Friday, June 11, 2010

Ruskin, polygonally

A couple of recent posts on Bob Archambeau's blog have brought Ruskin's Stones of Venice – specifically, the classic "The Nature of Gothic" chapter of volume II – to bear on of all things Anish Kapoor's Chicago sculpture "Cloud Gate" & David Shields's Reality Hunger. Which just goes to show, after all, that Ruskin's work is always appropriate. And of course it renewed my belief in synchronicity, since I'm reading Stones of Venice II right now.

When the Library Edition first arrived, & when I'd finally carved out shelf space for it, I had to decide how I was going to tackle the thing. And what I've come to, after a few waffles and several digressions, is that I'm reading it thru in more or less chronological order. So I've read the first four volumes – the juvenilia (ick), the poetry (argh), and the first 2 volumes of Modern Painters; then I skipped forward to volume 8, The 7 Lamps of Architecture, & thence into Stones of Venice. One of the drawbacks – or potential rewards – of this process – is that for the last 2000 pages or so I've been re-reading things I read several years ago. Modern Painters 2 (the aesthetic theory) was much better this time around; Stones of Venice 1, however, remains a colossal snore. The volume's subtitled "The Foundations," & it's more or less a 500-page detailed primer in architectural terminology (with sumptuous illustrations). There's only so much this limited neural hard drive can absorb about the relative shapes of cornices, window apertures, roof gables, etc.

Volume 2, I'm happy to report, is much better. Here Ruskin settles down to the task of describing, illustrating, & analyzing the history of Venetian architecture, & painstaking (but again sumptuously illustrated) architectural detail is leavened with lots of wonderful theorizing about the tendencies of various stylistic schools. And then of course there's the blockbuster "Nature of Gothic," in which Ruskin starts out describing the spiritual tendencies of the architecture he loves so much & then veers (as is his way) into a full-throated attack on the division of labor & modern manufacturing society. It's the first blast of the trumpet that gets fully unmuted in Unto This Last. William Morris, who read it as an undergraduate along with his friend Edward Burne-Jones, loved the thing. He arranged for its separate publication as an affordable pamphlet – a key text, he believed, in both what would be called the Arts & Crafts movement and more immediately in the socialist struggle – and later reprinted it again as one of the first productions of his Kelmscott Press.

And Archambeau's right: it's one of those rare mid-Victorian pieces that still speaks directly to us.
Proust on Ruskin (1904):
...Ruskin never wholly ceased to commit the sin of idolatry. At the very moment he was preaching sincerity, he lacked it. The doctrines he professed were moral, not aesthetic, yet he chose them for their beauty. And because he did not want to present them formally as things of beauty, but as statements of truth, he was forced to lie to himself about the reasons that had led him to adopt them.
Discuss, paying special attention to Proust's nascent psychoanalytical impulse, & to how much his own post-decadent, aesthetic moment, might blind him to the unity of the moral & the beautiful in JR.
Ruskin, lecturing (channeling Whitman?):
Perhaps some of my hearers this evening may have occasionally heard it stated of me that I am rather apt to contradict myself. I hope I am exceedingly apt to do so. I never met a question yet, of any importance, which did not need, for the right solution of it, at least one positive and one negative answer, like an equation of the second degree. Mostly, matters of any consequence are three-sided, or four-sided, or polygonal; and the trotting round a polygon is some work for people in any way stiff in their opinions. For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times.
Ruskin, a footnote to Stones of Venice 2 (having just quoted Henry Francis Cary's Paradiso):
It is generally better to read ten lines of any poet in the original language, however painfully, than ten cantos of a translation. But an exception must be made in favour of Cary's Dante. If no poet ever was liable to lose more in translation, none was ever so carefully translated; and I hardly know whether most to admire the rigid fidelity, or the sweet and solemn harmony, of Cary's verse.... It is true that the conciseness and rivulet-like melody of Dante must continually be lost; but if I could only read English, and had to choose, for a library narrowed by poverty, between Cary's Dante and our own original Milton, I should choose Cary without an instant's pause.


bill sherman said...

I'm with Proust on this one..esp. re: the 4's...what do you think? jealous old codger? Whistlering in the dark?

Anonymous said...

Mark: Coming to NYC soon? Please let me know. Tom