04 August 2016

Review: Deucalion by John Ruskin

Rpt. in Vol. XXVI of The Works of John Ruskin
Hardcover, 282 pages (of 605)
Published 1906 (contents: 1875-83)
Borrowed from the library
Read December 2012
Deucalion: Collected Studies of the Lapse of Waves, and Life of Stones
by John Ruskin

John Ruskin is now most famous for his artistic criticism, but like many Victorians he was a polymath, and Deucalion collects his writings on the topic of geology, especially glaciers. Ruskin was involved in a protracted argument with the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall argued that glaciers moved very slowly, carving out mountain passes as they did; Ruskin thought this was total bullshit because he'd never seen a glacier move. I guess we know who ended up on the right side of history in that one. You might think I'm exaggerating, but not by much; at one point, he asks, "Do you know so much as a single rivulet of clear water which has cut away a visible half-inch of Highland rock, to your own knowledge, in your own day?" (121) For Ruskin, the issue is fundamentally one of sight, and how one does science.

Ruskin was not anti-scientific, but against the new form of science emerging the late nineteenth century, one that privileged the inducted mathematical truth over visual observation. Referring to a youthful scientific error he made in Modern Painters, he characterizes his mistake as following "the mathematical method of science as opposed to the artistic. Thinking of a thing, and demonstrating,--instead of looking at it. [...] always very dangerously inferior to the unpretending method of sight--for people who have eyes, and can use them" (129-30). You need to trust what you see, and not allow theories and desires to inflect your vision of what you observe. Ruskin felt that Tyndall was violating this principle, and indeed, he gets in a couple direct jabs at him, complaining about Tyndall's use of scale models to demonstrate principles (130) and said he'd do better science if it wasn't for his "incapacity of drawing, and ignorance of perspective" (139).

So, Ruskin kind of comes across as a grumpy old man ranting against things he doesn't fully understand. Like, dude, that's not how erosion works. And did you really need to write 282 pages about what you saw in glaciers. But if you're me, this is a pretty fascinating look at the scientific attitudes of a certain era, and from one of the great thinkers of the age. Ruskin isn't some fringe lunatic, after all, but one of the most influential art critics there's ever been. A lot of what underpinned his artistic criticism manifests here, too: that one should privilege one's own sight and soul. (Ruskin felt too many painters followed convention instead of painting what they were actually seeing; that was why he liked J. M. W. Turner and defended him against all comers.) In the lectures collected here, he tells his audience, "your power of seeing mountains cannot be developed either by your vanity, your curiosity, or your love of muscular exercise. It depends on the cultivation of the instrument of sight itself, and of the soul that uses it" (103). No one could be taught to see a mountain by learning things about them from science; indeed, that would impede your ability to actually see them.

This has moral implications, as scientific sight so often does. Ruskin complains that "in modern days, by substituting analysis for sense in morals, and chemistry for sense in matter, we have literally blinded ourselves to the essential qualities of both matter and morals; and are entirely incapable of understanding what is meant by the description given us, in a book we once honoured, of men who 'by reason of use, have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil'" (116). That's the Bible he's talking about there, and I don't know it, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Ruskin didn't care for John Stuart Mill. He does get in a jab at Darwin, saying that the myths of Eve, Noah, Proserpine, and Deucalion are "together incomparably truer than the Darwinian Theory," going on to add that "the feeblest myth is better than the strongest theory" and that a scientific theory is "an unnatural exertion of the wits of little men, and half-wits of impertinent multitudes" (98-9). Ouch! Ruskin comes across as a man of science who would have been at home in the eighteenth century, but was being left behind by the way sciences were shifting in the nineteenth.

Beauty was best way to distinguish truth from falsehood, Ruskin claimed. If you were unable to distinguish the angel and devil vying for your spirit, "you may discern the one from the other by a vivid, instant, practical test. The devils always will exhibit to you what is loathsome, ugly, and, above all, dead; and the angels, what is pure, beautiful, and, above all, living" (263). Ergo, he continues, sloths are evil and squirrels are good! But if you take your child and "force him out of the fresh air into the dusty bone-house" and show him dinosaurs and "make him pore over its rotten cells and wire-stitched joints, and vile extinct capacities of destruction," when he does go outside, he'll probably throw rocks at squirrels (265). So paleontology turns out to be responsible for the misbehavior of little boys. "All true science begins in the love, not the dissection, of your fellow-creatures; and it ends in the love, not the analysis, of God" (265-66).

I guess this could seem bizarre from a modern perspective, but maybe not. Probably we could draw some connections from Ruskin to climate change deniers, or to science-skeptical humanities academics. Ruskin is their intellectual ancestor in some ways, I guess.

I still remember climbing Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park back in 2006. It's a gorgeous vista, you get a 360-degree panorama. My family liked it so much that after hiking it, we went back three days later to take in the view again at sunset. It was still gorgeous (see below), but the view that time was marred by a sort of hippy religious fellow with a large group, who he was lecturing. His exact words are long forgotten, but I remember the essence: "Who knows where it all came from? And that's okay. Just sit here and bask in the not knowing of it all." I'm not saying there aren't times you shouldn't just lean back and absorb the scenic vista, but to argue that knowledge ruins your vision seems very backwards, whether you're a random guy atop Sentinel Dome or the author of Modern Painters.

photo by Dr. Michael Hiller of the Max Planck Institute
P.S. The 39-volume Library Edition Works of John Ruskin in which I read Deucalion (along with excerpts from the other Ruskin writing I cited in my dissertation, mostly The Eagle's Nest, which collects his astronomy lectures, but also Modern Painters) is an absolutely gorgeous example of early twentieth-century book production. See this bookseller's site for an example set, and Mark Scroggin's discussion of their beauty and heft. I don't even like Ruskin very much, but I'd love to own the set. A mere $20,000! Maybe I'll buy 'em if I ever sell out and become a provost.

Many of the pages of the volumes in the library had never been cut, and I had to cut them apart myself with a letter opener! I cannot believe that no one at my university in the past century has wanted to read what Ruskin thought about the movement of glaciers and ice cream. It would seem I'm not alone, however; Scroggins says, "John Dixon Hunt, in the intro to The Ruskin Polygon, comments that one never encounters a set of the Library Edition without at least some of its pages still uncut."

No comments:

Post a Comment