127: Curiosity


It seems to me that an indicator of an exceptional spirit is unceasing curiosity. Many, many, posts ago, I shared Ruskin’s remarkable celebration of the sky and its eternal, ever-changing, clouds. It came from the first volume of Modern Painters (2: The Wondrous Sky) Published in 1843, it is one of those passages which, no matter how many times you read it, you feel as Virginia Woolf did as she immersed herself in Modern Painters: “as if all the fountains of the English language had been set playing in the sunlight for our pleasure”!

But–Ruskin would insist–his words (on which he worked assiduously and which he knew to be beautifully arranged) were never the point–the marvel that is Nature was, and remains, the point: in this case, the sky was the point. The purpose of his passage was to help us see the sky, so that, having recognized it for the miracle it is, we would realize that we could return to it time and again as a source of delight.

These cloud paragraphs from Modern Painters I are simply incomparable (as far as I know; if anyone knows better let me know!). Still, having written them, Ruskin was hardly satisfied (rarely was he satisfied with his understanding of anything). As a result, it would have come as no surprise to a reader of Modern Painters V, published some seventeen years later, to find the following additional ruminations about clouds and their nature. He had been thinking about them and their remaining mysteries throughout the entirety of the interim and still had no answers to his questions. And so he decided to share his perplexities with his readers in what serves as today’s passage.

As ever with Ruskin, the way he asks his questions, the metaphors and similes he introduces to illuminate his askings, thrill us as they enter our consciousness, just as they thrilled Virginian Woolf so many years ago. One after another, the cloud motions and shapes that he describes take shape in our imagination and make his musings shimmer with life, with the result that we are in awe, not just at what he has pointed out, but at our realization that, to this point, we have missed the wonder of it all:

That mist which lies in the morning so softly in the valley, level and white, through which the tops of the trees rise as if through an inundation: why is it so heavy? And why does it lie so low, being yet so thin and frail that it will melt away utterly into splendour of morning when the sun has shone on it but a few moments more?

Those colossal pyramids, huge and firm, with outlines as of rocks, and strength to bear the beating of the high sun full on their fiery flanks: why are they so light, their bases high over our heads, high over the heads of Alps? Why will these melt away–not as the sun rises, but as he descends, and leave the stars of twilight clear, while the valley vapour gains again upon the earth like a shroud?

Or that ghost of a cloud which steals by yonder clump of pines–nay, does not steal by them but haunts them, wreathing yet round them, and yet, stealing so slowly, now falling in a fair waved line like a woman’s veil, now fading, now gone. We look away for an instant, and look back, and it is again there! What has it to do with that clump of pines, that it broods by them and weaves itself among their branches, to and fro? Has it hidden a cloudy treasure among the moss at their roots which it watches thus? Or has some strong enchanter charmed it into fond returning, or bound it fast within those bars of bough?

And yonder filmy crescent, bent like an archer’s bow above the snowy summit, the highest of all the hill, that white arch which never forms but over the supreme crest: how is it stayed there, repelled apparently from the snow, nowhere touching it, the clear sky seen between it and the mountain edge–yet never leaving it, poised as a white bird hovers over its nest?

Or those war-clouds that gather on the horizon, dragon-crested, tongued with fire; how is their barbed strength bridled? What bits are these they are champing with their vaporous lips, flinging off flakes of black foam–leagued leviathans of the Sea of Heaven? Out of their nostrils goeth smoke, and their eyes are like the eyelids of the morning. The sword of him that layeth at them cannot hold, neither the spear, the dart, nor the haubergeon. Where ride the captains of their armies? Where are set the measures of their march? Fierce murmurers, answering each other from morning until evening; what rebuke is this which has awed them into peace? What hand has reined them back by the way by which they came?

I know not if the reader will think at first that questions like these are easily answered. So far from it, I rather believe that some of the mysteries of the clouds never will be understood by us at all. “Knowest thou the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of Him which is perfect  is knowledge?” [asks the writer of Job: 37:16] Is our answer ever to be one of pride?  Is our knowledge ever to be so?

It is one of the most discouraging consequences of the varied character of this work of mine that I am wholly unable to take note of the advance of modern science. What has conclusively been discovered or observed about clouds, I know not. But by the chance inquiry possible to me I find no book which fairly states the difficulties of accounting for even the ordinary aspects of the sky.

I shall, therefore, be able in this section to do little more than suggest inquiries to the reader, putting the subject in a clear form for him. All men accustomed to investigation will confirm me in saying that it is a great step when we are personally quite certain what we do not know.

Once again, as I readied this second wondrous passage for posting, I suppressed an earlier impulse to include, along with it, pictures which would serve as illustrations for the cloud formations Ruskin specifies. I did so because, as I perused his paragraphs over and again, I realized that my own memory and imagination were doing a very fine job indeed at showing me what he was writing about. [Very rarely would Ruskin’s readers have had images to hand (other than the few he included); their imaginations had to do the work–and, as we have read in many previous posts, readers exulted in the inner fabrications his words stimulated.) In fact, it occurred to me that including photographs might very well have had the effect of dulling the mind, would too easily serve as more verification of our modern assumption that pictures are necessary to illustrate arguments (remember those days when we would just go and listen to a lecture?), an expectation which consigns our always-happy-to-help-out imaginations to the brain’s backrooms, an imprisonment which, after we have accepted without much reflection someone else’s synthetic image as sufficient, makes us much less, rather than much more, curious about walking out to the porch to have a good, careful look at the clouds for ourselves. (These last bits having been written by a dedicated and experienced PowerPointer who has included, as regular readers know, not a few photo images in not a few prior posts.)

Until next time.


Be well out there!


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