136: Banishing the Gods


I’ve been much intrigued by Ruskin’s thoughts on the gods and about what he saw as their critical function in helping us move more delightfully through our days. In our last (Post 135), I included a fairly inclusive description of Apollo and his responsibilities, but, for some reason, gave the good muses shorter shrift, a faux pas I correct here. The Muses, he tells us in The Queen of the Air (his wonderful book on the goddess Athena–virtually unread now–detailing all she does for us still),

preside over the musical, historical, and meditative arts, whose end is the discovery of light and truth, and the creation of beauty.

A lovely set of responsibilities, don’t you think?

Today, of course, “fretted here in our narrow days,” as he encapsulates our modern consciousness and experience, we no longer believe in Apollo nor muse about his attendant sprites, considering them (if we ever we consider them at all) merely as indices of the insubstantial fancies which, foolishly, were accorded credence in a more ignorant era. The insouciance that occasioned this collective disavowal made him furious, for in the rejection he saw at work the great destructive force then abroad in the land, a force which, with malice aforethought, was undermining all that was supportive of good and glad life. Indeed, if there is an emotion which can be said to pervade the works of his last productive decades–the 1870s and 1880s–it is his fury at this hubris and its sorry consequences.

All of the 96 letters of Fors Clavigera written to the working people of Britain between 1871 and 1884 evidence this fury in one way or another. By the time he started the missives’ second dozen in 1872, his earlier letters having created some stir, not a few readers had been moved sufficiently to send him their own views, some in pique, some in applause. Occasionally, when especially taken with a response, Ruskin would include a portion of it in a later Fors, contextualizing and often adding remarks of his own.

The 16th Fors letter provides an example: a series of comments which had been sent by a clerk working at a Glasgow manufactory. Early in his observations, he tells Ruskin he has read and much loved his Modern Painters books, particularly their magisterial paeans to the glories of nature. Less happily, he reports that, because his pay is barely sufficient for ensuring his survival, he has no money to support excursions he would dearly love to take to places where nature continues unspoiled. Thus imprisoned, he is forced to live and breathe in the fetid confines of Glasgow city, confines which, weekly, increase in noisomeness. It is at this juncture that Ruskin excerpts from the letter: “Here I am,” the clerk says,

possessed of a passionate love of nature in all her aspects, cooped up in this fearfully crammed mass of population, with its filthy Clyde, which would naturally have been a noble river, but, under the curse of our much belauded civilization, [has been] turned into an almost stagnant, loathsome ditch, pestilence-breathing, be-lorded over by hundreds upon hundreds of tall brick chimney-stacks vomiting up smoke unceasingly–[living] a life of almost servile red-taped routine beneath the too frequently horror-breathing atmosphere of a huge over-grown plutocratic city….

[In recent years,] Glasgow…has increased in wealth till I believe there are some of the greatest merchants in the world trading in her Exchange. [Notwithstanding, the city] has no splendid public buildings, except her grand old Cathedral, founded by an almost-forgotten bishop in the twelfth century, [a period which] we, in our vain folly, are pleased to call the Dark Ages, when we ourselves are about as really dark as need be–having no ‘high calling’ to strive for, except by hook or by crook, to make money…[so that we may] retire at thirty-five by some stroke of gambling of a highly questionable kind on the Share market, or otherwise to a suburban or country villa with Turkey carpets, a wine cellar, and a carriage and pair–as no man nowadays is ever content with making a decent and honest livelihood. Truly, a very “high calling”!

[Admitted: our] local plutocratic friends put their hands into their pockets to the extent of £150,000 to help to build our new University buildings after a design by Gilbert Scott which has turned out a very imposing pile of masonry,… I am no prophet but I should not wonder if old St. Mungo’s Cathedral, erected nearly six hundred years ago to the honor and glory of God, will be standing a noble ruin when our new spick-and-span College is a total wreck–such being the difference between the work of really earnest God-fearing men and that done by contract and Trades’ Unions. [While hourly, the] Steam Engine, one of the demons of our mad, restless, headlong civilization, is screaming its unearthly whistle in the very quadrangles of the now deserted, but still venerable, College buildings in our High Street… Such is the irony of events!

Ruskin’s response to these remarks, to this description of what he described in the same letter, as “this Fool’s paradise of cloud-begotten gold,” went as follows:

Only a day and a half in the week on which one can get a walk in the country…, just bread enough earned to keep one alive…, one’s daily work asking not so much as a lucifer match’s worth of human intelligence…, one’s chest, shoulders, and stomach getting hourly more useless, smoke above for sky, mud beneath for water, and the pleasant consciousness of spending one’s weary life in the pure service of the devil! Such is the irony of events!

Today, perhaps, we might be prone to think that the clerk and the author of Fors Clavigera overdramatized. Not so. Here is a map showing the principal uses of the Clyde waterfront in the latter part of the 19th century:


Next is a drawing, sanitized (and, in that capacity, approved we presume, by those the clerk called his city’s plutocrats), of the factories and the admiring crowds on a fine Sunday afternoon or holiday:

Glasgow 1831 StRollox

But the lived reality for the great majority of the population was quite other than this pristine image suggests. Here’s an aerial view of the workers’ houses near the factories:

Poor-Victorian-Houses-Slum5 (1)

And here, as if in studied contrast to the finely dressed, respectful crowd depicted above, is a picture of some of the tens of thousands who, while their wives and children toiled at their own hard tasks, manned the factories for the prosperous plutocrats:


Which brings us back to the disappearance of Apollo and the muses.

In an earlier Fors letter, the fifth in his series, thinking of these gods’ vital enhancement of the good countryside which separates Buxton from Bakewell in Derbyshire (see last post), Ruskin made it clear that these heavenly beings had their limits regarding what they could tolerate when it came to a wilful dispoilation and pollution of the lands over which they had been given charge. As his reflections begin, he is speaking on the new invention called photography, during those early days when its images were only printed n sepia; he also mentions the Vale of Tempe, a favorite valley haunt of Apollo and the Muses in northern Greece:

You think it a great triumph to make the sun draw brown landscapes for you! That [is] a discovery, and some day may be useful. But the sun had drawn landscapes before for you, not in brown, but in green, and blue, and all imaginable colors–here in England! Not one of you ever looked at them, then. Not one of you cares for the loss of them, now, when you have shut the sun out with smoke, so that he can draw nothing more, except brown blots through a hole in a box.

There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the Vale of Tempe. You might have seen the gods there morning and evening—Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the Light, walking in fair procession on the lawns of it, and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags. You cared neither for gods nor grass, but for cash… You thought you could get it by what the Times calls “Railroad Enterprise.” You enterprised a railroad through the valley, you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the gods with it. And now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton, which you think a lucrative process of exchange. You Fools everywhere!

Here is a painting (no photograph of such a momentous event being possible) showing us the gods’ anguished departure–

apollo and muses leaving

Not long ago, a friend and I sought out the overlook between Bakewell and Buxton that Ruskin mentions in this passage. The railroad tracks still cut through the valley, but the smoke-belching engines are gone and the occasional trains which run through it are electrically powered. In other words, the view he loved has, for the most part, returned. Again the site is consummately beautiful. Still, from what I could gather by watching those who came to have a look at the sweet scene, the eyes looking were different from those of prior visitors–because, admitting only the fewest of exceptions, all of those who arrived, after a momentary glance at the valley, immediately turned their backs on it so that they could take pictures of themselves–the valley performing the background function of “amazing view”–using their iPhones (a recent development of that new invention called photography). After snapping–such, apparently, being the principal reason for making an effort to get to this lovely spot–once they had compared their photos with friends who had come with them, they trekked over to the nearby pub that caters to the tourist crowd. None looked back. All but surely, within minutes, their “Here I am at this great vista!” pictures would be posted on some form of social media.

And that, hardly unique, little story points to the serious trouble that comes of banishing the gods. For, even if, over time, the conditions which demanded their departure disappear, and they, always hopeful of providing their soft service, make a tentative return, we, the banishers’ descendants, fretted here in our own version of narrow days, no longer recall that, once, these good deities existed, and we could see them! With the result that, even on days when the sun shines brightly on the hills that separate Bakewell from Buxton and Buxton from Bakewell, we now see the scene through godless eyes, have become incapable of imagining those heavenly presences which imbue the scene with a tender and vital vibrancy, a quality which, during those ancient time when it was noticed, made viewers conscious of the gift that had been given and stimulated a reverence for the world which had gifted it. We fools everywhere.

One more thought of Mr. Ruskin’s on this very essential subject might be worth a moment. It comes our way from the fifth and last volume of Modern Painters (1860): all true landscape, whether simple or exalted, depends primarily for its interest on connection with humanity, or with spiritual powers. Banish your heroes and nymphs from the classical landscape—its laurel shades will move you no more. Show that the dark clefts of the most romantic mountain are uninhabited and untraversed; it will cease to be romantic.

Until next time.


P.S.: Perhaps ironically, this post reaches you from Hanoi, Vietnam, where Jenn and I, my two children, and three other very dear friends, are visiting some very dear Vietnamese friends for a number of days. Hanoi–like Shanghai, Delhi, and Kuala Lumpur and many other Asian cities–is among those urban regions now modernizing (though our clerk and Ruskin might quibble over that word) at breakneck speed. For almost twenty years, a sometime professor in Vietnam who came to love the country and its people, I am, every time I return, simply awed at the change. When I first visited in 2000, Hanoi’s population was just clear of a million, the streets were barely lit at night, and not a single building stood higher than four storeys. Less than two decades later, the population has swelled to some nine millions and more (no one knows for sure) and continues to increase by hundreds of thousands a year; all the streets are lit, and tonight, our dear Vietnamese friend tells us, he will bring us to the Sky Bar on the 85th floor of the just-recently-opened Korean megastore, The Lotte. Coincident with all the growth has been an incredible strain on resources: the traffic congestion is beyond description and all but unendurable in experience, the water continues unpotable (those who sell it in  plastic thrive), and, for a large percentage, living conditions not much better than those described by our Glasgow clerk a century and a half ago. As for air quality, here’s a view of sunset last night (23 November 2018) from our room in our friend’s 12th floor apartment. (The derricks on many buildings are testaments to the city’s relentless increase.)

Hanoi Sunset 23 Nov 2018

And here is the identical view not long after sunrise the following morning.

Hanoi Sunrise 24 Nov 18

Working on this post while in Hanoi, I spoke to a few of our Vietnamese friends about the gods who have gone missing in more developed parts of the world. They have difficulty understanding what I mean when I mention them, even when I ask if there were ever comparable Vietnamese spirits who were charged with overseeing the health of the land, air, arts, and music. Perhaps in the past, some say. Not now. No one thinks of them now. No one is interested. (This being, quite literally, the sentence used.)

That reported, we should not forget that there are identifiable benefits to this amnesiac state. For instance, the rapidly expanding economy of Hanoi–and Vietnam generally–is, in largest measure, devoted to satisfying the West’s insatiable demand for, among other fine things, cheap jeans and iPhones (I wear both; so do most Vietnamese). It is a request these enterprising Asians are unreservedly happy to fill, for here, as in an earlier iteration of Glasgow, the labor is cheap (the Vietnamese phrase for it is “cheap as mud”) and, so far, there seems to be no end of more land which can be converted from rice paddies to fuel modern production and consumption.

In which context, it is perhaps worth noting in conclusion that we did get to the 85th floor of the Lotte Building that night. But, once there, we could barely see the touted view of the great city even though the full moon could be made out far overhead. “Much haze,” our fine Hanoi friend said. Perhaps something else, I thought.


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1 Response to 136: Banishing the Gods

  1. Simon Seligman says:

    Being a resident of Derbyshire’s Peak District of more than 25 years standing, with the famous Monsal Dale viaduct (that carried Ruskin’s hated railroad across that beautiful valley) only 15 minutes away from home, I often think of him when walking or cycling along the former railway line. While I recognise your description of those tourists who stop briefly at the top, to look down and take a photo, the wonder of the rail line now is that it is open free for any walker, cyclist or equestrian to use, and given its original purpose, it offers the flattest place to walk in the entire Peak District. My children learned to cycle on it, we love to ride through the tunnels, and the views of surrounding nature are astonishing. I hope Ruskin would at least recognise that in its current incarnation, ironically, the railway line offers a very close engagement with the landscape and its beauty. Simon (Guild membership and comms officer)

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