Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Queen of the Air

Some of my recent conversations with my friend Arthur had centered on his appreciation of the 19th-century writer John Ruskin. I had to admit to not knowing the first thing about him, so I asked Arthur if he could put together a sort of Cliff's Notes summary of his work for me. As usual, he went above and beyond the call of duty, and since it's been a while since I plundered one of his emails for material to raise the collective IQ of this here blog, I'll post this one too rather than let it languish in my inbox:

Let me note first of all that his lifespan (1819-1900) gives him a central place, both chronologically and intellectually, in the Victorian Era. In fact his lifespan coincides almost exactly with that of Queen Victoria herself (born 1819, acceded to the throne 1837 and died 1901.)

There are many Ruskins, because he went through so many phases (from religious to agnostic to idiosyncratically religious again, from art critic to social prophet to madman, for example), so it's impossible to give a neatly representative sample of his style and way of thinking. But The Queen of the Air (1869) at least gives you an idea of his peculiar combination of strengths, as a prose poet, a mythographer, a literary critic, an art critic and an aesthetician, a social prophet blending socialism with a strange Calvinist-turned-proto-hippie Pelasgian theology, and a Darwin-influenced botanist/zoologist. In a typically complicated way, he is writing in this book a social critique of materialist, capitalist Victorian culture by way of an explication of what he sees as a contrasting, more healthier world-view, Hellenic paganism in its "un-fallen" pantheistic form, a world-view in which nature and human nature are harmoniously interwoven and poetry and everyday reality are essentially one (he is a holdover early-Romantic, a Wordsworthian, so the book is part of his ongoing life's mission to revive and put into practice the visionary sensibility of the great English Romantics).

Ominously, in view of what later happened to Ruskin, the book falls apart at the end into disjointed notes and polemics against sundry social and technological evils of his day (by the end of the 1880's his mind had fragmented completely and, like Nietzsche he spent his last years in a state of mental paralysis that prevented him from writing anything at all.) In a real sense, the forces of capitalism, the damage they were doing to nature and humanity, drove him mad, partly with a sense of having failed, despite his frenetic activities as polemicist, philanthropist and founder of utopian art-colonies (the Guild of St. George) to make any headway against these forces.

This passage shows both his sophisticated understanding of how myth works and his simplicity of heart in believing that myths reflect a morality encoded in nature itself:

Now you must always be prepared to read Greek legends as you trace threads through figures on a silken damask: the same thread runs through the web, but it makes part of different figures. Joined with other colors you hardly recognize it, and in different lights it is dark or light. Thus the Greek fables blend and cross curiously in different directions, till they knit themselves into an arabesque where sometimes you cannot tell black from purple, nor blue from emerald—they being all the truer for this, because the truths of emotion they represent are interwoven in the same way, but all the more difficult to read, and to explain in any order. Thus the Harpies, as they represent vain desire, are connected with the Sirens, who are the spirits of constant desire; so that it is difficult sometimes in early art to know which are meant, both being represented alike as birds with women's heads; only the Sirens are the great constant desires—the infinite sicknesses of heart—which, rightly placed, give life, and wrongly placed, waste it away; so that there are two groups of Sirens, one noble and saving, as the other is fatal. But there are no animating or saving Harpies; their nature is always vexing and full of weariness, and thus they are curiously connected with the whole group of legends about Tantalus.
Athena, the Queen of the Air, represents, among other things, one of the primordial elements of unspoilt nature as woven into the poetic imagination of the ancient Greeks; specifically, Athena as fresh air, both literally and figuratively:

31. I. She is the air giving life and health to all animals.
II. She is the air giving vegetative power to the earth.
III. She is the air giving motion to the sea, and rendering
navigation possible.
IV. She is the air nourishing artificial light, torch or lamplight;
as opposed to that of the sun, on one hand, and of consuming*
fire on the other.
V. She is the air conveying vibration of sound.
First, and chiefly, she is air as the spirit of life, giving vitality to the blood. Her psychic relation to the vital force in matter lies deeper, and we will examine it afterwards; but a great number of the most interesting passages in Homer regard her as flying over the earth in local and transitory strength, simply and merely the goddess of fresh air.
The sea-beach round this isle of ours is the frieze of our Parthenon; every wave that breaks on it thunders with Athena's voice; nay, wherever you throw your window wide open in the morning, you let in Athena, as wisdom and fresh air at the same instant; and whenever you draw a pure, long, full breath of right heaven, you take Athena into your heart, through your blood; and, with the blood, into the thoughts of your brain.

Ruskin took all this poetic thinking very seriously; he thought it was the way we should think and perceive at every moment, acting accordingly. He thought that aesthetics, personal morality, and social justice were one thing. His sublime aestheticism is portentous and heavy, compared with the blithe aestheticism of Wilde, but the latter is an offshoot of the former, just as Wilde was a student of Ruskin's at Oxford. His stubborn insistence on sustaining a poetic relation to the world at every moment put him at odds, on a daily basis, with the world around him, creating what must have been a terrible mental tension, not to say suffering.

His unique way of blending zoology and poetry is well illustrated by his description of two totemic animals associated with Athena, the bird and the snake:

...her name, Pallas, probably refers to the quivering or vibration of the air; and to its power, whether as vital force, or communicated wave, over every kind of matter, in giving it vibratory movement; first, and most intense, in the voice and throat of the bird, which is the air incarnate; and so descending through the various orders of animal life to the vibrating and semi-voluntary murmur of the insect; and, lower still, to the hiss or quiver of the tail of the half-lunged snake and deaf adder; all these, nevertheless, being wholly under the rule of Athena as representing either breath or vital nervous power; and, therefore, also, in their simplicity, the "oaten pipe and pastoral song," which belong to her dominion over the asphodel meadows, and breathe on their banks of violets.

Finally, is it not strange to think of the influence of this one power of Pallas in vibration (we shall see a singular mechanical energy of it presently in the serpent's motion), in the voices of war and peace? How much of the repose, how much of the wrath, folly, and misery of men, has literally depended on this one power of the air; on the sound of the trumpet and of the bell, on the lark's song, and the bee's murmur!

You can see how hard he tries to convince us that physical phenomena and mental (emotional and moral) phenomena are fundamentally connected, even identical.

Later he gives a detailed description of these two totemic animals, again, combining scientific precision with poetic insight:

64. Now we have two orders of animals to take some note of in connection with Athena, and one vast order of plants, which will illustrate this matter very sufficiently for us.

The orders of animals are the serpent and the bird: the serpent, in which the breath or spirit is less than in any other creature, and the earth-power the greatest; the bird, in which the breath or spirit is more full than in any other creature, and the earth-power least.

65. We will take the bird first. It is little more than a drift of the air in all its quills, it breathes through its whole frame and flesh and glows with air in its flying, like blown flames; it rests upon the air, subdues it, surpasses it, outraces it,—is the air, conscious of itself, conquering itself, ruling itself.

Also, in the throat of the bird is given the voice of the air. All that in the wind itself is weak, wild, useless in sweetness, is knit together in its song. As we may imagine the wild form of the bird's wings, so the wild voice of the cloud into its ordered and commanded voice; unwearied, rippling through the clear heaven in its gladness, interpreting all intense passion through the soft spring nights, bursting into acclaim and rapture of choir at daybreak, or lisping and twittering among the boughs and hedges through heat of day, like little winds that only make the cowslip bells shake, and ruffle the petals of the wild rose.

66. Also, upon the plumes of the bird are put the colors of the air; on these the gold of the cloud, that cannot be gathered by any covetousness; the rubies of the clouds, that are not the price of Athena, but are Athena; the vermillion of the cloud-bar, and the flame of the cloud-crest, and the snow of the cloud, and its shadow, and the melted blue of the deep wells of the sky,—all these, seized by the creating spirit, and woven by Athena herself into films and threads of plume; with wave on wave following and fading along breast, and throat, and opened wings, infinite as the dividing of the foam and the sifting of the sea-sand; even the white down of the cloud seeming to flutter up between the stronger plumes,—seen, but too soft for touch.

And so the Spirit of the Air is put into, and upon, this created form; and it becomes, through twenty centuries, the symbol of divine help, descending, as the Fire, to speak but as the Dove, to bless.

67. Next, in the serpent we approach the source of a group of myths, world-wide, founded on great and common human instincts, respecting which I must note one or two points which bear intimately on all our subject. For it seems to me that the scholars who are at present occupied in interpretation of human myths have most of them forgotten that there are any such thing as natural myths, and that the dark sayings of men may be both difficult to read, and not always worth reading. And, indeed, all guidance to the right sense of the human and variable myths will probably depend on our first getting at the sense of the natural and invariable ones. The dead hieroglyph may have meant this or that; the living hieroglyph means always the same; but remember, it is just as much a hieroglyph as the other; nay, more,—a "sacred or reserved sculpture," a thing with an inner language. The serpent crest of the king's crown, or of the god's, on the pillars of Egypt, is a mystery, but the serpent itself, gliding past the pillar's foot, is it less a mystery? Is there, indeed, no tongue, except the mute forked flash from its lips, in that running brook of horror on the ground?

68. Why that horror? We all feel it, yet how imaginative it is, how disproportioned to the real strength of the creature! There is more poison in an ill-kept drain, in a pool of dish-washing at a cottage door, than in the deadliest asp of Nile. Every back yard which you look down into from the railway as it carries you out by Vauxhall or Deptford, holds its coiled serpent; all the walls of those ghastly suburbs are enclosures of tank temples for serpent worship; yet you feel no horror in looking down into them as you would if you saw the livid scales, and lifted head. There is more venom, mortal, inevitable, in a single word, sometimes, or in the gliding entrance of a wordless thought than ever "vanti Libia con sua rena." But that horror is of the myth, not of the creature. There are myriads lower than this, and more loathsome, in the scale of being; the links between dead matter and animation drift everywhere unseen. But it is the strength of the base element that is so dreadful in the serpent; it is the very omnipotence of the earth. That rivulet of smooth silver, how does it flow, think you? It literally rows on the earth, with every scale for an oar; it bites the dust with the ridges of its body. Watch it, when it moves slowly. A wave, but without wind! a current, but with no fall! all the body moving at the same instant, yet some of it to one side, some to another, or some forward, and the rest of the coil backwards, but all with the same calm will and equal way, no contraction, no extension; one soundless, causeless, march of sequent rings, and spectral processions of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs, dislocation in its coils. Startle it, the winding stream will become a twisted arrow; the wave of poisoned life will lash through the grass like a cast lance.* It scarcely breathes with its one lung (the other shriveled and abortive); it is passive to the sun and shade, and is cold or hot like a stone; yet "it can outclimb the monkey, outswim the fish, outleap the zebra, outwrestle the athlete, and crush the tiger."** It is a divine hieroglyph of the demoniac power of the earth, of the entire earthly nature. As the bird is the clothed power of the air, so this is the clothed power of the dust; as the bird is the symbol of the spirit of life, so this is the grasp and sting of death.

Given the intensity of imagination and sensitivity of feeling on exhibit here, you can understand how viscerally Ruskin reacted to the pollution of earth and air and water that he saw all around him, including the destruction of places he frequented in youth (Wordsworthian loci amoeni). "The light, the air, the waters, all defiled!" as he puts it in the preface. To him all this was, literally, sacrilege, a kind of mass murder. No wonder he eventually went mad.

I should add that it was as an art critic that Ruskin first made a very considerable name for himself among the Victorians, and in such works as the multi-volume Modern Painters and the Stones of Venice you will find page after page of the kind of acutely observed and brilliantly expressed descriptions of both natural phenomena and works of art. (He invented art criticism as we know it, and he was himself a very talented artist as well as poet.) He, as it were, banked on the popularity and authority that accrued to him on the basis of these earlier works when he turned social critic (partly at his friend Carlyle's suggestion), but soon found that the same middle-class audience that liked to feel itself culturally improved and edified did not wish to see itself portrayed as a combination of Caliban and Tartuffe in Ruskin's socialistic polemics.

A man capable of profoundly influencing figures as diverse as Wilde, Proust, Tolstoy and Ghandi (who modeled his socioeconomic program on Ruskin's writings) deserves to be more for us than a period phenomenon. It's no wonder that the VictorianWeb site devotes the lion's share of its pages to Ruskin. He is indeed "the Great Victorian."