29: The Week Ahead

Sorting today, I came across a folder of Ruskin’s quotes which, at one point or another, I shared with my students. Below’s one of these; one that, all but surely, I read at a week’s beginning, hoping to get my charges to think, just a little, about the buried treasure awaiting them in the seven days ahead.

Ruskin’s sentence appears at the end of the fifth chapter of the first volume of The Stones of Venice (1851). He has just spent some hundreds of pages showing his readers how great architecture is created or, better said, how the greatest of the world’s buildings all exhibit the same life-enhancing qualities (“lamps” he called them in The Seven Lamps of Architecture four years earlier), vital qualities which have been chosen, and then carefully carved into being by their chooser/creators. Reading the passage for the first time some years ago, it occurred to me that our author could have just as easily been talking about building the week before us–building, of course, not with stones, but with that spectrum of encounters we are about to experience with all those marvelous (and sometimes not so marvelous) folks who, at this very moment, are waiting, some surely with barely bated breath, to see us tomorrow morning, while still others save their encounters until later in the week–as, hopefully, the pictures which follow the quote (all taken during our recent trip to Venice) suggest.

I [now] leave my reader free to build, and with what a freedom! All the lovely forms of the universe set before him [from which ] to choose, and all the lovely lines that bound their substance or guide their motion, and of all these lines–and there are myriads of myriads in every bank of grass and every tuft of forest, and groups of them divinely harmonized; in the bell of every flower, and in every several member of every bird and beast–what must be the infinity of treasure of them all! There is enough in a single flower for the adornment of a score of cathedrals…

Ruskin's Old Road VII (b) (2014)--Venice 291

Ruskin's Old Road VII (b) (2014)--Venice 137
Ruskin's Old Road VII (b) (2014)--Venice 064

Have a wonderful week.

🙂

Jim

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2 Responses to 29: The Week Ahead

  1. Mark Frost says:

    Thanks for this Jim. It’s a lovely passage. One of the things I love about Ruskin’s architectural ideas is that he uses the idea of building in such a broad and all-encompassing manner. He’s not really that interested in the formal features of buildings, but in what acts of building mean and can offer to us as human beings. In one of my favourite passages on this subject, from ‘Of Leaf Beauty’ in Modern Painters V, Ruskin summarises some of the findings he had discovered whilst trying to describe the primal building tasks undertaken by trees. Trees, for Ruskin, are the ultimate builders, and show us, above all, how we should construct societies as well as buildings. Trees, he says, are built through a kind of co-operative joy felt by the leaves as they make compromises in order to ensure an equitable distribution of light. Victorian society can, he says in this passage, learn an awful lot from their example (and so, I suspect, can we):

    ‘There is yet another and a deeply laid lesson to be received from the leaf-builders, which I hope the reader has already perceived. Every leaf, we have seen, connects its work with the entire and accumulated result of the work of its predecessors. Their previous construction served it during its life, raised it towards the light, gave it more free sway and motion in the wind, and removed it from the noxiousness of earth exhalation. Dying, it leaves its own small but well-laboured thread, adding, though imperceptibly, yet essentially, to the strength, from roof to crest, of the trunk on which it had lived, and fitting that trunk for better service to succeeding races of leaves.

    We men, sometimes, in what we presume to be humility, compare ourselves with leaves; but we have as yet no right to do so. The leaves may well scorn the comparison. We, who live for ourselves, and neither know how to use nor keep the work of past time, may humbly learn,—as from the ant, foresight,—from the leaf, reverence. The power of every great people, as of every living tree, depends on its not effacing, but confirming and concluding, the labours of its ancestors. Looking back to the history of nations, we may date the beginning of their decline from the moment when they ceased to be reverent in heart, and accumulative in hand and brain; from the moment when the redundant fruit of age hid in them the hollowness of heart, whence the simplicities of custom and sinews of tradition had withered away. Had men but guarded the righteous laws, and protected the precious works of their fathers, with half the industry they have given to change and to ravage, they would not now have been seeking vainly, in millennial visions and mechanic servitudes, the accomplishment of the promise made to them so long ago: “As the days of a tree are the days of My people, and Mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands; they shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth for trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the Lord, and their offspring with them”’. (Modern Painters V; Cook and Wedderburn 7. 99-100)

    • jimspates says:

      This is a marvelous, thoughtful, and helpful comment, Mark; for which, many thanks! I think your analogy about trees’ building being a metaphor for our lives, whether single or collective, is exactly right. Interestingly enough, when I came to the last pages of my book on Helen Viljoen’s “Life of Ruskin,” the story of which, as you know, ended, in her mind at least, badly because she never did publish her great biography of her great man, I was thinking about how sad it was that there was no marker on her grave at Beechwoods Cemetery near New York City–her choice! her tactic acknowledgement of her sense of failure as a scholar. I was trying to find an appropriate epigram which, at least in fantasy, might be carved on that non-existent gravestone. I did. You will like the one I chose. See below. (By the way, as you know–but in the context of thinking of anyone else who might read this comment–there now IS a marker on her grave, the funds for which were contributed by various folk who care much for Mr. Ruskin and who particularly admired her remarkable “Life of Ruskin,” published biography or not.) Thanks again for your remarks.

      Jim

      EPILOGUE (to The Imperfect Round: Helen Gill Viljoen’s Life of Ruskin

      The Well-Tempered Thread

      Once again I am imaginatively back at Lot 1044—bothered, given what I know of Helen Viljoen’s courage as a human being and of her great accomplishments as a Ruskin scholar, not only by the fact that there is no marker on her grave, but that, even if there were, there is nothing at the site which might tell a later, curious visitor something useful about who she was.

      Few people have ever been more familiar with Ruskin’s works than Helen. Thus we can readily assume she would have known well the fragment of Robert Browning’s “A Grammarian’s Funeral” which appears in The Stones of Venice, one of Ruskin’s great books about buildings and their importance in and for the world. The stanza seems to capture almost perfectly—if one can use such a phrase in the present context—the arc and meaning of her imperfect round:

      That low man seeks a little thing to do,
      Sees it and does it:
      This high man with a great thing to pursue,
      Dies ere he knows it.

      The lines, carved on stone and placed over the small plot, would, I believe, make a fine epitaph. Except for one thing: they are not Ruskin’s lines. So perhaps the passage below—which would require a somewhat larger stone—might prove more adequate for summing the essence of the life and work of Helen Gill Viljoen. Appropriately enough (given her insights into the deepest levels of meaning in Ruskin’s work), in these sentences from Modern Painters V, her hero, as was his regular practice, was writing on both the literal and allegorical levels, outlining the universal meanings which surround the life of the leaf—for itself, the tree, and nature—but also for us, leaves of another sort:

      There is yet another and a deeply laid lesson to be received from the leaf-builders…Every leaf, we have seen, connects its work with the entire and accumulated result of the work of its predecessors. Their previous construction served it during its life, raised it towards the light, gave it more free sway and motion in the wind, and removed it from the noxiousness of earth exhalation. Dying, it leaves its own small but well-laboured thread, adding, though imperceptibly, yet essentially, to the strength, from roof to crest, of the trunk on which it had lived, and fitting that trunk for better service to succeeding races of leaves.

      One suspects that Helen would not have been displeased to have these lovely words of her master’s, on clear days and cloudy, watching over her.

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