A fictional interview with John Ruskin

In this series of articles, PhD scholars from various universities explain their research and their way of working. What is the focus of their academic work? What question(s) do they want to answer? And what problems have they encountered? Bart Decroos interviews critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) and asks him how he proposed to do things differently in a time where the disastrous effects of ‘industrialization’ were beginning to transform both the human and the natural world. How are his thoughts relevant today?

Study of Moss, Fern and Wood-Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank / John Ruskin, 1875-79

Study of Moss, Fern and Wood-Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank / John Ruskin, 1875-79 / Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield / source Wikimedia

To interview John Ruskin, one only needs to visit the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, some time during the 1870s, where Ruskin had become the first Slade Professor of Fine Art and where he had established a School of Drawing. To this day, the historic Ashmolean building houses a large collection of Ruskin’s drawings and watercolours, depicting his minute observations of the natural world, which he used to illustrate his lectures. Yet, at the time of writing this interview, the year is 2020, and due to an ongoing pandemic it has become difficult to travel, never mind travel back in time. Instead, I mostly find Ruskin in the library of my own university on the other side of the channel, at the University of Antwerp, where only a handful of his books are available, somewhere in a forgotten corner on the third floor of a modern, twenty-first century building. I consult the books in front of me, laid out on the laminated desk and brightly lit by fluorescent tubes overhead, in a functionalist reading room with steel window frames and white plastered walls, dark wooden floors and acoustic panelling on the ceiling, browsing the pages in search of whatever answers Ruskin might have given were this interview actually to have taken place.

Bart Decroos: John — may I call you John? — , thank you for taking the time to sit down with me in these hectic times. As you may or may not know, today we are still struggling with the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, and although the first vaccines are almost ready, the situation seems far from over, while beyond all of this, there is still an ecological crisis of even bigger proportions hanging over our heads. And yet I find myself reading your works, not only on Pre-Raphaelite art and Gothic architecture, but also your studies of ornithology, botany and geology, as well as your theories on education and political economy. And I sometimes wonder, as I get deeper into your work — why? Why do I concern myself with the writings of a Victorian critic, especially at a time like this? And then I remember the reason that I started with all of this, roughly two years ago, when I decided to take your work as one of the historical case studies in my PhD research. At that time, like perhaps most architects, I remembered you from my classes in architectural history, where we might even have read some fragments of your architectural treatises, The Seven Lamps of Architecture or The Stones of Venice. Back then, you were quickly dismissed as a moralizing and conservative theorist, with a love for medieval cathedrals and a disdain for anything that looked like ‘progress’. Yet, it was that last part that made me come back to you — it wasn’t really disdain as such, but an understanding of the disastrous effects that this thing called ‘industrialization’ might have on both the human and the natural world. You were writing at a time when the processes of industrialization were only just beginning to unfold, and while you could never have predicted the scope of the ecological crisis we are currently facing, your arguments in favour of the Gothic were more than a mere love for medieval cathedrals. Rather, as I understand them now, they contained a proposal to do things differently. How so?

John Rushkin: Look round this room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the detailing so finished. Examine again all those accurate solutions, and perfect polishings, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great modern society was, because the slightest work was done so thoroughly. Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our very midst. The souls of men and women are smothered, the suckling branches of their human intelligence blighted and hewn into rotten pollards, the flesh and skin made into leathern thongs to yoke machineries with, — this is to be slave-masters indeed; to send multitudes like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them is given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line.

BD: Ah, of course, this was to be expected… While your arguments are still relevant, some of the historical contingencies have inevitably changed. I hope you don’t mind if I re-write some of it here and there, and that a certain amount of interpretation might be necessary on my part to keep this conversation going. But I take your point: the industrialization forced men and women into factories, where they became the operatives of machines that aimed to produce nothing less than standardized perfection — and in doing so, it transformed these men and women into extensions of machines themselves.

JR: Let me not be thought to speak wildly or extravagantly. It is verily this degradation of the operative into a machine, which, more than any other evil of the times, is leading the mass of the nations everywhere into a vain, incoherent, destructive struggling for a freedom of which they cannot explain the nature to themselves. It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means of pleasure. It is not that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labour to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men. And so, it is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men. We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense.

BD: Yes, while Marx’s major economic works were only published later in your life, you were equally addressing the alienation that industrialized working conditions brought about. But for you, unlike Marx, this alienation was not simply economic, but primarily aesthetic — and it is in this sense that the Gothic, with its room for improvisation and mistakes, offers an alternative to the rigid execution of industrial production.

JR: Understand this clearly: you can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.

BD: Of course, while the conditions of industrial production have significantly changed since your days, the fundamental point still seems to stand. We could have a discussion on the extent to which such an ‘aesthetics of imperfection’ really addresses the exploitation of human labour on which such production relies, but it is also an argument about the material culture it produces as a whole. A similar sentiment can be found in the renewed interest in craftsmanship today: the sterile perfection of industrialized production is replaced with the imperfect but human presence of the maker.

JR: Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. In all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality.

BD: And this is where your famed ‘vitalism’ comes in! One could argue that, by now, even such imperfections can be imitated by machines, but this still falls short of really embracing the material lives of objects themselves, as you proposed. Most of your writings, on art and architecture, but on most other topics too, seem to be pervaded by a sense of vitalism, an intuition that the world we live in is not as inert and mechanical as the ‘moderns’ supposed it to be, but instead has a life of its own. And it is precisely this modern worldview that the ecological crisis challenges: the realization that the natural world is not just a passive background for human society anymore — it never has been — , but that both are deeply and vitally entangled with one another.

JR: The earth in its depths must remain dead and cold, incapable except of slow crystalline change; but at its surface, which human beings look upon and deal with, it ministers to them through a veil of strange intermediate being: which breathes, but has no voice; moves, but cannot leave its appointed place; passes through life without consciousness, to death without bitterness; wears the beauty of youth, without its passion; and declines to the weakness of age, without its regret.

BD: What you are saying sounds quite abstract, but if I understand it correctly, it seems that you are describing a deep symbiosis between the lives of human beings and everything else, and that there are no hard or rigid boundaries to draw between what is alive and active on the one hand and what is inert and passive on the other.

JR: Things are not either wholly alive, or wholly dead. They are less or more alive.

Ca d’Oro Venice / John Ruskin, 1845

Ca d’Oro Venice / John Ruskin, 1845 / The Ruskin, Lancaster University / source Wikimedia

BD: … which brings us back to your writings on the Gothic. Even as a child, you seem to have been fascinated by geology — a field that was still quite speculative at the time but which already suggested that the Earth was much older than any religious dogma claimed it to be, and moreover, that it had a slowly changing life of its own. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the first chapter of The Stones of Venice was entitled ‘The Quarry’ and describes the Gothic architecture of Venice in geological terms: its historical development is painted in metaphors of geological formation, comparing it to the crystallization and mouldering of layers of sedimentary rock. Again, this seems to suggest that, for you, the Gothic is more than a mere architectural style, but embodies an architectural project in tune with the processes of the natural world.

JR: There are far nobler interests mingling, in the Gothic heart, with the rude love of decorative accumulation: a magnificent enthusiasm, which feels as if it never could do enough to reach the fulness of its ideal; an unselfishness of sacrifice, which would rather cast fruitless labour before the altar than stand idle in the market; and, finally, a profound sympathy with the fulness and wealth of the material universe.

BD: Our time is running out — the university library has adopted stricter opening hours these days to limit the risk of contamination. Could you give us any last advice for the twenty-first century?

JR: The real science of political economy is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life; and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction. A truly valuable thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength.

BD: Thank you, John.


Postscriptum: This fictional interview is composed of various citations and paraphrases taken from the extensive writings of John Ruskin. While some of the words and sentences have been adapted to the format of this conversation, the author believes that the spirit of Ruskin has been maintained and treated with the utmost respect.

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