Friday, November 15, 2013

The sun was risen upon the earth: finishing up Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture

Ruskin finally lets loose again in the middle of Chapter VI of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Chapter VI is "The Lamp of Memory," in which the author talks about building not for the present, but for posterity:

The benevolent regards and purposes of men in masses seldom can be supposed to extend beyond their own generation. They may look to posterity as an audience, may hope for its attention, and labor for its praise: they may trust to its recognition of unacknowledged merit, and demand its justice for contemporary wrong. But all this is mere selfishness, and does not involve the slightest regard to, or consideration of, the interest of those by whose numbers we would fain swell the circle of our flatterers, and by whose authority we would gladly support our presently disputed claims. The idea of self-denial for the sake of posterity, of practising present economy for the sake of debtors yet unborn, of planting forests that our descendants may live under their shade, or of raising cities for future nations to inhabit, never, I suppose, efficiently takes place among publicly recognised motives of exertion. Yet these are not the less our duties; nor is our part fitly sustained upon the earth, unless the range of our intended and deliberate usefulness include not only the companions, but the successors, of our pilgrimage. God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation, as to us; and we have no right, by anything that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath. And this the more, because it is one of the appointed conditions of the labor of men that, in proportion to the time between the seed-sowing and the harvest, is the fulness of the fruit; and that generally, therefore, the farther off we place our aim, and the less we desire to be ourselves the witnesses of what we have labored for, the more wide and rich will be the measure of our success. Men cannot benefit those that are with them as they can benefit those who come after them; and of all the pulpits from which human voice is ever sent forth, there is none from which it reaches so far as from the grave.

Nor is there, indeed, any present loss, in such respect, for futurity. Every human action gains in honor, in grace, in all true magnificence, by its regard to things that are to come. It is the far sight, the quiet and confident patience, that, above all other attributes, separate man from man, and near him to his Maker; and there is no action nor art, whose majesty we may not measure by this test. Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! this our fathers did for us."

This is all excellent stuff, as you can see for yourself. It is surrounded, however, with a sort of attempted summation of Ruskin's general theory of art, a summation which fails and waffles and wanders and keeps failing, for page after page. It's his last chance to push his own aesthetic, an aesthetic founded upon chance and temperament and self-image and God knows what, but Ruskin wants to tell us--tries hard to tell us--that his aesthetic is based upon objective qualities of art. Like I say, he fails. I pushed on, and things got weirder as Ruskin's thoughts moved from the particular to the general, from architecture to social engineering.

Ruskin ends the book with a plea for a national English architectural style, legislated by the government, taught in academies, licensure and certification and all the rest. He argues for less effort on the part of mass transportation and teaching men to move dirt about in wheelbarrows so that other men might place iron rails in lines across the island; he calls instead for a shift in effort from railways to building, men and women trained to raise houses and schools and hospitals in the new Official English style. Ruskin is afraid of losing England, afraid of chaos. He cries out for order, pointing to the Continent and the corrupt middle class under an idle aristocracy. He ends the book fearfully:

I have paused, not once nor twice, as I wrote, and often have checked the course of what might otherwise have been importunate persuasion, as the thought has crossed me, how soon all Architecture may be vain, except that which is not made with hands. There is something ominous in the light which has enabled us to look back with disdain upon the ages among whose lovely vestiges we have been wandering. I could smile when I hear the hopeful exultation of many, at the new reach of worldly science, and vigor of worldly effort; as if we were again at the beginning of days. There is thunder on the horizon as well as dawn. The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered Zoar.

Ruskin is afraid. He wants order. He suspects, I suspect, that The Seven Lamps of Architecture does not show the way into the future; Ruskin fears that what he has written is not an introduction to art; Ruskin is afraid that he has written a eulogy.


  1. When I read him I wonder if this is what one of the knights from the Morte d'Arthur would be if you could extract one of them (magically) into the Victorian age: charging forward and trying to be pure of heart, but stiff-minded in so many ways, and bewildered, and blindsided by terrible castles and monsters -- doom ahead of them though: they're always racing forward but always into the collapse of everything -- this collapse coming about just because of what they are -- the world unable to sustain them -- and their own natures (this sad hunger for purity and cleanliness and honest loveliness, as long as it's on their own terms) becoming the structure of a trap.

  2. That's a most excellent metaphor. I see him on a hilltop, his white charger rearing heroically, Ruskin clad in bright armor with his sword raised to rally his followers. He looks behind him to find that he has no followers; the masses are indifferent; Ruskin is confused. He lowers his beaver and charges, alone, into the chaos.

    A guy like Ruskin could only see the world as a place in decline, the remains of what glory has been. It's really endearing despite his blinkered world view. I am struck by how ironic it is that Ruskin despised Don Quixote.

    Still, no doubt about it, Ruskin had his own peculiar genius. Absolutely. I am so glad I'm reading him. I don't know quite where to turn next. Maybe Stones. We'll see.

  3. The eulogizing becomes a lifelong pursuit. See "Fiction - Foul and Fair" from 1880. It has all been downhill since age six or so.

    Ruskin is hardly the only intellectual to have built a system of thought from that idea, although few have done it so productively.

  4. He complained into old age that people admired his prose but ignored his content. And if we look around, we can see that Ruskin lost the war he was fighting. But I find his belief in beauty (as he saw it) to be itself incredibly beautiful, so I imagine I'll keep reading him. I've had a glance at "Foul and Fair." I'll try to actually read it soon. Another actual book by Ruskin will have to wait, probably, until January or later. I have a lot of writing to do and I plan to re-read the New Testament in December. That won't leave any room for Ruskin.

  5. If you want some super-short Ruskin, the little Harbours of England on Project Gutenberg has more of his ideas about art (Turner specifically) and a rarer glimpse of his thoughts about ships: "What maimed creatures were we all, chained to our rocks, Andromeda-like, or wandering by the endless shores; wasting our incommunicable strength, and pining in hopeless watch of unconquerable waves? The nails that fasten together the planks of the boat's bow are the rivets of the fellowship of the world. Their iron does more than draw lightning out of heaven, it leads love round the earth."

  6. That is fantastic; I'll have to remember to read it soon. I'm looking for beautiful writing about sailing ships, as it happens. I'm disappointed that the Seattle Public Library doesn't have a Stones of Venice available to check out. They have only one copy, which I suppose is a very old edition, that I can peruse in the central library but not take home. Well, there is always the university library.