Monday, January 13, 2014

The Stones of London (or, The Foundations of Bleak House)

John Ruskin says, in The Stones of Venice, volume I:
The foundation is to the wall what the paw is to an animal. It is a long foot, wider than the wall, on which the wall is to stand, and which keeps it from settling into the ground. It is most necessary that this great element of security should be visible to the eye, and therefore made a part of the structure above ground. Sometimes, indeed, it becomes incorporated with the entire foundation of the building, a vast table on which walls or piers are alike set: but even then, the eye, taught by the reason, requires some additional preparation or foot for the wall, and the building is felt to be imperfect without it. This foundation we shall call the Base of the wall.
Now, let the reader simply ask himself how, on such a surface, he would set about building a substantial wall, that should be able to bear weight and to stand for ages. He would assuredly look about for the largest stones he had at his disposal, and, rudely levelling the ground, he would lay these well together over a considerably larger width than he required the wall to be, in order to equalise the pressure of the wall over a large surface, and form its foot. On the top of these he would perhaps lay a second tier of large stones, or even the third, making the breadth somewhat less each time, so as to prepare for the pressure of the wall on the centre, and, naturally or necessarily, using somewhat smaller stones above than below (since we supposed him to look about for the largest first), and cutting them more neatly...and then begin the work of the wall veil itself, whether in bricks or stones.

I have supposed the preparation here to be for a large wall, because such a preparation will give us the best general type...The reader will find these members, though only of brick, in most of the considerable and independent walls in the suburbs of London.
Ruskin is talking about architecture, but he is also a writer, a long-form essayist, and he prepares the ground for his tall structures by laying the necessary groundwork, the foundation. This chapter on the bases of walls, for example, is the foundation for later chapters about walls and towers and spires and the reaching up, the pointing toward heaven, of great buildings and temples, etc.

You see where this immediately leads me to Dickens, and his foundation stones in Bleak House. Dickens, however, is not just building a single temple; he is building a whole city--and in one brilliant passage he quickly throws up Paris for us as well and then briskly rides away from that city, leaving it as a couple of gray mounds on the horizon--and so he will continually lay large stones in straight and curving lines away from where we now stand, in order to later erect great walls upon them as his story expands. The lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce is of course the immense stonework which props up everything else in Dickens' Bleak House landscape, and there is something else, a hidden (so far) connection of blood relationships, upon which more walls are being erected, but those are all being raised in the distance and are indistinct, especially through the thick London fogs. Dickens is clever (or it's just that he sees it all at once, knows what the reader can't) and he builds his city all at once, in what appears an uncertain order, throwing gargoyles into the high air where they hang upon the corners of towers yet invisible to the reader. It's pretty cool, is what it is. The nameless omniscient narrator does the majority of the building, racing across courts and down streets, pulling whole neighborhoods into being in his wake. The other narrator, Esther, walks along the pavements more slowly, showing us the people moving through this fantastic landscape. Etc. I've worked this metaphor too long and said, perversely, less than I'd intended.

Here is the flight out of Paris from Bleak House:
...they rattle out of the yard of the Hotel Bristol in the Place Vendome and canter between the sun-and-shadow-chequered colonnade of the Rue de Rivoli and the garden of the ill-fated palace of a headless king and queen, off by the Place of Concord, and the Elysian Fields, and the Gate of the Star, out of Paris.

Sooth to say, they cannot go away too fast, for even here my Lady Dedlock has been bored to death. Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady under the worn-out heavens. Only last Sunday, when poor wretches were gay--within the walls playing with children among the clipped trees and the statues in the Palace Garden; walking, a score abreast, in the Elysian Fields, made more Elysian by performing dogs and wooden horses; between whiles filtering (a few) through the gloomy Cathedral of Our Lady to say a word or two at the base of a pillar within flare of a rusty little gridiron-full of gusty little tapers; without the walls encompassing Paris with dancing, love-making, wine-drinking, tobacco-smoking, tomb-visiting, billiard card and domino playing, quack-doctoring, and much murderous refuse, animate and inanimate--only last Sunday, my Lady, in the desolation of Boredom and the clutch of Giant Despair, almost hated her own maid for being in spirits.

She cannot, therefore, go too fast from Paris. Weariness of soul lies before her, as it lies behind--her Ariel has put a girdle of it round the whole earth, and it cannot be unclasped--but the imperfect remedy is always to fly from the last place where it has been experienced. Fling Paris back into the distance, then, exchanging it for endless avenues and cross-avenues of wintry trees! And, when next beheld, let it be some leagues away, with the Gate of the Star a white speck glittering in the sun, and the city a mere mound in a plain--two dark square towers rising out of it, and light and shadow descending on it aslant, like the angels in Jacob's dream!


  1. I have of course failed to mention the biggest thematic foundation stones of Bleak House, and the importance of documents, of writing, of reading and understanding, and of the deaths (Dickens is full of death; how quickly I forget that fact) of witnesses.

  2. I have been enjoying all of this a lot, comments and all, as you might guess.

    Later in life, in "Fiction - Foul and Fair" (1880) Ruskin even turns against Bleak House, apparently on the grounds that it is set in or perhaps even about London, a city so evil that it is apparently unethical to even acknowledge that it exists.

    In the essay, Ruskin includes a list of all the ways people die in Bleak House (search for "phthisis"),
    "And all this, observe, not in a tragic, adventurous, or military story, but merely as the further enlivenment of a narrative intended to be amusing," an ironic comment since the list is itself a great comic bit.

  3. Ruskin clearly sees London as a city gone wrong. In the Stones period, I think, he's still trying to save it. Certainly he is in Seven Lamps.

    I have read that Ruskin essay, and it is awfully amusing. His own long lists are very Dickensian: mixed dust of every unclean thing that can crumble in drought, and mildew of every unclean thing that can rot or rust in damp: ashes and rags, beer-bottles and old shoes, battered pans, smashed crockery, shreds of nameless clothes, door-sweepings, floor-sweepings, kitchen garbage, back-garden sewage, old iron, rotten timber jagged with out-torn nails, cigar-ends, pipe-bowls, cinders, bones, and ordure, indescribable; and, variously kneaded into, sticking to, or fluttering foully here and there over all these,--remnants broadcast, of every manner of newspaper, advertisement or big-lettered bill, festering and flaunting out their last publicity in the pits of stinking dust and mortal slime. I think Ruskin almost feels that London has betrayed him, him personally, deliberately. I don't know how much more mileage I can get out of this Ruskin/Dickens conceit. We'll see. I'm glad someone is having fun besides me. Did you catch the Ruskin/Kafka crossover on Umbagollah's blog? Hi-larious.