For The Wise One, my Friend, Colleague, and fellow Platonist, Professor Eugen Baer
200 posts! Something to that! Not an imagined goal when I began this series over six years ago. As regular readers know, February is an important month for we Ruskin folk. The 8th is the anniversary of his birth, and this day, the 20th, reminds us annually of his passing peacefully away at his Brantwood home in the lovely English Lake District in 1900. And now, today’s subject purposefully saved for this special moment, here is our 200th Post! It concerns a theme central to his work but one which, we have, thus far, insufficiently touched upon.
All his life, Ruskin believed the universe was governed by various series of laws which had been fashioned by a benevolent Deity, who had then embedded them in the very fabric of His new creation. These laws were all knowable if people but took the time to ferret them out. Known, accepted, and followed, beneficent consequences would follow. Disobeyed, negative results were inevitable, (they were, after all, LAWS!); the pain disobedience generated being a spur, when reflected upon, to not transgress again. Historically, the wisest among us, having compassion for the remainder, would record their understanding of some of these laws so that others would be forearmed and choose not to activate the pain transgression set in motion. Moses, the Bible records, gave us one critical set of such proscriptions. Traditionally, we refer to them as The Ten Commandments, (see Exodus 20: 1-17; cf. Deuteronomy 5:6-21. KJV,
Speaking as the sociologist that I am, it is easy to see that this list has considerable merit. With the exception of the first, monotheistic, imperative, and, perhaps the fourth, most of us, at some point, have experienced the eventual painful consequences of not obeying some of these simple rules for living a decent social life. An example: As a still quite small fellow, likely about seven, one day my mother and I were in Mr. Robert’s small local grocery store. It being about lunchtime I asked my mother if I could buy a treat, a Mars (chocolate) candy bar. As I knew she would, she said “no.” Not long after, we were in the check-out line that led (as still now remains present in many such stores) right past the child-seducing racks of candy bars on offer. Unseen by my mother, I quickly grabbed a Mars bar and slid it in among our other groceries. Soon, Mr. Roberts picked it up and made to add its cost ($.05 in those days!) to the growing list of our other purchased items. This time, however, my mother noticed, quickly took the candy from the good Mr. Robert’s hand (he was always kind and polite), and asked, with some petulance, “How did THAT get in there?” suspecting full-well the answer. She then handed the tasty purloin to me with some force and, mortified, I returned it to its proper place on the seductive rack. Five minutes later, outside and walking home, my blessedly moral mother looked sternly at me and said, “You know that was stealing, don’t you?” “Yes,” I mumbled as I looked down at the ground wearing the very quintessence of a shamed-face. And now, here it is, over seven decades later, and still this failed attempt at thievery smarts! A consequence of breaking one of life’s most important laws. As the humorist Emma Bombeck once put it so trenchantly “Guilt IS the gift that keeps on giving!”
Some four decades later (likely, 1999); the good Mr. Roberts having gone to his surely considerable reward; under new owners, his grocery store has become what we call now call a “convenience store,” and my boyhood attempt at thievery is an infrequently revisited memory. I am on this day at Lancaster University, having just delivered a talk as part of a regular series called The Ruskin Seminar that is sponsored by The Ruskin Programme at the recently opened Ruskin Library, the new and now permanent home of the world’s largest collection of our fellow’s letters, manuscripts, and diaries. A number of us who were at the talk are sitting in one of the University’s pubs, The Bowland Bar, having repaired there not yet having had our fill, to talk “more Ruskin.” About the time the second round of pints arrives, Alan Davis, who, along with Ray Haslam and a few others, is a stalwart of the Seminar, Programme, and Library, poses a question for the assembled: “Assume you are marooned on a desert island, and can only have one of Ruskin’s books with you, which would it be?” Alan, of course, has ready answer: the Fifth Volume of Modern Painters, chosen, he says, because it has all of Ruskin’s deepest concerns in it. My choice is also ready to announce: Unto this Last (also 1860), because, I say, it has all the laws of social life outlined in it. Other candidates are advanced; all are explained and debated, likely, with one more round of fine British ale sustaining the exchange, and, perhaps not surprisingly, no clear winner emerging.
By today, of course, many more years have intervened, and my familiarity with both of these great books of Ruskin’s having considerably deepened, I now believe that Alan was the wiser of us, if only because I cannot imagine why, on a desert island, we would have desperate need for the world’s greatest text on happy social life. (A contentious point, I admit, but not for today.)
From his first reading of Plato’s dialogues as a boy under his private tutor’s careful eye, Ruskin was a convert and lifelong devotee of the Athenian Master. Central to this admiration was his unflagging acceptance of Plato’s theory of the Forms. Although he lived in the fifth century BCE, Plato had concluded that the same Benevolent Creator in whom Ruskin would later also believe, had generated a universe predisposed to generate human happiness if only the creatures of human designation would act within the Laws that form the foundation of that Creation. The universe, Plato taught, was comprised of thousands, if not millions, of forms—trees, clouds, mice, humans, love, justice, social life, works of art (sculptures, paintings). Each iteration of a form was an instance which more or less closely approached the True Form, the Ideal. Intrinsic to the instances of any Form was an impulse within (if a creation—a sculpture, perhaps) to be the perfect instance of it. In living things, that impulse was active: realizing it fell short of the perfect Form, it would strive to gain it. A tree injured by storm would do its level best to repair fully; a body injured by stroke would try to do the same. All such strivings were instances of that intrinsic desire to gain perfection. Ruskin’s belief in the reality and power of the Forms infuses every one of his myriad books, lectures, and drawings. His letters and diaries, for instance, often record his frustration with how his writing or painting were going. Our last Post (#199) detailed his enduring frustration at not knowing how to solve some mysteries of clouds that still eluded him.
Take, as instance of this drive to attain perfection, a watercolor by Ruskin’s “earthly master” J.M.W. Turner, a painting he loved and once owned. The entirety of Modern Painters was written to prove Turner’s superiority as a painter of inordinate genius—only one such every half millennium, he said—the work’s last volume, the fifth, Alan’s desert island companion, was composed to settle the issue once and for all. “Chateau de Blois,” (1826) is a rendering of a prominent castle in the Loire Valley; it is now at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University, gifted by Ruskin. So enamored was he by this image, Ruskin mentions it often in his epochal work as an instance of “near-perfection” in composition and cites its remarkable “Truth to Nature” i.e., that is, its ability to represent its subject as it exists in reality; he lauds in one place, its affecting ability to render dark and light areas faithfully.
All of which brings us to The LAW of Help, a short chapter that appears almost at the mid-point of Modern Painters V. (For those who might wish to reread, I have, excepting only its copious footnotes and some text I deemed not essential to this Post, reproduced it almost in its entirety below. The chapter opens the third (of 4) main Parts in MPs V.)
The chapter also appears immediately after four remarkably beautiful ones detailing the deeper nature of clouds, the last of which, “the Angel of the Sea,” is one of his most brilliant and moving (and that, in this Poster’s view, is saying something!); it is an evocation of the helpful Spirit which governs the essence of the oceans and applauds the salubrious rain without which we could not live. (What a marvelous read, these chapters would be for the springtime approaching!) Here then, is a goodly gulp of the genius of John Ruskin at his most helpful. Do give a couple of reads.
THE LAW OF HELP
We have now reached the last and the most important part of our subject. We have seen in earlier volumes of this work, how far art may be, and has been, consistent with physical or material facts. In its second volume, we examined how far it may be and has been obedient to the laws of physical beauty. In this last volume we have to consider the relations of art to God and man: its work in the help of human beings, and service of their Creator. We have to inquire into the various Powers, Conditions, and Aims of mind involved in the conception or creation of pictures in the choice of subject, and the mode and order of its history;—the choice of forms, and the modes of their arrangement.
And these phases of mind being concerned, partly with choice and arrangement of incidents, partly with choice and arrangement of forms and colors, the whole subject will fall into two main divisions, namely, expressional or spiritual invention; and material or formal invention. They are of course connected;—all good formal invention being expressional also; but as a matter of convenience, it is best to say what may be ascertained of the nature of formal invention, before attempting to illustrate the faculty in its higher field.
First, then, otherwise and most commonly called technical composition; that is to say, the arrangement of lines, forms, or colors, so as to produce the best possible effect (as in “The Chateau be Blois” picture above.) I have often been accused of slighting this quality in pictures; the fact being that I have avoided it only because I considered it too great and wonderful for me to deal with. The longer I thought, the more wonderful it always seemed: and it is, to myself personally, the quality, above all others, which gives me delight in pictures. Many others I admire, or respect; but this one I rejoice in. Expression, sentiment, truth to nature, are essential: but all these are not enough. I never care to look at a picture again, if it be ill composed; and if well composed I can hardly leave off looking at it.
“Well composed.” Does that mean according to rule? No. Precisely the contrary. Composed as only the man who did it could have done it; composed as no other picture is, or was, or ever can be again. Every great work stands alone.
Yet there are certain elementary laws of arrangement traceable a little way; a few of these only I shall note, not caring to pursue the subject far in this work, so intricate it becomes even in its first elements: nor could it be treated with any approach to completeness, unless I were to give many and elaborate outlines of large pictures. I have a vague hope of entering on such a task, some future day. Meantime I shall only indicate the place which technical composition* should hold in our scheme. And, first, let us understand what composition is, and how far it is required.
Composition may be best defined as the help of everything in the picture by everything else. I wish the reader to dwell a little on this word “Help.” It is a grave one.
In substance which we call “inanimate,” as of clouds, or stones, their atoms may cohere to each other, or consist with each other, but they do not help each other. The removal of one part does not injure the rest. But in a plant, the taking away of any one part does injure the rest. Hurt or remove any portion of the sap, bark, or pith, the rest in injured. If any part enters into a state in which it no more assists the rest, and has thus become “helpless,” we call it also “dead.”
The power which causes the several portions of the plant to help each other, we call life. Much more is this so in an animal. We may take away the branch of a tree without much harm to it; but not the animal’s limb. Thus, intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness—completeness of depending of each part on all the rest. The ceasing of this help is what we call corruption; and in proportion to the perfectness of the help, is the dreadfulness of the loss. The more intense the life has been, the more terrible is its corruption.
The decomposition of a crystal is not necessarily impure at all. The fermentation of a wholesome liquid begins to admit the idea slightly; the decay of leaves yet more; of flowers, more; of animals, with greater painfulness and terribleness in exact proportion to their original vitality; and the foulest of all corruption is that of the body of man; and, in his body, that which is occasioned by disease, more than that of natural death.
I said just now, that though atoms of inanimate substance could not help each other, they could “consist” with each other. “Consistence” is their virtue. Thus the parts of a crystal are consistent, but of dust, inconsistent. Orderly adherence, the best help its atoms can give, constitutes the nobleness of such substance.
When matter is either consistent, or living, we call it pure, or clean; when inconsistent or corrupting (unhelpful), we call it impure, or unclean. The greatest uncleanliness being that which is essentially most opposite to life. Life and consistency, then, both expressing one character (namely, helpfulness of a higher or lower order), the Maker of all creatures and things, “by whom all creatures live, and all things consist,” is essentially and for ever the Helpful One, or in softer Saxon, the “Holy” One. The word has no other ultimate meaning: Helpful, harmless, undefiled: “living” or “Lord of life.“
The idea is clear and mighty in the cherubim’s cry: “Helpful, helpful, helpful, Lord God of Hosts”; i.e. of all the hosts, armies, and creatures of the earth. A pure or holy state of anything, therefore, is that in which all its parts are helpful or consistent. They may or may not be homogeneous. The highest or organic purities are composed of many elements in an entirely helpful state. The highest and first law of the universe—and the other name of life is, therefore, “help.” The other name of death is “separation.” Government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death. (This being the first formulation of this essential Ruskin view.)
Perhaps the best, though the most familiar example we could take of the nature and power of consistence, will be that of the possible changes in the dust we tread on. Exclusive of animal decay, we can hardly arrive at a more absolute type of impurity than the mud or slime of a damp, over-trodden path, in the outskirts of a manufacturing town. I do not say mud of the road, because that is mixed with animal refuse; but take merely an ounce or two of the blackest slime of a beaten footpath on a rainy day, near a large manufacturing town.
Exclusive of animal decay, we can hardly arrive at a more absolute type of impurity than the mud or slime of a damp, over-trodden path, in the outskirts of a manufacturing town. I do not say mud of the road, because that is mixed with animal refuse; but take merely an ounce or two of the blackest slime of a beaten footpath on a rainy day, near a large manufacturing town§ That slime we shall find in most cases composed of clay (or brick dust, which is burnt clay) mixed with soot, a little sand, and water. All these elements are at helpless war with each other, and destroy reciprocally each other’s nature and power, competing and fighting for place at every tread of your foot;—sand squeezing out clay, and clay squeezing out water, and soot meddling everywhere and defiling the whole. Let us suppose that this ounce of mud is left in perfect rest, and that its elements gather together, like to like, so that their atoms may get into the closest relations possible.
Let the clay begin. Ridding itself of all foreign substance, it gradually becomes a white earth, already very beautiful; and fit, with help of congealing fire, to be made into finest porcelain, and painted on, and be kept in kings’ palaces. But such artificial consistence is not its best. Leave it still quiet to follow its own instinct of unity, and it becomes not only white, but clear; not only clear, but hard; nor only clear and hard, but so set that it can deal with light in a wonderful way, and gather out of it the loveliest blue rays only, refusing the rest. We call it then a sapphire.
Such being the consummation of the clay, we give similar permission of quiet to the sand. It also becomes, first, a white earth, then proceeds to grow clear and hard.
Such being the consummation of the clay, we now give similar permission of quiet to the sand. It also becomes, first, a white earth, then proceeds to grow clear and hard, and at last arranges itself in mysterious, infinitely fine, parallel lines, which have the power of reflecting not merely the blue rays, but the blue, green, purple, and red rays in the greatest beauty in which they can be seen through any hard material whatsoever. We call it then an opal.
In next order the soot sets to work; it cannot make itself white at first, but instead of being discouraged, tries harder and harder, and comes out clear at last, and the hardest thing in the world; and for the blackness that it had, obtains in exchange the power of reflecting all the rays of the sun at once in the vividest blaze that any solid thing can shoot. We call it then a diamond.
Last of all the water purifies or unites itself, contented enough if it only reach the form of a dew-drop; but if we insist on its proceeding to a more perfect consistence, it crystallizes into the shape of a star.
Now invention in art signifies an arrangement, in which everything in the work is thus consistent with all things else, and helpful to all else.
It is the greatest and rarest of all the qualities of art. The power by which it is effected is absolutely inexplicable and incommunicable; but exercised with entire facility by those who possess it, in many cases even unconsciously.
In work which is not composed, there may be many beautiful things, but they do not help each other. They at the best only stand beside, and more usually compete with and destroy, each other. They may be connected artificially in many ways, but the test of there being no invention is, that if one of them be taken away, the others are no worse than before. But in true composition, if one be taken away, all the rest are helpless and valueless. Generally, in falsely composed work, if anything be taken away, the rest will look better; because the attention is less distracted. Hence the pleasure of inferior artists in sketching, and their inability to finish: all that they add destroys.
Also in true composition, everything not only helps everything else a little, but helps with its utmost power. Every atom is in full energy; and all that energy is kind. Not a line, nor spark of colour, but is doing its very best, and that best is aid. The extent to which this law is carried in truly right and noble work is wholly inconceivable to the ordinary observer, and no true account of it would be believed.
True composition being entirely easy to the man who can compose, he is seldom proud of it, though he clearly recognizes it. Also, true composition is inexplicable. No one can explain how the notes of a Mozart melody, of the folds of a piece of Titian’s drapery, produce their essential effects on each other.1 If you do not feel it, no one can by reasoning make you feel it. And the highest composition is so subtle, that it is apt to become unpopular, and sometimes seem insipid.
The reader may be surprised at my giving so high a place to invention. But if he ever come to know true invention from false, he will find that it is not only the highest quality of art, but is simply the most wonderful act or power of humanity. It is pre-eminently the deed of human creation; poihsis, otherwise, poetry.
If the reader will look back to my definition of poetry, he will find it is “the suggestion by the imagination of noble grounds for noble emotion” (MPs III, p. 11), amplified below into “assembling by help of the imagination” ; that is to say, imagination associative, described at length in Vol. II., in the chapter just referred to.3 The mystery of the power is sufficiently set forth in that place. Of its dignity I have a word or two to say here.
1.Men in their several professed employments, looked at broadly, may be properly arranged under five classes:—1. Persons who see. These in modern language are sometimes called sight-seers, that being an occupation coming more and more into vogue every day. Anciently they used to be called, simply, seers.
2. Persons who talk. These, in modern language, are usually called talkers, or speakers, as in the House of Commons, and elsewhere. They used to be called prophets.
3. Persons who make. These, in modern language, are usually called manufacturers. Anciently they were called poets.
4. Persons who think. There seems to be no very distinct modern title for this kind of person, anciently called philosophers, nevertheless we have a few of them among us.
5. Persons who do: in modern language, called practical persons; anciently, believers.
Of the first two classes I have only this to note—that we ought neither to say that a person sees, if he sees falsely, nor speaks, if he speaks falsely. For seeing falsely is worse than blindness, and speaking falsely, than silence. A man who is too dim-sighted to discern the road from the ditch, may feel which is which;—but if the ditch appears manifestly to him to be the road, and the road to be the ditch, what shall become of him? False seeing is unseeing, on the negative side of blindness; and false speaking, unspeaking,—on the negative side of silence.
To the persons who think, also, the same test applies very shrewdly. Theirs is a dangerous profession; and from the time of the Aristophanes thought-shop to the great German establishment, or thought-manufactory, whose productions have, unhappily, taken in part the place of the older and more serviceable commodities of Nuremberg toys and Berlin wool, it has been often harmful enough to mankind. It should not be so, for a false thought is more distinctly and visibly no thought, than a false saying is no saying. But it is touching the two great productive classes of the doers and makers, that we have one or two important points to note here.
Has the reader ever considered, carefully, what is the meaning of “doing” a thing? Suppose a rock falls from a hillside, crushes a group of cottages, and kills a number of people. The stone has produced a great effect in the world. If any one asks, respecting the broken roofs, “What did it?” you say the stone did it. Yet you don’t talk of the deed of the stone. If you enquire farther, and find that a goat had been feeding beside the rock, and had loosened it by gnawing the roots of the grasses beneath, you find the goat to be the active cause of the calamity, and you say the goat did it. Yet you don’t call the goat the doer, nor talk of its evil deed. But if you find any one went up to the rock, in the night, and with deliberate purpose loosened it, that it might fall on the cottages, you say in quite a different sense, “It is his deed; he is the doer of it.”
It appears, then, that deliberate purpose and resolve are needed to constitute a deed or doing, in the true sense of the word; and that when, accidentally or mechanically, events take place without such purpose, we have indeed effects or results, and agents or causes, but neither deeds nor doers.
Now it so happens, as we all well know, that by far the largest part of things happening in practical life are brought about with no deliberate purpose. There are always a number of people who have the nature of stones; they fall on other persons and crush them. Some again have the nature of weeds, and twist about other people’s feet and entangle them. More have the nature of logs, and lie in the way, so that every one falls over them. And most of all have the nature of thorns, and set themselves by waysides, so that every passer-by must be torn, and all good seed choked; or perhaps make wonderful crackling under various pots, even to the extent of practically boiling water and working pistons. All these people produce immense and sorrowful effect in the world. Yet none of them are doers; it is their nature to crush, impede, and prick; but deed is not in them.
And farther, observe, that even when some effect is finally intended, you cannot call it the person’s deed, unless it is what he intended. If an ignorant person, purposing evil, accidentally does good, (as if a thief’s disturbing a family should lead them to discover in time that their house was on fire); or, vice versâ, if an ignorant person intending good accidentally does evil (as if a child should give hemlock to his companions for celery), in neither case do you call them the doers of what may result. So that in order to a true deed, it is necessary that the effect of it should be foreseen. Which, ultimately, it cannot be, but by a person who knows, and in his deed obeys, the laws of the universe, and of its Maker. And this knowledge is in its highest form, respecting the will of the Ruling Spirit, called Trust. For it is not the knowledge that a thing is, but that, according to the promise and nature of the Ruling Spirit, a thing will be. Also obedience in its highest form is not obedience to a constant and compulsory law, but a persuaded or voluntarily yielded obedience to an issued command; and so far as it was a persuaded submission to command, it was anciently called, in a passive sense, “persuasion,” or pistis, and in so far as it alone assuredly did, and it alone could do, what it meant to do, and was therefore the root and essence of all human deed, it was called by the Latins the “doing,” or fides, which has passed into the French and English faith. And therefore because in His doing always certain, and in His speaking always true, His name who leads the armies of Heaven is “Faithful and true,” and all deeds which are done in alliance with those armies, be they small or great, are essentially deeds of faith, which therefore, and in this one stern, eternal sense, subdues all kingdoms, and turns to flight the armies of the aliens, and is at once the source and the substance of all human deed, rightly so called.
Thus far then of practical persons, once called believers, as set forth in the last word of the noblest group of words ever, so far as I know, uttered by simple man concerning his practice, being the final testimony of the leaders of a great practical nation, whose deed thenceforward became an example of deed to mankind:
“O stranger! (we pray thee), tell the Lacedæmonians that we are lying here, having obeyed their words.”
What, let us ask next, is the ruling character of the person who produces—the creator or maker, anciently called the poet?
We have seen what a deed is. What then is a “creation”? Nay, it may be replied, to “create” cannot be said of man’s labour. On the contrary, it not only can be said, but is and must be said continually. You certainly do not talk of creating a watch, or creating a shoe; nevertheless you do talk of creating a feeling. Why is this?
Look back to the greatest of all creations, that of the world. Suppose the trees had been ever so well or so ingeniously put together, stem and leaf, yet if they had not been able to grow, would they have been well created? Or suppose the fish had been cut and stitched finely out of skin and whalebone; yet, cast upon the waters, had not been able to swim? Or suppose Adam and Eve had been made in the softest clay, ever so neatly, and set at the foot of the tree of knowledge, fastened up to it, quite unable to fall, or do anything else, would they have been well created, or in any true sense created at all?
It will, perhaps, appear to you, after a little farther thought, that to create anything in reality is to put life into it. A poet, or creator, is therefore a person who puts things together, not as a watchmaker steel, or a shoemaker leather, but who puts life into them.
His work is essentially this: it is the gathering and arranging of material by imagination, so as to have in it at last the harmony or helpfulness of life, and the passion or emotion of life. Mere fitting and adjustment of material is nothing; that is watchmaking. But helpful and passionate harmony, essentially choral harmony, so called from the Greek word “rejoicing,” is the harmony of Apollo and the Muses; the word Muse and Mother being derived from the same root, meaning “passionate seeking,” or love, of which the issue is passionate finding, or sacred INVENTION. For which reason I could not bear to use any baser word than this of invention. And if the reader will think over all these things, and follow them out, as I think he may easily with this much of clue given him, he will not any more think it wrong in me to place invention so high among the powers of man.† Nor any more think it strange that the last act of the life of Socrates* should have been to purify himself from the sin of having negligently listened to the voice within him, which, through all his past life, had bid him “labour, and make harmony.”
That being the essence of Ruskin’s thinking on the Eternal LAW of Help, (there are 29 more chapters in Modern Painters V, more reason to think that Alan Davis has chosen wisely for his desert island Ruskin), it is time to close with our traditional phrases.
Until next time, please do continue well out there in our Brave New World. For her great and committed HELP in navigating the many tecno-challenges which have attended this 200th Post, my grateful and effusive thanks to Jenn Morris, my daily Helper, and to Jen Webb of the Digital Learning Services team at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Without them, it would not have appeared in your inbox!