Remembering John Ruskin Rightly, part 2

Here’s a characteristically Ruskinian scene, recorded by his friend and secretary William Collingwood during a summer excursion which they were making in Switzerland in 1883, just before Ruskin went back to his work at Oxford. They had stopped for a meal at a wayside inn, and were eating at a table outdoors:

To this lunch there came a little dog, two cats, and a pet sheep, and shared our wine, bread, and Savoy sponge-cakes. The sheep at last got to putting its feet on the table, and the landlady rushed out and carried him off in her arms into the house; but Ruskin, I think, would as soon have let the creature stay.

It’s not that animals needed to petition charmingly, as they happened to do here, in order to engage Ruskin’s attention. In fact Collingwood specifically says that Ruskin felt “a sympathy with them which goes much deeper than benevolent sentiment”. But the scene is typical of the way animals thronged Ruskin’s life: they turn up in his conversation, lectures, and writing, in his dreams, in his own paintings and in his art criticism. And, as we know, they were the occasion of that crisis in his working life, the resignation from Oxford University.

The scene at the Swiss inn may be taken, besides, as a sort of emblem of the animal kingdom (the whole of it, humans included) as Ruskin envisioned it. In one of his early Oxford lectures as Slade Professor of Fine Art, a lecture in which he was typically combining a study in natural history with his ideas about the point of university education (the formal subject of the lecture was the halcyon or kingfisher), he put to his audience “my main theorem – that reading and writing are in no sense education, unless they contribute to this end of making us feel kindly towards all creatures”. And again, not ‘kindly’ in a merely cerebral or sentimental sense: rather, in the etymological sense of feeling kinship. He wanted the future landowners in his audience (many of the undergraduates would indeed have been from the landed gentry and aristocracy) to be educated out of their corrupt taste for hunting and shooting animals. He wanted them to devote themselves instead to maintaining their land in its “native wildness”, so as “to let every animal live upon it in peace that chose to come there.” A lot of meaning is bound up in that word ‘chose’.

He had the same scheme in mind for Oxford itself. The authorities, he hoped (or dreamed), would “so far recognize what education means as to surround this university with the loveliest park in England, twenty miles square”, within which “every English wild flower that can bloom in lowland will be suffered to grow in luxuriance, and every living creature that haunts wood and stream know that it has a happy refuge.” And it was much more than a conservation scheme. Ruskin believed that the essential relation between humans and other animals could be transformed – restored to innocence, perhaps – if only the humans themselves would change: “There is peacable kingdom.JPGscarcely any conception left of the character which animals and birds might have if kindly treated in a wild state.” He was teaching, in fact, the way towards the peaceable kingdom.

Nor was this just a picturesque ideal for Ruskin. It was founded on his absolute conviction of nature’s entirety: that in fact was a key word in his vocabulary. Wisdom itself, he told his Oxford students, was “the faculty which recognizes in all things their bearing upon life, in the entire sum of life that we know, bestial and human”. There could therefore be nothing narrow or pedestrian about drawing a small bird, or for that matter a stone or twig, as he often directed his students in the art school to do (and as he himself did with brilliant fidelity and feeling), for “the system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole.” Writing about Venice, Ruskin improvised a special function here for the patron saint of that city, St Theodore. He should represent “Divine life in nature; Divine life in the flesh of the animal, and in the substance of the wood and of the stone, contending with poison and death in the animal, with rottenness in the tree and in the stone.” [C&W 29.62] This St Theodore champions the life-wish, and Ruskin sensed that wish far into areas of nature conventionally regarded as inanimate or at least as involuntary. In another Oxford lecture, he spoke of crystals as “living stones”. He used to get the girls at Winnington School, where he was a sort of visiting professor, to get their own sense of that stone-life by acting out the different crystal formations.

But there was nothing mild and consolatory about this notion of a ubiquitous shared life, for Ruskin had also an acute feeling for the perils faced by the life-urge in all its variety. We’ve seen these perils contended with in the labour of St Theodore. Ruskin himself was viscerally affected by the sight or even idea of disease, of physical suffering and harm. The dreams show it: “a green leaf which was an animal, and was drowning in a basin of water, and putting its green point up, trying to get out”; “I had a nice black dog with me, and trod on it, and half broke its leg; then it gradually got better and limped after us about the town”; “a fit of great distress and self-reproach because I Ruskin_Self_Portrait_1875.jpghad starved a hermit crab whom I had packed away in his shell … looking at the starved creature and wondering if I could revive it.” This sense of life’s ordeal – and his intense sympathy for it, as suffered by animals especially – amounted to a personal engagement, which the dreams cruelly dramatize by making him the cause of harm. The sympathy was always vivid in his imagination and directive of his thought. “There is no wealth but life” he wrote, by way of summarizing his economics in Unto This Last (1860), but it summarizes his thinking in all of its many directions.

And it was here that science came to seem in Ruskin’s mind essentially hostile. That was a tragic estrangement, for Ruskin loved and never did cease to study the natural sciences. He had a strong talent for it. In that same black dog dream, he observes a tourist “staring” at his surroundings, and the two men agree that “to stare was the right thing; to look only was no use.” The scientific skill of concentrated and selfless attention Ruskin had to a very high degree, and the practice of art as he taught it at Oxford was a means into that discipline; in fact he insisted that art was itself a science, “the science of aspects”. He even, during that inaugural lecture of 1870, proposed that art and “our now authoritative science of physiology” should collaborate in making a complete record of the world’s animal life. (“now authoritative”! It was an ominous misconception; Ruskin didn’t then realize that British physiology was only just starting to discover itself and its characteristic techniques as a science.)

But always the art depended on moral engagement and sympathy; the artist was to feel “rational and disciplined delight in the forms and laws of the creation of which he forms a part. He told his Oxford students during that kingfisher lecture, “in the degree in which you delight in the life of any creature, you can see it: no otherwise.” It was this sympathetic delight which, during the 1870s, Ruskin came to think had been cut out of modern science, of biology in particular. This part of science was now consciously shaking off its amateurish past as ‘natural history’, so much associated as that had been with personal observation in the field and with anecdotes of particular living animals. This was the tradition to which Ruskin himself belonged (something of it has since been recovered and re-valued as ethology).

Oxford’s future Physiology professor, the one who would be sharing the University Museum with Ruskin during his last two years as Slade Professor, was a leader in this modernization of biology. At just about the same time that Ruskin was telling his audience about delight as a condition of seeing anything at all, John Scott Burdon Sanderson had been telling a different audience that “the study of the life of plants and animals is in a very large measure an affair of measurement.” In other words, biology was to be incorporated into the world as defined by physics and chemistry – the world of “mechanism”, as Ruskin called it. And the organic part of that world, like the rest of it, was to be explored primarily through experimentation, conducted by scientists acting as disengaged technicians. For these modern pioneers, so different from the ones Ruskin had pictured in that inaugural lecture lovingly recording the world’s wild-life, he used a harsh and sinister image: they were, he said, “mostly blind, and proud of finding their way always with a stick.”

For two more immediate reasons Ruskin felt driven to contest this innovation. One was the glaring importance of science. Its rapid growth in prestige was everywhere obvious, not least in Oxford, where the Museum itself was built evidence of it. In fact one of the critical moments in this cultural triumph of science had recently taken place there: the famous debate between Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, on the subject of evolution. If science was to replace religion as the primary force in British culture, and thus perhaps become the conditioning sub-text of the British mind, which Huxley himself frequently argued that it should do and Ruskin feared it already had, then it mattered very much what sort of mind and culture that entailed. And for Ruskin, modern science, and the technology which was its most conspicuous product, entailed a maiming alienation of mankind from the rest of the world. Years earlier he had defined what he regarded as man’s “due relation to other creatures, and to inanimate things”: it was to “know them all and love them, as made for him, and he for them.” And he had warned against that alienation: “All the diseases of mind leading to fatalest ruin consist primarily in this isolation.” And now “fatalest ruin” was what he believed he was seeing in the 1870s. Speaking of the spoliation of land and wild-life in Europe, he told Oxford students in 1872, “we shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth.”

And here, as the second reason for Ruskin’s preoccupation with the character of modern science, was the Museum’s own collection encircling him as he lectured. For he found that the building which he had hoped would be a celebration of the beauty and unity of life was filled with the stuffed skins and bottled parts of multitudes of imported corpses. Ruskin angrily called it “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”, and he told his (no doubt astonished) audience, “I could fill all this Museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.” More useful because these un-showy and familiar birds were animals whose lives students could in some sense share, whereas the dead animals in the Museum were an object lesson in selfish ambition and violence. And the Victorian collecting mania which had assembled them was itself a part of a larger corrupt and dangerous notion that man had triumphed over nature, and should consequently enjoy rights of ownership there.

I’ve said here only a part of what I wanted to say about Ruskin and animals: nothing, for instance, about his wonderful descriptions of their behaviour, his enactments of bird flight in lectures, his love and respect for the individual animals which he encountered (even ants and shrimps); perhaps most importantly I’ve said nothing about his sense of the mystery of animal consciousness, and the poignancy of the clouded understanding on both sides which thus conditioned all such encounters. I think that it was this mystery which he had in mind when, in one of his later lectures of the 1880s, he spoke of modern animal research as “depriving the animal under investigation first of its soul within, and secondly of its skin without.” Ruskin had no conventionally Christian faith, but he regarded as a kind of blasphemy this crude objectification of an inaccessibly mysterious individual life.

Anyway, during those last two years of his professorship, while the newly appointed Physiology professor, Burdon Sanderson, was moving equipment into his temporary quarters in the University Museum just downstairs from where Ruskin lectured, the contest of values reached a crisis. I’ve mentioned in the previous post the University’s plan to build a new laboratory for Burdon Sanderson, and the campaign which was mounted against it, or at least against its use for vivisection. Ruskin signed up to that campaign, but he also conducted his own personal campaign in lectures and beyond. “The scientists slink out of my way as if I were a mad dog”, he said in a letter written at this time (there are many shadowy arcades and showcases to slink behind in that neo-Gothic Museum). He planned to end the Michaelmas term of 1884 with a lecture entitled ‘Mechanism: the Pleasures of Nonsense’, which would be a passionate and last-ditch statement of his case against the new biology in general, and vivisection in particular. What a text that might have been, and what an event! But it didn’t occur; Ruskin was persuaded to postpone the lecture, and when the Michaelmas term ended and Ruskin left town for the Lake District where he had his home, it was to be a permanent departure.

Without that mechanism lecture, without in fact any single organised statement of his thinking about animals (he said in a letter that he wanted to write one, but hadn’t enough time), it has no doubt been easier than it would otherwise have been to treat Ruskin’s given reason for resigning his post – the decision to fund the new laboratory – as an excuse only. The real reason, it was commonly said at the time and frequently has been said since, was his mental ill-health. He certainly was unwell (the stress of those last Oxford weeks played a large part in that), but he, at any rate, believed in the reason which he gave, and indeed insisted upon it, as the previous post in this blog has recorded. I hope that this brief account of his thinking about animals has at least shown that there was quite enough strength of feeling and expressed commitment there to account for his action. We can and should remember that action, then, as Ruskin himself experienced it and as he wished it to be remembered.

 

Notes and references:

Instead of a long list of citations, these are the main texts quoted or referenced above:

William Collingwood’s Life and Works of John Ruskin, 2 vols, Methuen, 1893, is a fine and sympathetic account by someone who had been a student of Ruskin, and became his friend and helper.

‘The Story of the Halcyon’ was the ninth lecture in the series delivered by Ruskin in the Lent term of 1872, and published by George Allen in the same year under the title The Eagle’s Nest. Several of the quotations here come from that series, in which Ruskin was at his most well-organized and optimistic. His comments on the Museum collection come from a much more improvised and therefore exciting series delivered before very large audiences in the Michaelmas term of 1877, and titled ‘Readings in Modern Painters’. These were published from Ruskin’s notes in vol. 22 of Cook and Wedderburn’s great ‘Library Edition’ of Ruskin’s writings (39 vols, George Allen and Unwin, 1903-12). The last series of lectures, delivered in Michaelmas term of 1884, were titled ‘The Pleasures of England’ (the intended ‘mechanism’ lecture would have been the final one), and it’s from the first of these that he spoke of scientific research depriving the animal of its soul. The letter about scientists slinking out of Ruskin’s way is re-printed in Cook and Wedderburn, vol.37, p.501.

The quotation about “the system of the world” comes from the fifth and last volume of Modern Painters, published in 1860, where also he wrote about our “due relation to other creatures”. Here too, he uses the phrase “science of aspects” – in connection with the works of J.M.Turner (whose reputation was the originating subject of this great book), but the idea was one which he subsequently insisted on in his Oxford lectures.

Ruskin wrote about St Theodore in one of his ‘letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain’ titled Fors Clavigera and published in the 1870s, while he was also working at Oxford. This particular issue was numbered 75. The image of the blind scientist comes from that same letter. Ruskin’s dreams are recorded in his diaries: they were edited by Joan Evans and J.H.Whitehouse, and published by Oxford University Press in 3 vols, 1956-9.

The quotation about “rational and disciplined delight” comes from the first sentence of Ruskin’s book of instruction in the principles of drawing and painting, The Laws of Fésole, published in parts from 1877-79.

On the study of biology: Professor Burdon Sanderson was addressing an audience at a professional event, and his speech was published in the journal Nature, 1 June, 1876.

Th illustrations show a detail from one of the ‘Peaceable Kingdom’ series painted by the American artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 1820s to 1840s, and a self-portrait in water-colour by John Ruskin, painted in 1875. Both images are in the public domain.

 

 

 

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