77: Spirit in the Night


A dear friend, one deeply disappointed–as am I, as are many caring others whom we know and love–in the outcome of the recent election here in America, well aware of my love of Mr. Ruskin, asked me a few days ago what that eminent might say in reaction to such a great disappointment, one which had upset so many hopes for what so many imagined would be the most progressive and humane future for our country. I replied, knowing that Ruskin had faced many disappointments in his life which quite literally forced him to think through what he should do next, that I had a pretty good idea. He would say, I said, something like this: “Search your heart. Find there something that you are especially good at doing which you know will be helpful to others, and do that.”

It was 1859, and Ruskin was completing the final, fifth, volume of his acclaimed Modern Painters books. He had struggled with this last essay from its start, unsure of what he should say to bring his long argument–which began with the publication of the first volume in 1843–to meaningful conclusion. He was awash with sadness, having decided (to his horror) over the course of the previous year or two, that all his books–the entirety of the Modern Painters series, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the three volume The Stones of Venice,  not to mention dozens of public lectures, had missed their mark, and that widely. The intent of all had been not to entertain his readers with his remarkable prose, but to get them to recognize that this world was a glorious gift from God, a place designed for our perpetual happiness, a place so wonderful, so full of wonders, that, seeing such, they would be moved not merely to enjoy it, but communicate that love to their children, and undertake to do whatever was necessary to preserve those rapidly vanishing marvels. But his readers had missed the message. They had loved his words, had, as a result of that admiration, made him into the most famous art critic in the world–a status which, as he saw it, was as nothing. He had failed.

And so he was brought face to face with the night, was forced to find a way to finish his book with no clear idea whether what he was writing was what needed writing, finish it with no clear idea of where he should go next. Which led him to consider the meaning of the night itself.

Given my sense that many of us are in a similar predicament, it occurred to me that what he had to say about the night in that last volume of Modern Painters might be of some use. Here it is:   

[O]ur happiness as thinking beings must depend on our being content to accept only partial knowledge, even in those matters which chiefly concern us. If we insist upon perfect intelligibility and complete declaration in every moral subject, we shall instantly fall into misery of unbelief. Our whole happiness and power of energetic action depend upon our being able to breathe and live in the  cloud, content to see it opening here, and closing there; rejoicing to catch through the thinnest of films of it, glimpses of stable and substantial things, but yet perceiving a nobleness even in the concealment, and rejoicing that the kindly veil is spread where the untempered light might have scorched, or the infinite clearness wearied us…

I think that every rightly constituted mind ought to rejoice, not so much in knowing anything clearly, as in feeling that there is infinitely more which it cannot know…[T]he pleasure is…in knowing that the journey is endless, the treasure inexhaustible–watching the cloud still march before [us] with its summitless pillar, and being sure that, to the end of time, and to the length of eternity, it will still open farther and farther, the dimness being the sign and necessary adjunct of the inexhaustibleness.

Before a year had passed after he published these words, following a deep searching of his heart, Ruskin found an alternative path to travel. He determined that he would write a book which would be the first direct and systematic attack denouncing the inhumanities of the laissez-faire capitalist ethos dominating his (and still our) age. And so began a decade of writing intense social criticism…a period of which we have frequently spoken before and certainly will have occasion to speak of again.

Be well out there.

Until next time.



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