As the 1860s wound to a close, Ruskin was once again despondent, convinced, as had been the case a decade before when he was sure that the deepest messages he wished to communicate in his art and architecture criticism had fallen on deaf ears. With few exceptions, the 1860s was the decade when he published the bulk of his radical–better said: his humane–sociology. Unto this Last, a direct attack on the erroneous and harmful assumptions lying at the center (it would be wrong to say “the heart”!) of laissez-faire capitalism, appeared in 1860; Munera Pulveris, an extension of the arguments set out in Unto this Last, appeared in serial form in 1863; The Crown of Wild Olive, a collection of bracing (actually, blistering) lectures he gave on “work,” “war,” “trafficking” and “The Future of England” came next in 1866; finally, Time and Tide, a series of letters outlining how a good society should be structured, appeared in 1867. Not surprisingly, for having the temerity to print such uncensored critiques (for saying, in effect, as George Bernard Shaw would summarize it in 1919 in praise-laden remarks commemorating the centennial of Ruskin’s birth, that most people involved in business, especially the most powerful and richest, were “a parcel of thieves”), Ruskin was regularly and roundly criticized. They weren’t listening or, if they were, they refused to hear what they heard.
So, not unlike a sailor bucking a resistant wind, he chose to change tack, and published a book which probably no one expected: a book on mythology. More specifically, a book on Greek mythology. More specifically still, a book on the myths attending the great goddess Athena, whose spirit–as the Greeks (and Ruskin) believed–was charged with enlivening and bestowing on us the very source of life, the Air. His object was to help us see that the beneficence which is the air not only surrounds us, it is in us, is us. To make the point, he asked his readers to consider the essence of a smaller being most of us note only in passing, the bird.
(I had originally thought to include some lovely photographs with this passage. Many, and many of these exceptional, are available. But then I thought better of it. The only images we need are those which our author brings to our minds as his words weave their magic, providing us with another instance of his unparalleled ability to help us see the world anew.)
…is little more than a drift of the air brought into form by plumes. The air is in all its quills; it breathes through its whole frame and flesh, and glows with air in its flying, like a blown flame. It rests upon the air, subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it; is the air, conscious of itself, conquering itself, ruling itself.
Also, into the throat of the bird is given the voice of the air. All that in the wind itself is weak, wild, useless in sweetness is knit together in its song. As we may imagine the wild form of the cloud closed into the perfect form of the bird’s wings, so the wild voice of the cloud is centered in its ordered and commanded voice; unwearied, rippling through the clear heaven in its gladness, interpreting all intense passion through the soft spring nights, bursting into acclaim and rapture of choir at daybreak, or lisping and twittering among the boughs and hedges through heat of day, like little winds that only make the cowslip bells shake, and ruffle the petals of the wild rose.
Also, upon the plumes of the bird are put the colors of the air. On these there lives the gold of the cloud that cannot be gathered by any covetousness, the rubies of the clouds that are not the price of Athena, but are Athena, the vermilion of the cloud-bar and the flame of the cloud-crest, and the snow of the cloud, and its shadow, and the melted blue of the deep wells of the sky. All these, seized by the creating spirit, and woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume, with wave on wave following and fading along breast, and throat, and opened wings, infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the sea-sand, even the white down of the cloud seeming to flutter up between the stronger plumes–seen, but too soft for touch.
And so the Spirit of the Air is put into, and upon, this created form, and becomes, through twenty centuries, the symbol of Divine help, descending, as the Fire, to speak, but as the Dove, to bless.
And if this goodly air which is freely and happily given by Athena (who is not merely a myth but a living presence existing all about us if we would but look for her) imparts life and beauty to the lovely, lowly bird, how could it not be the case that that same hallowed air sanctifies the life and beauty which blesses us? And, if that is so, then how is it possible (for alas it is!) for any of us to conceive of nature as an enemy, as a thing to be conquered and exploited, rather than be seen as an essence to be embraced and revered for the good it imparts to all?
The greatest myths, in other words, tell us truths, essential ones, which, otherwise, are inaccessible.
To be continued…