Category Archives: Ruskin

On German Philosophy

In his famous chapter called “Of the Pathetic Fallacy” in the third volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin takes on German metaphysics, for which he has great disdain, refuting their conception of “objective” and “subjective” realities. He adds a delicious footnote mocking the style of these writers (Works, V, 203).

    In fact (for I may as well, for once, meet our German friends in their own style), all that has been objected to us on the subject seems subject to this great objection; that the subjection of all things (subject to no exceptions) to senses which are, in us, both subject and object, and objects of perpetual contempt, cannot but make it our ultimate object to subject ourselves to the senses, and to remove whatever objections existed to such subjection. So that, finally, that which is the subject of examination or object of attention, uniting thus in itself the characters of subness and obness (so that, that which has no obness in it should be called sub-subjective, or a sub-subject, and that which has no subness in it should be called upper or ober-objective, or an ob-object); and we also, who suppose ourselves the objects of every arrangement, and are certainly the subjects of every sensual impression, thus uniting in ourselves, in an obverse or adverse manner, the characters of obness and subness, must both become metaphysically dejected or rejected, nothing remaining in us objective, but subjectivity, and the very objectivity of the object being lost in the abyss of this subjectivity of the Human.

    There is, however, some meaning in the above sentence, if the reader cares to make it out; but in a pure German sentence of the highest style there is often none whatever.

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The Great Seer Talks About Seeing

From Modern Painters, vol. 3 (Works, V, 333)

…the more I think of it I find this conclusion more impressed upon me, – that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, – all in one.

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Everyone’s a Critic

From Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, letter XXXI, July, 1873

Of the four great English tale-tellers whose dynasties have set or risen within my own memory – Miss Edgeworth, Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray – I find myself greatly at pause in conjecturing, however dimly, what essential good has been effected by them, though they all had the best intentions. Of the essential mischief done by them, there is, unhappily, no doubt whatever. Miss Edgeworth made her morality so impertinent that, since her time, it has only been with fear and trembling that any good novelist has ventured to show the slightest bias in favor of the Ten Commandments. Scott made his romance so ridiculous, that, since his day, one can’t help fancying helmets were always pasteboard, and horses were always hobby. Dickens made everybody laugh, or cry, so that they could not go about their business until they had got their faces in wrinkles; and Thackeray settled like a meatfly on whatever one had got for dinner, and made one sick of it.

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Of Truth of Clouds

The Slave Ship (post of May 26) may be the most famous example of Ruskin’s powers of observation and description, but this one, from earlier in volume 1 of Modern Painters, is perhaps even more impressive. (Works, III, 415ff.)

And indeed it is difficult for us to conceive how, even without such laborious investigation as we have gone through, any person can go to nature for a single day or hour, when she is really at work in any of her nobler spheres of action, and yet retain respect for the old masters; finding, as find he will, that every scene which rises, rests, or departs before him, bears with it a thousand glories of which there is not one shadow, one image, one trace or line, in any of their works; but which will illustrate to him, at every new instant, some passage which he had not before understood in the high works of modern art. Stand upon the peak of some isolated mountain at daybreak, when the night mists first rise from off the plains, and watch their white and lake-like fields, as they float in level bays and winding gulfs about the islanded summits of the lower hills, untouched yet by more than dawn, colder and more quiet than a windless sea under the moon of midnight; watch when the first sunbeam is sent upon the silver channels, how the foam of their undulating surface parts and passes away, and down under their depths the glittering city and green pasture lie like Atlantis, between the white paths of winding rivers; the flakes of light falling every moment faster and broader among the starry spires, as the wreathed surges break and vanish above them, and the confused crests and ridges of the dark hills shorten their grey shadows upon the plain. Has Claude given this? Wait a little longer, and you shall see those scattered mists rallying in the ravines, and floating up towards you, along the winding valleys, till they crouch in quiet masses, iridescent with the morning light, upon the broad breasts of the higher hills, whose leagues of massy undulation will melt back and back into that robe of material light, until they face away, lost in its lustre, to appear again above, in the serene heaven, like a wild, bright, impossible dream, foundationless and inaccessible, their very bases vanishing in the unsubstantial and mocking blue of the deep lake below. Has Claude given this? Wait yet a little longer, and you shall see those mists gather themselves into white towers, and stand like fortresses along the promontories, massy and motionless, only piled with every instant higher and higher into the sky, and casting longer shadows athwart the rocks; and out of the pale blue of the horizon you will see forming and advancing a troop of narrow, dark, pointed vapours, which will cover the sky, inch by inch, with their grey network, and take the light off the landscape with an eclipse which will stop the singing of the birds and the motion of the leaves, together; and then you will see horizontal bars of black shadow forming under them, and lurid wreaths create themselves, you know not how, along the shoulders of the hills; you never see them form, but when you look back to a place which was clear an instant ago, there is a clout on it, hanging by the precipices, as a hawk pauses over his prey. Has Claude given this? And then you will hear the sudden rush of the awakened wind, and you will see those watchtowers of vapour swept away from their foundations, and waving curtains of opaque rain let down to the valleys, swinging from the burdened clouds in black bending fringes, or pacing in pale columns along the lake level, grazing its surface into foam as they go. And then, as the sun sinks, you shall see the storm drift for an instant from off the hills, leaving their broad sides smoking, and loaded yet with snow-white, torn, steam-like rags of capricious vapour, now gone, now gathered again; while the smouldering sun, seeming not far away, but burning like a red-hot ball beside you, and as if you could reach it, plunges through the rushing wind and rolling cloud with headlong fall, as if it meant to rise no more, dying all the air about it with blood. Has Claude given this? And then you shall hear the fainting tempest die in the hollow if the night, and you shall see a green halo kindling on the summit of the eastern hills, brighter – brighter yet, till the large white circle of the slow moon is lifted up among the barred clouds, step by step, line by line; star after stare she quenches with her kindling light, setting in their stead an army of pale, penetrable, fleecy wreaths in the heaven, to give light upon the earth, which move together, hand in hand, company by company, troop by troop, so measured in their unity of motion, that the whole heaven seems to roll with them, and the earth to reel under them. Ask Claude, or his brethren, for that. And then wait yet for one hour, until the east again becomes purple, and the heaving mountains, rolling against it in darkness, like waves of a wild sea, are drowned one by one in the glory of its burning: watch the white glaciers blaze in their winding paths about the mountains, like might serpents with scales of fire: watch the columnar peaks of solitary snow, kindling downwards, chasm by chasm, each in itself a new morning; their long avalanches cast down in keen streams brighter than the lightning, sending each his tribute of driven sow, like altar-smoke, up to the heaven; the rose-light of their silent domes flushing that heaven about them and above them, piercing with purer light through its purple lines of lifted cloud, casting a new glory on every wreath as it passes by, until the whole heaven, one scarlet canopy, is interwoven with a roof of waving flame, and tossing, vault beyond vault, as with the drifted wings of many companies of angels: and then, when you can look no more for gladness, and when you are bowed down with fear and love of the Maker and Doer of this, tell me who has best delivered this His message unto men!

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The Slave Ship

Ruskin’s powers of seeing, and of describing what he sees, are unmatched. The first volume of Modern Painters is full of passages of extended description seemingly far beyond any normal human being’s ability to even notice, much less describe in detail. These descriptions are tours de force, perhaps none more so than this famous passage, describing Turner’s “The Slave Ship.” (Works, III, 571-572).

It is sunset on the Atlantic, after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom, by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold, and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels or permits them; leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the undistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.

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Whom Laws Benefit

From John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, Letter 25, January 1873.

Laws are usually most beneficial in operation on the people who would have most strongly objected to their enactment.

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Fancy Writing

From John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, 23rd letter, November 1, 1872.

People used to call me a good writer then; now they say I can’t write at all; because, for instance, if I think anybody’s house is on fire, I only say, “Sir, your house is on fire;” whereas formerly I used to say, “Sir, the abode in which you probably passed the delightful days of youth is in a state of inflammation,” and everybody used to like the effect of the two p’s in “probably passed,” and of the two d’s in “delightful days.”

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Alms

From John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, 19th letter, July 1, 1872.

Observe then, once for all, it is to be a company for Alms-giving, not for dividend-getting. For I still believe in Alms-giving, though most people now-a-days do not, but think the only hopeful way of serving their neighbor is to make a profit out of him. I am of the opinion, on the contrary, that the hopefullest way of serving him is to let him make a profit out of me, and I only ask the help of people who are at one with me in that mind.

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Letter the Fifteenth

From Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, fifteenth letter, March, 1872. Fors is surely the greatest blog of its age, or of ours, for that matter. The fifteenth letter is so strange in its wonderful, mysterious, Ruskinian discursiveness. There’s this, right at the beginning:

…but the unjust relations of the soldier, clergyman, and peasant have been hitherto constant in all great nations; they are full of mystery and beauty in their iniquity…

And toward the end, speaking of the funeral of Colonel James Fiske, who was:

…no more a soldier in deed than you are yourselves, when you go piping and drumming past my gate in Denmark Hill (I should rather say – banging, than drumming, for I observe you hit equally hard and straightforward to every tune; so that from a distance it sounds just like beating carpets), under the impression that you are defending your country as well as amusing yourselves.

I like this, too, in the next paragraph, but who knows why:

I am soon going to Florence myself to draw this beautiful San Giovanni for the beginning of my lectures on Architecture, at Oxford; and you shall have a print of the best sketch I can make, to assist your meditations on the honors of soldiership, and the efficacy of baptism.

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One’s Duty to Art

From Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, Vol. 3 (Works, XI, 212ff.)

We have just seen that all great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul. But it is not only the work of the whole creature, it likewise addresses the whole creature. That in which the perfect being speaks must also have the perfect being to listen. I am not to spend my utmost spirit, and give all my strength and life to my work, while you, spectator or hearer, will give me only the attention of half your soul. You must be all mine, as I am all yours; it is the only condition on which we can meet each other. All your faculties, all that is in you of greatest and best, must be awake in you, or I have no reward. The painter is not to cast the entire treasure of his human nature into his labour merely to please a part of the beholder; not merely to delight his senses, not merely to amuse his fancy, not merely to beguile him into emotion, not merely to lead him into thought; but to do all this. Senses, fancy, feeling, reason, the whole of the beholding spirit, must be stilled in attention or stirred with delight; else the labouring spirit has not done its work well. For observe, it is not merely its right to be thus met, face to face, heart to heart; but it is its duty to evoke this answering of the other soul; its trumpet call must be so clear, that though the challenge may by dulness or indolence be unanswered, there shall be no error as to the meaning of the appeal; there must be a summons in the work, which it shall be our own fault if we do not obey. We require this of it, we beseech this of it. Most men to not know what is in them till they receive this summons from their fellows: their hearts die within them, sleep settles upon them, the lethargy of the world’s miasmata; there is nothing for which they are so thankful as that cry, “Awake, thou that sleepest.” And this cry must be most loudly uttered to their noblest facilities; first of all, to the imagination, for that is the most tender, and the soonest struck into numbness by the poisoned air; so that one of the main functions of art, in its service to man, is to rouse the imagination from its palsy, like the angel troubling the Bethesda pool; and the art which does not do this is false to its duty, and degraded in its nature. It is not enough that it be well imagined, it must task the beholder to imagine well; and this so imperatively, that if he does not choose to rouse himself to meet the work, he shall not taste it, nor enjoy it in any wise. Once that he is well awake, the guidance which the artist gives him should be full and authoritative: the beholder’s imagination should not be suffered to take its own way, or wander hither and thither; but neither must it be left at rest; and the right point of realization, for any given work of art, is that which will enable the spectator to complete it for himself, in the exact way the artist would have him, but not that which will save him the trouble of effecting the completion. So soon as the idea is entirely conveyed, the artist’s labour should cease; and every touch which he adds beyond the point when, with the help of the beholder’s imagination, the story ought to have been told, is a degradation to his work. So that the art is wrong which either realizes its subject completely, or fails in giving such devinite aid as shall enable it to be realized by the beholding imagination.

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