26: An Infinitude (Three Ruskins, One Dante)

Good Folks,

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about spending time with Mr. Ruskin is that, at any given moment, while reading any given thing, be it about art, or plants, or mountains, or religion, or education, or social ills, a sentence or an image appears which, immediately, you recognize as truth, truth conveyed in prose so “right” you simply know it cannot be better put: the incandescent rendering conveys the truth. As I noted in our first post, there are an infinitude of such passages. To come across them is serendipity ceaseless: you simply didn’t see them coming.

Here’s one from his 1876 Christmas letter to the working people of Britain. Even though it appears in a work, Fors Clavigera, published almost thirty years after The Stones of Venice, it extends, in a slightly different direction, the passage from that earlier book I used as the centerpiece of our last post. (If you think of the phrase “helpful and to the very best of your ability,” you will have a sense of what he means by “good.”) If you wish to be satisfied in this life, Ruskin tells his readers, here

are the first terms I put to you for oath: that you will do good work whether you live or die, and [if you do this] you will lie down at night, whether hungry or weary, at least in peace of heart and surety of honor.

Here’s a second, from a small book, The Ethics of the Dust, he wrote in the early 1860s for a group of imaginary schoolgirls to whom he was an equally imaginary “Old Lecturer.” Good advice to them. Good advice to our students still. (I read this passage in my Introduction to Sociology course every year, usually early in the semester. At first, they listen with faces perplexed, as though the words touching their ears had come from some unknown galaxy, one even beyond those visited by the Starship Enterprise. As I go on reading, by turns, most of the faces gegin to render disbelief, then, as the writer’s message starts to sink in, dismissal arrives: “Is this meant to be serious? True story.) As a student, Ruskin says,

you should strive to know what it is desirable and honorable to know, [and know these things] as completely as possible. [In short,] you should know what you ought to know, to know what is worthy of your nature and helpful to your life–to know that–nothing less, nothing more–and keep record and definition of such such knowledge near you in most vivid and explanatory form every day.

Here’s the third, a direct consequence of my trip to the dentist earlier today. I had gone to this venerable’s office so that a crown could be fitted. It was a process which demanded that that fine and capable fellow make frequent trips to his lab to adjust the new addition in order that the fit would be perfect (there was no doubt in my mind that he was doing good work and earning his right to lie down peacefully that night). During these intervals, I entertained (not sure that is the right word) myself by leafing through a recent issue of People magazine that had been left in the waiting room for his patients’ perusal (that last is definitely not the right word!).  You may have seen it, the August issue where the cover story was a report, forty-five years on, by Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra, of how the grisly murder near Hollywood of Sharon and a number of other very unfortunate souls who had happened to be in the wrong place at a very wrong time by Charlie Manson and his gang of worshipful fanatics had adversely affected herself and others close to her, the issue with the unhappy story of actor Meg Ryan’s breakup (after six struggle-filled years) with rock star John Mellencamp as well as the happy story of model Christie Brinkley’s “Beyond Stunning Beach House” in East Hampton. I think some of my students read People. At least someone does because, as I was checking the web just now, I learned that 4.7 million people “liked” the issue just mentioned and that 5.7 million people “Followed” People‘s weekly issues on the internet!  All of which reminded me of this brief sentence from Modern Painters II:

If we submit ourselves to authority or fashion, and close our eyes, we will, by custom, be made to tolerate, and even to love, long for, that which is naturally painful and pernicious to us.

An infinitude.

That brings me, finally, to Dante (whom Ruskin revered). Specifically to some lines (from the very excellent John Ciardi translation) in the “Inferno” section of The Divine Comedy–Canto XV, ls. 79-87. (I’ll let you look up the canto, if you’ve a mind, to discover why it was that Dante found one of his greatest heroes in the upper region of that horrific lower region). When I first read the passage (and reread it a number of times more), it seemed to express perfectly why I revere Ruskin, and express why I am grateful, each day, for the gifts he gives, not the least among them being thoughts–prophylactics, really–like the above.

“Ah,” said the great Florentine poet,

  • had I my wish,” I [Dante] answered then,
  • “You would not yet be banished from the world
  • In which you were a radiance among men.
  • For that sweet image, gentle and paternal,
  • You were to me in the world, when, hour by hour,
  • You taught me how man makes himself eternal,
  • Lives in my mind, and now strikes to my heart.
  • And while I live, the gratitude I owe it
  • Will speak to men out of my life and art.”

I wish you all very good nights.

🙂

Jim

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