Posts Tagged ‘Ruskin’

The Stones of Venice

November 5, 2011

I may be the last one to get the joke here, so excuse me if that is so. Marcel enters the Guermantes courtyard and trips over an uneven paving stone. He is flooded with a happy sensation, one that he quickly traces to standing on the uneven floor of the baptistery of St. Marks in Venice. The joke: John Ruskin, who Proust translated, was the author of The Stones of Venice, a study of Venetian architecture. Proust dedicates this definitive passage on unforced memory to Ruskin.

Revolving the gloomy thoughts which I have just recorded, I had entered the courtyard of the Guermantes mansion and in my absent-minded state I had failed to see a car which was coming towards me; the chauffeur gave a shout and I just had time to step out of the way, but as I moved sharply backwards I tripped against the uneven paving-stones in front of the coach-house. And at the moment when, recovering my balance, I put my foot on a stone which was slightly lower than its neighbor, all my discouragement vanished and in its place was that same happiness which at various epochs of my life had been given to me by the sight of trees which I had thought I recognised in the course of a drive near Balbec, by the sight of the twin steeples of Martinville, by the flavour of a madeleine dipped in tea, and by all those last works of Vinteuil had seemed to me to combine the quintessential character. Just as, at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all anxiety about the future, all intellectual doubts had disappeared, so now those that a few seconds ago had assailed me on the subject of the reality of my literary gifts, the reality even of literature, were removed as if by magic.

…Every time that I merely repeated this physical movement, I achieved nothing; but if I succeeded, forgetting the Guermantes party, in recapturing what I had felt when I first placed my feet on the ground in this way, again the dazzling and indistinct vision fluttered near me, as if to say: “Seize me as I pass if you can, and try to solve the riddle of happiness which I set you.” and almost at once I recognised the vision: it was Venice, of which my efforts to describe it and the supposed snapshots taken by my memory had never told me anything, but which the sensation which I had once experienced as I stood upon the two uneven stones in the baptistery of St Marks’s had , recurring a moment ago, restored to me complete with all the other sensations linked on that day to that particular sensation, all of which had been waiting in their place–from which with imperious suddenness a chance happening had caused them to emerge–in the series of forgotten days. (VI,255-256)


July 23, 2011

Botticelli’s Zipporah fascinated Ruskin as much as it did Swann. In 1874 he spent over two weeks on a watercolor of her from the original in the Sistine Chapel.

John Ruskin: Zipporah

This image appeared as the frontispiece in the 1906 edition of Ruskin’s Collected Works owned by Proust. Cynthia J. Gamble, in Bloom’s Proust, makes a strong case that Ruskin himself is one of the models for the character Swann. The two share what Proust calls an “idolatrous” aesthetics.
Proust on Ruskin:

And at the very moment when he was preaching sincerity he lacked it in himself, not in what he said but in the manner in which he said it. The doctrines he was professing were moral and not aesthetic doctrines, yet he chose them for their beauty. And as he did not want to present them as beautiful but as true, he was obliged to lie to himself concerning the nature of the reasons which had led him to adopt them. (Days of Reading, 30)

Gamble shows how Swann, through a similar type of self-dishonesty, creates a woman he can love from someone not really his type.

Swann’s disappointment, indeed agony, in love is in part due to his manner of conducting his artificially created love-affair. Only when he realizes that he has ceased to be in love with Odette is he able to see her, as he had done at the very beginning of their acquaintance, in a transparent and rational way. Her true feature, her defects to which he had been blind, or which he had assigned to oblivion during his passionate pursuit, become apparent: ‘Odette’s pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features, her tired eyes, all the things which…he had ceased to notice since the early days of their intimacy.’…

Swann reconstructs Odette à la Zėphora and gazes ‘in admiration at the large eyes, the delicate features in which the imperfection of the skin might be surmised, the marvelous locks of hair that fell along the tired cheeks.’ In this extreme form of iconolatry, Swann is overcome by fetishism as Zipporah becomes both a visual representation and a reincarnation of Odette as Swann takes hold of Zipporah-Odette and grasps her close to his heart. In this moment of illusionary physical possession, Swann’s desire for Odette is realized and a kind of complementary mechanism is released: ‘The vague feeling of sympathy which attracts one to a work of art, now that he know the original in flesh and blood of Jethro’s daughter, became a desire which more than compensated, thenceforward, for the desire which Odette’s physical charms had at first failed to inspire in him.’ The Swann looks at the black-and-white reproduction of Botticelli’s Zipporah, the more he believes he is in love with Odette: ‘When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart.’  (72-73)

That black and white reproduction of Zipporah on Swann’s desk, Gamble surmises, must have been the Ruskin reproduction.

The Bible of Amiens

April 17, 2011

Proust wrestled with the temptation to read Ruskin uncritically, entranced by the beauty and power of his prose. His unique impressionist style owes something to his seeing how Ruskin erred by equating art with lofty ideas. A simple sketch would, for Ruskin, verge on greatness if it depicted an elevated idea. But how do you resist passages like this, describing a wooden panel in the cathedral of Amiens:

Sweet and young-grained wood it is: oak, trained and chosen for such work, sound now as four hundred years since. Under the carver’s hand it seems to cut like clay, to fold like silk, to grow like living branches, to leap like living flame. Canopy crowning canopy, pinnacle piercing pinnacle—it shoots and wreathes itself into an enchanted glade, inextricable, imperishable, fuller of leafage than any forest, and fuller of story than any book. (The Bible of Amiens, 92)

But Ruskin could devote pages to imposing an intellectual order on beauty. Here is the beginning of pages devoted to the statuary of the cathedral (what he identifies as the bible of Amiens):

Under the feet of His apostles, therefore, in the quatrefoil medallions of the foundation, are represented the virtues which each Apostle taught, or in his life manifested;—it may have been, sore tried, and failing in the very strength of the character which he afterwards perfected. Thus St. Peter, denying in fear, is afterwards the Apostle of courage; and St. John, who, with his brother, would have burnt the inhospitable village, is afterwards the Apostle of love. Understanding this, you see that in the sides of the porch, the apostles with their special virtues stand thus in opposite ranks.

Now you see how these virtues answer to each other in their opposite ranks. Remember the left-hand side is always the first, and see how the left-hand virtues lead to the right hand:—

Courage            to Faith.
Patience            to Hope.
Gentillesse        to Charity.
Love                  to Chastity.
Obedience        to Wisdom.
Perseverance  to Humility.

Note farther that the Apostles are all tranquil, nearly all with books, some with crosses, but all with the same message,

St. Paul, Faith. Courage, St. Peter.
St. James the Bishop, Hope. Patience, St. Andrew.
St. Philip, Charity. Gentillesse, St. James.
St. Bartholomew, Chastity. Love, St. John.
St. Thomas, Wisdom. Obedience, St. Matthew.
St. Jude, Humility. Perseverance, St. Simon.
Proust, though an avowed enemy of the notion of the superiority of the intellect over feelings, did have a love for this sort of list. His love of place names may well have sprung from this passage on Clovis, the Franck ruler who once called Amiens home:
1. Clovis. Frank form, Hluodoveh. ‘Glorious Holiness,’ or
consecration. Latin Chlodovisus, when baptized by St.
Remy, softening afterwards through the centuries into
Lhodovisus, Ludovicus, Louis.2. Albofleda. ‘White household fairy’? His youngest sister;
married Theodoric (Theutreich, ‘People’s ruler’),
the great King of the Ostrogoths.3. Clotilde. Hlod-hilda. ‘Glorious Battle-maid.’ His wife.
‘Hilda’ first meaning Battle, pure; and then passing
into Queen or Maid of Battle. Christianized to Ste
Clotilde in France, and Ste Hilda of Whitby cliff.4. Clotilde. His only daughter. Died for the Catholic faith,
under Arian persecution.

5. Childebert. His eldest son by Clotilde, the first Frank
King in Paris. ‘Battle Splendour,’ softening into
Hildebert, and then Hildebrandt, as in the Nibelung.

6. Chlodomir. ‘Glorious Fame.’ His second son by Clotilde.

7. Clotaire. His youngest son by Clotilde; virtually the destroyer
of his father’s house. ‘Glorious Warrior.’

8. Chlodowald. Youngest son of Chlodomir. ‘Glorious
Power,’ afterwards ‘St. Cloud.’

Proust diagnosed Ruskin’s central problem as idolatry, which would become a key motif in the Search, especially in understanding Swann and his failure, but also in the frustrations of young Marcel struggling to find a sufficiently elevated to write about. He explored this theme first with Ruskin, in the introduction to his translation of The Bible of Amiens (published in English as a chapter in Days of  Reading.)
…there is a sort of idolatry which no one has defined better than Ruskin himself, in a passage from the Lectures on Art: ‘Such I conceive generally, though indeed with good arising out of it, for every great evil brings  some good in its backward eddies–such I conceive to have been the deadly function of art in its ministry to what, whether in heathen or Christian lands, and whether in the pageantry of words, or colours, or fair forms, is truly, and in the deep sense, to be called idolatry–the serving with the best of our hearts and minds, some dear or sad fantasy which we have made for ourselves, while we disobey the present call of the Master, who is not dead, and who is not now fainting under His cross, but requiring us to take up ours.’
Now it certainly seems that at the basis of Ruskin’s work, at the root of his talent, one finds this very idolatry. No doubt he never allowed it completely to overly–even as an embellishment,–to immobilize, paralyse and finally to kill his intellectual and moral sincerity. In every line he wrote, as at each moment of his life, one senses this need for sincerity struggling against idolatry, proclaiming its vanity and humbling beauty before duty, be it an unaesthetic duty. I shall not take examples of this from his life (which was not like the lives of Racine, or Tolstoy, or Maeterlinck, aesthetic at first and later moral, but one in which morality established its rights from the outset and in the very heart of his aesthetic–without perhaps ever liberating itself as completely as in the lives of the other Masters I have just named). I have no need to recall its stages, for they are quite well-known, from the early scruples which he felt at drinking tea while looking at Titians, up until the time  when, having swallowed up the five millions left him by his father on his social philanthropic work, he decided to sell his Turners. But there is a more inward form of dilettantism than the active form (which he had overcome) and the real duel between his idolatry and his sincerity was fought out not at certain moments of his life, or in certain passages in his books, but the whole time, in those deep and secret places, unknown almost to ourselves, where our personality receives images from the imagination, ideas from the intellect and words from the memory, and affirms itself in the ceaseless choices it makes from them and ceaselessly wagers in a sense the destiny of our moral and spiritual lives. I have the impression that in those places the sin of idolatry never ceased to be committed by Ruskin. And at the very moment when he was preaching sincerity he lacked it himself, not in what he said but in the manner in which he said it. The doctrines he was professing were moral and not aesthetic doctrines, yet he chose them for their beauty. And as he did not want to present them as beautiful but as true, he was obliged to lie to himself concerning the nature of the reasons which had led him to adopt them. (29-30)

Sesame and Lilies

April 11, 2011

It seems odd that Proust spent so much of his too short life translating John Ruskin, a writer often given to sanctimoniousness, when he could have started The Search a few years earlier and given us another volume or two. But from Jean Santeuil we know that Proust had conceived of his major themes in some detail but had not yet found an aesthetic that would allow him a way to shape this material. The Ruskin interlude allowed him to concentrate solely on aesthetics.

Sesame and Lilies has a passage, for instance, that states nicely Proust’s conviction that the author’s biographical details are of no use in understanding the writing. A corollary is the (cruel) belief that friendship is at best a distraction from the author’s true calling, solitary creation. Here is Ruskin on what and how to read.

The good book of the hour, then,—I do not speak of the bad ones,— is simply the useful or pleasant talk of some person whom you cannot otherwise converse with, printed for you. Very useful often, telling you what you need to know; very pleasant often, as a sensible friend’s present talk would be. These bright accounts of travels; good-humoured and witty discussions of question; lively or pathetic story-telling in the form of novel; firm fact-telling, by the real agents concerned in the events of passing history;—all these books of the hour, multiplying among us as education becomes more general, are a peculiar possession of the present age: we ought to be entirely thankful for them, and entirely ashamed of ourselves if we make no good use of them. But we make the worst possible use if we allow them to usurp the place of true books: for, strictly speaking, they are not books at all, but merely letters or newspapers in good print. Our friend’s letter may be delightful, or necessary, to-day: whether worth keeping or not, is to be considered. The newspaper may be entirely proper at breakfast time, but assuredly it is not reading for all day. So, though bound up in a volume, the long letter which gives you so pleasant an account of the inns, and roads, and weather, last year at such a place, or which tells you that amusing story, or gives you the real circumstances of such and such events, however valuable for occasional reference, may not be, in the real sense of the word, a “book” at all, nor, in the real sense, to be “read.” A book is essentially not a talking thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence. The book of talk is printed only because its author cannot speak to thousands of people at once; if he could, he would—the volume is mere MULTIPLICATION of his voice. You cannot talk to your friend in India; if you could, you would; you write instead: that is mere CONVEYANCE of voice. But a book is written, not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to perpetuate it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him;—this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, “This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” That is his “writing;” it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription, or scripture. That is a “Book.”

Perhaps you think no books were ever so written?

But, again, I ask you, do you at all believe in honesty, or at all in kindness, or do you think there is never any honesty or benevolence in wise people? None of us, I hope, are so unhappy as to think that. Well, whatever bit of a wise man’s work is honestly and benevolently done, that bit is his book or his piece of art. {5} It is mixed always with evil fragments—ill-done, redundant, affected work. But if you read rightly, you will easily discover the true bits, and those ARE the book.

Now books of this kind have been written in all ages by their greatest men:- by great readers, great statesmen, and great thinkers. These are all at your choice; and Life is short. You have heard as much before;—yet have you measured and mapped out this short life and its possibilities? Do you know, if you read this, that you cannot read that—that what you lose to-day you cannot gain to-morrow? Will you go and gossip with your housemaid, or your stable-boy, when you may talk with queens and kings; or flatter yourself that it is with any worthy consciousness of your own claims to respect, that you jostle with the hungry and common crowd for ENTREE here, and audience there, when all the while this eternal court is open to you, with its society, wide as the world, multitudinous as its days, the chosen, and the mighty, of every place and time? Into that you may enter always; in that you may take fellowship and rank according to your wish; from that, once entered into it, you can never be outcast but by your own fault; by your aristocracy of companionship there, your own inherent aristocracy will be assuredly tested, and the motives with which you strive to take high place in the society of the living, measured, as to all the truth and sincerity that are in them, by the place you desire to take in this company of the Dead.

“The place you desire,” and the place you FIT YOURSELF FOR, I must also say; because, observe, this court of the past differs from all living aristocracy in this:- it is open to labour and to merit, but to nothing else. No wealth will bribe, no name overawe, no artifice deceive, the guardian of those Elysian gates. In the deep sense, no vile or vulgar person ever enters there. At the portieres of that silent Faubourg St. Germain, there is but brief question:- “Do you deserve to enter? Pass. Do you ask to be the companion of nobles? Make yourself noble, and you shall be. Do you long for the conversation of the wise? Learn to understand it, and you shall hear it. But on other terms?—no. If you will not rise to us, we cannot stoop to you. The living lord may assume courtesy, the living philosopher explain his thought to you with considerate pain; but here we neither feign nor interpret; you must rise to the level of our thoughts if you would be gladdened by them, and share our feelings, if you would recognise our presence.”

This, then, is what you have to do, and I admit that it is much.
You must, in a word, love these people, if you are to be among them.
No ambition is of any use. They scorn your ambition. You must love
them, and show your love in these two following ways.

(1) First, by a true desire to be taught by them, and to enter into their thoughts. To enter into theirs, observe; not to find your own expressed by them. If the person who wrote the book is not wiser than you, you need not read it; if he be, he will think differently from you in many respects.

(2) Very ready we are to say of a book, “How good this is—that’s exactly what I think!” But the right feeling is, “How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall, some day.” But whether thus submissively or not, at least be sure that you go to the author to get at HIS meaning, not to find yours. Judge it afterwards if you think yourself qualified to do so; but ascertain it first. And be sure, also, if the author is worth anything, that you will not get at his meaning all at once;—nay, that at his whole meaning you will not for a long time arrive in any wise. Not that he does not say what he means, and in strong words too; but he cannot say it all; and what is more strange, will not, but in a hidden way and in parables, in order that he may be sure you want it. I cannot quite see the reason of this, nor analyse that cruel reticence in the breasts of wise men which makes them always hide their deeper thought. They do not give it you by way of help, but of reward; and will make themselves sure that you deserve it before they allow you to reach it. But it is the same with the physical type of wisdom, gold. There seems, to you and me, no reason why the electric forces of the earth should not carry whatever there is of gold within it at once to the mountain tops, so that kings and people might know that all the gold they could get was there; and without any trouble of digging, or anxiety, or chance, or waste of time, cut it away, and coin as much as they needed. But Nature does not manage it so. She puts it in little fissures in the earth, nobody knows where: you may dig long and find none; you must dig painfully to find any.

And it is just the same with men’s best wisdom. When you come to a good book, you must ask yourself, “Am I inclined to work as an Australian miner would? Are my pickaxes and shovels in good order, and am I in good trim myself, my sleeves well up to the elbow, and my breath good, and my temper?” And, keeping the figure a little longer, even at cost of tiresomeness, for it is a thoroughly useful one, the metal you are in search of being the author’s mind or meaning, his words are as the rock which you have to crush and smelt in order to get at it. And your pickaxes are your own care, wit, and learning; your smelting furnace is your own thoughtful soul. Do not hope to get at any good author’s meaning without those tools and that fire; often you will need sharpest, finest chiselling, and patientest fusing, before you can gather one grain of the metal. (From the Project Gutenberg edition.)