since, as Ruskin says, the other name of separation is death. The Renaissance, terrified of its own mortality, constructs monuments to death in life, converting the garden that was into a whited sepulchre. Against that principle, Ruskin proposes a liberating sublimation, an erotic communal bonding that expresses itself in the exuberance of great architecture.
The exuberance is Gothic naturalism, the ego's attempt, as I have suggested, to reconcile through acceptance the primitive dichotomies that structure The Stones of Venice — the antitheses of innocence and experience, purity and corruption, and communion and separation. The ego, in Norman O. Brown's phrase, must become strong enough to die; but this strength depends upon accepting the body and abandoning the unconscious attachment to the virgin mother, who binds the self to the infantile past through the terror of death viewed as separation. But the book retreats from this mature acceptance, because the horror of the corrupted city calls up its opposite, the fantasy of an unfallen, virginal spirit that guarantees her sons' greatness — and this is the ideal that Ruskin secretly married while he was publicly pledged to Effie.
But in the final volumes of Modern Painters, Ruskin developed at last the image of an ego strong enough to die, strong enough, that is, to wrestle with the death instinct that now governs the world. In myth the serpent, a detached phallic animal who knows, embodies both the oedipal desire and the punishment of the desire. Both potent and impotent, both living and dead, it moves with a power uncannily its own yet not its own, like a machine — or so it does in Ruskin's thought. In Ruskinian myth, history and cosmology fuse into a dialectic by which purity, the energized and radiant union of the parts of an organism, stands in prior relationship to corruption, the dissolution of parts following upon a withdrawal of divine energy. As an active agent, the principle of separation becomes the death instinct — a blighted and serpentine vegetable growth, for example, or a filthy beast that divides and proliferates horribly. In Ruskin's reading of The Garden of Hesperides, the painting collapses history by juxtaposing the garden at the [285/286] moment of rupture against the dragon of the present — the beast that seals off the valley and represents the culmination of human defilement through time. It is the "British Madonna," the final, lamialike transformation worked by the modern spirit upon the primary, natural union. But in a different allegory, Apollo triumphs over the Python by transforming the power of death into the power of healing. This and other examples suggest that life and death are set against each other not as separate principles but as transmutations of a simple, ambivalent force. Streams, for example, are pure when regulated but dragonlike — torrential and sterile — when not. The Hesperides, goddesses of twilight, are bright with the passing of the sun's rays through dust. The Sybil, holding the term of her life in a handful of dust, holds also her hope and promise. Death, acknowledged, is part of life.
In art the agency of these tragic affirmations is the noble grotesque, which Ruskin links to the acceptance of the fall through the imagery of the broken mirror. In Lacanian terms, the mirror stage, the fantasy of a unified ego presented in the image of a unified other, has been abandoned, but by presenting the brokenness of the human and natural condition, tragic art paradoxically presents the means to a new unity through connection, to be achieved temporally through purposive action. Apollo becomes the Pythean. In the primitive oedipal fantasy that this image expresses, the son absorbs the power and the knowledge of the serpent father, but the serpent as generative power is also the principle of mortality. We can now see the connection between the Python and Veronese's Solomon, who is also Christ and therefore the double-natured Griffin of the noble grotesque. Christ is the divinity who is also human, a god that triumphs and an animal that dies. Man, who is nobly human and nobly animal, becomes Christ. The ego strong enough to die is now free to redeem the broken world by converting illth into wealth — the eternal and self-affirming energy embodied in objects of determinate desire. In Ruskinian economics, repression, or the death wish that starves, is converted into erotic creativity, which nourishes. Masturbation, symbolized in fecal images, and sexual love, symbolized in images of flowing and generation, provide the physiological substructure of a new utopian myth. For Ruskin capitalism is like a compulsive onanism that parodies childbirth by filthy self-reproduction yet obeys the laws of Victorian genital economy, which is finite and self-depleting. But the abundant economy, achieving the promise of an inexhaustible energy, also fulfills the primitive narcissistic fantasy of self-reproduction by converting the primitive self into an organic community.
The symbolic form of this community is a garden paradise ruled by a king and his queen. But Ruskin's own struggle with the Python was emotionally catastrophic, and the anima of the English utopia [286/287] remained shadowy and distant. In his private life he fell back upon the fantasy of a child world in which Rose, the image of determinate desire, also reconstituted the nostalgic denial of death and time. His courtship of Rose depended on a ceaseless propitiation of a new set of parental withholders. Mrs. La Touche he called Lacerta, the serpent; the children in The Ethics of the Dust are, fortunately, make-believe dragons who can devour the Lecturer only with their childlike attentions — they have not yet seen the garden of after life, with its singing serpents, and so cannot become what they see. The little dragons (like the tiny chess queen that Alice holds in her hand) are a playful grotesque. Although Ruskin and the children are both parent and child, he is sole ruler. The garden, which is both present and past, is not so much preadolescent as pre-oedipal: what is banished is the castrated creature that can castrate, and what is denied is Turner's "hopeless" belief that there can be no rose without a worm. Yet that denial is only partial, because the child garden, like the pastoral, has meaning only in terms of what it excludes — the principle of separation. By splitting the world into two perspectives, the perspectives of innocence and experience, Ruskin defines the condition in which there may be a rose without a serpent, but the acceptance of the serpent in experience requires the compensatory fantasy of the child secluded in innocence.
The Queen of the Air, on the other hand, represents the timelessness possible to the world of experience — not the child garden but a prelapsarian Greece in which, as in the biblical Eden that Ruskin described in the letters to a college friend, death exists as part of a greater, dialectical harmony. In this book Ruskin reconstructs the dynamics of the Protestant sublime by imagining a feminized cosmos, personified by a deity of double aspect — the gorgonlike punisher or warrior and the angelic maiden or guardian — who also enters into generative union with an opposed power of pure matter, the dust into which the breath of life is breathed. Ruskin pairs his invocation to the bird, which we have examined above, with an equally beautiful invocation to the serpent, paradigm of the "earth-power":
A wave, but without wind! a current, but with no fall!... one soundless, causeless march of sequent rings, and spectral procession of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils. Startle it; — the winding stream will become a twisted arrow; — the wave of poisoned life will lash through the grass like a cast lance.... It is a divine hieroglyph of the demoniac power of the earth. [XIX, 362-363]
The bird, like a pagan god, is a center of energy from which emanates the sacred diffusion of the elements; the serpent, by contrast, lacks a center or even a determinate self: the word painting robs it even of its [287/288] unity as an organism ("march of rings," "procession of dust"), for it is the antithesis of unity ("dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils"). Unlike the bird, which generates many metaphors each of which captures its essence — it is in this verbal sense the many in the one — the serpent is an indeterminate thingness that can be known only as an anomalous version of something else, a hieroglyph that paradoxically embodies no Word. This is the necessary aspect of nature that is forever an It, never a Thou, forever evading propitiation and definition.
The Queen of the Air presents the cosmos as pattern and process but occupies no temporal dimension: it occupies in some sense the mythic past, but in another sense the timeless realm of imaginative activity. The third part of that book, however, shifts dramatically into a kind of disturbed diary that is also a curse on the present — and this mode brings us, finally, to the Deucalion fragments of the 1870s, in which the world has been given over to the earth power, now seen as the active agent of fallen time. Ruskin's subtitle, Collected Studies of the Lapse of Waves, and the Life of Stones, refers to the flood and the rocks of the Deucalion myth, but "lapse" and "life" are also metaphysical forces, the one working on the other as water corrodes rock and age corrodes the spirit. On his first page Ruskin says that the excitement of heart and brain, if "temperate, equable, and joyful," tends to "prolong, rather than depress, the vital energies. But the emotions of indignation, grief, controversial anxiety and vanity, or hopeless, and therefore uncontending, scorn, are all of them as deadly to the body as poisonous air or polluted water" (XXVI, 95). As Ruskin suffered more and more the strains of fear and disappointment, as well as the organic malady that eventually destroyed his mind, he projected more and more of his fears onto a single diabolical idea. There are those, he wrote in "Living Waves," who believe in "another Kosmos, mostly invisible, yet perhaps tangible, and to be felt if not seen" (XXVI, 344-345). Deucalion, as we have seen, describes the present cosmos in the form of a wave moving and arrested — the babbling of the Yew, the ooze of treacle, the frozen flow of ice, the immobile ripples of stone, the sinister weaving of the serpent — from the sweet to the bitter, from the waters of life to the sting of death. The description of glacial snow collapses time so that forty years back is also the newest fallen snow, but those pure crystals will drag themselves inexorably to the last doom. As the Time-Spirit was for Carlyle the Devil of this world, time becomes for Ruskin the principle of separation, like the railroad that defiles Venice and seals off the valley of Cluse. The phallic railroad — for Turner as for Ruskin — is a mechanical serpent, a human product that masters its creator and brings upon the civilization of which it is the material emblem the curse of masturbatory capitalism — blindness, atrophy, pollution. [288/289] Capitalism, finally, is the legacy of the bad fathers, whose blessing turns helplessly into cursing: "And the fathers . . . prick the poison of the asp into their young blood, and sicken their eyes with blindness."
The serpentine woman, the castrated thing that can castrate, finds her counterpart, then, in the phallic machine, the soulless thing set over against nature, whose motive power is in some sense external and therefore inscrutable, like the uncanny. Symbolized in the train, the Time-Spirit is the agent of separation, not from the past only but also from nature, the infinite, organically cooperative system from which it revolts yet of which, in the form of the serpent, it is a part. The triumph of the machine in the social world corresponds to the triumph of ungovernable forces in the economy of the soul. When Apollo no longer has strength to absorb the Python, the serpent becomes the emblem of the ultimate horror of the diffuse and undetermined, the disintegration of the self. This, for Ruskin, is the agent of the Betrayal: what, then, is the agent of Redemption? Great myth, Ruskin wrote, is the product of a mind "conscious of certain facts relating to its fate or peace." Fate or peace: so much of his passage into age and so much of the rhythm of his last books rest on these poles. In Fors Clavigera, Fate is the goddess of this world, enforcing the law of a debased economy; in Deucalion the scarce economy becomes the law of nature. In both books, the will to endure is a ceaseless agon fought with the hope of some distant or perhaps merely symbolic redemption, but an underlying pessimism, metaphysical rather than merely political, suggests that time is redeemable only by some form of visionary escape that more and more asserts itself against the diminishing possibilities of moral action. That escape rests on a new mode of memory, an experience of the past as transcendent vision.
In 1887 Ruskin wrote to a scientific friend, "For everything I thought I knew of minerals... has been made mere cloud and bewilderment by... Judd's address at the Geological of planes of internal motion, etc., and all my final purposes of writing elementary descriptions of them — broken like reeds." The fret of controversy gave way to resignation: "But, alas! I am not able any more but for the quiet of evening among the hills" (XXVI, lxiii-lxiv). The quiet of the hills at evening and Judd's planes of internal motion mark the distance attained in Ruskin's day between the two modes of perception, the sensuous and the analytical, that Ruskin had tried to synthesize as a geologist. The time was past when Saussure, Ruskin's "master in geology," could go to the Alps "as I desired to go myself, only to look at them, and describe them as they were, loving them heartily — loving them, the positive Alps, more than himself, or than science, or than any theories [289/290] of science" (XV, 476). The fragments of Deucalion are the wreck of that older vision. And yet the book ends in something of a triumph of the romantic imagination — a free-flowing prose poem on the forms of ice called "Bruma Artifex."
Like a diary entry, the chapter begins at a place and time — the hill garden of Brantwood after the frost of March 9, 1879. Everywhere beneath his feet, Ruskin tells us, clods and particles of earth have been thrust aside by minute "thread-like crystals..., presenting every form usual in twisted and netted chalcedonies," but so small that the "fringes of needle-points" melt as one breathes on them. These "coiled sheaves, or pillared aisles" represent "ice-structure wholly of the earth, earthy" (XXVI, 348), but show no vestige of stellar crystallization, such as that on the surface of lakes. Ruskin's thought next moves to icicles, "compact, flawless, absolutely smooth," that enclose "living leaves" in "clear jelly" without disturbing "one fold or fringe" ("and the frozen gelative melts, as it forms, stealthily, serenely, showing no vestige of its crystalline power, pushing nowhere, pulling nowhere; revealing in dissolution, no secrets of its structure"), and then to other forms of ice — to the "inelegant incrustations" of certain waterfalls and the "glass basket-making" of smaller cascades (XXXVI, 350-351). For the marvel of ice structure is that its formation, unlike that of other crystals, is infinitely variable: it can bind its units "into branches or weave them into wool; buttress a polar cliff with adamant} or flush a dome of Alp with light lovelier than ruby's" (XXVI, 353). Thus from the paths of Brantwood outward and outward, the scope of Ruskin's beholding expands, stopping only at the high Alps themselves. Suddenly, in the last page, he is describing a Greek coin, but at this point the reader of Ruskin does not need transitions, for it is clear that the embossed image of Olympian lightning is a fitting culmination to the chapter — an emblem of the "distributed fire" that disturbs earth and sky and, in fact, "glows" through all of Creation. Ice, then, is not only an embodiment of mystery but also a manifestation of the divine artisanship and therefore one, in its ceaseless labor, with the Olympian lightning.
"Bruma Artifex" is a quiet masterpiece of Ruskin's late years, delighting as it instructs through a combination of precise description, undisturbed tone, and metaphorical language. As a personality, Ruskin refines himself out of existence, yet his voice remains everywhere, building with the gradually expanding kingdom of ice. The insidious movement of serpentine weaving finds its positive antithesis in the creative weaving of nature, another form of Athena's craft, and also in the tireless tracing of the observant imagination, acting here like the "silent ministry of frost" in Coleridge's poem. Ruskin has briefly achieved the miracle he predicted at the beginning of his book by converting a cold, dead landscape into a living world — a world in which [290/291] the frozen element is revealed as sharing the same energy as the fire of Zeus. At the same time, the chapter resolves the tensions between age and youth set up in earlier chapters by revealing the survival of imaginative power in the winter of Ruskin's years. This it would seem, is the season farthest from the freshets of spring — it has been, we notice, a late frost — yet the crystal of ice is also the crystal of young streams, just as the last season of every year closes upon the new in full circle. Finally, in the last page of Deucalion, Ruskin finds the strongest symbol in his book of the organic vision of nature that never completely left him. The Olympian lightning, held by an invisible, divine hand, flows upward into waves of flame and downward into three petals, a kind of clasp upon two kingdoms in nature, the air and the earth, the light and the dark — taking the form of a plant.
Last modified 14 October 2010