Ruskin’s Lamp of Life, India and that ochreous stain

February 9, 2013 § Leave a comment


This is my favorite plate from The Seven Lamps from the Lamp of Life. What Ruskin is trying to illustrate above is that each stone carved in a gothic church is animated by man’s labor, lending a sort of vitalism to the building as a whole. In the stone above I feel Ruskin is right, there’s an almost cartoonish pathos in the expressions of the sulky monk-ghoul-snake—a little bit of life pushed into the interstices of an otherwise indifferent geometric composition.

I always think of the image above along with the famous passage on the division of labor in Ruskin’s The Nature of the Gothic, considered an allusive critique of Adam Smith and Utilitarianism.

It is not truly the labour which is divided; but the men:- Divided into mere segments of men – broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail.

Ruskin’s ideas of the moral unity of human hand, body and spirit is to me most cleverly articulated in a lecture he gave on the topic of iron titled, “The work of iron in nature, art and policy.” He delivered the lecture to an audience at Turnbridge Wells. He opens the lecture by recalling the welling forth of the spring (Turnbridge was, he tells the audience “my Switzerland”). In his typically mannered though in this case very beautiful prose he described how the clear water bubbled over a marble basin that was “saffron stained.” The stain was from iron and this is his ingenious opening to a lecture that is a cautionary and damning tale about the immorality of steely machines (though he never mentions the word machine) and of the importance of hand wrought things. He first talks of iron in nature—the vermilion, ochreous, saffron paint that colors the landscape for the enjoyment of rich and poor alike. He moves on to iron in art – iron enlivened by the subtleties of the human hand. Finally he makes his most difficult move to iron and policy. Here he talks of three iron objects — the plough, the fetter and the sword. Ruskin continues that one must always have his hand on the plough, professing that “whosoever has not his hand on the Stilt of the plough, has it on the Hilt of the dagger,” exhorting those who oppress the poor—defined as any man who does not earn by the sweat of his own brow (why do I have to add yet another analogy to this ridiculous mix?). The fetter is a metaphor for the “wise laws and just restraints” that to a noble nation are “not chains, but chain mail… strength of defence, but also an encumbrance.” Finally he moves to the sword which is the most dangerous edge and can only be yielded by the truly just nation (guess which one that might be… ) so that eventually the whole world may smelt their swords into ploughs.

Somehow all of this “whosoever has not his hand on the stilt” business makes it difficult for me to reconcile Ruskin, the romantic/sentimental socialist with Ruskin, the jingoistic Tory imperialist. Would Gandhi choc up Ruskin’s jingoism as just a product of his time?… Perhaps it’s useless to speculate. What we do know a little more about is William Morris’ thoughts about India, Morris belonged to the so-called Eastern Question Association, and accordingly his thoughts on the question were complex. He didn’t advocate for the expansion of imperialism, (i.e. hands off Africa), he believed in Irish self-rule, but he DIDN’T believe India was ready for self-rule… and there’s all of the terrible rhetoric you expect to find about the backwardness of ‘Hindoos.’ In any case, what we do know a great deal more about is Ruskin’s influence on Gandhi. Gandhi translated Ruskin’s Unto This Last into Gujarati and wrote in the Hind Swaraj that “(i)t is machinery that has impoverished India.” (note to self: I think I will try to gather a bit of stuff on Morris, India and Ananda Coomaraswamy for another post.)

An aside here… isn’t the idea of an association that gathers not for a cause but rather around a question such a fascinating idea? I wonder if other associations bound by questions existed. Hmmmmm

By the way, one of the most interesting facts about The Seven Lamps was the fact that all of the hand drawn plates were originally photos, which Ruskin either drew or traced. It’s amazing to me that he didn’t somehow reject the own mechanization of his eye, and I wonder if the fact that he attempted to hide the mechanical nature of recording from the reader was in fact an index of his own conflicted feelings about the camera and the machine in general. For some reason I have this image in my head of Rodchenko and Ruskin photographing a modernizing London together, one determined to capture a self-consciously mechanized and disorienting view, the other attempting to stabilize a disappearing image of its past.


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