Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ruskin--Part XIII

This book was written at the same time as the Irish potato famine. Given our modern proclivity to be aware of and in some cases wring our hands over catastrophes quite a long way from home, I thought it worth noting that the crisis does not seem to have borne much on Ruskin's thoughts, though his own country and class was the ruling power in Ireland. Many modern people have wondered why England, nominally the wealthiest country in the world at the time, appears not to have attempted anything meaningful to relieve the mass starvation at the very least. While I do not doubt that the leadership of Britain was largely indifferent to the suffering, especially by our standards of decency, I wonder how logistically possible it would have been to pull off a humanitarian intervention on anything like the scale that we would expect now. I expect not very. The English nation at the time had not come to grips with feeding its own masses that, severed from the rural life or the cultivation of their own food, and without adequate employment, were unable to feed themselves. A lot of people seem to think we are going back to this level of civilization within the next few years, if not months, but I will comment on that in another post.

Fig. 1--Crusaders' Chain Mail. One of the many inexplicable, minor unrealized dreams of my life was to pick up a girl at a Renaissance fair. The reputation for beauty of the girls who attends these fairs is not high, but there are some acceptable lookers among the crowd, who would have more of the kind of education and other strange qualities that I would find appealing. This was to be a temporary, artistic-infused affair. Aren't the girls who dress up like this supposed to be notoriously easy if you can convince them you are one of them? Of course I never had any intention to dress up like the clown in this picture; I would have been willing to put on a tunic and a gauntlet if I had had to get in, but that is it.

I was greatly surprised in my researches to discover the extravagant cost of these fairs. They are $40 or $50 a person just to get in. Since they are so strongly associated with losers and the hopelessly uncool, I had assumed they must be free, or nearly so, to get any girls other than completely desperate ones inside the gates at all, but evidently that is not how this dynamic works (though judging by the reports on the internet, there are still a handful of studs who monopolize all the women, and the majority of male attendees go home bitter and alone, just like everywhere else in life; my miscalculation was always in thinking I would be one of the dominant ones among this crowd because to my eyes even the "cool" ones appear so weak. Yet their ladies love them as they are). "It is for each man to find his own measure in this matter (i.e., the activity of one's life); in great part, also, for others to find it for him, while he is yet a youth. And the desperate evil of the whole Renaissance system is, that knowledge is thought the one and only good, and it is never inquired whether men are vivified by it or paralyzed." By knowledge here, I am pretty sure he means mainly modern scientific knowledge.

Like most people--and I do mean most people, though not most very, very smart people who understand somewhat better what human existence is about--my instinct when reading a condemnation of contemporary life, whatever previous epoch of history it happens to be being compared with, is usually to nod in affirmation, though when pressed (and contrary to what it may sometimes appear), I do not believe that past ages were on the whole any better than our own. Obviously I find in certain individuals or pockets of people in former times admirable or delightful qualities that seem not to have been passed down to many people in our own age and that I should like to see a little more of. All of the problems with life elucidated here I have both at one time or another felt myself, and felt that my own society was particularly lacking in the wisdom or perception to meaningfully address. Perhaps these really are psychological conditions unique to the organization of society in modernity, and men in the high middle ages were the happiest and most fully realized people of all time--it is remarkable to me how many authors and scholars have come to this conclusion--but even if it were true, it is quite as impossible to return mentally to this manner of life as it would be for me to try to relate to the world as I did when I was a child--in which period, I might add, I was not especially happy, or brilliant either, at the time, but only seem so in retrospect when contrasted with the irreparable ruin I have since become.

" effect of knowledge is to deaden the force of the imagination and the original energy of the whole man: under the weight of his knowledge he cannot move so lightly as in the days of his simplicity." Again, one feels something like this to be the case in himself, though on the other hand it is impossible not to observe that many people who do not appear to know or think about very much at all also display little evidence of imagination or vigor. The problem I think may lie in the half or less than half-understood form that most knowledge consists of. The more mastery a man has over his knowledge, the more he is one with it and it with him, the greater his ability to manipulate it, the more vigorous and imaginative he will be.

Fig.2--Ruskin bearded. I have never had a beard of any kind. On the few occasions where I did not get around to shaving for a couple of days the growth did not look too terrible but I found it to be unbearably itchy. My children want me to grow a beard for Christmas and then shave it afterwards. I have always felt that one's face had to contain a high degree of solidity and purpose to carry off a beard with dignity. At the same time it seems like something one ought at some point in his life be removed far enough from pleasant civilization for some time to be forced to try on.
"...the Renaissance knowledge is like the Renaissance armour of plate, binding and cramping the human form; while all good knowledge is like the crusader's chain mail, which throws itself into folds with the body, yet it is rarely so forged as that the clasps and rivets do not gall us." I thought this figure and analogy especially well-down. That was my years as an earnest aspiring man of letters rearing itself out of the sludge, as such things will have the occasional tendency to do.

"They (men) look back to the days of childhood as of greatest happiness, because those were the days of greatest wonder, greatest simplicity, and most vigorous imagination." I don't have terribly fond memories of my childhood. In truth I very rarely think much about it up to about age 16 except in little fragments of memory that something has jolted. I was never one of those children who was infected with a high degree of "wonder", nor do I recall anything ever appearing especially simple to me other than lists of facts, dates, numbers, etc. My imagination was functional, but even at seven or eight I knew that it was not as vigorous--though I would have lacked the language to express this--as it might be. I guess I was just a bad seed through and through from the very start.

Fig. 3 This is supposed to be Croesus, I think.

The whole chapter "The Spite of the Proud" is very good reading. Though I don't know if he was thinking of Pope when he chose the title--somehow I doubt it--the phrase appears in the "Essay on Man", the closing couplet of Epistle I:

"And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right."

"...of the paltry knowledge they possessed they could only be proud (as opposed to loving)...the one main purpose of the Renaissance artists, in all their work, was to show how much they knew." This is the same criticism Johnson made of the metaphysical poets, who were I suppose Renaissance figures, though late ones. Our time of course is so infused with this attitude that even I would not swear that anybody ever really did anything out of pure affection for their task more than egomania.

Fig. 4--I don't remember what this building is, or why I have a picture of it up here. I am pretty sure it is one of the colleges at Cambridge, but I cannot guess what it is supposed to refer to.

"Raphael, Leonardo, and Michael Angelo were all trained in the old school; they all had masters who knew the true ends of art, and had reached them; masters nearly as great as they were themselves, but imbued with the old religious and earnest spirit, which their disciples receiving from them, and drinking at the same time deeply from all the fountains of knowledge opened in their day, became the world's wonders." I thought it was an attractive theory. I don't know that I believe it, or that I can make it mean much to my outlook on life--so deadened to impressions and ideas my imagination has become, though it is still interested in coming upon them--but it carries with a whole vision of the organization of the world that I would find most desirable to believe in if I could.

"For instance, when perspective was first invented, the world thought it a mighty discovery, and the greatest men then alive were as proud of knowing that retiring lines converge, as if all the wisdom of Solomon had been compressed into a vanishing point." I thought this was humorous.

Fig 5--Dance Club on the Tech Company Trip to Miami. Now why the hell do I have this picture in here? These people look totally lame. The girl with the tattoo has nice hair and might not be a terrible person at heart or have a terrible mind but one suspects both of these have been somewhat constricted by society. I was thinking that any man of reasonable parts should be able to dominate this crowd with little problem, inspire lust in the women and awe in the men and so on, and yet so far am I from dominating them, that I couldn't even get invited to tag along with them or to work in a respectable position at their company. The distance between my perception of who I am vis-a-vis the rest of the world and who I really am is quite stunning even to me. Criticism of the excessively aristocratic bent to Renaissance architecture: "For, observe, all other architectures have something in them that common men can enjoy; some concession to the simplicities of humanity, some daily bread for the hunger of the multitude." Thankfully he did not leave to see Modernism. At first I wasn't sure about this quote either but there might be something in it; the architecture styles of certain ages definitely warm me more than others do. I don't know, however, either whether the Renaissance is really as off-putting to the common mind as he says it is, or whether it is really alone among pre-1900, or, given that Ruskin seems to hated the 19th century, pre-1800s epochs in being so.

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