165: Light and Dark

Fine Folks,

A dear friend of mine, Alan Davis, once told me, when we were discussing the power of Ruskin’s writing during my early JR days, that, while a good book is always a delight, a great book is a thunderclap. It demands that you notice what it’s saying, and, once you’ve really done this, it frequently forces you to rethink things you had long thought needed no more thought.

Below’s a passage I consider to be of that special meteorological sort. You can find it at the very end of the third volume of The Stones of Venice (1853). It’s in Ruskin’s seventh appendix to that three-volumemasterpiece, and, for that reason, is probably overlooked much more often than not (who takes time to read appendices anyway, let alone the seventh of them?). He’s writing about the popular demand–then pretty new–that there should be universal education. He thinks it a fine idea in principle, but only when the education provided is tailored to meet the needs of a given group. It’s probably not useful, he would say, to use valuable time to teach high-level trigonometry to folks who will be spending their days doing something else of great use to us all, say farming. Would it not be much more profitable both to them and the rest of us if we spent the same amount of time teaching something which will be of great use to them, say, -in this case, the repair of farm vehicles?The cognitive mistake we always make, he says, in our press for universal education is in our uncritical acceptance of an assumption which would have us believe that all education is helpful, brings light to a place where, before, there was only darkness.

A thunderclap issue worthy of thought and debate, that, in its own right (happy to entertain comments in this direction if you’d like). But it was what followed his mention of this instructional issue that interested me on this particular morning, another of Ruskin’s turn-the-tables on his readers moments: his following comments on the role and importance of light and dark in our lives:

One great fallacy into which men are apt to fall when they are reasoning on this
subject is that light, as such, is always good, and darkness, as such, always evil.

Far from it. Light untempered would be annihilation. It is good to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. But, to those that faint in the wilderness, so also is the shadow of the great rock in a weary land. If the sunshine is good, so also the cloud of the later rain. Light is only beautiful, only available for life, when it is tempered with shadow–pure light is fearful, and unendurable by humanity.

And it is not less ridiculous to say that the light, as such, is good in itself, than to say that the darkness is good in itself. Both are rendered safe, healthy, and useful by the other–the night by the day, the day by the night… and our business is not to strive to turn the night into day, but to be sure that we are as they that watch for the morning.

Seneca Sunrise--wide angle--October 2019

Sunrise over Seneca Lake, October 2019

Mont Blanc Sunset October 2019

Sunset at Mont Blanc, October 2019

Ruskin--Rain Clouds

Ruskin: The Rain Clouds

Until next time.

Be well out there!



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