Note to-day in Bible reading the charge to Abraham, "Walk before me, and be thou perfect." It means "sincere" in marginal reading. In Matthew I think means integer: loving all men; not only those who love us but loving wholly. Whence Sincerity and Integrity seem to make up the idea of perfection. — John Ruskin's diary, February 19, 1854
On June 3, 1849, Ruskin wrote in his diary at Vevay, "I walked up this afternoon to Bloney, very happy, and yet full of some sad thought; how perhaps I should not be again among these lovely scenes; as I was now and ever had been, a youth with his parents — it seemed that the sunset of to-day sunk upon me like the departure of youth." The landscape seemed similarly dead and dreary until
I looked at it with the possession-taking grasp of the imagination — the true one; it gilded all the dead walls, and I felt a charm in every vine tendril that hung over them. It required an effort to maintain the feeling; it was poetry while it lasted, and I felt that it was only while under it that one could draw, or invent, or give glory to, any part of such a landscape. I repeated, "I am in Switzerland" over and over again, till the name brought back the true group of associations, and I felt I had a soul, like my boy's soul, once again. I have not insisted enough on this source of all great contemplative art.
He continues: "I felt that the human soul was all — the subject nothing. Not so, when I passed 'a little further on' past the low chapel that I drew last time I was here, with its neighboring gate, inscribed 'pense a ta fin' [sic]; and came down among the meadows, covered half a fathom deep with the emblem by which God suggests that thought." But the emblem of human transience leads Ruskin instead to an exultant meditation, which he later published as the prose ode to the grass in Modern Painters III [127/128]: "Bread that strengtheneth man's heart — ah, well may the Psalmist number among God's excellences, 'He maketh grass to grow upon the mountains.'"(Diaries, II, 381-382.)
In the diary entry Ruskin twice overcomes the fear of death and the loss of the past by an effort of visual will, pictured in each case as a negotiation of energies between mind and nature. A few days later he noted that "an over-supply of food would only be an over-tax upon its energies. This crushing of the mind by overweight is finely given by Forbes."(Diaries, II, 385)Ruskin moves from "I felt that the human soul was all — the subject nothing" to "this crushing of the mind by overweight" — two extremes that may be mediated by means of the nutritional metaphor: food taken in proper amounts keeps energy from exhausting itself, just as Temperance or Wisdom is the right regulation of the soul's internal economy. In the first of the two recoveries, Ruskin appropriates the scene by repeating a magical phrase that brings past and present together; the lifeless objects become the true Switzerland again and the aging self becomes one with his "true" self, that is, his "boy's soul." (The phrase "I felt I had a soul, like my boy's soul, once again" leaves ambiguous whether there is a soul at all distinct from the boy's.) Whereas for Wordsworth the sense of self rests on historical continuity perceived through a record of changes, for Ruskin emotional associations magically induce a sudden canceling of time and change altogether, and the splendor in the grass returns unchanged. But the meditation also asserts the inadequacy of the imagination to sustain this ecstasy, since the trance is cut short by the rebuke "Pense à ta fin." Visual power, then, invites a double contradiction: the human soul is all, yet there is a power mighty enough to crush me; I have the power to invest objects with life, yet I am mortal. But Ruskin can return to Eden after all. The second recovery transcends both contradictions by substituting a typological reading for the romantic sublime. By inscribing associations onto the landscape — the permanent associations provided by Scripture — he converts the anxiety of visual power into prophetic praise. Death is denied because of the antithetical character of types: grass, the type of human perishability, is also the type of imperishable sustenance. The mountain solitudes, then, become a place of nurture, like home, and also a mount of vision; "Switzerland" becomes any lovely place where grass grows.
Mer de Glace, Chamonix. — one of the watercolors Ruskin created in 1849. Click on image to enlarge. [Not in print version]
The visit to Chamonix in 1849 was Ruskin's first honeymoon, as it were, away from Effie, his wife on one year. We cannot fail to notice that the association of marriage with mortality underlies the desire expressed in the diary to cancel out the present. The relation between [128/129] nostalgia and inscription presents itself soon afterward in The Stones of Venice, where the desolated past, hallowed by nostalgic associations, becomes the present as soon as buildings can be read for their inscriptions — the architectural analogues of Ruskin's discovery of grass as a divine hieroglyphic. But the ode to grass was to reappear in a later work, the work of a man sadder yet and wiser than the aging youth of 1849.
When Ruskin returned to Chamonix with his parents in 1854, he was once again flying from something he dreaded: the party left London in May, just after the scandal of the annulment had broken. The weeks that followed seem to have brought him a slow healing, the effects of spiritual and physical exercises, for the diary entries now look forward with subdued hope rather than backward with regret. "My father called me at half-past four this morning at Interlachen," he wrote in one place. "I was out as the clock struck five, and climbed as steadily as I could among the woods north of the valley, for an hour and a half, then emerging on the pure green pasture of the upper mountains.... I stood long, praying that these happy hours and holy sights might be of more use to me than they have been, and might be remembered by me in hours of temptation or mortification." "I hope to keep this day a festival for ever," he wrote in July, "having received my third call from God, in answer to much distressful prayer." "Every day here I seem to see further into nature, and into myself — and into futurity." "How little I thought God would bring me here just now; and I am here, stronger in health, higher in hope, deeper in peace, than I have been for years." The entries record a rime of revaluation and rededication in language similar to that of conversion: he prays, for example, for "newness of life" and meditates on the "broken-hearted state" preceding spiritual rebirth (Diaries, II, 496-498). There is no wonder that when he returned to England the social landscape should have seemed reduced and desiccated and the self-repression necessary at Denmark Hill a kind of voluntary interment; yet he had also come home to his next chosen field of work. Humanized by deep distress, he had become freshly aware of the distress of human lives other than his own, even in the Alps that had been so hospitable to him. Soon afterward he plunged into a flood of activities, including teaching at the Working Men's College founded by F. D. Maurice, and he began his close and permanent friendship with Carlyle. The advice he gave a young painter upon his return is typical of his new dedication: "Though works are not the price of salvation, they are assuredly the way to it, and the only way.... Strive always to do — acknowledge continually that it is Christ which worketh in you, [129/130] both to will and do" (XXXVI, 179-180). The theme also pervades the next two volumes of Modern Painters. In these remarkable books, which together comprise Ruskin's profoundest meditation on the evidences and implications of religious faith, he takes up once again the question of aesthetic expression and moral action, as regards not architecture alone but the totality of imaginative acts to which he now gives the name "landscape."
odern Painters III comprises a set of efforts rather than a self-consistent thesis, but its aim is nevertheless consistent and clear: to prove that a person's work for the human good is also a duty to the God of nature and that the child's landscape hunger is the root and support of the adult's yearning for a perfected human community. The subtitle is "Of Many Things." Earlier commentators, not fully cognizant of the Ruskinian unity in multeity, have taken the description at face value, and indeed the separate topics, as topics, are remarkably heterogeneous. The potpourri begins with some chapters on theoretical matters, concluding with the well-known definition of the pathetic fallacy. Ruskin then proceeds to a history of Western landscape, eccentrically using poets rather than painters as examples — Homer, Dante, and Scott chiefly — and next attempts to determine the moral value of the landscape feeling by a tabulation of famous men, including Ruskin. Volume 3 ends by deferring for yet another volume the question of the ultimate value of landscape painting. As though to nod in the direction of his professed topic, Ruskin brings Turner into the final chapter, which simply surveys the landscape technique of the painters he studied most. The book is not only inconclusive; it persistently attacks the very position it ostensibly defends — the moral efficacy of art — and, even more impressively, the dogmatic procedure that Ruskin had made his own in the course of some half dozen volumes. The introduction justifies Ruskin's ten years' interruption of Modern Painters by claiming he has spent the time studying in order to "judge rightly" of art as one would "judge rightly" of a science: it is as absurd, he believes, to "speak hesitatingly about laws of painting" as it would be for "Mr. Faraday to announce in a dubious manner that iron had an affinity for oxygen, and to put the question to the vote of his audience" (V, 4-5). Yet the course of the book subtly compromises the claim by shifting from the eternal principles of artistic greatness to a consideration of artistic greatness as the expression of cultural and religious conditions; similarly, the "character" of his great artist changes from an imperson [130/131] al mental power to a distinct cultural personality, of which there are several possibilities — the Greek, for example, or the great but disillusioned modern. By his close, Ruskin brings gravely into doubt the ultimate value of the landscape feeling, which had been his earliest qualification for judging art, and through that feeling has identified himself with men not of "the first order of intellect, but of brilliant imagination, quick sympathy, and undefined religious principle, suffering also usually under strong and ill-governed passions" (V, 360), and consequently (by implication) with the spirit of modern times — its faithlessness, its melancholy, its uncertainty. Modern Painters III, then, is the first of Ruskin's books written, so to speak, in the present tense — in a tentative, exploratory mode that dramatizes his own groping for the truth, his own efforts to define selfhood, not primarily as an abstract unity of spiritual energies (although his wish that it were one occupies part of the argument) but as a particular mode of being operating in a particular cultural milieu. It is a book, in short, about spiritual possibilities in an age without faith, and these Ruskin expresses through the unifying trope of seeing.
Most of Ruskin's books are better described in terms of some aspect of the human spirit than in terms of a particular subject. The economic writings, for example, are about the human being as a giving and producing creature; The Queen of the Air and the books on science, about a myth-making creature; Fors Clavigera about a creature that works and endures; and all of them, as Ruskin said about the books on art, bring "everything to a root in human passion or human hope" (VII, 257). But the books on art are specifically about "the very life of the man, considered as a seeing creature" (V, 177). And so the famous pronouncement, "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one" (V, 333) is the thesis of Modern Painters III, expressing the conceptual mode of an argument that considers human actions from the point of view of the primary copula of seer and seen. The moral life is a form of seeing, to be evaluated according to what appears on the visual field. Great art is the type of all noble human life, and the various subjects of painting, poetry, landscape, science, prophecy, and religion are variants of one another. Each activity is also the product of a human and a nonhuman contribution. In Ruskin's earlier phenomenology, the visual field is a factual presence primarily, organized by greater or lesser powers of visual conception yet undisturbed by the intrusion of irrelevant "fancies." Supernatural visions remain a special case, unclearly related to the seeing of a great landscape artist. In The Stones of Venice he used the analogy of textual interpretation to describe architecture as the fusion of God's works with the record of an artist's joy in receiving these works. Modern Painters III expands this cooper [131/132] ative activity to include all seeing, interpreting the visual field as itself an imaginative apprehension inscribed with both facts and fancies.4
This position comes clear in the chapter called "The Use of Pictures," which brings the theoretical section of the book to its climax and takes as its point of departure the question "Why paint at all if Nature is always greater than the work that imitates her?" Ruskin begins by relating how he once mistook the glass roof of a Swiss workshop for an unknown Alp. Since the roof and the Alp are nearly identical in visual fact, the greater emotional experience of the Alp must depend on something within the perceiver, which he calls the "penetrating, possession-taking power of the imagination" (V, 176). The emotion upon viewing the Alp depends, then, not only on ocular perception but also
on a curious web of subtle fancy and imperfect knowledge. First, you have a vague idea of its size, coupled with wonder at the work of the great Builder of its walls and foundations, then an apprehension of its eternity, a pathetic sense of its perpetualness, and your own transientness, as of the grass upon its sides; then, and in this very sadness, a sense of strange companionship with past generations in seeing what they saw.
After these "more solemn imaginations" will come thoughts of the Alpine "gifts and glories" — rivers, fields, homesteads, and so forth — and finally "strange sympathies with all the unknown of human life, and happiness, and death, signified by that narrow white flame of the everlasting snow, seen so far in the morning sky." You may not trace these mental images in your heart, he continues, "for there is a great deal more in your heart, of evil and good, than you ever can trace; they stir and quicken you for all that . . . and, observe, these [images] are nothing more than a greater apprehension of the facts of the thing" (V, 177-178). The "curious web," then, is not the working of the mind only because the rivers, valleys, and homesteads are also linked to the peak, from which they "flow"; the phrase "narrow white flame of the everlasting snow," moreover, attributes permanence and intensity to what is by nature cold and fleeting and therefore to the "gossamer" of thought as well, while at the same time recalling the biblical pillar of fire, the type of divine guidance. The everlasting flame stands for the vital copula of self and other, but in other ways, the landscape fulfills [132/133] the function of the ancient building in "The Lamp of Memory." As the building concentrates the sympathy and half constitutes the identity of nations, the Alpine valley — and by extension the natural and human worlds in general — do the same for the perceiver. Through a more comprehensive, more active apprehension of actuality, one knows a self beyond oneself yet centered in the self, otherwise unknowable in isolated introspection.
In one respect, Ruskin's mature epistemology marks a reconciliation with romantic tradition — with the Wordsworthian fitting of mind to nature, or the Shelleyan: "My own, my human mind, which passively / Now renders and receives fast influencings, / Holding an unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around." But in his chapter on the pathetic fallacy, Ruskin relegates Wordsworth to a secondary place among the poets. One reason is suggested by Ruskin's new treatment of the realistic imagination, an attention to factuality that he associates with a particular temperament different from Wordsworth's.
Ruskin wrote the first and third volumes of Modern Painters in the aftermath of unhappy love affairs, in each case using a stern devotion to facts as an antidote to distracting emotionalism. But in the earlier book, devotion to fact took the form of glad submissiveness, a "purity of heart" untroubled by memories of evil. In the third book, however, Ruskin tells us that the abuse of the imagination lies in shrinking from all unpleasant knowledge and taking refuge in "anything past, future, far off, or somewhere else, rather than in things now, near, and here"; but the honest use of imagination gives "full power and presence to the possible and true" (V, 71-72). The shift seems subtler than it really is, since Modern Painters III contains much familiar material — the praise, for example, of the draftsman's minute attention to detail; but the repeated examples of trunks and branches carry a new connotation. "I cannot," he writes, "hold the beauty, nor be sure of it for a moment, but by feeling for that strong stem" (V, 149-150), the stem, that is, of truth. As in the exposition of Gothic, this image suggests strength and connectedness, but here the "hold on nature" implies a virile toughmindedness as well: the inspired man is a practical man, a manual laborer, and the naturalist aesthetic is at this point also an Antaean ethic.
But can mere works of the imagination give "full power and presence" to the actual? In his chapter on "Realization" (a word suggesting not representation only but also conceiving or bringing to life), Ruskin dwells on the passage in the Purgatorio describing the figured pavement on which the souls must tread in order to learn the lessons of pride. In Carey's translation, which Ruskin uses: "Dead, the dead, / The living seemed alive; with clearer view, / His eye beheld not, who beheld the [133/134] truth, / Than mine what I did tread on, while I went / Low bending." Ruskin comments, "Dante has here clearly no other idea of the highest art than that it should bring back, as a mirror or vision, the aspect of things passed or absent," that we might see them "as if the years of the world had been rolled back" (V, 38). These cantos, celebrating the revolutionary realism of Dante's friend Giotto, suggest also that to the eye of faith, the living as living and the dead as dead remain absolutely distinguished — and this the souls in Purgatory learn when they tread, touching down, so to speak, on hard realities. (Elsewhere Dante likens the unrestrained intellect to a defenseless butterfly.) Not didactic lessons in stone but the clarity of moral knowledge, its concrete presence and humbling efficacy: this is Ruskin's moral theme in the first half of Modern Painters III, a clarity associated with a passionate intensity that he distinguishes absolutely from enthusiastic delusions.
The distinction informs the chapters that follow, comprising a whirlwind survey of modern art history that dramatizes the opposition between vanity and realism. The target of his attack, as usual, is a vaguely Frenchified leisure class, surrounded by looking glasses and painted Cupids, enticed by "giddy reveries of insatiable self-exaltation," "discontented dreams of what might have been or should be," "the enticement of ghostly joys" (V, 100-101). The artistic paradigm of this dissolution is Raphael, whom Ruskin condemns (out of party spirit, perhaps, with the new Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) by contrasting the scene of Christ's appearance to his disciples at Galilee as it really was with Raphael's treatment of related subjects: on one hand, the "wild, strange, infinitely stern, infinitely tender, infinitely varied veracities of the life of Christ," "the questioning wonder and fire of uneducated apostleship," the "feeble, subtle, suffering, ceaseless energy and humiliation of St. Paul"; on the other hand, "vapid fineries," "an antique mask of philosophical faces," "delicate grace, adopted from dancing nymphs and rising Auroras" (V, 82). This contrast departs importantly from The Stones of Venice, since Ruskin now blames the triumph of profane art on the pursuit of the religious ideal — precisely the ideal he had once praised in Angelico. At its best, he writes, Raphaelesque art excites "religious dream or reverie," but the enjoyment of it is never more than a "graceful indulgence of those sensibilities which the habits of a disciplined life restrain in other direction. Such art is, in a word, the opera and drama of the monk" (V, 84) — and from the opera and drama of the monk arise the opera and drama of a dissolute worldliness.
This historical myth represents a fresh attempt to grasp the spiritual possibilities of Ruskin's inherited Protestantism. His initial advocacy of landscape art enacted his submission to the parental will by wedding Evangelical impulses to a Wordsworthian myth of natural innocence. [134/135] In The Stones of Venice he split the tendencies of Protestantism into a life-denying Puritanism, which he called "Renaissance," and a life-affirming independence of character, which he called "Gothic." Now, in the first book written after the collapse of his marriage, he divides the religious impulse once again, this time into an instinctual repression that manifests itself as dreaminess and an active, practical, and courageous spirit that manifests itself as a religion of works. We cannot fail to notice in this split a searching self-criticism, for under the heading of monkish fantasies, Ruskin rolls into a single ball the tendency of art to feed the erotic impulses while appearing to transcend them, the affectation and luxury of the life in Venice, the worldly ideal his parents were more and more pressing upon him, and also, perhaps, the power of erotic idealization to blot out the realities of human sexual relationships. What is finally in question, of course, is the enterprise of art itself. Great art may be a consummate expression of moral realism, but Ruskin's argument suggests just as strongly that images are always but substitutes for realities — the "realizing" power of Dante's figured pavements being impossible to mere human art. One means of meeting this problem is to imagine art as a form of activity and to repeat the old association of visual precision with moral clear-sightedness. In a footnote he remarks that he was saved from his own tendency to metaphysical abstraction by "use of my hands, eyes, and feet" (V, 334) — that is, by mountain climbing and sketching. In another passage he imagines two people looking at a rapid: a modern German, who spends the rest of the day composing dialogues between "amorous water nymphs and unhappy mariners," and "the man of true invention, power, and sense," who "set[s] himself to consider whether the rocks in the river could have their points knocked off, or the boats upon it be made with stronger bottoms" (V, 100). Silly as it is, this illustration has profound implications, for the symbolic crossing is performed not by a painter but by a practical man whose invention, power, and sense have nothing to do with the aesthetic. Never has Ruskin's distrust of the beautiful "shadows" been so explicit. As a result, Modern Painters III constructs overarching schemata that include artistic activity within them: it is seeing, not art, that is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one, and landscape, as he now defines it, is really the totality of a culture's mode of seeing, believing, and acting. At the same time, his incidental remarks hint at a profound incompatibility between the aesthetic and the active temperaments, a disjunction that signals a gradual but radical shift in Ruskin's conception of his own vocation. It suggests also the new influence on his moral thought of the man he called his second "earthly master."
arlyle is in a sense the unacknowledged guiding spirit of Modern Painters III, acting as a Scottish Virgil to Ruskin's Dantean project of [135/136] penitence and self-discovery. More than any other man, Carlyle embodied what Ruskin could affirm in his Scottish Evangelical heritage while providing the model of the practical man gifted with prophetic wisdom — a union Ruskin dramatized in aesthetic terms as the reconciliation of the naturalist ideal and the symbolic grotesque. Amos, the earliest of the prophets, left his flocks in the hills and came down to give his thunderous warnings to a harlot city. Carlyle's career closely followed this prototype and so must have fascinated Ruskin, partly because Ruskin, like his own Turner in "The Two Boyhoods," reversed directions, moving from the harlot city to learn prophecy in the mountains. It makes sense, then, that Ruskin began his close association with the older man after coming down from the high places in 1854. At first sight they were temperamental opposites. Carlyle, Ruskin wrote, was "born in the clouds and struck by the lightning"; "a bottle of beautiful soda-water..., only with an intellect of ten-fold vivacity," Carlyle wrote of Ruskin — and years later, "I get but little real insight out of him, though he is full of friendliness and aiming as if at the very stars; but his sensitive, flighty nature disqualifies him for earnest conversation and frank communication of his secret thoughts."(Quoted in XXXVI, XCV-XCVI. For Ruskin's letter to Carlyle acknowledging his influence, see XXXVI, 184.) The one man seemed all sincerity, earnestness, and tragic power, the other "ethereal," mercurial, perhaps not sincere enough. Yet as we have just seen, Ruskin profoundly needed an antidote to the "sensitive, flighty nature" that he had come to see as a tragic weakness, and of course, as Ruskin wrote early in their friendship, the two men seemed instinctively to think alike.
For example, in the essay "The Hero as Poet," Carlyle distinguishes the vates prophet from the vates poet in a Ruskinian way: "The one we may call a revealer of what we are to do, the other of what we are to love. But indeed these two provinces run into one another, and cannot be disjoined. The Prophet too has his eyes on what we are to love: how else shall he know what it is we are to do?" And in his study of Dante, he remarks (in the biblical diction that Ruskin also affected) that painting comes from "the essential faculty of him": "Find a man whose words paint you a likeness, you have found a man worth something"; for such a man has "sympathy in him to bestow on objects.... a man without worth cannot give you the likeness of any object"(Carlyle, 314, 326). Like Ruskin in Modern Painters III, Carlyle makes the poet's seeing one aspect of a more general heroic quality that characterizes great men throughout the ages — Mohammed, for example, or Dr. Johnson or Napoleon. That quality, of course, is sincerity. We will look later at Carlyle's specific [136/137] influence on Ruskin's radical politics, but it may be argued that the myth of sincerity, rather than political doctrine, is the most important of Carlyle's intellectual bequests to Ruskin, since it implies so many of the rest. This myth depends on a deep heart coterminous with the universe, on a penetrative vision that is the ocular equivalent of sincerity, and on hands that can wrestle with fact; such seeing and such wrestling are religion, "the thing," Carlyle writes in the lectures on hero worship, "a man does practically lay to heart, and know for certain, concerning his vital relation to this mysterious Universe . . ., the manner it is in which he feels himself to be spiritually related to the Unseen World or No-World." A "great, deep, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic," yet this quality is apt to be unconscious and involuntary, like inspiration: "he cannot help being sincere! The great Fact of Existence is great to him. Fly as he will, he cannot get out of the awful presence of this Reality." Even Napoleon was sincere in the moments when he had a "feeling for reality," an "instinct of Nature," those phrases being perhaps the most felicitous and succinct adumbration of the whole idea (Carlyle, 240, 280, 463; Landow on imagery of castaway and deluge, 312-315).
When Carlyle says that to the great man "the great Fact of Existence is great," he means also that the fact of a man's own existence is also great — a man's, of course; the heroic ethic is reserved for males. But with this important limitation, Carlyle was nevertheless able to articulate for his age — an age that felt the freedom of the self to be menaced by the new conditions of a secular and industrial society — the possibility of a self radically and indeed absolutely independent of the social charade, a sentiment of being united with the purposive activity of will (Trilling, chap.3). The discovery of such a self is at the heart of Modern Painters III as well. In Ruskin's word painting of the disciples at Galilee, Christ stands in the morning sun while Peter approaches him: "And poor Simon, not to be outrun this time, tightens his fisher's coat about him, and dashes in, over the nets. One would have liked to see him swim those hundred yards, and stagger to his knees on the beach." In a poignant touch, Ruskin brings "first the Denier, and then the slowest believer, and then the quickest believer" to Christ, making the last the first, and then echoing First Corinthians: "They sit down on the shore face to face with Him" (V, 80). Like many of Ruskin's crossing images, this one suggests a sudden experience of redeemed selfhood so profound that an individual emerges from it as from a baptism, the sight cleansed, the body made strong. This is indeed to see face to face, to [137/138] grasp the stem of truth. Beside it the art of Raphael must seem but the "opera and drama of the monk," but how can any mere human image create the deep feeling for things as they are, that terrific self-creative swim that Carlyle called religion? Instead of providing an answer, Ruskin's argument circles questioningly upon itself. "Has religious art never been of any service to mankind?" he asks rhetorically. "I fear, on the whole, not." "More, I think, has always been done for God by a few words than many pictures, and more by few acts than many words" (V, 85, 86).
he greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way" (V, 333). At stake in Ruskin's skepticism about art is the power of visual representations to induce dramatic spiritual renewal, and this doubt makes all the more urgent the question of religious experience in general. Not surprisingly, for the rest of Modern Painters III and the succeeding volume, Ruskin's attention shifts from painted artifacts to seeing and telling — to the texts of great poets, to landscape unmediated by art or poetry, and to his own attempt to enliven what he sees in language that is impassioned and at times confessional. Here again, Ruskin evades the problem of visual representation by imagining both poetry and religion as unmediated, as occurring in the seer's visual field. The honest use of imagination gives "full power and presence to the possible and true," yet the "first" honest use of imagination is to present the supernatural truths of religion (V, 70, 72). For the Carlylean hero, the materials of action — swords, plowshares, men waiting to be transformed into nations — are no less apparent than the great facts of the Invisible and the Divine. Ruskin's new attempt to reconcile fact and symbol results in his mature theory of art as a form of prophetic inspiration, which is also a defense of the religious sensibility.
In his discussion of the grotesque in The Stones of Venice, Ruskin hit on the metaphor that reconciles factual truth and religious symbolism — the mediating term of distortion; compare Hunt. And the fallen human soul, at its best," he writes, "must be as a diminishing glass, and that a broken one, to the mighty truths of the universe around it; and the wider the scope of its glance..., the more fantastic their distortion is likely to be, as the winds and vapours trouble the field of the telescope most when it reaches farthest" (XI, 181). In Modern Painters III he joins [138/139] several forms of imaginative expression under the single head of grotesque — the art of fanciful, sometimes incongruous juxtapositions of ideas; the "irregular and accidental contemplation of terrible things"; and religious allegory, the product of divine madness or prophetic inspiration. The mental activity unifying these disparate expressions is, of course, the process of dreaming, which in its "lowest" form is simply the operation of the fancy ungoverned by the daytime censor — and this statement explains why, for Ruskin, the grotesque is never entirely free of some taint of evil ("the imagination, when at play, is curiously like bad children, and likes to play with fire" [v, 181]). The distinction between fancies and genuine visions is that visions are involuntary and ungovernable, coming as a revelatory force from without. Just as clearly, the emphasis on evil and dread distinguishes visions from the serene contemplations of Angelico — the passive seeing that, we have seen, cloisters itself from all disturbing elements and so degenerates into the opera and drama of the monk. The symbolic grotesque is the farthest possible range of comprehension balanced by a power of heart strong enough to bear the full, disintegrating weight of divine revelation: "The truly great man, on whom the Revelations rain till they bear him to the earth with their weight, lays his head in the dust, and speaks thence — often in broken syllables" (XI, 180n). [139/140]
Similar distinctions are at the heart of Ruskin's famous critique of romanticism in "Of the Pathetic Fallacy," a chapter that begins with the question of the modern sentimental love of landscape and develops into a prelude to a survey of landscape through the ages — of "landscape," that is, in the extended sense of religion conceived as a visual field. For Ruskin, the sentimental love of landscape has produced a class of poets who characteristically project their moods onto natural objects. These poets are related to epic poets and genuine religious prophets in an ascending scale of merit, which Ruskin defines according to a characteristic imbalance between the powers of thought and feeling. Poets of the "second type," who express emotions by animating natural objects, feel more strongly than they think and so perceive falsely. Poets of the first type think and feel strongly, but their power of mind is so great that they nevertheless perceive rightly — and consistently. But since there are circumstances in which a person's reason ought to be overmastered, as in prophetic inspiration, there is yet another class of minds who "see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them" (V, 209) — as when, for example, the prophets saw trees clapping their hands for joy, or four giant horsemen riding throught the sky. Always the great mind is "tender to impression at the surface" but possesses "a great centre of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches the feeling, as it were, from afar off" (V, 210).
Ruskin's assumption that figures of speech are forms of seeing and that seeing is the inscription of a greater or lesser degree of feeling simply expands his dictum that true seeing is poetry, prophecy, and [140/141] religion at once. In the field of literary theory, this tenet produces extremely awkward results; his deep concern, however, is not with language but with imagining the nature of experience for a sensibility so powerful and centered that it can distinguish between temporary passions and the great, unchanging world without. Here as always, seeing is Ruskin's trope for experience in general. The clearest example is from Homer: "But them, already, the life-giving earth possessed, there in Lacedaemon, in the dear fatherland." Ruskin comments: "Though Castor and Pollux be dead, yet the earth is our mother still, fruitful, life-giving" (V, 213). Part of his point will be that the modern age has fallen into its "curious web of hesitating sentiment, pathetic fallacy, and wandering fancy" (V, 231) because it cannot believe the earth is life-giving and our mother — it has no genuine mythical imagination. Pathetic fallacy is admissible in certain occasions as a figure of speech, but in another sense it is truly pathetic and fallacious because it expresses a wandering, hesitant, sentimental frame of mind. The best of the moderns are without center and without serenity. The great ages dealt with sorrow through a profound emotional connection with the physical world; the modern spirit, by contrast, mourns this lost connection as for a lost mother, and so develops the landscape feeling as a nostalgic compensation.
Religion, then, is the fitting of the mind and nature, revealed as a form of visual inscription. What does nature look like to the person and the culture whose ego is strong enough to affirm this relationship? Ruskin now turns to his survey of Western poetry and art, beginning with the Greeks — a very different nation indeed from the rigid systematizers of The Stones of Venice, for they have now come to represent the noble childhood of the religious imagination.11
According to Ruskin, Homer does not use the pathetic fallacy because he does not need to animate the waves artificially. For Homer there is a god in the water, yet he is not the same as the water. The elements scatter and perish, but the gods are indivisible and imperishable, taking from time to time a human form. This fact is not really a debasement of the idea of divinity, Ruskin says, since the Greeks always sense an "exaltation in the spiritual and immortal body; and of a power proceeding from the visible form through all the infinity of the element [141/142] ruled by the particular god." Ruskin insists on the literalness of this conception. When Diana goes to hunt with her nymphs in the woods, her action does not mean that the moon and stars have passed through the trees but rather that "there is a living spirit, to which the light of the moon is a body...and that this spirit sometimes assumes a perfect human form, and in this form, with real arrows, pursues and slays the wild beasts, which with its mere arrows of moonlight it could not slay." The deities are quite frankly "blue-eyed — white-fleshed — human-hearted" (V, 224-227) — very much, we assume, like the White Lady. The Greeks, then, have reverence for all of nature, seeing no part of it as dead, yet they are unsentimental about it and make good practical use of the wood and the water; they are both more religious and less materialist than we because they believe that the spiritual inhabits matter and conversely that the elements are fields radiating from the human form divine. And such a religion is possible because of the Greeks' conception of themselves; their familiarity with the gods is a sign "not so much...of misunderstanding of the divine nature as of good understanding of the human. The Greek lived, in all things, a healthy, and, in a certain degree, a perfect, life." "Unhappy love, disappointed ambition, spiritual despondency..., had little power over the well-braced nerves, and healthy flow of the blood" (V, 230). Not surprisingly, the Greeks, at home in nature, cultivated the beautiful parts of the earth into gardens and groves, humanizing their landscapes as they had already humanized their gods. In this manner they created Arcadia.
Ruskin is here partaking in the code of the English schoolboy, who associated the heroes of his textbooks with athleticism — the very life Ruskin had himself missed as a youth. But this callowness is only the mask of the larger meaning. As the moderns imagine God removed from lifeless nature, "upon a cloudy throne," they have similarly beclouded their minds and undervalued their physical selves, fancifully giving to nature the vitality they lack; they must project themselves. The tragedy of modern life is that humans cannot affirm themselves or nature — the two failures are inseparable. The Greeks give to Diana the kind of body they have, which is also projection; the difference is that Diana is the image of an energy really in nature and the Greeks project from a center of affirmation — they are godlike people. The Greek experience of nature is a healthy Narcissism; the Greeks' agriculture might be called an active contemplation of themselves.
For the first time Ruskin enters imaginatively into a human-centered and pre-Christian experience of the world. The anthropocentrism of the pathetic fallacy paints the world with human sorrows and desires, but the indulgence is based on deprivation, a projection from a re [142/143] pressed center. Putting the Greeks alongside the moderns and reasoning, with Ruskin, antithetically, we see that the pathetic fallacy is not so much a mental weakness as an ego weakness. And it is also a physical weakness — a disorder of the stomach, as Ruskin conjectures at one point. Liberated by the chastity of beauty and muscle that the Victorians mistook for a release from repression, and surrounded by the erotic exuberance that is still the hope of post-Freudian romantics, Ruskin's Greeks are able cheerfully to labor, to battle, and to pass from the earth. But the modern restlessness is also a flight from death: the earth is not our life-giving mother.
In fact the modern spirit is peculiarly homeless — a point Ruskin must have felt with particular clarity in the 1850s, living once again under his parents' roof yet no longer "at home." The formula he repeated at Vevay — "I am in Switzerland" — succeeded only for a moment in recapturing the vanished Switzerland that was his spiritual home. Consequently, Modern Painters III abounds in images of stable centers: the white flame of the Alp, with its garland of associations; the Greek gods, concentering the diffused element of which they are the embodiment; the soul of the "great man," incorporating within himself the still point of the turning world. And the book also abounds in images of homecoming — Peter making for the opposite shore, Odysseus making for his island kingdom, and finally, in the climactic meditation on Dante, the Christian pilgrim who crosses a brook into the Earthly Paradise. Dante is for Ruskin's natural history of the imagination what the Gothic is for Venetian history — the apex of the three-part movement that stands in opposition to the fallen present. Dante's Purgatory, similarly, is the shadowy analogue of Ruskin's own self-educative argument in Modern Painters III, which receives a symbolic resolution in the image of Matilda in the garden. Dante's Paradise, in turn, becomes the moment that gives meaning to the pattern of time, the spiritual reality of which the modern landscape love is but the insubstantial dream.
Ostensibly, Ruskin is reading Dante for evidence of how the most representative medieval mind viewed nature. In the course of that reading he pauses with the pilgrim by the wood surrounding the Earthly Paradise — a wood that is "pathless," unlike the rigidly geometrical structure of hell, because (like the instinctive temperance of Gothic energy) "the perfectly purified and noble human creature, having no pleasure but in right, is past all effort and past all rule." The subsequent passage Ruskin calls the most important lines "in the whole circle of poetry": a little brook flows, bending the grass to the left, and on the other side is a pure maiden, singing and gathering flowers. She is Matilda, the type of the active life, as Beatrice is the type of the con [143/144] templative life. Earlier, Dante had been prepared for this encounter by his dream of Rachel and Leah, also types of the active and passive life. Leah speaks:
"for my brow to weave
A garland, these fair hands unwearied play;
To leave me at the
crystal mirror, here I decked me."
Bur Rachel stands all day before her glass, "charmed no less / Than I with this delightful task." The point Ruskin stresses is that the sisters are types of the unglorified active and contemplative life: Leah took pleasure in her own labor, but Matilda in the works of God, Rachel took pleasure in the sight of her own face, but Beatrice "in the sight of God's face." He continues: "The active life which has only the service of man for its end, and therefore gathers flowers . . . is indeed happy, but not perfectly so.... But the active life which labours for the more and more discovery of God's work, is perfectly happy, and is the life of the terrestrial paradise, being a true foretaste of heaven, and beginning on earth, as heaven's vestibule" (V, 275-279). Rachel and Leah belong ultimately to the dream of earthly life, but Matilda (who reflects the twofold personality of Christ in her eyes) mediates between this earth and eternity and represents "the expression of man's delight in God's work." Now, the Greek "contemplated his own beauty and the workings of his own mind," whereas the Christian "contemplated Christ's beauty and the workings of the mind of Christ" (V, 279-280).
The four images of seeing bring the whole second part of the book in place. In his discussion of the pathetic fallacy, Ruskin cited a sadistic ballad by Casimir Delavigne, in which a vain young woman of wealth named Constance, preparing herself at a mirror for a ball, is consumed by the "devouring" flames of her hearth. Constance is a good instance of how Ruskin's examples themselves form an interlocked argument, since Constance looks backward to the denunciation of French art, prurient and self-absorbed, and forward to the dream of Rachel and Leah. We may think of her as occupying the bottom of a scale of seeing, which ascends through Dante's two sisters to Matilda, and finally to Beatrice, who sees most widely of all — God's face itself. This scale, of course, corresponds to the ranking of poets, beginning with those who use neoclassical personifications with complete coldness and ending with inspired prophets like Dante. The two scales resemble Plato's twice-divided line, also rising from illusion to contemplation of the divine, with the upper line representing Dante's division between earthly and heavenly. In Ruskinian terms the Earthly Paradise is the region of the Gothic, since the flowers in Matilda's hands correspond to [144/145] the Gothic "hold on nature" — the decoration of space with sculptured leaves and garlands — while Lethe corresponds to the acceptance of imperfection.
Ruskin's famous prose ode to grass — a sermonic gloss on Dante's single lines describing the grass bending under the waves of Lethe — at once enacts the process of visionary ecstasy and celebrates with Matilda the works of God's hands. Beginning with a single blade ("examine for a minute, quietly, its narrow sword-shaped strip of fluted green"), he builds the most ambitious of all the book's concentric garlands, piling image on image in an exultant breathlessness that stops only when he has converted the natural world into a pattern of Christian typology. From the single blade he moves first to the pastoral life and its associations ("The Fields!... All spring and summer is in them..., the power of all shepherd life and meditation"); then, from the peace and bounty of the familiar and near, he moves outward to the regions of prophecy: "Look up toward the higher hills, where the waves of everlasting green roll silently into their long inlets among the shadows of the pines; and we may, perhaps, at last know the meaning of those quiet words of the 147th Psalm, 'He maketh grass to grow upon the mountains."' Then, after this apotheosis, the grass loses all specific location and becomes a moral type, literally words of God, the words being "cheerfulness" and "humility":
You roll it, and it is stronger the next day; you mow it, and it multiplies its shoots, as if it were grateful; you tread upon it, and it only sends up richer perfume. Spring comes, and it rejoices with all the earth, — glowing with variegated flame of flowers, — waving in soft depth of fruitful strength. Winter comes, and...it will not pine and mourn.... It is always green; and it is only the brighter and gayer for the hoar-frost. [v, 287-290]
The exposition concludes in a hurly-burly of biblical references and associations until Ruskin emerges with a complete description of grass in relation to the physical and spiritual life of man: it is the emblem of spiritual food (as manna is a foreshadowing of the true bread); a pledge that, for the Christian, glory is won through affliction and power through humility; the type of human life in its excellence and passing, since it is both enduring and beneficent; finally, a physical source of food, rest, and clothing.
By blanketing the habitable earth with the mark of divine beneficence, Ruskin defines the region of human interaction with nature, the Earthly Paradise prepared for humans by the Christian dispensation. But the movement of emotion in this passage — from factual catalog to pathetic animation to typological seeing — revises the doctrine of the pathetic fallacy, or at least presents it in a new light. For the faithless modern, the pathetic animation of nature is at best a consolation, at [145/146] worst a mere writing of one's inconstant and wistful moods upon the face of the world. But in Ruskin's Christian ode, meekness and joy are constant "characters" of the grass independent of the seer's mood, as are types themselves — and types, as George Landow has noted, give uniform meaning to those natural symbols that we would otherwise animate, if at all, by whim (Landow, 415). Dante stands here for the supreme expression in Western literature of the typological tradition. Religion becomes the generalized form of prophetic seeing made available to the community of the faithful: by reenacting Dante's pilgrimage, Ruskin the pilgrim can also reenact the visions of Dante the prophet. But the symbolism of the Purgatory provides Ruskin with yet another purpose. Matilda, the type of the sanctified active life, leads Ruskin back to art (she represents "man's delight in God's works") and therefore to the Gothic, an art that is also labor, so that she reconciles symbolically the conflict between the active and the aesthetic life as well as that between faith and works. Singing in the garden, she represents not the pain of labor but the spiritual peace attendant upon it; in other words, by sanctified labor, the griefs and losses that to the modern are inexpiable are consummated by a release from guilt and a symbolic entry into that place where the original loss is restored. For Ruskin Christian joy remains ultimately more attractive than pagan joy, since in its drama of submission, repentance, and absolution, it also provides a myth of compassion. The whole drive of this chapter is toward self-fulfillment through works: Dante shows that love of nature is also love of humans because a single blade of grass speaks also of the human being's ultimate duty. Under the force of such joy, Modern Painters III now turns into narrative, an autobiography uttered in the present tense, even though the first person is not used. At its close, we enter with Ruskin into a place "where the grass of the earth was bowed down, in unity of direction, only by the soft waves that bore with them the forgetfulness of evil" (V, 293).
"Of Modern Landscape" descends from Eden into the wilderness of the modern world, that region from which God has withdrawn and left human vision clouded and human hands idle. Taking Scott as the greatest of the moderns and the exemplar of their characteristic experience of nature, Ruskin finds modern landscape to be cloudy and indistinct, the modern character faithless and melancholy. What then is the value of landscape — of "landscape," that is, in the sense of a tender and sentimental love of flowers and brooks and hills? He pursues this question by tabulating data — listing the names and comparing the characters of the great moderns who have and have not known the landscape feeling — and then by offering the lovely, well-known ac [146/147] count of the visionary gleam as he knew it himself when a child in Scotland and then as he watched it fade with adulthood. But the overt connection of his experiences with the Immortality Ode implies a self-criticism, since he identifies himself with a poet of the second order. The landscape feeling, he continues, is "wholly a separate thing from moral principle, and may or may not be joined to strength of will, or rectitude of purpose" (V, 372). It is often, however, the saving grace of those characters that are otherwise morbid or weak in temperament. The account is balanced and sober, but since Ruskin had first appeared before the public to reveal God's face in the face of nature and to claim for landscape painting "gigantic moral power," the new modesty has the force of a dramatic reversal. That reversal, of course, does not stand unqualified. In the same chapter that damns with faint praise the "ruling passion" of his own life, the passion that led to his "chosen field of work," he asserts that the love of nature is "the most healthy element which distinctively belongs to us." Turner, the first great landscape painter, has established a "science of aspects" — the science of things as they appear to humans — which may restore to us the primordial vision that Baconian science, however honest its aims, has taken away: "It is better to conceive the sky as a blue dome than a dark cavity, and the cloud as a golden throne than a sleety mist" (V, 386-387). But the present book is at an end. "How far art is capable of helping us in such happiness we hardly yet know; but I hope to be able, in the subsequent parts of this work, to give some data for arriving at a conclusion in the matter" (V, 384). The vision arises in the distance, but the road before it remains clouded.
Is the quality of doubt in this book more impressive, finally, than its faith? To summarize briefly, its faith rests, first, on art as the union of heart and head. Children today, Ruskin notices, are generally discouraged from loving nature or learning to draw, so that the boy who can see is "passionate, erratic, self-willed, and restive against all forms of education; while your well-behaved and amiable scholars are disciplined into blindness and palsy of half their faculties" (V, 377). As in the Renaissance, head and heart are divorced, each repressed for the sake of the other — which is a cause, as Ruskin surely recognized, of his own loss of landscape feeling. But the artist is a seeing-and-feeling creature, and Ruskin is trying through his myths of seeing to provide models for saving the emotions from extinction. A great school of art is metaphorical for a moral possibility: the great naturalist sees facts and so achieves resolution, common sense, and a sincere, strength-giving connection with the deep heart of things; the Greeks see themselves in the divine, and so live as gods, serenely, proudly, and courageously; the medievals, reading in nature the language of types, find triumph in their own sacrifice, and live confidently in the revelation of the Re [147/148] demption. Each way of seeing draws from Nature a power of Being gained by submission; the pathetic fallacy draws from Nature, as best, sympathy in grief. But art, second, is the unity of heart, head, and hand, so that each way of seeing leads back to the practical life. Modern Painters III struggles to bring together vision and works yet does not finally claim that great art by itself or the landscape feeling by itself can achieve this synthesis. A book that begins with an artist-centered aesthetic develops into an exploration of human-centered religion, ending not in a proof of God's existence but in a hypothesis about human greatness: that the perfectly centered human spirit may attain the unity of seeing, thinking, and doing that is true religion.
Such is the book's hope, but its mode of argument is tentative, dialectical, paradoxical. Paintings, we learn, are but shadows, and actions are stronger than pictures, yet the dawn of true religious art may be upon us. The landscape feeling belongs to the dreamy and irresolute, yet the love of nature is the best thing about us. The modern love of nature has ended in cloud worship, yet we shall see in nature God's face. Turner has founded a science of aspects, but it is not clear how far art can help us. Still, we need pursue these lights and shadows no farther: Ruskin does so for us in fearsome chiaroscuro in the very next volume, which proves to be the second phase of a single pulse, a single, immense meditation.
In Ruskinian phenomenology, religion, the expanded sense of the term "landscape," is the history of the human imagination and its possibilities through changing cultural conditions. The faith of Modern Painters III rests on the transformation of ontological questions — about God's existence, for example — into a hypothesis about the fitting of mind and nature: the relative uniformity of the vision of nature through time, from the Greeks even to the great but faithless moderns, is an earnest that the world exists for us as permanent imaginative possibility. In short, Modern Painters III demonstrates how there can be a natural history of the imagination.
The historical anomaly most troubling to this project occurs in the second chapter devoted to Dante, which is ostensibly a survey of rock imagery in the Inferno. Ruskin reminds us that the love of mountains is a peculiarly modern taste: scenery we should delight in seemed to Dante "adapted only for the punishment of lost spirits." Consequently, the landscape of his hell is cloven into rocky chasms, without brightness or color. What seems to the moderns — and to the ancient Hebrews — the most concentrated sign of the divine presence seemed to the great [148/149] est Christian poet the sign of divine absence; Dante's Via Mala, moreover, is equivalent to Turner's St. Gothard, which gave him "the elements of his most terrible thoughts in mountain vision, even to the close of his life" (V, 296). The paradox calls into question not only the romantic sublime but the uniformity of religious myth itself.
In one respect Modern Painters IV is an extended meditation on this problem, a necessary supplement to the argument of Modern Painters III that develops into Ruskin's profoundest exploration of religious doubt. To follow him we must, once again, forge through an apparent miscellany of topics that are spectacularly uneven in interest. After five chapters on Turner's art in general, Ruskin provides a "transitional" chapter entitled "The Firmament," then proceeds through more than 250 pages of descriptive geology (somewhat resembling the architectural lessons in The Stones of Venice) before concluding with the famous pairing, "The Mountain Gloom" and "The Mountain Glory." But the remarks on rocks in Dante suggest to us that "mountain beauty" represents the material medium, so to speak, through which Ruskin will think out his new intuitions about faith, doubt, and imagination. He chooses stones and mountains for his medium because they are paradigmatic of the ambiguities of natural appearances in general, the objective correlatives, so to speak, of thought as a dialectical activity. In landscape as in architecture, stones may be either living or dead, tokens of the divine presence or the divine withdrawal. To the hard of heart, all things are lifeless as stones, but to the eye of faith, even the stones of the field rise together in living unity.
This stress on appearances marks a decisive shift from Modern Painters III. The two volumes of 1856 form a continuous argument, but a self-transforming argument that pivots on the phrase "science of aspects." The first tends to treat religion as the history of different modes of apprehending nature, different strong myths, so to say, degenerating into pathetic fallacy, which marks the modern failure of myth; the second volume tends to treat religion as the various modes of divine manifestation. Thus Ruskin barely finishes his chapter on cloudiness as a sign of modern faithlessness before starting a new volume in which cloudiness is viewed as the precondition of religious knowledge. In an analysis of the word "firmament" in the opening of Genesis, he explains that the firmament is the veil of clouds separating the earth from the blank infinity of space and therefore the medium, both metaphorically and literally, by which God accommodates Himself to limited human reason as a personality: "The Deity has stooped from His throne, and . . . in the person of the Father, taken upon Him the veil of our human thoughts, and permitted us, by His own spoken authority, to conceive Him simply and clearly as a loving Father and Friend" (VI, 110). But this is not God's only aspect. Of all created things, mountains [149/150] bear most vivid witness to Ruskin's culminating religious statement in this book: "Where the beauty and wisdom of the Divine working are most manifested, there also are manifested most clearly the terror of God's wrath, and inevitableness of His power" (VI, 416).
The same statement conveys the burden of Turner's art as Ruskin now understands it. It is as though Ruskin, having celebrated with Dante the vision of an Earthly Paradise, now descends with him to confront the witness of his gloomy precipices, discovering in that confrontation the only possibility of genuine religious myth for modern times. That myth must be tragic, as he shows in the important chapter on the "noble picturesque." The noble picturesque is the expression "of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart," not (as in the fashionable picturesque) the conversion of those subjects into a form of pleasurable quaintness. Ruskin introduces this distinction by contrasting the old tower of Calais, an enduring example of noble picturesque ruin, with the English preoccupation with gentility, tidiness, and smallness of scale — each trait symptomatic, ultimately, of the denial of history. The English have only a "living present, consisting merely of what is 'fashionable' and 'old-fashioned'; and a past, of which there are no vestiges." Hence in England "the dead are dead to purpose." "But with us, let who will be married or die, we neglect nothing. All is polished and precise again next morning; and whether people are happy or miserable, poor or prosperous, still we sweep the stairs of a Saturday" (VI, 13-14). Once again Ruskin defends architectural memory as a way of preserving life, but by ranging the noble picturesque against fashionable English forgetting, he attacks not only the suppression of the past but also the suppression of suffering.
To experience one's own humanity, in other words, is to confront one's own suffering and to bind oneself, in pity and terror, to the facts of human suffering in general. Ruskin is in the position, at last, of understanding Turner as a tragic artist (as he might have done for Wordsworth also had he not already relegated Wordsworth to a secondary class of minds). His chief example is Turner's Goldau, a watercolor depicting a glorious sunset over a village that had once been devastated by earthquake, which suggests, in Ruskin's words, "an acute sense of the contrast between the careless interests and idle pleasures of daily life, and the state of those whose time for labour, or knowledge, or delight, is passed forever.... it is in the same tone of thought that he has placed here the two figures fishing, leaning against these shattered flanks of rock, — the sepulchral stones of the great mountain Field" (VI, 381). Such an art transcends the sensibility even of the well-meaning lover of the picturesque, which in an implicit self-portrait Ruskin describes as a person of "slight tragical feeling" and "humble [150/151] and romantic sympathy" (VI, 21), who will nevertheless lend a hand to practical benevolences — rather like the lover of landscape in the preceding volume. Such a person's love of ruins is nostalgic; the elegiac power of Goldau draws, on the other hand, on the unflinching strength of mind that Ruskin associates with the first order of poets, such as Homer. But Turner's power of acceptance is in a sense more awesome than Homer's, representing not pagan stoicism so much as a Hebraic negative capability, the simultaneous recognition of divine wrath and divine blessing. This is of course the Burkean sublime as well; even so, Ruskin still avoids the term, choosing instead to define the picturesque as a parasitical mode of the sublime — parasitical because in depicting ruins and scenes of rural poverty, the artist transfers to small objects the formal qualities of sublime objects (such as jagged lines and rough textures). In this way he inscribes human artifacts with sublime associations while giving landscape new affective value: the mountains are endowed with historical language, the language of pathos, and this region becomes coextensive with all that fashionable English society must suppress. Goldau, then, epitomizes the landscape of Modern Painters IV, which is essentially a ruin — that is to say, a grotesque.
The revelation toward which Ruskin's argument builds — that this habitable earth is fallen and a ruin — gives ironic fulfillment to his theory of the symbolic grotesque, which if we consider it again for a moment illuminates the character of his second Dantean journey of discovery. The theory of poetic inspiration in Modern Painters III differs only slightly from early romantic formulations except in the peculiarity that Ruskin retains the term "grotesque" for divinely inspired allegorical visions and links those visions with the contemplation of evil and the free play of fancy, specifically the kind of play exemplified in Gothic sculpture. One reason for this is no doubt Ruskin's own experience of a Gothic interior as the sculptured equivalent of an eerily pleasant "Gothic" nightmare. With its griffins and gargoyles lurking in odd corners, half shadow and half stone, a twilit cathedral could seem like a twilit grove, with its leaves and branches about to leap into phantasmagoric life — as they do, for example, in Wordsworth's "Yew Trees," which Ruskin cites admiringly:
May meet at noontide; Fear and trembling Hope,
Silence and Foresight; Death the Skeleton
And Time the Shadow; there to celebrate
As in a natural temple...
But the definition of "grotesque" is that which combines the ludicrous and terrible. By linking sublime allegory, such as the Divine Comedy [151/152] and the biblical Apocalypse, with the imaginations of humble and superstitious travelers, Ruskin deliberately risks blurring the distinction between fancy and genuine inspiration in order to reassert the Gothic acceptance of the Fall, his own version of the doctrine of accommodation — and he also takes an important step, as Elizabeth Helsinger has observed, toward democratizing the sublime.13 Evil is somehow inherent in these revelations, not only because (in Ruskin's orthodox Evangelical explanations) God wishes to provide warning signs but also because to imperfect human sight, divine power is terrible and incongruous in aspect. The composite beasts of the Apocalypse are paradigmatic examples because the grotesque is itself a composite of the divine and the natural, like that other composite being, Christ. Thus, Ruskin concludes his chapter in Modern Painters III with a description of a "true griffin" copied from the cathedral of Verona, which springs convincingly to life by virtue of its forceful anatomical logic — the grip of the claws, the use of the teeth, the position of the wings. Thus realized, the griffin, combining the eagle and the lion, is the type of the human and divine attributes of Christ, "narrowed" to the grotesque of an animal crushing in its paws a writhing dragon.
But the fearfulness of divine revelation lies less necessarily in its content than in the nature of its appearing. Symbols in themselves induce awe:
For even if the symbolic vision itself be not terrible, the scene of what may be veiled behind it becomes all the more awful in proportion to the insignificance or strangeness of the sign itself; and, I believe, this thrill of mingled doubt, fear, and curiosity lies at the very root of the delight which mankind take in symbolism.... [It is] the Divine Fear which necessarily) follows on the understanding that a thing is other and greater than it seems. [V, 181-182]
This "insignificance or strangeness" is actually the perception of an excess of significance, the dreadful moment when the instability of meaning is about to break forth into an overwhelming recognition. For Freud the uncanny is the experience of a repressed desire embodied by an external agent or action as the revelation of what has been hidden,14 [152/153] and indeed Ruskin comes close to this formulation at one point of his argument: in Joseph's dream, he says, the symbols of dominion "must have been afterwards felt by him as a distinctly prophetic indication of his own supreme power" (XI, 182).15 In later years, of course, Ruskin became obsessed with projections of a much more horrific nature — the self confronted as serpentine, spectral, or skeletal — in each case the enactment or punishment of a forbidden impulse recalling the phrase "Sphinx Atropos" that brought Marcolini to its premature termination. But in specifically religious revelations, the characteristic form of Ruskinian grotesque is the recognition that something is a type, a local concentration of an infinite power of good or evil. We recall the uncanny sense of things in "The Vestibule" that revealed themselves ultimately as types of the Fall, and the rather different experience near the fount of the Brevent, when objects were charged with the terror of an imminent disclosure.
In Modern Painters IV Ruskin enacts his own theory of the grotesque imagination, but to unexpected and ironic effect. Leading his readers through a geological exploration of the Alps, he combines in himself the sensibility of the practical man and the seer, for his stones shadow forth an awesome reality greater and other than themselves. That vision is parodic of Leah's, since Ruskin sees darkly and face to face: the marks of divine wrath and the even more terrifying marks of divine absence combine with studied ambiguity Old Testament monotheism [153/154] and a modern myth of God's withdrawal from the world. But the grimmest evidence of all lies in the conditions of Alpine poverty. Here, in the emotional climax of Modern Painters IV, Ruskin transmutes the primitive terror of seeing the self as deathly and alien into a vision of the human race as ossified and abandoned.
His apparent purpose in describing the structure of mountains is to provide evidence of a consistent order and intention, even in those parts of creation that appear repellent, by likening God to a picturesque architect who sculpts in four dimensions. But this theodicy is hardly reassuring. Ruskin tells his readers that he has immersed a wine flask in a small Alpine stream and has counted twenty-four grains of sediment, proving to him that the annual erosion of Alpine soil is on the order of 80,000 tons. For Lyell such a calculation would suggest the scope of one form of change only; for Ruskin it suggests a single and irreversible change that defines the direction of natural history: "The hills, which, as compared with living beings, seem 'everlasting,' are, in truth, as perishing as they..., and it is but the lapse of the longer years of decay which, in the sight of its Creator, distinguishes the mountain range from the moth and the worm." The world is a picturesque ruin — "only the wreck of Paradise" — but the origin to which Ruskin's evidences point is as terrifying and inconceivable as the ultimate conflagration. His language mingles biblical and scientific allusions: "As we endeavour to penetrate farther and farther into departed time, the thunder of the Almighty power sounds louder and louder; and the clouds gather broader and more fearfully, until at last the Sinai of the world is seen altogether upon a smoke, and the fence of its foot is reached, which none can break through" [VI, 179]. The monkish fear of the mountains seems confirmed: at the edge of intelligibility lies either the deity or the void. But in the dialectical shift of this book — similar to the structural swing between hope and doubt in In Memoriam — images of metaphysical terror alternate with comforting pieties as though in complete dissociation from one another. Thus, he is able to claim at the beginning of "The Mountain Gloom" that the study of mountain form has shown every feature to be "calculated for the delight, the advantage, or the teaching of men." Abruptly there follows one of Ruskin's most famous passages: a luxurious evocation of Alpine sublimity, bathed in light that seems the visible ministry of grace ("in its clear, consuming flame of white space, the summits of the rocky mountains are gathered into solemn crowns and circlets, all flushed in that strange, faint silence of possession by the sunshine"), juxtaposed against an image of human life utterly darkened and desolate:
For them, there is neither hope nor passion of spirit; for them neither advance nor exultation. slack bread, rude roof, dark night, laborious day, [154/155] weary arm at sunset; and life ebbs away. . . . their religion...mingled with threatening, and obscured by an unspeakable horror, — a smoke, as it were, of martyrdom, coiling up with the incense, and, amidst the images of tortured bodies and lamenting spirits in hurtling flames, the very cross, for them, dashed more deeply than for others, with gouts of blood. [VI, 385; 387-389]
The mountain have achieved at last the condition of hell, where Christ himself appears not as the Redeemer but as the chief sufferer among the damned. The circuit of human and divine is broken, with the men as dead in spirit as those stones that are the type of all things cast out and condemned. In page after page Ruskin pursues his negative epiphanies: a chapel in the mountains containing a heap of bones; a shrine bearing images of demons; a Venetian actress wearing a death's head; German prints depicting dislocated joints and dismembered bodies. Ruskin's jeremiad hovers between loathing and compassion, as though unable to confirm whether the hearts of men are hardened or God has darkened His revelation. In his final word painting, he guides his reader through an Alpine village disfigured by every form of decay, then pauses behind the episcopal palace to note "a neglected vineyard, of which the clusters, black on the under side, snow-white on the other with lime-dust, gather around them a melancholy hum of flies" (VI, 414). The town, ironically named Sion, is a Catholic bishopric, so that the vineyard, powdery as a whited sepulchre, marks it as the type of ecclesiastical neglect and by extension of all suffering permitted by human indifference. But Ruskin has presented the earth itself as a ruin abandoned by its Master; the mountain slum, then, becomes the tragic reminder of God's promise, unredeemed, of a spiritual Zion.
The ambiguity of this passage, which is both an overt anti-Catholic diatribe and a covert rebuke to the Creator who has withdrawn, typifies the studied equivocation that pervades this book. For example, when describing God's manifestation to humans as a personality that punishes and blesses, Ruskin writes, "This conception of God, which is the child's, is evidently the only one which can be universal, and therefore the only one which for us can be true" (VI, 111). But the religion of Goldau is not a child's conception. Read on one level, Ruskin's argument reinforces at every turn an allegorical reading of nature as a system of rebukes and rewards. Read on another level, the argument denies every evidence of presence and purpose, building in 'The Mountain Gloom" to a climactic revelation of metaphysical evil. For Sion is not a noble picturesque but the exposure of blank and meaningless despair, demanding a response too urgent for the agencies of even the greatest art.
"For most men," Ruskin wrote in "The Moral of Landscape," "an [155/156] ignorant enjoyment is better than an informed one." By fracturing his audience into "most men" and an implied noble or unhappy few, he betrays his fear of unbelief by adopting a studied vacillation between stoical skepticism and a set of childlike pieties he cannot trust either himself or his audience to abandon completely. Yet we should not exaggerate this equivocation. The chief question of the present book (that is, the proper effect of natural beauty on the human mind) is of the most serious importance for "most men" as well as for Ruskin: for even though he was soon to abandon his belief in God, he never ceased insisting on the absolute necessity of religious experience — that apprehension of human meaning in the natural world upon which, for him, both the moral life and the life of the imagination depend.
And so Modern Painters IV reconceives the world in mythical terms — this time through the eyes not of the Greeks or the medievals or the great moderns but of the ancient Hebrews. Never before had Ruskin entered so deeply into the spirit of the prophets, even so far as to reenact their ascent to the high places, the altars of the Lord. The Hebrew deity, in His wrath and his mercy, becomes the mythical expression of the radical ambiguity of natural appearances, just as Ruskin's dialectical movement of thought imitates the alternating blessings and cursings of Old Testament prophecy — or, more closely, the dialogues of Job. What man, Ruskin demands in "The Mountain Gloom," can "unravel the mystery of the punishment of NO sin? Can he entirely account for all that happens to a cab-horse?" (VI, 415). Like the Book of Job, Ruskin gives no direct answer.
Modern Painters III argued that religious myth held the power to provide meaning and affirmation in ages of belief. The fourth volume argues that great religious art in the nineteenth century must be tragic. It does not matter for such art whether we accept the geologists' hypothesis of creation or the biblical account of a forfeited paradise. The lesson of Sion is in any case the same: human redemption lies in human hands. And in either case the noble picturesque, both in landscape and in art, is a disturbing experience necessary to the soul's full moral awareness. This point Ruskin reaffirms in the strangely moving closing pages of "The Mountain Glory." For the coda to his book, he turns to the Bible, seeking instances of the spirit in communion with nature that can counterbalance the sundered communion of "The Mountain Gloom." He chooses three examples: the deaths of Aaron and Moses and the Transfiguration, which he pictures as the moment when Christ in his human character takes upon himself the human fear of death. That fear "had to be borne by Him, indeed, in a unity, which we can never comprehend, with the foreknowledge of victory, — as His sorrow for Lazarus, with the consciousness of the power to restore him; but it had to be borne, and that in its full earthly terror." (VI, 464-465). [156/157] Ruskin began his book by juxtaposing the forgetfulness of death — "the entire denial of all human calamity and care, in the swept proprieties and neatnesses of English modernism" (VI, 15) — with the tower of Calais, a picturesque monument to lost time. He closes his book with the biblical paradigm of the victory over death through a full confrontation of it, and the image of the Mount of Transfiguration as a memorial to the divine sacrifice, God's accommodation to man in the flesh.
To "most men" mountains may seem graced with the remembrance of the Good Shepherd, whom they may imitate through kindly deeds. But in the course of years Ruskin come to see even more clearly that there could be another form of imitation, by which the unique experience of Christ becomes the emblem of the highest human self-actualization: the fear of death joined with the victory over it, and the sorrow for Lazarus joined with the restoration of him. Tragic awareness means incorporating into the self the divine wrath and the divine mercy and so to become an adult, not a child — in the very act of accepting one's fallen mortality. Humankind must take the place of the deity that has withdrawn in order to rebuild the ruined earth. Doing so means that the science of aspects must center itself in the human mind, itself the locus of hell and chaos and Elysian fields. Such, at any rate, is Ruskin's mature humanism, expressed most movingly in the final volume of Modern Painters, when the "dark mirror" of the soul takes the place of the firmament:
So that the soul of man is still a mirror, wherein may be seen, darkly, the image of the mind of God.
"But this poor miserable Me! Is this, then, all the book I have got to read about God in?" Yes, truly so. No other book, nor fragment of book, than that, will you ever find; no velvet-bound missal, nor frankincensed manuscript; — nothing hieroglyphic nor cuneiform; papyrus and pyramid are alike silent on this matter; — nothing in the clouds above, nor in the earth beneath.
Therefore it is that all the power of nature depends on subjection to the human soul. Man is the sun of the world; more than the real sun. The fire of his wonderful heart is the only light and heat worth gauge or measure. Where he is, are the tropics; where he is not, the ice-world. [VII, 260-262]
Entered the Victorian Web December 2000; last modified 17 April 2015