Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Stones of Venice--Part XV

A regular reader might have the impression that one of my biggest problems is that I believe everything I am told. This is not quite true; I do however take what I perceive other people to believe or feel far too seriously. Whenever anyone is complaining about or denouncing something with any vehemence, and clearly does not include themselves in the general censure, I tend to assume that they are including me in the list of those who are not living up to their standards. Consequently I feel a lot of anxiety and guilt about things like the pitiful condition of current literature and intellectual life, the near-extinction of ambitious, fearless men who are attractive and interesting to women, the gross ignorance of the Constitution and the rights Americans are said to have once enjoyed, the sheepish following of the dictates of the media and other corporate overlords, the stupified wallowing away of life in wage slavery, the thriving market for processed junk food, the disappearance of pride, honor and good manners from daily life, and so on, for I feel in my own person responsible for these various catastrophes in my own little but culture-enervating way. Even when I know the contemptuous person is ridiculous, since I seem to have neither the power to stop them, or influence their thinking, or be at all certain that other people are not taken in by them, or do not realize what they are dealing with, this causes me to be anxious. After all, one of the reasons one writes anything is because one wants his own perception of the truth of things to be about and at least a part of the body of ideas regarding a given subject, especially when most of the representations made by others seem either wrong or inadequate. I also think that there ought to be some wider ground of common humanity among a society of people wherein some degree of harmony can manifest itself even among enemies, and make points of argument or temperament or even differences in intellectual capacity less absolute, less alienating. That there seems to be ever increasingly less such is a matter of great concern to me.

"In the hands of a great man, posture, like everything else, becomes noble, even when over-studied, as with Michael Angelo, who was, perhaps, more than any other, the cause of the mischief; but, with inferior men, this habit of composing attitudes ends necessarily in utter lifelessness and abortion. Giotto was perhaps, of all painters, the most free from the infection of the poison, always conceiving an incident naturally, and drawing it unaffectedly..." I note such maxims as this because, believe it or not, I am trying to impress and incorporate some of these ideas about making artworks into the general stream of my own thought and approach.

Ruskin of course was a great champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were also trying to put some of his ideas to work in their art. While I think I can agree with him about their dialing down the intensity of the posture in most instances, they were only about half-successful, actually quite a bit less, in composing natural and unaffected scenes.

Picture--Ruskin stayed at this hotel for 3 months in 1877. I took a look at the current rates--they aren't atrocious, especially if you can handle the shared bathroom. The rooms look a little more modern and upscale than I generally like but I think I could endure it.

Another telltale sign, according to Ruskin, of Venetian decline was the gradual evolution of the medieval/Gothic recumbent statue of the deceased on his tomb, eyes closed and hands joined in prayer, to the more elaborate, self-glorifying monuments that became popular during the Renaissance: "The statue rose up, and presented itself in front of the tomb, like an actor upon a stage, surrounded now not merely, or not at all, by the Virtues, but by allegorical figures of Fame and Victory, by genii and muses, by personifications of humbled kingdoms and adoring nations, and by every circumstance of pomp, and symbol of adulation, that flattery could suggest, or insolence could claim."

On the monument commemorating a father-son Doge pair from the later 17th century: "...the incapable sculptor could not conceive any form of dreadfulness, could not even make the lion look angry. It looks only lachrymose; and its lifted forepaws, there being no spring nor motion in its body, give it the appearance of a dog begging."

The next chapter is called "Infidelitas", which is concerned with the mockery of religious feeling that was brought on by the Renaissance and infected the art of the period. Ruskin was considerably hotter and more anti-Catholic at the time of the book's original publication, and there are many footnotes added during later revisions in which the earlier rhetoric is toned down and qualified, mostly by acknowledging that Protestants, especially contemporary ones, do not demonstrate any appreciably better sense of the divine.

One footnote that is of the kind I like to pass on, as it contains a declaration of a superlative where the arts are concerned, is this: "The most true and beautiful analysis of the entire debate (the debate concerned is the Reformation) that I know in literature is given in three of Scott's novels--if you know how to read them--'The Monastery, The Abbot, and 'Old Mortality'." I have never read any Scott, though I think I will eventually if I continue to follow my program. He has of course been out of fashion for at least a hundred years now. For a long time it was hard to see him coming back, but I suspect he will come back, in limited fashion, among serious people in this century. His real preoccupations, identity, cultural rejuvenation, a defined if narrow idea of what properly constitutes manhood at least, if not womanhood, are going to be more important to more people than they were in the 20th century. Granted, what little of his work I am familiar with seems pretty bad--contrived, false romanticism mostly--but he was so big, Dickens/Jane Austen big for most of the 19th century, that I have to think there is something there that we have just not been attuned to.
The rampages against Catholicism are too long to quote at much length, though here is a sample: "Multitudes of minds which in other ages might have brought honor and strngth to the Church, preaching the more vital truths which it still retained, were now occupied in pleading for arraigned falsehoods, or magnifying disused frivolities..." In a footnote on this sentence, which goes on for more than a page, written 30 or so years afterwards, the author observes "What a little Edgworthian gosling I still was, when I wrote this!"

Another footnote, regarding a sentence he regards with regret as having cost him a good deal of time to write, to no good purpose: "We have little time enough, in human life, to watch men who are doing right, and to help them."

This footnote actually approves of his youthful sentiment, and aims only to clarify it. The downfall of many men who thought they were doing the wisest thing for their improvement, including me, is hinted at within: "Logic and Rhetoric are indeed studies only for fools and hypocrites; all strong heads reason as easily as they walk, and all strong lips speak for truth's sake, and not emotion's." There is a lot that is true in this, as least as it applies to dolts.

Picture--This is one of Ruskin's own drawings of St Mark's, I believe also from 1877, the same visit where he stayed in the hotel above.
He does back up his argument against the study of logic by appealing to religion, which will hardly appease the logicians: "Christ's teaching was found not to be rhetorical, St Paul's preaching not to be logical, and the Greek of the New Testament not to be grammatical." Still, I think I understand what he means as it applies to life as it is actually perceived and experienced: "Of the debasing tendency of philology no proof is needed beyond once reading a grammarian's notes on a great poet; logic is unnecessary for men who can reason..."

In the original edition, concerning the Renaissance fascination with classical antiquity at the expense of religion: "The human mind is not capable of more than a certain amount of admiration or reverence; and that which was given to Horace was withdrawn from David." He modifies this slightly in a later footnote: "True; but a good deal ought to be given to Horace, nevertheless." One of the real pities of decline of Latin knowledge on any kind of meaningful scale among the generally educated is that Horace, as well as Virgil, two of the most revered poets of the entire world, have been essentially lost to any communal, non-specialist human consciousness. Such a thing is a serious matter. I have dabbled in Latin as I dabbled in many things, learning them all about 2% of the way to proficiency, (I am as perfect a symbol of the travesty that is modern humanistic education as anyone else), and I have a Loeb copy of Horace's odes, though apart from a random, still quasi-famous line here and there (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori) I cannot really make out any of its greatness. The poems really do not translate into English with any power at all ("My friends, o how we drank, how we sang, how happy we were then"). Maybe when I am older and I have more time, and all my worldly ambitions, feeble as most of them are as it is, have been put at last to rest, I will make a proper go at it. Perhaps.

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