Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ruskin--Part VIII

I took a week off because I was busy and also because I am hoping that a longer gestation between posts will make the writing here better than it has been lately. It probably won't, but one must try.

The selections under consideration today are from the chapter titled "The Savageness of Gothic Architecture", savageness here by the way being understood in a mostly positive and superior sense.

Ruskin tended to understand works of art, and intelligence and stupidity in general, as the product of a particular society as a whole. Individuals such as craftmen--carvers, stone cutters, etc, are not regarded as having intelligence or stupidity unique to themselves, but insofar as their society is generally wise or foolish, whether it has made them, in his words, "tools... or men", by men seeming to mean people capable of imagination, and serious consideration of their, and by extension Man's place in the universe. He did not think much of his own society's prospects for producing anything beautiful or otherwise elevated, but this is the case with all men who find life as it is actually lived by real people discomforting and a great comedown from the contemplation of Art.

"It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves." Most of us are of course so far gone from any tangible sensation of what being a fully realized sentient human being in the classic sense is now that I think it has become almost intellectually impossible to imagine a form of life in which one's existential longings might realistically be made manifest. I'm sure I don't know what mine might even be.

"It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure." Ruskin's father was a wealthy wine merchant and the author himself never had to work out of material need. A society in which most men took pleasure in their work and, I would think by extension, in their stations, would I think by necessity have to be rather primitive, which I think is what Ruskin believes, and it certainly seems that he is willing enough to see modern civilization exploded, though he himself actually found a suitable occupation for himself in it as an intellectual and art critic, professions which only spring up in the inferior sophisticated, cultivated types of societies that follow the purer manifestations of civilization and improperly utilize the powers and energies of the human mind.

This topic is of great importance to me, since I don't really work, either in the classical sense of doing something expertly that is the culmination of a long, meticulous process of mental development and acculturation that enhances and dignifies myself and my society, or in the modern sense of economics as a global talent competition for which the winners are rewarded money, status, and power (it is some indication of how cognitively-oriented the new economy is that sex doesn't appear to be the same motivating factor for ambitious young strivers [even younger politicians seem to be exempt from this compulsion, aside perhaps from my contemporary mayor Kilpatrick of Detroit] as it seems to have been in, say, the 1950s. The internet is full of speculation as to why Bill Gates and other technology billionaires don't seem to have a lot of casual sexual affairs which surely would be available to them ). Another concern of mine, which has sort of played itself out in my own life, is that I am descended from groups--Irish and Lithuanian Catholics--that are not traditionally known for excelling in the most esteemed and lucrative professions, i.e. business, medicine, law, science and math, etc. The Irish are traditionally most renowned for excelling at, as far as I can see, literature, music, drinking, the priesthood, and being policemen and firemen. Around 1920 they were regarded as being gifted in sports, particularly football, baseball, boxing, and running, in all of which however they were eclipsed by blacks or hispanics when those sports became integrated. They have some skill at politics, though aside from the usual exceptions that can always be found for anything they seem to be pretty mediocre to inept at governing when compared with English, Germanic or even the better Italian politicans. People of Irish Catholic descent appear to be seriously underrepresented in mathematical and science-based fields, which especially on the internet and in Asia is all a lot of people seem to consider genuine learning nowadays. The male occupations on that side in my own family line include history teacher, chronically unemployed alcoholic and bad check passer (this guy was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania), pro golfer (this was my great-grandfather, back in the 1930s), sweatshop workers (these were the immigrants). Among my uncles there was a radio sportscaster (back in the 50s/60s), a guy who drove a newspaper truck, a guy who owned a garage, numerous people who had union jobs with the Philadelphia transit authority. Oddly there were no priests or nuns, though there were quite a few spinster aunts straight out of Joyce (and about his age) who lived in humble circumstances--tiny apartments or rooms, scanty meals, the same clothes for decades--into their 80s and 90s. By the way if you read Joyce or other Irish writers, the impression one gets of Irish economic activity is that 1) there isn't much of it and 2) no one is really exerting himself too much to get things going. I know the Republic has been doing better lately but my impression was that a lot of that was the result of foreign companies setting up offices which finally provided a lot of jobs, which had chronically been in short supply in that nation. Most people do seem to have abandonded some of their old drinking habits though (i.e. in place of working) which is impressive to me. I did not think a problem that entrenched in the culture could be changed that quickly.

As to the Lithuanians I of course know much less about them. Their most prominent talent on the global level, rather surprisingly, seems to be in basketball, where they have won several bronze medals at the Olympics, an impressive feat for a nation with 3 million people. They are a tall people, with proportionally a lot of 7-footers, and they have also proven to be faster and less clumsy on the court than they look. Johnny Unitas, the great quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, was a Lithuanian-American, and was also considered somewhat unathletic because his gait looked funny. I was under the impression that Chuck Bednarik, the greatest Philadelphia Eagle of all time who once nearly killed Frank Gifford with a hit, was Lithuanian as well, but he may have been Polish. Lithuanian 15-year olds have the lowest obesity rate in the world, at 0.2% (When I was 15 I was 6'3" and weighed 145 pounds, so I appear to have inherited this body type. Of course I am much heavier now). They are also right up there with Finland depending on what year the statistics are from for having the highest suicide rate, and the Lithuanians I have known in America are a pretty dour lot, so I'm guessing there is a natural bent towards what American norms would define as depression. There seem to be no famous Lithuanians in the pan-European sense in any intellectual field, though I am sure they have their poets (every nation has its poets). The modern nation is somewhat famed for its amber jewelry, amber being one of the few things found in great abundance there, and my impression is that there is an active mafia-like component to the society, which latter surprises me given the comatose temperaments of nearly all of my Lithuanian-descended relatives. My immigrant forebear was a tailor, which is a noble profession, and one I can see myself having been competent at if I had been brought up to it. The American descendants have been advertising men, other variety of travelling salesmen, office clerks. The older members of this line were quite good at tinkering with tools and mechanical apparatuses, which my Irish relatives showed no proclivity for whatsoever. I still don't see what direction to follow. It is of little concern to me personally at this point, but there are the children to pressure. And one must pressure them a little or they will have scant hope of making anything or themselves, right?

There is a long passage about the lower classes of men knowing and accepting their places and performing the duties these entail that is fairly elegantly laid out, but is not insisted upon with such uncontestable superiority of language, argument, tone as to be convincing to those who most need the lesson in Ruskin's eyes:

" obey another man, to labor for him, yield reverence to him or to his place, is not slavery...Which had, in reality, most of the serf nature in him--the Irish peasant who was lying in wait yesterday for his landlord, with his musket muzzle thrust through the ragged hedge; or that old mountain servant who, 200 years ago, at Inverkeithing, gave up his own life and the lives of his seven sons for his chief?--as each fell, calling forth his brother to the death, 'Another for Hector!'...therefore, in all ages and all countries, reverence has been paid and sacrifice made by men to each other, not only without complaint, but rejoicingly; and famine, and peril, and sword, and all evil, and all shame, have been borne willingly in the causes of masters and kings; for all these gifts of the heart ennobled the men who gave not less than the men who received them..." Wow. I can see this though, so long as the men are able to retain some sense, or some illusion, that the chief really does partake of a greatness that they do not, and 2) that the chief, this great being, nonetheless knows them and loves them, really loves them. Many people seem to have felt this even going into World War I. Books and movies from the countries of the former Hapsburg empire dealing with this period almost always include at least one character, if they aren't primarily about such a character, who just loves the emperor and the royal family, is motivated by his affection for them, and is only disillusioned at the very last minute, when it is already too late. And it is true that these characters attain a kind of nobility in their error that is hardly to be attained by our modern ironists. Whenever one of these mass shootings occurs, especially at a college, with little apparent resistance on the part of the men present, there is a great deal of commentary from some circles on the cowardice and general lack of manly spirit in young men today. A part of this derives from the circumstance that a lot of middle-class young men are not prepared to act themselves in a crisis, and this is a catastrophe, but I think a component of this problem is that there is more of a disconnect in our society than in traditional ones between the men who would be natural leaders, or chiefs, and the men who need to be led, have their confidence shored up, etc. The leaders don't really want to be bothered with the care of lesser men anymore either, and the lesser men naturally balk at the idea--as one must in our society to a certain extent, even if the posture is illusory--that they are inadequate and need considerable guidance not to disgrace themselves, and as a consequence the social fabric and the culture start to fray. Still, there seem to be far fewer specimens of the classic leader type, at least who would be capable of leading people of high intelligence, than there ought to be in a population the size of our current one; or perhaps I just haven't met them.

"All professions should be liberal, and there should be less pride felt in peculiarity of employment, and more in excellence of achievement." Next idea.

" good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art...I believe there has only been one man who would not acknowledge this necessity, and strove always to reach perfection, Leonardo (picture above); the end of his vain effort being merely that he would take ten years to a picture, and leave it unfinished."

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