Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lumber: The Stones of Venice III

The house is beset with lumber, in the old-fashioned sense – stacks of things, mostly books, useful or un-, but with no clear place to be put away or stored. I have cartons of books I've inherited over the years from friends, colleagues; I have great sifts, middens, of unsorted papers; I have successive Troy-like layers of acquisitions, being gradually sorted & (sometimes) shelved; I have the usual "working" stacks of projects at hand. My study is probably an official fire hazard, a labyrinth that I can't trust visitors to safely pick their way thru.

It makes me think, as I wind thru the innumerable indices to the last volume of Ruskin's Stones of Venice (1853), of the sorts of lumber that fill one's mind. How much of my own imagination is occupied with the songs from some portion of my 13000 track iPod? How much with scenes from Beneath the Planet of the Apes? To what degree does the artwork of Barry Windsor-Smith dwarf that of Giorgione, in terms of mental territory occupied?

Ruskin ends Volume III – or at least he did in 1853 – with a sustained, lyrical (but subdued) plea for a revival of Gothic architecture in England:
an architecture that kindles every faculty of its workman, and addresses every emotion in its beholder; which, with every stone that is laid on its solemn walls, raises some human heart a step nearer heaven, and which from its birth has been incorporated with the existence, and in all its form is symbolical of the faith, of Christianity.
This was of course before the biggest flowering of the (caps) Gothic Revival, where English architects took JR's advice & ran with it into a a wonderland of sham-Gothic and pseudo-Gothic – missing, to his dismay, the point.

In 1881 he added an Epilogue to the book. Given the moment in which it was written (post-Fors, post breakdowns, post his shift of focus to political economy) one might expect more thunder & fire from the Epilogue; but it's surprisingly subdued, if pretty scolding nevertheless. There's one lovely moment, where he berates the ignorant tourist who would try to appreciate Tintoretto's Paradise without knowing anything of the Church Fathers or iconography:
"But if I'm really good, and mean to try to see it, what's to be done?"

Well, you've got to read Homer all through, first, very carefully; then with increasing care, the Prophet Ezekial; then, also with always increasing care, the Gospel of St. John, and then – I'll tell you what to do next.

"But have you?"

I should rather think so! I knew the Iliad and Odyssey and most of the Apocalypse more or less by heart before I was twelve years old: and have worked under them as my tutors ever since. The Gospel of St. John, everybody, in my young days, knew at least something about, and I've read it myself some thousand times, syllable by syllable.
That's the mental furniture that's behind the prophetic thundering of late-period Ruskin (not to mention the evangelical nagging of early Ruskin).

Now I don't know that I've read anything a thousand times (& I suspect a bit of Ruskinian exaggeration there), tho there are certainly some texts I've read scores of times, & even a few poems I know by heart.* But while I'm fascinated & repelled by JR's repetition-compulsion here, I want to embrace the man for the beginning of the next sentence:
That's all mere alphabetical work, the knowing it...
Yes, yes – knowing one's way around the text, knowing what comes next & what goes where, it's like knowing one's ABCs, knowing how to sound out the letters of the words: reading, real reading, takes place only afterwards, when one's gone thru the "alphabetical work" of mapping the surface of what's there.

Is this a matter of old-fashioned "surface" & "depth" reading? Ruskin would say so, I'm sure, but that's only part of it. You can't, that is, even read a "depthless" work immanently, in terms of its movements & structures, without an intimate knowledge of its contours.

I wish I knew the Iliad & the Odyssey better; I wish I had Revelation by heart. Oh well – back to the grand essay on Beneath the Planet of the Apes & Barry Windsor-Smith.

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