Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On the clarity and power of 19th century writing concerning art - focus on John Ruskin

This is a followup to my previous post, about Romanticism and Aesthetics and the many writers who have contributed to them - so many in the 19th century. I want to post a segment of one of John Ruskin's articles just to show the great care with which he delineates his points and elaborates on them. Its very rare to find such deep thinking, so eloquently articulated, in any time or place. Strangely though, there was a whole lot of it going on in the 1800's (aka the 19th century). I'll expound a bit on my thoughts as to why that is after the excerpt. This comes from Ruskin's Of the Pathetic Fallacy, a chapter in his book Modern Painters vol 2. After the excerpt is a link to the entire chapter online, in case it whets the appetite for more. 

"Now, therefore, putting these tiresome and absurd words quite out of our way, we may go on at our ease to examine the point in question— namely, the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.
For instance —
  • The spendthrift crocus,
  • bursting through the mould  
  • Naked and shivering,
  • with his cup of gold.
This is very beautiful, and yet very untrue. The crocus is not a spendthrift, but a hardy plant; its yellow is not gold, but saffron. How is it that we enjoy so much the having it put into our heads that it is anything else than a plain crocus?
It is an important question. For, throughout our past reasonings about art, we have always found that nothing could be good, or useful, or ultimately pleasurable, which was untrue. But here is something pleasurable in written poetry which is nevertheless untrue. And what is more, if we think over our favourite poetry, we shall find it full of this kind of fallacy, and that we like it all the more for being so. 
§ 5. It will appear also, on consideration of the matter, that this fallacy is of two principal kinds. Either, as in this case of the crocus, it is the fallacy of wilful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed; or else it is a fallacy caused by an excited state of the feelings, making us, for the time, more or less irrational. Of the cheating of the fancy we shall have to speak presently; but, in this chapter, I want to examine the nature of the other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion. Thus, for instance, in Alton Locke— 
  • They rowed her in across the rolling foam—
  • The cruel, crawling foam.
The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the 'Pathetic Fallacy'. 
§ 6. Now we are in the habit of considering this fallacy as eminently a character of poetical description, and the temper of mind in which we allow it as one eminently poetical, because passionate. But, I believe, if we look well into the matter, that we shall find the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness — that it is only the second order of poets who much delight in it. 
Thus, when Dante describes the spirits falling from the bank of Acheron' as dead leaves flutter from a bough', he gives the most perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness, passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls, and those are leaves; he makes no confusion of one with the other. But when Coleridge speaks of
  • The one red leaf, the last of its clan, 
  • That dances as often as dance it can,
he has a morbid, that is to say, a so far false, idea about the leaf : he fancies a life in it, and will, which there are not; confuses its powerlessness with choice, its fading death with merriment, and the wind that shakes it with music. Here, however, there is some beauty, even in the morbid passage; but take an instance in Homer and Pope. Without the knowledge of Ulysses, Elpenor, his youngest follower, has fallen from an upper chamber in the Circean palace, and has been left dead, unmissed by his leader, or companions, in the haste of their departure. They cross the sea to the Cimmerian land; and Ulysses summons the shades from Tartarus. The first which appears is that of the lost Elpenor. Ulysses, amazed, and in exactly the spirit of bitter and terrified lightness which is seen in Hamlet, addresses the spirit with the simple, startled words:—
Elpenor! How camest thou under the shadowy darkness? Hast thou come faster on foot than I in my black ship?

Which Pope renders thus:—
  • 0, say, what angry power Elpenor led 
  • To glide in shades, and wander with the dead? 
  • How could thy soul, by realms and seas disjoined, 
  • Outfly the nimble sail, and leave the lagging wind?
I sincerely hope the reader finds no pleasure here, either in the nimbleness of the sail, or the laziness of the wind! And yet how is it that these conceits are so painful now, when they have been pleasant to us in the other instances?
 § 7. For a very simple reason. They are not a pathetic fallacy at all, for they are put into the mouth of the wrong passion — a passion which never could possibly have spoken them — agonized curiosity. Ulysses wants to know the facts of the matter; and the very last thing his mind could do at the moment would be to pause, or suggest in anywise what was not a fact. The delay in the first three lines, and conceit in the last, jar upon us instantly, like the most frightful discord in music. No poet of true imaginative power could possibly have written the passage.
Therefore, we see that the spirit of truth must guide us in some sort, even in our enjoyment of fallacy. Coleridge's fallacy has no discord in it, but Pope's has set our teeth on edge. Without farther questioning, I will endeavour to state the main bearings of this matter. 
§ 8. The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is, as I said above, that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion; and it is a more or less noble state, according to the force of the emotion which has induced it. For it is no credit to a man that he is not morbid or inaccurate in his perceptions, when he has no strength of feeling to warp them; and it is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of being, that the emotions should be strong enough to vanquish, partly, the intellect, and make it believe what they choose. But it is still a grander condition when the intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even if he melts, losing none of his weight.
So, then, we have the three ranks: the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy's shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself—a little flower, apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the associations and passions may be, that crowd around it. And, in general, these three classes may be rated in comparative order, as the men who are not poets at all, and the poets of the second order, and the poets of the first; only however great a man may be, there are always some subjects which ought to throw him off his balance; some, by which his poor human capacity of thought should be conquered, and brought into the inaccurate and vague state of perception, so that the language of the highest inspiration becomes broken, obscure, and wild in metaphor, resembling that of the weaker man, overborne by weaker things. 
§ 9. And thus, in full, there are four classes: the men who feel nothing, and therefore see truly; the men who feel strongly, think weakly, and see untruly (second order of poets); the men who feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly (first order of poets); and the men who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them. This last is the usual condition of prophetic inspiration."
Of the Pathetic Fallacy by John Ruskin @

I find that reading material like this can have several beneficial effects, and perhaps a few ill ones. For the ill - unfortunately it can perpetuate one into that vernacular frame of mind verily similar unto the Victorian prose itself - aka after reading a bunch of this stuff, I want to write like them dudes do. But as for the beneficial effects - for one it puts you into a slower mindset, more like the pace people must have lived at in those times. In that sense it's very meditative.
Also, after spending so long ruminating deeply on a single idea and covering it from several different vantage points as the writers of the 19th century tended to do, I find myself more apt to think similarly. There's a seriousness of tone and a depth and breadth of thought that's extremely rare to encounter anywhere today in our high speed sound byte era when flippant platitudes tend to pass for thought.

And finally, it's very gratifying to find someone marking out and throughly exploring ground that is in between the extremes - on an issue that could so easily be polarizing. Ruskin is against the excesses of Romanticism, but he doesn't just take a broad stand against it in its totality; instead he's very careful to explain precisely what it is that bothers him about it, while still allowing that when poetic license is used in certain ways, even when taken to an extreme, it is allowable and in fact admirable. Because of this, he can't be said to be exactly against Romanticism, but rather very careful to elaborate on which elements of it he likes and doesn't like, and for exactly what reasons.
According to his own categories, I would consider Ruskin to be a poet of the first stripe. Possibly an inspired genius, though I haven't read enough of his work yet to make a call like that.
And he was far from alone. The 19th century produced a plethora of writers and thinkers of the same caliber. It seems to have been one of those shining moments in history when a civilization rose to glittering heights, which always seem to be followed closely by a downslide - in this case Modernism shading over into Postmodernism, leading us up to our current day. There must have been a perfect storm of factors to produce a time of such excellence. Undoubtedly the education was far superior to our own dumbed down public school system, and in addition the culture must have fostered and encouraged deep thought. 

They didn't have the array of mass media that we do today - bread and circuses to distract us constantly from meditation on serious issues. When they wanted to stay in contact with someone long distance, they wrote letters, and they didn't use txt spk. They took pride in correct grammar and sentence structure - literacy was a point of pride. Conscious thought is carried out almost entirely through language, and being adept in language allows one to be adept at thinking clearly. Illiteracy and self-imposed limitations on it essentially limits thought. 

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