Tuesday, April 17, 2012

late Ruskin, on the rocks

Reading late Ruskin can be a disspiriting affair. There is a heady charm to the digressiveness of Fors Clavigera, a wonderful sense that one never quite knows what's coming next, and that very surprise is part of the power and – one might venture – innovation of the ongoing text (though Ruskin does indeed at one point in Deucalion refer to it as a "book"). But when it comes to the more straightforward "books" of his later years, the incompletion and digressiveness seem less charming or exciting than simply depressing, as though one were witnessing the slow-motion disintegration of a great mind. The effect is not unlike that produced by the later Cantos, I fear, where Pound's shored fragments no longer hold any luminosity in and of themselves, but simply function as shirt-cuff notes, shorthand indices to intellectual complexes that he can no longer be bothered to spell out or to explore in any detail.

Ruskin is of course always more discursive than Pound at even Pound's most voluble, but that very discursiveness, in the later books, is too often directed towards arcane polemics (as in the arguments with geologists in Deucalion) or, when he's lecturing, in puerile whimsy. The other week I finished the twenty-fifth volume of the Library Edition, that containing Love's Meinie (lectures on birds and bird-lore, mostly delivered at Oxford) and Proserpina (essays on flowers and floral classification, intended for various educative purposes). I'll admit I don't know much, and alas don't really care much, about either ornithology or botany. That may be one of my own failings. But neither did I learn much from either of Ruskin's books, and more than anything else found myself frustrated by their incompletion and air of general thrown-togetherness.

The twenty-sixth volume, containing Deucalion and various other writings on geology and mineralogy, is even more frustrating. It begins with a couple of articles on mineralogical subjects frankly too arcane for me to even begin to follow. The volume Deucalion itself, issued like so many of Ruskin's later works in serial installments, is a self-admitted ragbag. Ruskin begins the book proper by lamenting how many projects he has worked himself up for, how many books he could write, had he the proper time and his connected wits about him. But in the meantime, he concedes, he will throw together what notes he has accumulated on various subjects into books, and in Deucalion he will collect materials on his first and longest-lasting intellectual passion, geology. (More or less concurrently, Ruskin is also selecting passages – or overseeing the selection of passages – from earlier works such as Modern Painters to be reissued in various "Ruskin on ____" collections, all of which will be given typically arcane Latin titles.)

Despite all the passion as Ruskin invested in mineralogy, what's collected in Deucalion falls far short of gripping reading. There are several chapters on the "denudation" of landscape, which seem to grapple with the implications of Lyell's geological theories – that most aspects of currently observable geology can be explained by the action of forces we can observe every day (erosion by wind or water, most notably), only extrapolated over an enormous period of time. Ruskin is no young-earth creationist (though he takes many ill-directed jabs at Thomas Huxley along the way), but his arguments with the long-span incrementalists seem remarkably naive and obtuse. He wants there to be a shaping hand in the landscape, but he can't quite bring himself to throw out Lyell for Genesis; he just can't see, or can't stretch his time-vistas long enough to comprehend, how a small river can wear out a deep canyon.

Even more depressing are the several chapters devoted to explaining the movement of glaciers. It's not worth going into the details here, as much of this material is devoted to picking fights with one previous geologist, and promoting the work of another. Suffice it to say that Ruskin is convinced that a glacier cannot carve out a valley or a lakebed – any more, he explains, than honey is able to carve out a runnel in his teaspoon. He takes great delight in describing his glacial experiments in the kitchen of his friend Lady Mount-Temple, in which various cooking-pots and folded napkins play the role of mountains, while great quantities of ice cream represent glaciers.

The first volume of Deucalion ends with a discussion of the stratification and folds of mountains, in which Ruskin demonstrates his own counter-experiments to observations of other geologists by careful drawings of dyed and squashed folds of uncooked pie-crust. The second volume begins with of all things a lecture on the movement of snakes. It is frankly one of Ruskin's most embarrassing performances, all the more so because of the deep fascination he had with serpents (played out at great length in his discussion of Apollo and Python in the final volume of Modern Painters). "Living Waves" is a jumble-sale of drawings of snakes, first-hand observation of them at the zoological gardens, snake-lore from England to India, and some mildly interesting discussion of serpentine iconography in medieval art. It's most interesting when Ruskin takes on Huxley's evolutionary discussion of how the snake is related to the lizard; Ruskin prefers a moral, functional conception, in which the snake is midway between the trout and the bird.

It's hard to imagine what a live audience made of this performance. Ruskin notes at the outset of the lecture text that he had been cautioned that the lecture was somewhat discontinuous, so he provides a his reader with a thumbnail outline – which frankly does nothing more than underline its discontinuity. The brief chapter which follows, however, almost makes Deucalion worth the reading. "Revision" is in essence a reassertion of the whole of Ruskin's writings on nature and natural science, and on the representation of nature in art. It recapitulates and reasserts his faith that all observation and representation of natural form has the effect of giving the human observer access to knowledge of the divine hand that has made everything. Natural religion, Ruskin explicitly notes here, has always underlain his own commitment to nature itself.

Following this rather moving reassertion of Ruskin's life-work, there is a brief chapter on stellar shapes in minerals which trails off (abruptly and unconvincingly) into a piece of classical iconography. And then Deucalion, mercifully, is over. Well, almost – for like all of Ruskin's other late books, the text proper is followed by a score of pages of notes, drafts, and fragments for its continuation.

I have suffered for my Ruskin-obsession. Someday, if I ever get around to writing and publishing this book, you'll have the same opportunity.

No comments: