We are living through terrible times. I had decided that, as we made our difficult, sequestered way through them, the posts I would put up during this time would be chosen to be both uplifting and gently distracting (Post 180: The Lovely Lady of Lyons; Post 183: Reading Ruskin Recently). But, with the level of frustration and unhappiness in our world seemingly only on the rise, it seemed to me this morning that another sort of post, a reminder really (a “putting back into the mind of something important we already knew but which, for some reason, we had let slip out of the mind for a time”), might be of use.
Particularly, I thought of the conclusion of “Traffic,” one of Ruskin’s (in my view) two most affecting lectures, delivered in the industrializing city of Bradford in 1864. We’ve visited this talk before, Post 167: Enough (Already!), most importantly for today’s purposes, Ruskin’s remarkable summary of “our ideal of human life”–the nearly universal notion which he–and I–believe has gotten us into this awful fire-in-the-streets mess.
“Traffic,” you’ll recall, is an exercise in denunciation, Ruskin’s no-holds-barred attack on his contemporaries for their avid devotion to that spirit which he calls “The Goddess of Getting-On,” Our Lady (not of Lyons) of Accumulation, whether our adoration centers on power, property, or coin (one of his greatest, funniest, and aptist lines was in response to an invitation from a dear friend that he had to come to America where he would see with his own eyes that things were not as bad as he imagined; to which generous suggestion, he replied, after thanking his friend for his kind offer, that he would never visit a country where the Almighty was a piece of paper).
But this Goddess of Getting-On, he went on to tell his audience that night, is, in truth, a very strange sort of goddess–for she was not, as was so often and foolishly said, the goddess of everyone’s “getting-on,” but only of a few’s getting-on, a conflictual process that left, as those few did indeed get on, virtually everyone else standing in ever more painful places with ever less substance in their hands to lessen their pain. It is here, as I see it, that we find a direct connection to the fires and hate fueled confrontations now blazing on the streets of many cities, because, and not unlike the deep-pocketed industrialists who sat (ever more uncomfortably as Ruskin’s lecture progressed) in their seats that spring evening in Bradford, we moderns can also lay claim to having a fabulously rich few surrounded by an immense number of immensely poorer others, the great majority of whom are not of white countenance, who, it seems, judging by what we see or hear on the news nearly every hour of every day these days, are not at all happy in the terrifically disadvantaged position in which they have been placed.
I want to make one thing indubitably clear tonight, the lecturer continued: we must recognize that, by virtue of the laws of life as we know them, the more any one of us has, the less others have. The pound or dollar in my pocket is not in yours. With it, I can do what I want with it. Without it, you can do nothing. Or, differently imaged, we must recognize that, as the mansions of the few grow ever more commodious and fantastic, the hovels housing the too-densely-packed many must inevitably grow ever shoddier and rat-laden.
Or, to use a more contemporary image, it do us well to remind ourselves of the prescient title of a Nicholas Von Hoffman book written at the height of the convulsions of the 1960s: We are the People our Parents Warned Us Against.
One of the most admirable things about Ruskin is, after he has shown us in no uncertain terms the mess and human suffering we have caused, his ability to present us with a worthy way out, a way which, should we decide to follow it, would be simultaneously helpful, healing, and dignified, even noble.
Which brings us, as we ruminate about the nature of this new and difficult day in which we live a hundred and fifty-six years later, to the last words Ruskin shared with the traffikers who had come out to hear the famous art and architecture critic, words which had been meticulously chosen to accentuate his listeners’ responsibility for the human and environmental catastrophe which encircled them on that West Yorkshire night, but also made it clear that it was still very much in their power to salve and then repair the wounds they had inflicted.
He brought them to these words by reciting the last lines from Plato’s final, unfinished dialogue, Critias, a passage in which the “heathen” master makes it clear to those who had come to talk with him that day that the pursuit of riches was forever a fool’s errand which always consequenced in calamity. He begins with Hamlet’s last words, never missing a chance, as he procedes, to remind them of some long-ignored truths in sacred text they all revere which they seem to have overlooked of late.
The rest is silence. [These that I have just read, were the] last words of the chief wisdom of the heathen spoken of this idol of riches, this idol of yours, this golden image, high by measureless cubits, set up where your green fields of England are furnace-burnt into the likeness of the plain of Dura [Daniel 3: 1-7]. This idol, forbidden to us first of all idols, by our own Master and faith. Forbidden to us also by every human lip that has ever, in any age or people, been accounted of as able to speak according to the purposes of God. Continue to make that forbidden deity your principal one, and soon no more art, no more science, no more pleasure will be possible. Catastrophe will come; or, worse than catastrophe, slow moldering and withering into Hades.
But if you can fix some conception of a true human state of life to be striven for—life, good for all men, as for yourselves; if you can determine some honest and simple order of existence; following those trodden ways of wisdom, which are pleasantness, and, seeking her quiet and withdrawn paths, which are peace [Proverbs 3:17]—then, and so sanctifying wealth into commonwealth, all your art, your literature, your daily labors, your domestic affection, and citizen‘s duty, will join and increase into one magnificent harmony.
You will know then how to build well enough. You will build with stone well, but with flesh better–temples not made with hands, but riveted of hearts. And that
kind of marble, crimson-veined, is indeed eternal. [Acts 7:48]
A good path to consider taking in troubled times, don’t you think?
Until next time.
May we all be well, much sooner rather than later, out there.
P.S.: Above, the cover page of Penguin Classics edition of Ruskin’s “Traffic” lecture, presented to me earlier this year by Peter Smith, a dear friend of my former student, Charlie Moffitt, one of my best ever. Thanks to you both.