Ratnagarbha explores the vision of John Ruskin, and what relevance it might have for Dharma followers in the modern world and others. This talk, which contains principles that have inspired Urthona magazine over the years, was originally delivered as a paper to the Triratna Buddhist Order in August 2015. The title of the weekend was ‘a conscious surrender to the beautiful’.
There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is the richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
John Ruskin, Ad Valorem, fourth essay in Unto This Last: Works, vol. 17, pp 104-105
The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues. (Works 20.39)
The great artist, the man who sees farther and more deeply, makes the spectator “a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts . . . and leaves him more than delighted, — ennobled and instructed, under the sense . . . of having held communion with a new mind, and having been endowed for a time with the keen perception and the impetuous emotions of a nobler and more penetrating intelligence. (Works 3.134)
Friends, I have used as epigraphs these wonderful quotes from the Victorian thinker and art critic John Ruskin, because they embody a certain spirit of abundant life, and generous engagement with the physical world (Buddhists might see this as an aspect of the Bodhisattva spirit) which is what I regard as the greatest gift the arts have to give us. And they helpfully lead us into the world Ruskin and his ideas, which are at the heart of this essay.
But before talking about Ruskin I want to recount an experience that I had some time ago. This experience or encounter took place after a concert of early baroque music in a church in one of the villages near Cambridge. It was a freezing February night. The concert took place in candlelight and the music was lovely, but the moment I especially recall came afterwards. Just as I was about to climb into my car I looked up, felt the biting wind of the fens in my face, and saw an immense, blazing tapestry of stars; they seemed very bright and intense, in that wind scoured air, and somehow all the splendour of the evening was up there, but infinitely more subtle and remote, challenging and reassuring at the same time.
I suppose if such moments of expansiveness came to us regularly and freshly, so much that they seemed to be what our life was about, if we lived ‘labouring in ecstasy’ as the poet Yeats once put it, we wouldn’t need much else – beyond friends, a roof over our heads and some simple wholesome food. We would have true wealth. The wealth that comes from contact with nature, with the cosmos, even, and from contact with art, with a culture that inspires and heals and challenges. This is what I seemed to feel intuitively that night: that I was blessed and upheld by both nature and a long and rich cultural tradition represented the music and indeed the plain, dignified gothic building in which it was performed. So it seems to me there are two distinct things here: a basic reverence for nature, and an immersion in a rich cultural tradition that is able to refine, vivify, and distill one’s native, unreflective feelings, to make that energy available and bring it into harmony with one’s ethical and spiritual ideals. I would argue, drawing on Ruskin, that these two aspects working together are vital for the development of an individual, vital for the permeation of the Dharma within our culture, and, to take the broadest view, are both equally vital signs of health in a civilisation.
So this is the aesthetic as a transformative force, as far away as it is possible to get from that old shibboleth of ‘art for art’s sake’, which haunted Ruskin as he saw the late 19th century aesthetic movement gathering force, and which still haunts us perhaps, with the fear that any pursuit of aesthetic pleasure is mere decadence or self-indulgence.
However, to find such art, to encounter beauty of such soul transforming force, we need to go on a quest, to undertake an ‘aesthetic education’ to use Schiller’s resonant phrase. For the rest of this essay I will be offering some hints, some notes towards a guide for the perplexed in the field of art and spiritual transformation. In so doing, as I say, I will be taking cues from John Ruskin who thought very deeply about this area.
Firstly though a brief introduction to the man seems in order. John Ruskin was born in London in 1819, the son of a wealthy wine merchant. He died, rather symbolically, in the year 1900. An only child, he was educated at home and immersed in the bible from an early age by his evangelical mother. The household was not narrow minded however, and he was taken on several adventurous European tours by his devoted parents. From an early age he showed an intense interest in both landscape painting and geology. After receiving a rather poor degree from Oxford he deepened his studies of art, in particular the work of Turner, and in 1843 issued the first part of his Magnum Opus, Modern Painters, which eventually ran to 5 volumes. Modern Painters was initially conceived as a defence of the work of Turner, which had been savagely criticised in the British press. However, even in that first volume he began branching out into a wide ranging investigation of the true nature of art and its value to society. Ruskin was to become the most celebrated and influential art critic of his age. His style of writing – at once prophetic and intimately personal, and of unparalleled eloquence – became one of the hallmarks of the Victorian age. He also became a very influential writer on architecture, especially on the nature of the Gothic. Later in life his attention moved on to political economy, and he became one of the seminal influences on English socialism, although he always claimed, rather mischievously, to be a high Tory of the old school. William Morris’s wonderful novel of utopian socialism, News from Nowhere, is largely based on Ruskin’s ideas. Ruskin was concerned with the dignity of labour and the alienation from manual production caused by the capitalist division of labour, in a way that has an almost Marxian ring to it. For him the wealth of a society consisted in the sum total of people within it engaged in happy, productive, creative pursuits. Some of the institutions, such as state training institutions, and state pensions, which he proposed for the maximising of wealth so defined, are the direct forerunners of many aspects of the modern welfare state. Nevertheless, he was also an elitist, perhaps more in a platonic than a true Tory sense: societies needed to be well ordered and to have a clearly defined, philanthropic ruling class.
Sadly some of the more tragic facts about Ruskin’s personal life have tended to obscure serious consideration of his writing and its influence. His unconsummated marriage to Effie Grey was an utter disaster, as a recent movie of that name revealed. Returning to live with his parents he remained very much under the influence of his father until well into his 40s. In middle age he was hopelessly in love with an emotionally unstable young woman called Rose La Touché, who rejected his proposals of marriage when she was 18, and died at the age of 26 in a state of acute mental derangement. In old age, while living in the Lake District, he himself suffered several acute attacks of mania and cause enormous trouble and anxiety to the people who were looking after him. If you want to know more about his life there are several excellent biographies, the best, and longest is the two volume one by Tim Hilton. But before reading those I would strongly recommend exploring his autobiography Praeterita. While, of course, biased, and lacking in any mention at all of many significant events (such as his marriage!) there is no better introduction to the spirit of the man. Here there are passages of great beauty about his travels, especially those in the Alps. And throughout his enormous zest for life, his curious questing spirit, as much in love with the wonders of rocks and strata as with painting, is expressed with force and eloquence. Ruskin was an man of refined and thoughtful temperament, but also of large spirited, impulsive emotions; a man who had peculiarly intense, waywardly eccentric tastes and interests. He considered nearly all neoclassical architecture to be a disaster. He regarded Tintoretto almost as a god. He wrote passages of biblical grandeur about Turner, elevating him as the neglected prophet of his age. All this, as well as disarming confessions of his many faults, especially, as he sees it, his sheer, unregenerate childishness, are to be found in this wonderful volume.
What were his ideas though? And why were they so influential? These are big questions, but in a nutshell we can say that Ruskin constantly returned to a sense that the artistic productions of a civilisation are both crucial to its health and future development, and, so to speak, a barometer of its spiritual vitality, or indeed of its degree decadence and enervation. So for him the state of the arts in a country would be something of immediate and pressing social concern for all classes of society. His principal illustration of this was to relate the history of the Venetian Republic, its glory and its later decadent decline, to the architecture it was producing at different periods. In particular he focused on the artwork of tombs – how they declined from an austere perfection achieved in the early renaissance into a decadently voluptuous profusion of cherubs and scrolls in the baroque period. We have so much taken on board at least a watered down version of this notion, that it is hard to see how radical a strategy this was at the time: to move away from seeing the arts as merely a decorative sign of refinement and prestige amongst the ruling class; but equally not to limit the artist to being what Northrop Frye memorably styled a ‘morbid secretion’ – a Romantic dissident who expresses the inner sickness of society from its margins. Furthermore, this highly developed sense of the social function of art arises from Ruskin’s conviction that the act of making or perceiving art involves the whole human being. Emotion, the moral sense, knowledge, wisdom, strength, sensitivity, memory and every other human faculty are all focused on a single point in the aesthetic moment. Seeing the aesthetic side of our nature as something separate from the rest of life in society is as false as the modern demon of seeing of human beings purely as economic units, something which Ruskin also railed against frequently. Finally, Ruskin develops the romantic theory of the imagination in very interesting directions with his conviction that such acute perception will give rise to artworks characterised neither by mere intense subjectivity, nor by mere cold, factual objectivity. He refuses the romantic ‘pathetic fallacy’ of seeing nature as permeated by the subjective hopes and fears of our inner life. But equally nature truly observed, in his view, can never be a cold, objective mechanism or process.
Two of the most important aspects of that list of human faculties I just gave are knowledge and sensitivity. Buddhists might combine these under the heading of awareness. Or that aspect of awareness which is a warmly appreciative engagement with the material world, for its own sake with personal needs put aside. Descriptions of mindfulness in the Buddhist scriptures don’t really convey this non-utilitarian quality very well in my view, but it is surely a crucial spiritual quality. It is a combination of metta and mudita, or love and sympathetic resonance with the mute joy of material things. To be able to see and feel the gleam of a washed pot, or the sun on a barley field, or any material phenomenon, purely for its own sake, aside from our wants and hopes. But this does not imply emotion only – for Ruskin the foundation of all useful, meaningful art is a meticulous, knowledgeable, sensually acute awareness of the actual facts of nature as it presents itself to us. This is what he saw as the essence of Turner’s genius. Here, for example, Ruskin contrasts the way in which Stanfield, another distinguished landscape painter, treats windmill sails, with Turner’s approach to the same subject:
Stanfield’s sails are twisted into most effective wrecks, as beautiful as pine bridges over Alpine streams; only they do not look as if they had ever been serviceable windmill sails; they are bent about in cross and awkward ways, as if they were warped or cramped; and their timbers look heavier than necessary. Turner’s sails have no beauty about them like that of Alpine bridges; but they have the exact switchy sway of the sail that is always straining against the wind; and the timbers form clearly the lightest possible framework for the canvas, – thus showing the essence of windmill sail.
(Modern Painters IV, Mountain Beauty V, chapter 1)
Turner has truth on his side, and this in the end leads to a deeper and more morally efficacious kind of beauty, even if it is less immediately attractive.
I could continue on at length outlining Ruskin’s ideas, and perhaps attempt with some trepidation to summarise the contents of the entire five volumes of Modern Painters. Fortunately however, one of Ruskin’s books on architecture is much more concise, this is the Seven Lamps of Architecture. Here his ideas on art and society are focused on to a relatively brief consideration of the essential characteristics of good architecture. If one expands them out towards their relevance for all art forms, the result is a useful summary under seven headings of the essential points of Ruskin’s theories of art and the good life.
The Seven Lamps was first published as an extended essay in 1849. Ruskin here puts himself forward as a torch bearer of the Gothic revival, which was already underway. He wishes to discover the underlying moral principles that make gothic architecture the best style to emulate in the modern world. That revival is long dead of course, but I will show here that his principles have a much wider relevance. Especially I believe they have some relevance for us. Within our Sangha we have long had a focus on art and the imagination as being tools for personal transformation. Ruskin’s ideas broaden this out towards a concern with the transformation of society. As we know, Buddhists all over the world are becoming increasingly concerned with the limitations of globalised capitalism, and playing their part in formulating alternatives. Ruskin’s ideas help us to see that in addition to pressing economic and ecological concerns, a concern with the nature and status of art within our culture is an equally important part of this conversation. So here are his Seven Lamps.
Firstly the Lamp of Sacrifice. This is Ruskin’s key passage on the first lamp:
Now first to define this lamp, or spirit, of Sacrifice, clearly. I have said that it prompts us to the offering of precious things, merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary. It is a spirit, for instance, which of two marbles, equally beautiful, applicable, and durable, would choose the more costly, because it was so… It is therefore most unreasoning and enthusiastic, and perhaps best negatively defined, as the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost.
Now, I would argue that this is a spirit which is very lacking in our society, to the point where it would invite ridicule. Imagine, for example, that the people of North East England, had by common agreement assented to a few percentage points being added to their council taxes for several years, in order that the enormous bronze sculpture by Anthony Gormley, The Angel of the North, be gilded with pure gold. Imagine that the national outcry this would have given rise to, how many Newcastle politicians would have wrecked their career on such an edifice of pure hubris, how many hospitals would have, allegedly, not been built as a result. But think how some of the great cultures of the past have honoured their highest values in this kind of way. The staggeringly ornate cathedrals of Northern Europe, the gilded stupas of south east Asia to mention but two. Now I am not for one moment arguing that Gormley’s sculpture deserved such treatment, indeed its effect, such as it is, would be ruined by a gold finish. The point is that this spirit has been so much lost that we can hardly imagine what it felt like any more. There are a few exceptions here and there. For example the main progenitor of Shakespeare’s Globe on the south bank was an American actor, Sam Wanamaker. Although he was already a successful actor Sam devoted a huge amount of energy in his later years to raising funds for this project and pushing it forward, even though many thought it would be impossible to achieve. Sadly he died while the theatre was still in the early stages of construction. I am quite sure that for him it was simply a labour of love; a gift to the people of the city that he loved, and above all an act of homage to Shakespeare himself.
So the lamp of sacrifice points to a society being willing to devote a significant proportion of its wealth towards the arts, and to see this as being just as important as social welfare spending. This can apply equally in microcosm, to communities or spiritual movements within society. But if we are to lavish resources on public art works they should constantly speak of and to the deepest level of our humanity, as Shakespeare does of course. In the field of visual arts to be able to produce artwork depicting individuals, who radiate wisdom and compassion, would be a sign of great progress in our society I believe. However, personally I do not believe that importing styles, or even much of the iconography of the east is the way forward for Buddhism in the West. This will only result in artwork that seems hieratic and remote. This does not necessarily mean a return to Victorian style realism I should add! Some of the ancient byzantine icons of Christ which manage to suggest a real human being who was also divine, have been and could continue to be of great inspiration to modern artists.
Secondly the Lamp of Truth. Ruskin’s main concern in this section is with various varieties of falsehood in architecture, such as painting ordinary stone to make it look like marble. Even Kings College Chapel does not escape castigation: the vaulted roof has stone pendants suspended in air, with no apparent support, this is mere vanity and trickery he says. And the flattened perpendicular arch is little better – it tries to escape from its true structural purpose which would be better served by a pointed or around one. Luckily, there are many more relevant reflections on aesthetic truth elsewhere in his writing. I have already alluded to his famous notion of truth to nature, as explored in Modern Painters, and which was one of the formative influences on an entire artistic movement – the Pre-Raphaelites. Behind all of this is a theory of the imagination, which differs in important respects from that of Coleridge and the German romantics. Now Ruskin was not a systematiser, any more than was Coleridge, but scattered through his writings many interesting reflections on the imagination can be found. At first sight his ideas do appear to be confused. At one moment in Modern Painters he asserts that The imagination should copy “honestly and without alteration from nature”, then a few pages later he will declare that imagination must “penetrate nature” and “ignore all shackles and fetters of mere external fact.” However what emerges gradually from the marvellous labyrinth of Modern Painters is a theory of what would best be called a visionary truth. The artist strives to record faithfully what he experiences in nature, and to avoid the error of ‘smearing’ onto the outside world his own subjective emotional experience – that romantic ‘pathetic-fallacy’ which Ruskin was so critical of. However, if the artist successfully puts their ego aside in this fashion, the truth of nature that is revealed will be one that allows for an ideal world of visionary truth to shine through it. Ruskin was in fact a kind of Platonist, albeit one with a deep respect for the details of the material world more reminiscent of Aristotle. A key passage from Modern Painters makes this respect for visionary truth very clear:
It follows from this that a great idealist can never be egoistic. The whole of his power depends upon his losing sight and feeling of his own existence, and becoming a major witness and mirror of truth, and a scribe of visions, – always passive in sight, passive in utterance, – lamenting continually that he cannot completely reflect nor clearly utter all he has seen – not by any means a proud state for a man to be in. (V 125)
There is a clear analogy here with Sangharakshita’s notion of the arts being able to ‘protract us along the line of egoless ness’; albeit without the sense of continual and necessary failure, so characteristic of Ruskin. Another helpful passage appears in a letter Ruskin wrote to one his many puzzled clerical correspondents the Rev. W. L. Brown on September 28, 1847:
There was a time when a steep hill covered with pines would have touched me with an emotion inexpressible… Now I can look at such a slope with coolness, and an observation of fact. I see that it slopes at 20° or 25°, I know that the pines are spruce fir of such and such an age… All this I can at once communicate in so many words, and this is all which is necessarily seen. But it is not all the truth; there is something else to be seen there, which I cannot see but in certain condition of mind, nor can I make anyone else see it, but by putting him into that condition, and my endeavour in description would be, not to detail the facts of the scene, but by any means whatsoever to put my hearer’s mind into the same ferment as my mind. (XXXVI, 80)
Ferment is a marvellous metaphor, as in fermentation, for describing a state of mind which is highly receptive yet full of mysterious, fertile activity. If you still feel a bit puzzled about this subtle theory, rather than thinking about it I urge you to go and look at some paintings by Turner, especially perhaps some of his watercolours. Here you will discover quite clearly a very intimate and close observation of natural phenomena, especially seas and skies, but rather than photographic transcription, an immensely powerful transrealism which conveys the overall energy, the essential effect of the storm on the mind, the ferment as Ruskin puts it. It is certainly not subjective in slapdash romantic-emotive way, but it is certainly not coldly objective either. With immense skill those carefully controlled receding shrouds of colour convey the sublime power of a sky of windblown vapours and light.
So in Ruskin’s view, a great artist, like Turner, who sees farther and more deeply than most of us, is able to communicate something of that ferment of mind, makes the spectator “a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts . . . and leaves him more than delighted, — ennobled and instructed, under the sense . . . of having held communion with a new mind, and having been endowed for a time with the keen perception and the impetuous emotions of a nobler and more penetrating intelligence” (3.134).
By impetuous Ruskin means something more like fresh and spontaneous. Clearly this ability to perceive the visionary truth of nature, immanent within its sensuous forms, but beyond a simple sensuous ravishment by them, requires a special faculty of mind. This mode of consciousness Ruskin called the theoretic faculty. It is an ability to perceive the sheer wonder, movement and subtle interconnectedness of things, which the rather dusty theological sounding term Theoria doesn’t convey very well in my view, so I have avoided mentioning it up till now. It bears some relation to Coleridge’s conception of the imagination as the fundamental world-creating activity of the mind, the “reflection in man of the divine ‘I Am'”, but with a peculiarly Ruskinian objectivity – a kind of post-romantic Platonism you might say. We seem to be more in the territory of the mirror than the lamp, partly reversing what M. H. Abrams famously saw as the principal innovation of Romanticism, the move from art as mimesis, mirroring, to art as divine creation, light from the artist’s mind illumining what was dark from his own, unique point of view. For Ruskin detailed observation of nature results not in the creation of a unique world, but a revealing, in a flawed mirror to be sure, of beauty; not absolute beauty perhaps, but a hidden, highly dynamic sense of meaning and significance.
Much has been written about Theoria, by the critic Peter Fuller, and others, if you wish to look into the matter further. More useful for my current purpose is to quote what is often considered the locus classicus for its application. This is the moment when Ruskin could be said to have discovered Theoria, recounted in his autobiography as the moment when, as a young man, he attempts to draw an aspen tree:
Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced, – without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw they ‘composed’ themselves by finer laws than any known of men. At last, the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.
Alas there is no space here to now apply this theory of truth to contemporary art. I will just say that although contemporary art forms can do many interesting things, there seems to be little, outside amateur art groups, of this kind of naturalistic achievement. But for those artists who do wish to move in this direction, I feel that Ruskin may be a great comfort and support. For he gives the lie to the widespread idea that the recording of things as they are is better left to photographers. Painting from nature has this special quality – that it trains perception, brings about that subtlety and depth which allows one to begin to see beneath the surface of things into their true life. I am quite sure that the thousands of amateur painters who work at the craft up and down the country and exhibit in village halls all know something of this intuitively, even if they could not articulate it. I very much hope that one day we will have a Buddhist art school, or at any rate our own drawing school, where these values are upheld explicitly, where the enormous transformative value of simply looking, and recording what you see on paper is upheld and appreciated.
For the most part the art world and the art schools are moving in a very different direction, which has its own value, but painting from nature which has a real power is now very hard to find. One exception that springs to mind is the painter of luminous far northern landscapes and icebergs Keith Grant whose work we have championed in Urthona magazine for many years. Meanwhile In the world of poetry things are quite different, and, I would say, the healthier for it. The value of observing and writing about nature is widely appreciated by both amateurs and some of our best poets. For example Alice Oswald, building on the achievement of Ted Hughes, is writing nature poetry with precisely the kind of deep observation combined with openness to the underlying mythic energies of our experience of the natural world that Ruskin championed.
I will deal with the next two lamps as a pair, as they were very much intermingled in Ruskin’s mind. These are the Lamp of Power and the Lamp of Beauty. He says at the beginning of the section on the lamp of power:
In this reverting to the memories of those works of architecture by which we have been most pleasurably impressed, it will generally happen that they fall into two broad classes: the one characterised by an exceeding preciousness and delicacy, to which we recur with a sense of affectionate admiration; and the other by a severe, and, in many cases mysterious, majesty, which we remember with an undiminished awe, like that felt at the presence and operation of some great Spiritual Power.
Here Ruskin is distinguishing between what would commonly be called beauty and sublimity. The beauty of ‘preciousness and delicacy’, characterised by an open display of harmony and proportion, and very frequently drawing directly on the forms of nature, as in the acanthus capitals of classical temples, is contrasted with aesthetic forms that have a much more direct and powerful effect on the emotions, which may remind us that our small life and its concerns are but one tiny speck within a structure of inconceivable scale and power. In fact, Ruskin is trying to find a place for powerful emotions about what is felt to be beyond the self, and outside of our control; something which he struggled with in various ways throughout his life. To my mind he was closest to the mark very early on when, in the first volume of Modern Painters, he refused to entertain the sublime as a separate category:
The fact is, that sublimity is not a specific term, — not a term descriptive of the effect of a particular class of ideas. Anything which elevates the mind is sublime, and elevation of mind is produced by the contemplation of greatness of any kind…. Sublimity is, therefore, only another word for the effect of greatness upon the feelings; — greatness, whether of matter, space, power, virtue, or beauty…. The sublime is not distinct from what is beautiful, nor from other sources of pleasure in art, but is only a particular mode and manifestation of them. (Works 3.128,130)
An image might help to make this clearer: imagine a cliff top with a beautiful swathe of grass and wild flowers. Part and parcel of this scene and its effect is our knowledge that the lovely expanse of turf rolls away into vast empty space, with a vertiginous drop to the sea below. The closer the eye approaches the clifftop the more the beauty of the scene is infused with a sense of awe and wonder at the way in which the greenness ceases, and tips into nothingness. This is a bit like the relationship between the sublime and the beautiful in this passage. The sublime is not found in a separate kind of object; it is an aspect, a sense of something beyond, of wonder and power, that can infuse many different forms, shading in or out of focus with the fluctuations of the observer’s sensibility.
Later on, as Professor George Landow makes clear in a fascinating essay on ‘Ruskin and the Sublime’, Ruskin developed his theory of beauty towards a classicist theory of calm, harmonious beauty, which necessarily excluded the sublime and pushed it into a separate category of it’s own. In my view this is a shame; it is a pity he did not push his earlier synthesising conception further onwards. For in Modern Painters One, Ruskin makes an important contribution to the theory of sublime which had been developed throughout the 18th century by such writers as Addison and Burke. These writers focused principally on the effect on the mind of vast and terrible landscapes, especially mountainous ones: the pleasurable feelings of awe and wonder which such landscapes could excite. Ruskin realised that the sublime is not really the direct result of raw emotions. If we see an angry bear running towards us we will not experience the sublime, we will feel terrified and run for our lives, this is not in any sense an aesthetic experience. As Ruskin remarks:
It is not the fear, observe, but the contemplation of death; not the instinctive shudder and struggle of self-preservation, but the deliberate measurement of the doom, which is really great or sublime in feeling…. There is no sublimity in the agony of terror. (Works 3.129)
Paradoxically there is something a little bit narrow about the extensive writings of Burke et al on this topic. The sublime seems to be something that can be safely contemplated, via the comfort of the commodious travel arrangements of an 18th-century gentleman. One appears to be titillated rather than threatened by these pleasurable feelings of awe up in the mountains. Ruskin will have none of all that. In order to feel the sublime in its true sense we must be genuinely contemplating the possibility of our own death. It is precisely because mountain landscapes make us aware of our frailty and smallness as an embodied being that they can give rise to a sense of the sublime. And surely, in the end, what we are contemplating is not merely physical death but something which spells the death of our cherished conceptions of who we are, of the ego in other words. Ruskin is definitely on the right track when he makes the sublime in this sense part and parcel of any genuine and deep experience of beauty. And, movingly, it is this earlier synthetic view of the beautiful and the sublime to which he appears to return in one of his last recorded utterances about nature. In 1888 Ruskin was staying at Sallenches, near to the Alps, when he met H. W Nevison, A disciple of Carlyle, who recorded his conversation with Ruskin. At this point the great man was old and sick and wandered between lucidity and mania on different days. However, on this occasion he conversed calmly with Nevison and remarked, as they looked across the fertile valley to the red precipices of the Varens which rose sheer before them, that there was no place like Sallenches for beauty and sublimity combined.
But it was left to later writers to fully internalised this conception, and see it as the experience of what we would call spiritual death and rebirth. Sangharakshita in his seminal essay on ‘the religion of art’ is very much in tune with exactly these currents of early 20th century modernism, which often sought to give much more psychological depth to older conceptions of art. For example he quotes several times from Rilke in that essay, who remarked of a certain actress in Malte Laurids Brigge that her audience constantly broke into applause as though to distract themselves from some “terror of the extreme” that would “compel them to change their lives”. (requiem and other poems, p 149). And later on he refers to another early 20th century writer DH Lawrence:
This is the spirit of the true artist. Possessing from his birth and extraordinary sensitiveness to what Wordsworth called “unknown modes of being” – a capacity to experience what Mr Aldous Huxley, writing of DH Lawrence, describes as “the dark presence of the otherness that lies beyond the boundaries of man’s conscious mind” – He is passionately eager to widen and deepen the range of his experience to the farthest possible limit.
And as Sangharakshita concludes later on:
Religion, as we have already seen, is essentially a life of egolessness; and egolessness, we have found, is fundamentally a willingness to accept new experiences. The religion of art may therefore be defined as a conscious surrender to the beautiful…
Personally I find it very helpful to follow Ruskin, and consider this aspect of beauty, its power to suggest “the dark presence of otherness”, or greatness as Ruskin has it, under the richly resonant term of the sublime, descriptions of which go back to Longinus’ treaties on the sublime from the second or third century CE.
And to remark in conclusion of this section: appreciation of the value of a conscious surrender to the sublime in nature is fairly widespread in our culture – people are at the very least open to the idea that cultivating the appreciation of nature at its wildest can do you good – however it is much harder to find modern artworks to which this term can convincingly be attached. Rothko perhaps. How many skyscrapers are truly sublime, as opposed to just vast and tall? A friend suggested to me that the installations of James Turrell might be seen as exploring the sublime in terms of pure geometries of light. And I might suggest the monochrome photography of Bill Brandt: there is that remarkable shot of some tiny birds eggs with the mountains of the Isle of Skye in the background. But in any case to seek out such works, to spread the word about them, and appreciate them more and more fully can only be a worthwhile lifelong quest. I hope that Urthona magazine has, during its 22 year history, made some small steps in that direction.
Regrettably exploring the last of Ruskin’s lamps, will have to be something of a whistle-stop tour. They are the lamps of Life, Memory, and Obedience. There is so much that could be said about all three of them. As regards Life: Ruskin was a great champion of becoming aware of the vital, dynamic energy of all natural things, and the ability to represent these in art, as for example Turner’s skies. The opening epigraph showed how much Ruskin saw this in moral terms also, “there is no wealth but in life”. Ruskin also highlights how a narrow pursuit of absolute perfection can get in the way of this quality. In the Seven Lamps of Architecture he remarks on how in the decorations of certain early Gothic architecture we find:
Accidental carelessness of measurement or of execution being mingled indistinguishably with the purposed departures from symmetrical regularity, and the luxuriousness of perpetually variable fancy… How brightly the severity of architectural law is relieved by the grace and suddenness.
Throughout his life Ruskin remarked on the importance of a sense of failure and necessary imperfection to the moral and the artistic life.
To illustrate his Lamp of Memory Ruskin opens with a ravishing description of the mountains of the genre in the foothills of the Alps.
It is a spot which has all the solemnity, but none of the savageness, of the Alps; where there is a sense of a great power beginning to be manifested in the earth, and of a deep and majestic Concord and the rise of the long low lines of piny hills, The first utterance of those mighty mountain symphonies, soon to be more loudly lifted and wildly broken along the battlements of the Alps.
But he goes on to remark that if one imagines this scene in some new untrodden continent with no human history, the effect would be very different. Instead of being set off by the history, from the Roman Empire onwards, of the many kingdoms of the Alps, with their castles and walled citadels and Republican virtues, there remains only raw, meaningless nature:
The flowers in an instant lose their light, the river its music, the hills become oppressively desolate; the heaviness in boughs of the darkened forest show how much of their former power had been dependent on on a life which was not theirs … Those ever springing flowers, and ever flowing streams had been died by the deep colours of human endurance and valour and virtue.
An interesting thought, albeit one we may not agree with. But taking the theme more broadly, it is widely understood these days that the appreciation of wild nature is something that arises within a cultural tradition – you have to learn how to do it – and we have been taught by Wordsworth and Turner and Burke and Ruskin, and many others, even if we are not aware of it. Further on, we can certainly follow Ruskin when he concludes this section with an impassioned plea to avoid the cardinal sin of restoration, which destroys what remains of the past as it attempts to preserve. The Victorians probably destroyed much more than the roundheads with their ham-fisted restoration of churches especially, and Ruskin did what he could to ameliorate this. Underlying all this of course is a deep-seated appreciation of the value of revering and appreciating the past, and building on what it has a bequeathed to us. Another of Ruskin’s great themes concerns the way in which appreciating artworks from the past is can give us a very direct, vivid sense of how people saw the world, and felt and thought about it, in times gone by. They are a gateway to the past of unparalleled value. These days it is one of the great dangers of modern social democratic values that reverence for tradition, although it may find a place, lacks a firm ideological footing. Nowhere is this more apparent in the arts with that constant pressure to innovate and ‘make it new’. Ruskin has much to offer in encouraging a more balanced approach it this regard.
Finally The Lamp of Obedience. Now this is hardly likely to be attractive to many modern readers, with its strong religious overtones. Ruskin remarks that liberty without the constraints of form is mere chaos. A river that has burst its banks or clouds that are scattered in chaos throughout the sky, are hardly nature at its most harmonious and beautiful, he says. But he is forced to admit that mere obedience to externally imposed forms without the possibility of choice is useless. We are in the territory of that age old debate between form and freedom. What Ruskin does do is to launch on an impassioned plea for architects to confine themselves to variations on a small number of styles, in fact they should choose between: the Pisan Romanesque, the early Italian Gothic, the Venetian Gothic and the early English decorated styles. The high French Gothic, rather regrettably to my mind, is rejected as being over flamboyant and lacking limit, although in fact in spite of himself it was one of Ruskin’s favourite styles. The architect thus circumscribed would find his:
whole understanding enlarged, his practical knowledge certain and ready to hand, and his imagination playful and vigourous as a child’s would be within a walled garden…
From this we can take a general point about the importance of apprenticeship and discipleship in the arts. In order to make progress one needs to study very closely the masters of a chosen style, and to content oneself for many years with following closely what they did, gradually bringing more and more of one’s own sensibility into what one creates. I would like to conclude by throwing this observation into more of a public, social aspect. According to Ruskin the more people in a society that are engaged in such activity that combines creativity and reverence to tradition the healthier it will be. He remarks that the England of his day maintained at huge expense a large class of men, the railway navvies, for the purpose of moving large quantities of earth from one place to another. Suppose the same sums had been employed in building beautiful temples and houses, and those same people encouraged to develop to their furthest capacity the skills needed for this. What an increase in the health and true wealth of the nation this would have been!
So I I would like to finish with a plea for us all not to forget the social aspect of artistic creativity both in the world at large and in our own small part of it. For example we are currently engaged in building a new retreat centre in Suffolk. Apparently the architectural design is very fine indeed. But how great it would be if we had many trainee architects within our own movement, training in what Ruskin calls ‘the beginning of the arts that others must follow in their time, in order’, the art surely which has the most immediate and inescapable effect on everyone in a society. And what a pity that we do not have our own skilled building teams, to bring craftsmanship, an eye for beauty, energy and diligence to actually constructing the building. And how marvellous it would be if we could design buildings that incorporated right from the start wonderful decorations, carvings, frescoes to inspire people on the path to freedom. Let us hope this will happen one day, and meanwhile surely the more people we have to commit themselves to achieving a high level of skill in any aspect of art or craftsmanship the better it will be for the dharma in the west, and for what we have to offer to the world at large. For let us not forget that is the function of art to encroach upon life. A great work of art, whether a building, a painting or a poem, draws profoundly on the past, but also embodies an unfamiliar experience, and this experience confronts us, as the archaic torso of Apollo confronted Rilke, with a challenge, “you must change your life.”