68: Vital Energy in the Heart


Today’s Ruskin remarks continue the theme of what we might do (last two posts) during those difficult days when sequestered hearts have either taken or threaten to take the reins and reigns. It comes from what is surely one of Ruskin’s least read writings, The Ethics of the Dust, an imagined dialogue between an “Old Lecturer” and a group of young girls at an English nineteenth century finishing school. The putative subject of this little volume was and remains “the elements of crystallization”–which, considering what’s below, was certainly true on a symbolic as well as a geological level. Ethics is an odd book. Published in 1866, there can be little question that it is a metaphoric continuation of Ruskin’s “political economy,” yet another attempt to set his contemporaries on the right path in the face of his (once) green and pleasant land’s eager, not to say voracious, adoption of the principles of laissez-faire capitalism. But, unlike Unto this Last (1860), and Munera Pulveris (1863)–his first forays into political economic debate (both of which were met with “violent reprobation”–his term for the abuse)–Ethics was, for all intents and purposes, ignored. Hardly anyone saw what he was more deeply up to, and even his most fervent admirers were put off by the dialogic form of writing he chose. As a result, almost no one bought it and, before long, it disappeared into the more obscure corners of his day’s bookshops.

But like nearly everything of Ruskin’s, it rewards perusal. (A couple of phrases from today’s offering appeared our first post (“An Introduction to this Site”), but here, perhaps more usefully, they can be read in the context of his original argument.) There are undercurrents too. Throughout most of the 1860s, Ruskin was associated with the Winnington School for Girls in the northwest of England, and, on many afternoons, he met with a favorite group of students to chat about matters of life, social mores, and, of course, crystallization. The heart of these discussions he reframed into the “lecture chapters” of The Ethics of the Dust. One, titled “The Crystal Quarrels,” contains the excerpt below. We know too that a number of the “characters” who appear in the Ethics dialogues are modeled on the girls of Winnington. It is also obvious to anyone who has read that great Greek master that the dialogue format Ruskin employed for getting his lessons “across” was modeled on the dialogues of his most beloved (and regularly read) tutor of antiquity, Plato.

There is deep autobiographic significance in the passage as well. From 1859 on–the year he turned to political economy writing in earnest–Ruskin had to fight strenuously against his parents’ wishes (primarily his father’s) that he not publish such inflammatory material, laden as it always was with arguments which, however laudable, would offend many and sully his fine reputation as the most highly regarded art and architecture critic of the age. In which light, today’s sentences can be viewed as a barely veiled justification of the oppositional path he determined to take, a resounding reply to his parents’ (although by the time the book appeared his father had been dead for two years) and his many critics alike. Finally, we find a foreshadowing, comments pertaining to a “vowed brotherhood” dedicated solely to the “doing of justice” in England. A half decade later, in the early 1870s, he would make a direct plea to his readers, entreating them to help him to form just such a group, an association of dragon-slayers he would call, first, “The St. George’s Company” and, not long after, “The Guild of St George” (see Post 50 for its still moving creed). One other note: “Casella”–who puts in an appearance near the end of this selection–was a dear friend of Dante’s, a singer of magnificence whom the poet (another hero of Ruskin’s) not only knew on this side of life, but someone whom he wished very much to meet on the other side: see Purgatorio, ii, 107 seq.

As the passage begins, the “Old Lecturer” is telling his charges about “self-sacrifice” and, as is almost always the case, offering a definition quite antithetical to most people’s common understanding of that phrase. “Now, Dora,” he begins, “you should be perfectly clear by now that…”

…the will of God respecting us is that we shall live by each other’s happiness and life, not by each other’s misery or death….[Consider, for example,] the relations of parent and child…[They are emblematic] of all beautiful human help. A child may have to die for its parents, but the purpose of Heaven is that it shall rather live for them; that, not by sacrifice, but by its strength, its joy, its force of being, it shall be to them [a perpetual] renewal of strength….

So it is in all other right relations. Men help each other by their joy, not by their sorrow. They are not intended to slay themselves for each other, but to strengthen themselves for each other. And among the many apparently beautiful things which turn, through mistaken use, to utter evil, I am not sure but that the thoughtlessly meek and self-sacrificing spirit of good men must be named as one of the fatalest. We have so often been taught that there is a virtue in mere suffering… The one thing that a good man has to do and to see done is justice. He is neither to slay himself nor others causelessly.  So far from denying himself–since he is pleased by good–he is to do his utmost to get his pleasure accomplished.  And I only wish there were strength, fidelity, and sense enough among the good Englishmen of this day to render it possible for them to band together in a vowed brotherhood, to enforce, by strength of heart and hand, the doing of human justice among all who came within their sphere. And finally, for your own teaching, observe, although there may be need for much self-sacrifice and self-denial in the correction of faults of character, the moment the character is formed, the self-denial ceases. Nothing is really well done which it costs you pain to do.

VIOLET:  But surely, sir, you are always pleased with us when we try to please others, and not ourselves?

OLD LECTURER.  My dear child, in the daily course and discipline of right life, we must continually and reciprocally submit and surrender in all kind and courteous and affectionate ways…[but] these submissions and ministries to each other…are as good for the yielder as the receiver. They strengthen and perfect as much as they soften and refine. But the real sacrifice of all our strength, or life, or happiness to others…is yet always a mournful and momentary necessity, not the fulfillment of the continuous law of being. Self-sacrifice which is sought after, and triumphed in, is usually foolish and calamitous in its issue, and by the sentimental proclamation and pursuit of it, good people have not only made most of their own lives useless but the whole framework of their religion so hollow that, at this moment, while the English nation–with its lips!–pretends to teach every man to “love his neighbor as himself” [Matthew 19: 19], with its hands and feet it clutches and tramples like a wild beast and practically lives, every soul of it that can, on other people’s labor.

Briefly, the constant duty of every man to his fellows is to ascertain his own powers and special gifts, and to strengthen them for the help of others.  Do you think Titian would have helped the world better by denying himself and not painting, or Casella by denying himself and not singing?  The real virtue is to be ready to sing the moment people ask us… The very word “virtue” means, not “conduct,” but “strength,” the vital energy in the heart!

Red is a good color for this one, don’t you think? There seem to be various types of reds around these days, some of these, unhappily, promise, if we are not careful, to be of considerably long and most unsettling duration. In the above instance, however, we have, simultaneously, a physical representation of this warm and scarlet subject, and, if we listen to (and follow) the advice given by The Old Lecturer to his young audience, the promise of a finer future.

Be well out there!

Until next time.



P.S. Below are some visuals that might help you “set the scene” for this post.

The first is a drawing of Winnington Hall done close to the time when Ruskin wrote The Ethics of the Dust. I’ve not been able to learn the name of the artist. If anyone knows, do let me in on the secret!

The second, of the Hall as it looks today, is a photo taken from essentially the same location where the drawing was made. As you can see, at some point, some of Winnington was “Tudorized.” Ruskin would have heartily disapproved. Winnington was–and remains–most decidedly not a Tudor structure! The reason for his dislike is simple to relate: Tudor structures are imbued with the spirit of Tudor time and culture. (The same can be said of any architectural styles which dominates an era or culture.) It is impossible for those living at a later time to infuse their reconstruction with that long-gone spirit. As a result, all such “redoings” are merely copies and, not possessing the spirit of those who built in the style being copied, are “untruthful,” have a certain “dead” or “artificial” quality to them, a feeling tone that, unfortunately but inevitably, transmits itself to all “modern” users and viewers, impoverishing the experience of both. If you’d like to read more about this, read the chapter entitled “The Lamp of Truth” in Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture.)

The third is a watercolor of two of Winnington’s students of the type who would have met regularly for tea and chat in the afternoon with “The Old Lecturer” (think “Dora” and “Violet”!). Once again, I do not know who the artist might be; any thoughts?

Next follows a photo of a plaque honoring Winnington’s most famous teacher. It can be found above the fireplace right inside the main entry hall.

Lastly, there’s a picture of the cover of Van Akin Burd’s Ruskin classic, The Winnington Letters of John Ruskin. I wrote a little about this book and its importance in Post #52. Van considered Winnington his “most important book” because of the transcendent beauty of the letters it contained, letters which Ruskin wrote throughout the 1860s to his students at Winnington. If you’d like to revel in that glorious prose (reading missives he never intended to publish), you could not find a better place to spend some quiet hours. You can find the book easily (and cheaply) here: The Winnington Letters.

Sketch of Winnington Hall

Girls at Winnington Hall


Van--The Winnington Letters Cover

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