67: Exits and High Tides (We Live by Admiration, Hope and Love)

Well, things haven’t eased up much in the world stress department since our last post. (To review this post and the fine comments which arrived in response to it, click here. To all who took the considered, not to mention considerable, time it took to respond, many, many thanks!) That missive was a reaction to the UK’s most surprising vote–called Brexit–to leave the European Union so that that it might go it alone and leave that defective–or so those who voted to leave would describe it–collective to fend for itself without its northwestern islands. That determination, I suggested, was particularly ill-advised, went directly against Mr. Ruskin’s carefully considered advice (not that many of those voting knew such advice existed–more’s the pity), advice which, if you’ll recall, was simple but profound, to wit:

Government and Cooperation are, in all things and eternally, the Laws of Life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the Laws of Death.

These short sentences still seem, at least to me, like one of those verities we all should be taught when we are small sailors–to use as a beacon for navigating those perilous waters we shall surely encounter on our personal and collective voyages. But (alas), these days, very few of us are so taught.

In further email responses to the approaching difficulties that already have or will consequence from Brexit, Clive Wilmer, currently the Master of Ruskin’s Guild of St. George, shared a number of poignant reminders of how important EU membership has been for and in the UK over the years, reminders which did not appear in the “Comments” which resulted from my original post. Here they are:

A nearby village Comprehensive School here in the UK has an international program for disadvantaged children across Europe. It has been closed down in the last week because EU funding will now end. A good friend has been to a meeting of the heads of the Cambridge Colleges today. The Vice-Chancellor announced that many of the European graduate students with places to study at Cambridge next year have now withdrawn because, although they have funding, they cannot face coming to a country that rejects foreigners in this way. The University was on course to receive more than £450 million of EU funding for research projects. This will now cease. As for our other university in Cambridge, Anglia Ruskin, I am told that ¾ of its funding comes from the EU. That, presumably, will cease. Sugarmark, a start-up company aiming to become an international benchmark for low-sugar products is moving its HQ to the US, primarily because we have left the EU. Many of the banks and other institutions in The City of London [“The City” being the one square mile in the center of London which has served as the principal locus of UK commerce for centuries] are likely to move. Morgan Stanley announced its departure the day the referendum result was announced. As a result, London will cease to be the financial capital of Europe. All these are random facts and comments I have picked up. I say nothing of industry or agriculture, though it’s clear that they will suffer terribly and I fear mass unemployment will be the result. Although those in favor of Brexit argued that they would be able to carry on vibrant trading with China and the US, it seems very unlikely that they are right to any significant degree.

Whether specific policies or tendencies of the EU were right or not, it seems to me that a small bunch of self-interested, right-wing demagogues have driven us out of a community to which we have belonged for 40 years. Most of the people who voted “No” are probably unaware of how much the EU has contributed to our lives. At the Guild [of St. George’s] Board meeting last week, we were all in a state of grief. I shall never forget John Iles explaining, for the benefit of our newly hired administrator, how our land in the Wyre Forest is funded. [Ruskin was one of the first to argue that a healthy life was one lived close to the land, where people grew and grazed their own food, built their own houses, and the like. In an attempt to put his principles into modern action, some few years ago the Guild purchased land in the Wyre Forest near Birmingham. Those presently living and working there put those principles into practice.] John went through the different things–which included a large EU grant – paused halfway through a sentence, and  said “used to be funded by that.” It is in the detail of everyday life one sees where the difference will strike. I think of the Erasmus Program which enables my students to go and study in other EU countries free, and of the students I have taught who have been similarly funded, and of the social relations between students as well as the knowledge and experience gained from these experiences: all that is now gone. Most importantly though, there is the co-operation of governments that has kept the peace in the post-1945 world. I wouldn’t say that the EU is a Ruskinian institution (but then Ruskin would not have agreed with much in modern democracy). Its faults are real, but could have been addressed. The tragedy is that we have lost the immense good done by the cooperation the EU allowed

This vote has resulted in self-harm on a massive scale.  

It is difficult to see, by any stretch of the imagination, why all of the above losses, however small, are not indices of “self-harm” spreading “on a massive scale,” a self-harm which, like a unexpectedly high tide, causes, as it rises, damage in all the nooks and crannies that, until its arrival, seemed safe. (It is useful to remember that Hurricane Sandy, which inundated New Jersey and New York in 2012 and caused “harm on a massive scale,” was only a Category 1 (of 5) storm.) What then might be done as these unhappy waters inexorably rise? What would–or better asked, what did, Ruskin do in the wake of great disappointments?

A couple of years ago Clive Wilmer and I met in New York City. Among the particular pleasures attending that remeeting was a chance to conduct an interview for The Guild of St. George’s annual publication, The Companion, an interview with one of the greatest writers on Ruskin of the last half century and more, Columbia University Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, John Rosenberg. [If you are interested in reading the complete interview, click here: The Companion 2014 (pp. 22-25).] We spoke of many things of course, but inevitably all of us–considerably interested in Ruskin’s life as well as his work–came around to the numerous and intense tragedies which visited his days. Some of these were personal (the death of the love of his life, Rose La Touche, being among the most painful); some were occasioned by what he regarded as the failure of his work to make the world into a better place. About these, John Rosenberg, with his usual eloquence, said:

I remember that it was sometime not long after 1871 and Ruskin is in a period of total intellectual vertigo and says about this that he feels as though he were a seabird—and this is an exact quote—”a seabird with no sands to settle upon.

You know, when I think about Ruskin, the thing I most admire is his inner strength, his resilience. I mean, God knows he was battered time and again. But he always managed to come back. And the recoveries seemed quite complete. Of course, they always carried with them the seeds of his next collapse. But what strength, what brilliance! The sheer courage or primeval strength of the man! It’s remarkable!

It took Ruskin some time to recover from the high tides of disappointment he experienced in the early 1870s. But to his credit–instancing that special spirit that Rosenberg was to commend a century and a half later–in anticipation of what would be needed to survive unexpected tides, he had already begun to construct a breakwater. Consider these sentences from his remarkable lecture of 1969, “The Mystery of Life and its Arts”:

[Many] symbols have been given often to show the evanescence and slightness of our lives—the foam upon the water, the grass on the housetop, the vapor that vanishes away. Yet none of these are images of true human life. That life, when it is real, is not evanescent, is not slight, does not vanish away. Every noble life leaves the fiber of it interwoven forever in the work of the world. By so much, evermore, the strength of the human race has gained, is more stubborn in the root, is higher towards heaven in the branch…

And so, as the eight decade of the nineteenth century dawned, painfully aware that his thousands of pages, all advocating for a better world, had fallen on deaf or dulled ears, he decided to create The St. Georges’s Company (forerunner of The Guild of St. George), the intent of which was to bring together a group of like-minded others, who, together, would live lives of wholesomeness, taking care of themselves and each other while shunning, like the plague itself, the temptation he called the “rage to be rich” which framed and undermined the lives of so many of his Industrial Revolutionized fellows.

Another breakwater was to remind those that still read him of what had been the purpose of every one of the pages which had come from his pen: to reaffirm the veracity and indestructibility of the great principles which undergirded human life in all times and all places. Nothing, he said (in an essay praising the art of Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1875),

that I tell you is mine. It is either David’s, or Solomon’s, or Plato’s, or Hesiod’s, or Chaucer’s… [T]he teaching and main dividing of all that I have written is given in one line of Wordsworth’s: “We live by admiration, hope, and love”…

Understanding always that the admiration is not of ourselves only, and the hope not for ourselves only. I do not add the love not of ourselves only, for, as we often use that word, self-love is a contradiction in terms. Love can be only of others. Only vulgar pride, vulgar indulgence, can center in ourselves… 

The first volumes of this large series of my works [he means, principally, the five volumes of Modern Painters, the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, and The Seven Lamps of Architecture] were [written] to communicate, if I could, the power of admiration. The books I am writing now [essentially the sociological works which began appearing in 1860, Unto this Last, The Crown of Wild Olive, Time and Tide, and the series of letters then being written to the working people of England, Fors Clavigera] are intended to communicate, if I can, what faculty I have of hope and of compassion.

These [three qualities] being, I know–and tell you of a surety–the three constituent strengths of the human soul, the threefold accord which cannot be broken, and which only Death can loose…

The short of it being that, beaten down, criticized, deemed by legions of his former praisers to be “no longer relevant” (because he refused to cease saying things those earlier admirers did not wish to hear), he marshaled his forces and set out to face the rising tide once more. (For his determination to sail on in the face of widespread hostility and indifference, see the opening paragraphs of the first letter of his Fors Clavigera series: Post 33.) Only to be, in time, swamped again. Only, in response to that threat, to bail as much as was needed, and launch again. Modeling, in that resistance and determination to find new paths through resentful waves, the spirit and dignity that John Rosenberg so admired, becoming in the re-sailings–without intending to–a beacon: reminding us of how we too might choose to address the high tides when they arrive; reminding us, time and again, time and again, as long as he had the breath to do it, that, always, if we hoped to avert “self-harm on a massive scale,” we should always remember that  

Government and Cooperation are, in all things and eternally, the Laws of Life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the Laws of Death.

Until next sailing. Be well out there!


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1 Response to 67: Exits and High Tides (We Live by Admiration, Hope and Love)

  1. cw291 says:

    It is very good of you, Jim, to quote me at such length. My remarks were pretty random and they were not meant to be particularly Ruskinian, except insofar as I think of myself as one of that great man’s disciples and therefore cannot avoid him. But as many of our friends have pointed out, there is much in the EU that Ruskin could never have approved of. For example, the EU is enslaved to the neo-liberal model of free market competition that in its 19th century form Ruskin excoriated and it is administered by a top-heavy bureaucracy that is bound to inhibit enterprise, imagination and creativity. Look around you, however, and tell me where you DON’T find those faults in our contemporary world, which has embarked on a journey it is increasingly — certainly since 2008 — regretting. We are not going to beat that model of economic and social organisation — or should I say non-organisation? — by abandoning co-operation. For the good thing about the EU is that it represents an attempt to bring the nations of Europe together in collaborative mode and for the avoidance of conflict. For centuries, at intervals of on average every forty years, the countries of Western Europe have gone to war with one another, eventually dragging the whole world in after them. If you think of the last four of those conflicts — the Napoleonic War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Great War and the Second World War — you are contemplating a recurrent trauma of chaos and blood-letting which was to culminate in 1945 in what looked like the destruction of everything good that Europe had done since the time of the ancient Greeks. Yet out of that trauma six Western countries created the European Coal and Steel community, which led to the Common Market, and then the European Economic Community, and then the European Union. There has been no sign since 1945 of an eagerness to replace such co-operation with ‘competition and the Laws of Death’. It has been an attempt, often in detail misguided, to create a Europe that served the well-being of its people. It is this that that the British have, by a small majority abandoned.
    Nearly 50 years ago, when I was a young man visiting Rome for the first time, I stopped a middle-aged man in the street to ask him the way to my destination. ‘I’m going in that direction,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you there myself.’ We walked a short distance and found the place, but before he left me he asked me — a little to my puzzlement — if he could buy me a drink. We went into a bar and as we picked up our glasses, he explained himself. ‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘I always, when I can, buy English people a drink. Just over two decades ago, your country risked its survival to save civilization. We Italians should be eternally thankful.’ I have rarely been so moved or so proud. But it will go down in history that, some fifty years later, the country that behaved with such nobility then abandoned its friends and the struggle for civility. If Mme Le Pen wins the next election in France, as she may well do, we shall be seen as the country that began the process of returning to self-destruction.

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