Sunday, August 16, 2009

Week 09, John Ruskin

Notes on John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice

Ruskin, a mid-Victorian sage-writer, says that England’s current course in economics and empire parallels the fall of Venice when that city entered its decadent Renaissance phase during the Quattrocento: soulless perfection in architecture and art, lewdness in morals, shamelessness in pursuit of monetary wealth. At base, pride goes before a fall: we are fallen enough already, and there’s no need to keep repeating our arrogant rebelliousness and claim autonomy from God, argues Ruskin. He is a disciple of Carlyle, another conservative prophet raging in the wilderness, offering at one time threats, at another salvation. He is a moralist who interprets architectural history and technique as an embodiment of a given culture’s moral status. He treats paintings and social forms in much the same way, reading them as expressions of a society’s spiritual health or morbidity.

In Stones, Ruskin demonstrates that Gothic feudalism encouraged workers to express their individual spirit in a way that did honor to the Church. Labor is central to fallen human beings. The way back to a right appreciation of God is mediation, accommodation, humility, and striving that doesn’t try to rival God as our creator and source. So the critic and consumer must interpret the products of labor with their expressive quality in mind. Critics and consumers must grasp the need for striving worthy of redemption, labor directed heavenward. Why does Ruskin favor architecture in particular? Buildings are works of art that we experience, live in, gather in. And Gothic workers were building cathedrals, which are communal expressions of humility before God, so they resist the urge to rebuild the Tower of Babel of Genesis, for which God confounded the builders’ speech.

The “moral elements” of Gothic are as follows: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance. With regard to the builders, these categories translate to savageness, love of change, love of nature, disturbed imagination, obstinacy, and generosity. Gothic architecture expresses the workers’ mental tendencies, and the result of their work—often cathedrals—was intended to be a dwelling-place for and offering to God. A church (the visible or assembled body of the faithful) is, after all, an expression of human aspirations to connect with the divine, and a locus of spiritual community.

1324. “And when that fallen roman, in the utmost importance of his luxury, and insolence of his guilt, became the model for the imitation of civilized europe, at the close of the so-called Dark ages, the word Gothic became a term of unmitigated contempt. . . .” A consumer is an interpreter, a critic (on this point, see also Unto This Last), but the insolent, prideful, complacent Renaissance patron, insists Ruskin, wanted and saw only soulless perfection, and what had been a serious kind of grotesqueness became merely obscene because that’s what the corrupt patrons wanted. Genuine grotesque art flows from the labor of a spirit in tension, confronting the shocks and extreme contradictions in life—death and terror, the fantastic, the ludicrous. Mere obscenity is cynical and materialistic, by contrast.

1326-27. Ruskin elaborates on servile, constitutional, and revolutionary forms of art. Of the first, the principal types are “the Greek, Ninevite, and Egyptian.” Greek architectural style achieves a balance, calm, rest, and self-sufficiency, but with respect to the workers who made the buildings, says Ruskin, “The Greek gave to the lower workman no subject which he could not perfectly execute.” But with constitutional ornament, he writes, things are otherwise: in the “Christian system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether; christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul” (1327). The essence of it is striving. As for revolutionary ornament, its makers and consumers are selfish, fixated on trivial things done to material perfection. An eye fixed on this kind of ornament is debased—as Blake would say, “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.” Priorities here are turned upside down, and buildings are not offerings to God but monuments to the artist’s or patron’s ego. In this sense, Ruskin construes the Renaissance as a second fall in which people deployed mere technical skill and science to try to overcome the effects of the original fall in Eden, and of course he sees England going down the same path, in search of a false capitalist utopia.

1327. “[I]t is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labor of inferior minds, and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.” But neither Renaissance patrons nor modern English consumers can accept this scheme, says Ruskin, and they can’t appreciate the fact that “the best things shall be seldomest seen in their best form” or that “the finer the nature, the more flaws it will show through the clearness of it.”

1328. As always in Ruskin, there’s a stark moral decision to make regarding the status of labor, that activity so central to human life and value: “you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.” There is no happy medium, no easy accommodation to make, when it comes to honoring the spiritual well-being of laborers or getting the most materially “perfect” work from them. What is imperfect, flawed, incomplete, is exactly what links the thing made to infinity. In both Romantic poetics and Christian theology, the fragment is greater than the limited whole because it indicates striving, progress, aspiration to a higher and even infinite state of spirituality. But Ruskin’s Christian framework is hardly Byronic—it emphasizes not an autonomous attempt at self-transcendence but instead promotes a kind of aspiration that begins with the frank acknowledgement of the individual’s own limitations and imperfections. The body and its material works are finite; art and architecture are of value only insofar as they express the soul’s attempt to break free of materiality while still accepting that it cannot entirely do so. When Ruskin mentions clouds in connection with labor, as he does when he writes of the worker’s efforts, “we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him” (1328), we should remember that in his analysis of Turner’s atmospheric paintings, clouds at once veil and bear the sun’s radiance. Clouds need to be read as semi-translucent markers of the boundary between the finite and infinity.

1329. “[E]xamine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters . . . but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman, who struck the stone . . . .” With respect to the present day, he says, “It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread.” The dignity of labor is as central to Ruskin as labor in general was to his predecessor Carlyle. And like Carlyle, Ruskin is no great promoter of democratic change: in characterizing liberty, he makes much the same point that Carlyle did, only in a gentler fashion: one day, he says, “men will see that to obey another man, to labour for him, yield reverence to him or to his place, is not slavery. It is often the best kind of liberty.” Ruskin advocates a rank-based yet egalitarian society, one that (like the Christian Church) values the strivings and aspirations of each imperfect believer, one that acknowledges the gap between the human and the divine but treats it in a hopeful way.

1330. “We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labor, only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided, but the men.” The division of labor, of course, is a central tenet of capitalist production, one enunciated by Adam Smith in his 1776 book, The Wealth of Nations. Smith explains this principle in a positive manner that suggests how it has the potential to end millennia of human misery: humanity has never found it easy to keep body and soul together; the ancient problem was that of production: many people simply didn’t get enough to eat, or have enough possessions to make life more or less tolerable, never mind pleasant and full of opportunities for upward mobility. But the vast increases in production made possible by trade and increased volume of production made it possible to conceive of a time when poverty and want would be no more—this is a vital point to understand about Adam Smith’s argument in favor of capitalism; he was not a soulless proponent of material accumulation but a moral philosopher who wanted the new mode and means of production to help people harness selfish individual desires for the good of the wider community. And when the market works, I suppose that’s exactly what it does: the capitalist earns a good profit, and gives us the things we need and want.

But Ruskin is dealing with the phenomenon that Marx calls “alienated labor”: the undeniable fact that under nineteenth-century production methods, many workers found little meaning in their work but instead experienced it as essentially dehumanizing and isolating. They were producing a world of riches in which they themselves had miserably little share, and which cost them any chance to become something more than they already were or to make meaningful connections with their fellow laborers. Marx’s term “the fetishism of the commodity” (whereby it is things that matter and have vital relations, not the people who make them with their own minds and hands—the worker is reduced to a thing, while the thing is treated as if it were a living being), applies to virtually everything done in a consumer society. Smith himself points out that we might one day pay people to do specialized kinds of thinking for us, just as we would pay someone to repair our shoes or furniture. So in this way alienation and fragmentation is the law of life under capitalism. Ruskin opposes the entire system for that reason, though of course his solution is radically different from Marx’s, which puts its faith in the revolutionary potential of the industrial proletariat or working class.

1331-32. “The old Venice glass was muddy, inaccurate in all its forms, and clumsily cut, if at all. And the old Venetian was justly proud of it” (1332). What is Ruskin’s answer to the inherent problem of capitalist production? Well, he offers a moral prescription, a consumer’s list of things to consider before buying anything: imitation and exact finish are not to be sought for their own sake, while “invention” is to be rewarded at every turn, wherever possible. His main example is that of Venetian glass, which is of course both strikingly beautiful, all the more so because of its imperfections. Mass-manufactured glass can’t compete with it for quality or beauty. One must accept the simultaneous existence of both poorly executed and well executed Venetian glass; if we want the best of it, we have to accept that quality will vary from one piece to the next. We could name a variety of similar products—indeed, the whole “Crafts” movement in England and America is premised on this model of the moral consumer who has the welfare of the worker in view: things made by hand and produced with care are favored, while merely utilitarian items are generally discouraged because they not only dishonor laborers but also lead to a world that is ugly and unpleasant to live in. And today’s advocates of buying organic produce make a similar argument: fair trade organic coffees, locally grown organic produce, and other such goods are becoming more popular, at least for those who can afford them.

There’s reason to be sympathetic towards Ruskin’s insistence that buying something can be a moral or an immoral act. Proponents of the market philosophy are always insisting that capitalist economics is the appropriate system for lovers of liberty and individual autonomy, yet at times one hears them insisting also that the model of the rational consumer is absolute: people will always follow the law of competition, buying what they need and want on the basis of a certain cost/quality ratio: i.e. they will do what nets them the most good stuff at the lowest possible price. But that is a kind of determinism: what if I want to buy a zero-emissions car even though it costs more, because I think it’s simply the right thing to do and I have sufficient funds to do so? Am I an automaton who can’t make such choices, or am I a free agent who might just make a financial sacrifice to derive both tangible and intangible benefits from my ethical purchase? Or what if I choose not to buy products tested on animals even if they cost more or it takes a bit of effort to find out which products are “cruelty free”? And so forth. It is possible to make such choices, at least some of the time. So Ruskin’s idea is not so far out of the practical orbit that we should discount it as absurd. But at the same time, it’s possible to level a serious criticism: it’s hard to see how to get an entire society to make such choices so frequently as to make more than a token difference in what gets produced. Most people probably don’t have enough money to buy organic avocados or a car that costs an extra 5,000 dollars but runs clean. Perhaps the best solution here is some measure of governmental incentive, mixed with market initiative: on their own, huge companies that benefit from the status quo aren’t likely to make changes in production that threaten to undercut their profits.

1333-34. Ruskin says that there are two reasons why the demand for perfection in art is wrong. The first is “that no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure,” and the second is that “imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change.” His emblem for the latter point is the foxglove blossom (digitalis purpurea, a beautiful flowering plant used today in the making of an important drug for heart attack victims). This blossom, writes Ruskin, is “a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom” and is, therefore, “a type of the life of this world.” We are always passing from one state to another. The law of fallen life is change, imperfection, striving. Christian teleology implies a purposeful movement from decay (the fallen past) to a redemptive future (the foxglove’s “bud”). To sum up in Ruskin’s words, “All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.”

Additional Notes on John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice

In The Stones of Venice (1851-53), Ruskin makes an historical parallel between the British and Venetian Empires: as the Italian city-state fell, so will England, if it does not heed the warning set before it. Ruskin goes on to set forth the conditions for what he sees as the biblically proportioned fall of the great city. In this narrative, the Italian Renaissance plays the role of Satan to an earlier, organically and spiritually sound period of feudal society and Gothic architecture.

Ruskin’s spiritualized view of architecture demands that we consider Gothic religious structures with regard to their common function: that of serving as material gathering places for the faithful. A church is a place for spiritual communion and propitiation of an offended god, and the labor that brings it into being must comply with these purposes. In Ruskin’s Christian and romanticist tradition, building a church is an expressive act. The humility that characterizes the medieval workman’s and foreman’s manner of expression, Ruskin, always the amateur naturalist, illustrates by way of the foxglove blossom, digitalis purpurea. This plant is always in transition, and therein lies its emblematic value:

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom,—a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom,—is a type of the life of this world. 1

In contrast to Gothic architecture’s recognition of the Fall and the divine plan for redemption, Ruskin sets the devilish pride of the Continental Renaissance and the dead perfection of modern industrial Europe. Gothic building, based upon the system of “Constitutional Ornament,” liberated the workman’s powers. In this system, says Ruskin, “the executive inferior power is, to a certain point, emancipated and independent, having a will of its own, yet confessing its inferiority and rendering obedience to higher powers” (Stones,Works 10, 188).By contrast, modern scientific building, the accomplice of liberal capitalism, devotes itself to stamping out any last spark of Gothic spirituality and individualism. Both the Renaissance and the modern era, explains Ruskin, are to be condemned for their adherence to the system of “Revolutionary ornament, in which no executive inferiority is admitted at all” (Stones,Works 10, 189). The Renaissance provides the paradigm for the modern fall, but we must examine the latter first because Ruskin himself ultimately leaves it behind, choosing instead to locate the solution to England’s problems largely in the feudal past.

We might, of course, go directly to the later works on political economy for a full discussion concerning the problems of modern economics and industrialism. Yet, Ruskin states his basic moral position on these matters so forcefully in The Stones of Venice that there is no need to abandon that work. When Ruskin characterizes the Renaissance method of ornament in architecture as “Revolutionary,” he means to castigate a chaotic, prideful system of production. He denounces modern architecture and the relation it enjoins between worker and employer. Nineteenth-century building, he believes, mimics an already deceitful, corrupt Renaissance imitation of classical integrity. The modern architect is even more apt to make a slave of his workmen than were the overseers of Assyria or the Greeks, the latter of which “gave to the lower workman no subject which he could not perfectly execute” (Stones,Works 10, 189). The source of the modern system’s intense brutality, again, lies in the nineteenth century’s base, auto-referential, anti-expressive pursuit of machine perfection. Ruskin’s is perhaps the grandest of Victorian broadsides aimed at the Industrial Era’s notion of progress.

The Christian-tinged romanticism of Ruskin’s work as a whole shows in his constant emphasis upon the dignity of imperfection. The body and its works are finite, but the spirit is not. Architecture, though it may appear to the undiscerning eye to be a finished thing, is valuable to Ruskin only in so far as it expresses the soul’s poignant striving to break free of the material limitations that hem it in. The perfection that is achieved by the conjoining of human labor and machine indicates no more than spiritual complacency. The fragmentary or imperfect production is greater than the whole, for it indicates the progress of spirit, not matter. Ruskin’s vision is Romantic, expressive, though the desire for self-transcendence is here tempered by Christian humility. As in art the favored Turner’s clouds at once veil and reveal the sun’s divine radiance, so in manufacture the glass of Venice, “muddy, inaccurate in all its forms, and clumsily cut” (Stones,Works 10, 199), reveals the more strikingly the inventive, expressive power of the one who shaped it. But the well-turned steel and wood of the modern house or church, according to Ruskin, expresses only the vicious class divisions that make its production possible.

The choice Ruskin forces upon those whom Carlyle called England’s Captains of Industry is a harsh one. The working-class artisan cannot be two things at once: “You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both” (Stones,Works 10, 192).The target of such criticisms, evidently, is political economy’s most winning argument—division of labor. For this diabolically correct theory, Ruskin reserves his deepest eloquence and contempt:

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilised invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men:—Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished,—sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is,—we should think there might be some loss in it also (Stones,Works 10, 196).

There is no need to dishonor Ruskin’s moralizing to see its limitations. Perhaps no author, short of Carlyle and the sublimely sarcastic Marx, has written so finely about the inhumanity of capitalist production. The image Ruskin creates of the modern answer to the Venetian glass-worker, with his “hands vibrating with a perpetual and exquisitely timed palsy, and the beads [of glass] dropping beneath their vibration like hail,” is unforgettable (Stones,Works 10, 197). 2 Still, his attempt to trace in stone the faults of empire and industry amount to a call for reversion to nearly feudal social and economic relations. The partial nature of Ruskin’s ideas about improving Britain may be gauged from the caustic reaction of more thoroughgoing radicals, chiefly Marx. Though Ruskin shares with Marx (and Hegel) the belief that labor is an essential source of human value and dignity, the revolutionary scorns English cultural criticism’s brand of reform along with the anti-industrialist efforts of fellow Continentals. Here is the way Marx analyses the historical causality of “socialist” yearnings in the tradition of which the middle-class, wealthy Ruskin belongs. The text is The Communist Manifesto, 1848, published just half a decade or so before The Stones of Venice:

Owing to their historical position, it became the vocation of the aristocracies of France and England to write pamphlets against modern bourgeois society. In the French revolution of July 1830, and in the English reform agitation, these aristocracies again succumbed to the hateful upstart. Thenceforth, a serious political struggle was altogether out of the question. A literary battle alone remained possible. . . .

In order to arouse sympathy, the aristocracy was obliged to lose sight, apparently, of its own interests, and to formulate its indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited working class alone. Thus the aristocracy took its revenge by singing lampoons against its new master, and whispering in his ears sinister prophecies of coming catastrophe.

In this way arose Feudal Socialism: Half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty, and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core, but always ludicrous in its effect through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history. 3

In Ruskin’s case, the way to ahistoricism lies in his rhetorically effective displacement of modern English sins onto corrupt Italian practices. We may see the guilty narrative in Ruskin’s sections of The Stones of Venice, “The Ducal Palace” (Vol. 2, Ch. 8) and “Grotesque Renaissance” (Vol. 3, Ch. 3). Having explained earlier that “the two principal causes of natural decline in any school are over-luxuriance and over-refinement” (Stones,Works 11, 6), Ruskin goes on to trace with perhaps too much precision the date of the first corrupting influences upon Venice’s Gothic style. The trained eye, he writes, need only look for the date on “the steps of the choir of the Church of St. John and Paul.” On the left the viewer will see the tomb of Doge Marco Cornaro, dated 1367, while on the right will appear the sepulchre of Doge Michele Morosini, dated 1382. By the latter year, the corruption has become unmistakable: Morosini’s tomb is “voluptuous, and over-wrought” (Stones,Works 11, 13-14). What is the cause of such decadence, and what lesson will Ruskin draw for England from the fall of Venice?

To answer these questions, we must examine Ruskin’s commentary in “Grotesque Renaissance” on the role of play and jesting in architecture and, more generally, in the life of a people. The central element in the Gothic that flowered in medieval Venice and even more abundantly elsewhere in Italy, says Ruskin, is a noble form of the grotesque. “The true grotesque,” he explains, is “the expression of the repose or play of a serious mind,” and the false consists in “the full exertion of a frivolous one” (Stones,Works 11, 170). The true grotesque commands our attention in the best of Gothic architecture—its energetically redundant foliage, its gargoyles and other ornamentation full of appreciation of the two passions Ruskin says govern humanity: “love of God, and the fear of sin, and of its companion—Death” (Stones,Works 11, 163).The false type is the effect in art of the fourth era of the Renaissance, and confronts us with nothing but the “sneering mockery” that comes from “delight in the contemplation of bestial vice” (Stones,Works 11, 145).

This latter form of the grotesque, argues Ruskin, glowers at spectators from the sole Renaissance landmark reminding them of the once populous Piazza of Santa Maria Formosa, site of the medieval Feast of the Maries. This landmark, consisting of “A head,—huge, inhuman, and monstrous,—leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described,” typifies the “evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline” (Stones,Works 11, 145). There are those who play wisely, necessarily, inordinately, and not at all, according to Ruskin, and the foul landmark was surely made by workmen who labored during the reign of the third in this company.

The healthier grotesque ornamentation of the Gothic period was made by workers who, lacking the refinement and leisure to repose wisely, yet played in a sufficiently healthy manner to return to their architectural labor. Even while they toiled, these “inferior workmen” were allowed to some extent to employ their creative energies and fancy, stamping thereby their “character” and “satire” upon the work they did (Stones,Works 11, 157). The later, unhealthy form of grotesque ornament comes of labor designed to express mechanically nothing but the self-indulgence and pleasure-seeking of the great citizens who commissioned the building. This labor is done at the behest of those who are idle, who neither think nor work but who, thanks to circumstances, are able “to make amusement the object of their existence” (Stones,Works 11, 154). A special subcategory of such types in Ruskin’s almost Dantean scheme consists in those who treat sacred and vital things irreverently.

These latter categories—idleness and irreverence—Ruskin takes as typical faults of Venice in its final Renaissance decline. Base workers can make nothing but base things, expressing by them the baseness of those who have set them on. It was a long, painful process, this decline of Venice into labyrinthine sensualism. Ruskin traces the beginning of the end not only to the tomb of Doge Michele Morosini, 1382, but, as he reminds us at the end of “Grotesque Renaissance,” in more fully historical terms to the passing of Doge Tomaso Mocenigo in 1423. This is made plain in the first volume of Stones:
I date the commencement of the Fall of Venice from the death of Carlo Zeno, 8 th May 1418; the visible commencement from that of another of her noblest and wisest children, the Doge Tomaso Mocenigo, who expired five years later. The reign of Foscari followed, gloomy with pestilence and war; a war in which large acquisitions of territory were made by subtle or fortunate policy in Lombardy, and disgrace, significant as irreparable, sustained in the battles on the Po at Cremona, and in the marshes of Caravaggio (Stones,Works 9, 21).
Venice’s fall, beginning with the death of the noble Mocenigo and the rise of Francesco Foscari, Ruskin traces in the changes to the Ducal Palace adjoining St. Mark’s. The city’s general intention to remodel its Gothic architectural treasure survived Mocenigo, but for once the patriot was wrong. Ruskin laments of the Doge that “in his zeal for the honour of future Venice, he had forgotten what was due to the Venice of long ago” (Stones,Works 10, 352).With great precision, Ruskin describes the first sign of moral and architectural decay:
I said that the new Council Chamber, at the time when Mocenigo brought forward his measure, had never yet been used. It was in the year 1422 that the decree passed to rebuild the palace: Mocenigo died in the following year, and Francesco Foscari was elected in his room. The Great Council Chamber was used for the first time on the day when Foscari entered the Senate as Doge,—the 3 rd of April, 1423, according to the Caroldo Chronicle; the 23 rd, which is probably correct, by an anonymous MS., No. 60, in the Correr Museum;—and, the following year, on the 27 th of March, the first hammer was lifted up against the old palace of Ziani.
That hammer stroke was the first act of the period properly called the “Renaissance.” It was the knell of the architecture of Venice,—and of Venice herself (Stones,Works 10, 351-52).

The moral for England appears strongly in the peroration to “Grotesque Renaissance.” When Mocenigo died in 1423 and Foscari took his place as ruler, Ruskin points out, “Sifesteggio dalla citta uno anno intero,” or “the city kept festival for a whole year” (Stones,Works 11, 195).From thence, the way to moral perdition and defeat at the hands of the Turks was straight:
Venice had in her childhood sown, in tears, the harvest she was to reap in rejoicing. She now sowed in laughter the seeds of death.

Thenceforward, year after year, the nation drank with deeper thirst from the fountains of forbidden pleasure, and dug for springs, hitherto unknown, in the dark places of the earth. In the ingenuity of indulgence, in the varieties of vanity, Venice surpassed the cities of Christendom, as of old she had surpassed them in fortitude and devotion; and as once the powers of Europe stood before her judgment-seat, to receive the decisions of her justice, so now the youth of Europe assembled in the halls of her luxury, to learn from her the arts of delight (Stones,Works 11, 195).
The author’s adherence to Christian teleology shines through this and every other page of The Stones of Venice, and in this early masterwork, Ruskin seems still to have kept firmly to the evangelical faith of his parents. Even when he lost that faith and turned from criticism of art to chastisement of politicians and factory owners, the same Christian framework governs his writing. The moral earnestness that informs Ruskin’s ability to hear in a Renaissance laborer’s hammer the knell of Venetian piety, we shall find informing as well the schemes Ruskin later proposes to solve modern England’s social problems. The prophet’s indignation and the art critic’s lament modulate into the feudalist’s call for a stratified society based upon recognition of the dignity of labor. In Unto This Last (1860), Ruskin proposes to set England back on the right road by dividing its classes into the medieval functions of Soldier, Pastor, Physician, Lawyer, and Merchant, for which latter officer the workmen will employ their skills and imagination. In essence, Ruskin’s scheme for reform is every bit as hierarchical as that of Carlyle, except that the latter does not propose to do away with the Industrial Revolution altogether.

Ruskin’s entire narrative about the Good Gothic and the Bad Renaissance exempts the author and his readers from confronting what Marx would call the entirely new status and potential of the industrial proletariat. This new class faces the bourgeoisie with the fundamental contradictions of its own system of production and social organization, but Ruskin would put away the workmen’s anger with patriarchal supervision. In Ruskin, then, what seems to be material history is fancy made visible and audible by the great writer’s skill. The hammer blows against the Ducal Palace, the hideousness of the late-Renaissance gargoyle, and the image of the year-long celebration of Foscari’s ascension to power articulate a moral abstraction.

Ruskin’s twin battery of aesthetics and paternal socialism, further analysis would only underscore, are designed to invest perception and work, respectively, with purposive order in the face of social and moral chaos. Ruskin displaces the reification, mechanization, and desacramentalization going on with Tayloresque efficiency in Britain to Renaissance Italy and its increasingly corrupt artists, the fall of which then becomes a cautionary tale for the present. The specific program for reform that follows The Stones of Venice in Unto This Last and other such works, displacing present woes to an immoral past, sets forth as savior the anachronistic vision of a happily stratified England.

1. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, The Works of John Ruskin, vol. 10, eds. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (1851-53; London: George Allen, 1904), 203-04.

2. Ruskin, Stones,Works Volume 10, 197.

3. Karl Marx and Frederick (Friedrich) Engels, The Communist Manifesto, English translation (1848; 1949; reprint, New York: International Publishers, 1983), 32.

Notes on Matthew Arnold

“The Buried Life”

This poem brilliantly analyzes what Arnold posits as a universal need to look within, to trace the operations of our inner being and to express them in a language commensurate with that inner life. In other words, Arnold is writing about the very stuff of romantic expressivism. The first few stanzas make it clear that the poet is unable in the present instance to make the connection with another he later posits as being necessary to the insight he seeks. In spite of that, the poem is one of Arnold’s more optimistic efforts. A power he simply describes as “Fate” (30), has kept “The unregarded river of our life” from plain view to protect us from our own destructive frivolity, but this river of authentic being flows on nonetheless. The poet explains that no individual, looking only within, can truly gain access to the inner springs of life and thought. Acting on our own, we cannot know from whence we have come or where we are going; we cannot grasp the purpose of our lives. And we cannot, it almost goes without saying, express a purpose we are unable to apprehend. From lines 55-66, the speaker suggests that most of what we do is a kind of self-deception—what we do and say, that is, conceals far more than it reveals about what we really are inside. Society demands no less of a charade. Even so, the speaker is not downcast: there are those rare moments when the voice, the gaze, or the touch of a beloved person gives us access to our being in all its authenticity. Arnold casts the result of this rarity in Wordsworthian terms: “The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain, / And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know” (86-87). So it is possible on rare occasion, and with the help of another, really to look within and to express what we see there. Especially for a gloomy poet like Arnold, that is a cheerful thought, and it bears comparison to Wordsworth’s lines from “Tintern Abbey,” “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things” (47-49). It is possible to achieve an epiphany of the self and to express the insight flowing from it. What is captured is not something static but rather dynamic and flowing, as the poem’s persistent river metaphor indicates. Some may find a note of hesitancy in the poem’s final lines, “And then he thinks he knows / The hills where his life rose, / And the sea where it goes” (96-98). But I don’t think the word “knows” connotes doubt in this case; the conjectural seeker may or may not know the last word about his origins or destination, but that seems less important than the knowledge of his present self the poem says can, in fact, be attained. We should not expect from Matthew Arnold a brash statement such as John Donne’s “She is all States, and all Princes, I; / Nothing else is.” What we get, instead, is a sort of quiet, wistful optimism in the midst of so many melancholy and contemplative utterances by this earnest mid-Victorian.

Dover Beach”

The poem opens with the description of a beautiful natural scene, a seascape. Apparently it is a clear night in patches because the speaker can see the nightlights of France across the English Channel . And he catches something eternal about humanity in the effects of natural process—Sophocles, the poet says, heard the same sound attentively long ago, the sound of pebbles tossing back and forth in the surf with the tide and the waves. (In the play referenced—Antigone—the Chorus speaks of something much harsher—the low moan that accompanies gale force winds as they beat against the seashore, a sound compared to the ruin and devastation of Thebes’s royal house thanks to the anger of the gods.) what our speaker hears is the melancholy retreat of simple religious faith, a retreat that leaves Western civilization all but naked. It is evident that Matthew Arnold does not draw the same sustenance from nature that Wordsworth, a poet he much admires, was able to draw. Both the natural and human world before him in prospect are described as beautiful illusions—sights that seem to promise certitude and intelligibility, a sense that there is meaning out there, that there is “a place for us.” But the speaker is unable to put his faith in anything he sees or hears. He remains disillusioned, I think, even though he tries to cheer himself and his lover with the injunction, “let us be true / To one another!” The world remains hostile, dreary, and violent. It makes no sense in itself, and the knowledge that we can at least temporarily make a genuine human connection with someone else, and thereby create the meaning we seek, does not satisfy the speaker. This poem might be described as what Meyer Abrams would call a Greater Romantic Lyric—it begins in meditation, goes on to analyze a spiritual problem, and attempts to offer an emotional resolution. The tenuousness of that resolution gives the poem its distinctive Arnoldian quality. The couple remain isolated from the world, withdrawn from the violence and confusion surrounding them. Religion no longer offers solace in such a situation, at least not for this particular Victorian couple.

General Notes on Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold actively resists what John Stuart Mill the Utilitarian philosopher had called the “hostile and dreaded censorship” of middle-class ascendancy: the smug self-satisfaction exhibited by average English citizens in their own unexamined views and values. Arnold insists that we need to promote culture and criticism as a means of combating such censorious mediocrity. He counsels intellectuals and thoughtful people generally to step away from politics and social controversy, wherein ideas are bought, sold, and bandied about with more concern for their effects on the balance of power than for their inherent truth. Ideas, Arnold says, should be examined in a “disinterested” manner—that is, in a calm and reasonably objective way, with no regard for one’s own personal biases or for the biases of the social and political groups that may claim one’s allegiance. Arnold’s emphasis is that of a man imbued with the “dare to know” ethos of the Enlightenment as well as with a classical drive towards self-development and self-perfection. Against the increasingly powerful middle-class utilitarian notion that life is all about chasing after pleasure and material comfort, Arnold asserts (as did J. S. Mill himself) that “doing as one likes” is hardly an adequate description of life’s goal; it is of great consequence what things give us pleasure, and the sources we should favor, he thinks, will come to us by way of sound education and self-cultivation, without which we are brutes. Many have pointed out Arnold’s flaws as a thinker—his fondness for repeating himself, his reliance on certain privileged cultural texts (often Greek classics) as irreducible “touchstones” of excellence, and even a certain strain of ivory-tower elitism. But Arnold surely deserves respect for his persistent support of Enlightenment integrity. We seldom seem to realize how fragile our humanity is—a quick scan of the daily papers, with their relentless recountings of twenty-first century brutality, ignorance, intolerance and persecution worthy of the Dark Ages, should convince any rational person that our best tendencies and highest potential must be constantly encouraged and guarded, not taken for granted and left at the mercy of “time and chance.” The Victorians were sometimes too willing to believe in facile assurances about the progress of humanity, but Arnold’s writings show him to be remarkably self-reflective about the pitfalls of such assumptions. At times, what Arnold calls “culture” seems little short of a miracle, given the conditions within which it must develop.

Finally, Arnold addresses some very modern problems—first, the status of art and culture in relation to economic and class arrangements. We find in him both a strong instance of what’s sometimes called the paradox of Anglo-American humanism: while he insists on the great value of humanistic study, he feels compelled to divorce that study from the immediate flow of worldly affairs. As Milton might say, “they also serve who only stand and wait”—and who only “read, study, and observe.” Or to state the dilemma more crudely, culture and criticism can only help us by not promising to help us, at least for the present. The paradox consists in defending the arts and criticism while simultaneously rejecting the suggestion that they should be immediately useful on a broad social scale. Second, Arnold offers a worthwhile examination of the relationship between art and criticism—a concern of much interest to theoreticians today.

Preface To Poems (1853)

Overview: Evidently, Matthew Arnold believes that the romantics, as some wag said about Thomas Carlyle, “led us into the wilderness and left us there.” Arnold seeks a balance between poetic form and expression; art should be oriented towards action, he believes, and it should not wallow in Hamlet-like, self-centered anguish or luxuriate in fine phrases and images. That kind of self-indulgence, he believes, has been the tendency since the early modern period. Shakespeare is wonderful, but Matthew Arnold doesn’t advocate taking him as your model if you want to be a writer. Modernity is a threat since it leads us away from what is permanent in us, and away from a unified sensibility and coherent outlook. The Greeks, according to Arnold, are the best artistic models because they can help us fight modernity’s worst aspects: its threat of incoherence and its predilection for the part over the whole, its penchant for selfishness over what benefits the individual most genuinely and serves the community as well. The Greeks offer clarity, rigor, simplicity, and a balanced perspective on life. Like so many Victorian sages and culture critics, Arnold reasserts humanity’s need for some principle of excellence by which to think and live.

1375. “The dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced,” says Arnold . This dialogue cannot be wished away, but he is concerned about its negative effects on consciousness. Complexity is part of modern life, and the question is how to deal with it. Arnold declares himself against any representation that is, as he says, “vaguely conceived and loosely drawn.” We demand accuracy and precision in art; we demand that it should “add to our knowledge.” Or at least, that is what Arnold says we should demand of it; only if this is done, he implies, will it do what it really ought: “inspirit and rejoice the reader.” As always, Arnold draws much from German enlightenment and romantic authors—his descriptions, as he makes clear, are derived from Friedrich von Schiller, a great disciple of Immanuel Kant. The passage he cites is followed by The claim that the best art facilitates the free play of all the mind’s powers: “Der höchste Genuß aber ist die Freiheit des Gemüthes in dem lebendigen Spiel aller seiner Kräfte.”

Unfortunately, in his view, this sort of spirit-expanding free play is exactly what much modern art does not encourage. Instead, modern poetry gives us representations “in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” This sort of artistic representation is not tragic in the high classical sense; it is not uplifting but is, he says, merely “painful.” The bottom line is that art should not give in to or merely reflect a particular era’s worst tendencies; it should challenge them, and generate a counter-balancing effect.

1376-77. Arnold insists that “The date of an action… signifies nothing.” There is no reason why we cannot derive as much pleasure and enlightenment from ancient works of art as from modern ones. This is no different from what many critics have said in their own way. Samuel Johnson, after all, wrote that the best art consists in “just representations of general nature” that have been highly esteemed for long periods of time, and he insisted that a painter should not “streak the leaves of the tulip” but should rather provide us with a general, universally recognizable representation. And Percy Bysshe Shelley, of course, writes in his “Defense Of Poetry” that poets write from a perspective beyond particular places or historical epochs. So the claim that art should deliver to us something of universal and eternal significance is nothing new. Arnold is asserting his neoclassical bent here: he derives from Aristotle’s Poetics the notion that literary art should be about “action,” about the construction of plot and story. Emotional expression is secondary to this imperative. As usual, Arnold is in dialogue with William Wordsworth, whose poetry he much admires but whose poetics he does not always agree with. We recall that Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, said that expression was the prime consideration and that action should simply be made to suit the expression. For Wordsworth, poetry is mainly an expressive vehicle; for Arnold , such a prescription is liable to result in morbid, unbalanced poetry. Somewhat like Thomas Carlyle, Arnold is telling us, “Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.” As for the moderns in comparison with the ancients, Arnold writes that “with us, attention is fixed mainly on the value of the separate thoughts and images which occur in the treatment of an action. They regarded the whole; we regard the parts. With them, the action predominated over the expression of it; with us, the expression predominates over the action.” It is action, not expression, that delivers to us a sense of an intelligible cosmos. Arnold is therefore very interested in the formal qualities and integrity of a given poem; he emphasizes craftsmanship over intensity of expression.

1378-79. At this point in his argument, Arnold offers some rather harsh words about his fellow critics. He says that they not only allow unhealthy practices, they promote “false aims.” Such critics, he says, are mostly interested in “detached expressions,” and are quite an interested in demanding a sense of the whole in any particular poem. They treat poetry like what we would call “sound bites.” But to treat words and indeed entire works of art this way is to divorce language or whatever medium we are dealing with from the realm of action. While Matthew Arnold is a great believer in the integrity and autonomy of art, he does not promote the idea that the composition of a literary work should amount to navel-gazing on the part of the artist. We do not, he insists, or rather we should not, favor a kind of art that amounts to “A true allegory of the state of one’s own mind.”

Also on this page, Arnold returns to the idea that a young writer must find suitable models. This advice obviously rejects the romantic idea that we can more or less dismiss our predecessors if we find them uncongenial and create something almost from nothing. What Arnold describes is not so much “the anxiety of influence” that, as Harold Bloom would say, caused romantic poets to struggle mightily against the overwhelming influence of John Milton. Rather, Arnold is pointing out that the sheer “multitude of voices counseling different things” threatens modern authors with a profound sense of incoherence when they most need clarity and balance. This is a prominent strain in Arnold’s thinking on art and culture more generally, and even on politics. I think we can understand him without too much trouble because we live in a time with an even larger “marketplace of ideas” from which we may choose. So many ideas, many of them utterly incompatible—how is one to choose amongst them? To use a contemporary phrase, Arnold suggests that modern humanity is beset by “information overload.”

1380-81. But what about Shakespeare as a model? Why not make the greatest of English literary artists our model? Well, Shakespeare’s gift of “abundant… and ingenious expression” may be remarkable, but it is not what we need. In Arnold’s view, Shakespeare was a bit too much in love with beautiful language and fine expression, so much so that it sometimes leads him away from sound construction and concentration on the actions with which his plays are concerned. Criticism on Shakespeare is punctuated by such gentle barbs—Ben Jonson essentially said he wished Shakespeare had had a good editor, that the man had “blotted out” more lines than he did. And Samuel Johnson lamented that the Bard was too fond of silly quibbles, too willing to let semi-obscene puns and the like mar the dignity and moral tenor of his dramas. I think what Arnold is getting at is that Shakespeare was a man of unparalleled artistry and genius who could give us both a complete action and fineness and intensity of expression, but when the other artists attempt to imitate his methods, the results fall short of the original’s mark. (By way of example, he mentions John Keats’s “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.” It is a poem full of beautiful lines, Arnold suggests, but what is it really about?) Even so, I wouldn’t deny that Arnold is offering a pointed criticism: he says explicitly that Shakespeare’s “gift of expression… rather even leads him astray, degenerating sometimes into a fondness for curiosity of expression….” If this fondness proceeds too far, by implication, we will end up with a work of art that is more eccentric than universal in its appeal. He caps this argument with Guizot’s delicious quip that “Shakespeare appears in his language to have tried all styles except that of simplicity.” If we admire and emulate what is least worthy of such attention in Shakespeare, his art may please us, but it may not improve us or give us a holistic view of life; it may not contribute to our development as whole human beings.

1382-83. Most of all, Arnold recommends the classics, for their “unity and profoundness of moral impression.” Furthermore, he writes of the “steadying and composing effect upon . . . [the] judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general” (1382) that stems from reading classical literature. Perhaps that’s partly why Alexander Pope said Virgil found that “to study Homer was to study Nature.” Arnold’s argument isn’t a diatribe against the modern world; he admits that “The present age makes great claims upon us” and that his classicists “wish neither to applaud nor to revile their age; they wish to know what it is, what it can give them, and whether this is what they want.” He concludes with the thought that progress is a threat mainly if it ignores what is best and most permanent about humanity; the “touchstone” of human nature must be retained amidst the Heraclitean flux of the modern world. His exhortation to fellow poets and readers is that they ought to “transmit to [future generations] the practice of poetry, with its boundaries and wholesome regulative laws,” even if his own generation is comprised mainly of dilettanti who find themselves unable to equal the ancients in their artistic brilliance or their power of thought and feeling. The argument he makes is paradoxical in that what he describes as permanent and natural in us seems to be threatened with extinction by the forces of modernity. As so often, we find a cultural critic dealing with the dilemma posed by the disjunction between broad social imperatives and individual needs and aspirations, and not finding any easy answers. But in his view, ancient art at least gives us some sense of the tranquility, nobility, and excellence of which we are capable.