Ruskin's Discussion of the Pathetic Fallacy

[This passage has been adapted from The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin, whose entire text appears in the Victorian Web.]

When Modern Painters III (1856) explains that emotional distortion characterizes the art and literature since the Romantics, Ruskin places major emphasis upon the fact that "an excited state of the feelings" makes a person "for the time, more or less irrational"(5.205). From this awareness of the effect of the emotions comes his definition of the pathetic fallacy: "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'" (5.205).

Ruskin's discussion of the pathetic (or emotional) fallacy directly confronts the problems of basing a theory of art upon emotion. He always tried to demonstrate that an art centered on the feelings was not inevitably solipsistic, and this continuing struggle to protect his notions of painting and poetry from the dangers of subjectivity turns out to be as paradigmatic of his age as was the course of his religious belief.

His introduction of the problem of false appearances reveals two kinds of poetic falsehood or distortion, only one of which he calls the pathetic fallacy. Before concerning himself with the distortions of deep emotion, he first explains the delightful fallacies of fancy. As an example he quotes these lines from Oliver Wendell Holmes's Astrea which describe

The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mould
Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold. [5.204]

Ruskin first comments that, while very beautiful, these lines are nonetheless untrue, for the crocus is not spendthrift but hardy, not gold but saffron. These lines exemplify "the fallacy of wilful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed"(5.205). In contrast to the fanciful, self-conscious distortions of wit Ruskin opposes "the other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion"(5.205), and as instance he presents these lines from Kingsley's Alton Locke:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam —
The cruel, crawling foam./p>

According to Ruskin, grief has so affected this speaker's mind, so distorted his vision of the world, that he attributes to the foam the characteristics of a living being. In so doing he tells us more about his state of mind, his interior world, than he does about the world which exists outside his mind, and it is this psychological truth that moves and delights the reader. The distorted version of reality does not itself please us, but we can ignore it, for "so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley's above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow. (5.210

In other words, considered in relation to the interior state of the speaker the pathetic (or emotional) fallacy tells the truth, for by presenting the world as experienced by a man under the influence of powerful emotion, this device can tell us much about the inner life of another. From this point of view, then, the distorting effects of emotion, once understood correctly, are not solipsistic, are not isolating. Rather, by manipulating a portion of reality which both speaker and listener share, the pathetic fallacy allows one to glimpse the passions within the consciousness of another human being. Since we know that foam does not crawl and since we know it cannot be cruel, when someone thus describes the sea we understand that he or she suffers from grief. The distortions of the pathetic fallacy function like the voice inflections which a speaker gives to a common, shared language: they permit something to be communicated which it would be difficult to state "directly." The pathetic fallacy, then, allows the poet to dramatize grief and joy, communicating them far more effectively than would the simple statement that the speaker suffers from sorrow or feels joy.

This idea that the pathetic fallacy effectively conveys truths of man's inner world makes it fulfill what Ruskin takes to be the role of art, which is to present things, not as they are in themselves — the role of natural science — but

as they appear to mankind. Science studies the relations of things to each other: but art studies only their relations to man: and it requires of everything . . . only this, — what that thing is to the human eyes and human heart, what it has to say to men, and what it can become to them. [11.48]

The truth conveyed by the pathetic fallacy is phenomenological truth, the truth of experience, the truth as it appears to the experiencing subject. In particular, these emotional distortions of exterior reality much resemble the Ruskinian notion of imaginatively depicted landscape. The higher mode of landscape, we remember, presents not the topographical facts of a scene but the impression which its trees and rocks, sky and water made upon the great, imaginative painter. Although the emotional and imaginative interpretation of a landscape might seem a mere distortion of facts to the uneducated or unreflective viewer — as indeed Turner's late works appeared to the critics — such depiction contains truths unattainable by other methods. According to Ruskin, therefore, imaginative painting of landscape has the advantage over our presence at the depicted scene precisely because its "expression of the power and intelligence of a companionable human soul" gives us the "penetrative sight" (5.187) our own more limited faculties cannot provide.

Snow Storm

Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth by Joseph Mallord William Turner.

[Click on thumbnail for discussion and larger image]

On the other hand, the pathetic fallacy differs from the art of high imagination in that it so distorts exterior reality that it presents truthful depictions of only an interior state. Thus, whereas Turner's Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth conveys both the truthful appearance of a scene and of the state in which it was experienced, the lines from Alton Locke tell us accurately only about the feelings of the speaker. The problem with poetry which employs this emotional distortion is that it is too restricted: it perceives everything from a single point of view, and while the resulting restriction can effectively convey emotional and psychological truth, it also creates inevitable narrowness and lack of balance. When the poetic speaker feels happy, everything appears perfect, all rings with joy; when he experiences grief, everything appears colored by his grief — the waves either reflect it or cruelly mock it. Although such a poetry proves eminently valuable in its ability to educate the reader about the experiences of life, it can never present a balanced, complete view of nature and man's existence.

In contrast, the very greatest poetry, as Matthew Arnold would have agreed, presents life whole. For instance, when Homer announces the death of Castor and Pollux he states "them, already, the life-giving earth possessed, there in Lacedaemon, in the dear fatherland." And Ruskin comments that "The poet has to speak of the earth in sadness, but he will not let that sadness affect or change his thoughts of it. No; though Castor and Pollux be dead, yet the earth is our mother still, fruitful, life-giving. These are the facts of the thing" (5.213). Similarly, Dante's broad view of life will not permit his deep sympathies to distort reality; and when he

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. [5.206]

Ruskin's remark that the author of the Divine Comedy does not lose his embracing, clear vision of things even "for an instant" emphasizes that the greatest poets surmount the flux of consciousness; they do not present all reality, all human life, as it appears to them during the brief instant they experience an intense emotion.

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Last modified 14 July 2019