Friday, January 31, 2014

My surprise and grief were inexpressible: Sindbad's Seven Voyages, etc

I am reading N.J. Dawood's 1954 translation of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, in the nice recent Penguin edition. I will be quoting here, however, from the 1884 Crosby & Nichols edition, which does not list the translator. The text is available online so it's easily cut-and-pastable. The prose in Dawood's edition is better than what I quote here, so you should buy that version if you are so inclined.

One of the pleasures of reading folk tales from around the world is seeing how many of the same stories or characters are found across cultures. In the section of 1001 Nights relating the tales of the seven voyages of Sindbad, Sindbad is accidentally abandoned on the island of the mythical roc, which is that impossibly large bird from Persian mythology. (The "seven voyages" are all disasters and shipwreck, though each ends with our hero finding his way back to Baghdad with great wealth.) On his third or fourth voyage, Sindbad is shipwrecked with his crew on a remote island. They take refuge in a great fortress where they meet an interesting character:
He was a tremendous black giant, as high as a tall palm-tree, with only one eye in the middle of his forehead, which looked as red as a burning coal; his teeth and nails were long and sharp, and his mouth resembled that of a horse. The sight of so frightful a figure rendered us immovable with horror. After surveying us for some time, he took me up by the nape of the neck, and felt my body as a butcher would his sheep. Finding me very thin, he bent down and took up another; at last, laying hands on our captain, who was fat, he thrust a long spit through him, and kindling a fire, he roasted and ate him. After which he retired to an adjoining room, where he slept, and snored all night like thunder. In the morning he got up, went out, and left us in his dwelling.
That's right, the ship captain was roasted on a spit. How will our plucky adventurers escape this horrible fate? Just how you'd think: one night while the giant sleeps, the sailors, at Sindbad's urging, heat the points of two of the giant's enormous iron spits and drive them into the monster's eyes, blinding him. The sailors flee the island on a hastily-built raft as the giant (and his wife, who appears out of nowhere) hurl immense rocks at them.

"That sounds familiar," I thought. In Sindbad's next voyage, he and his crew find themselves on an island where all of the crew save Sindbad are transformed into piglike animals, fattened up and killed for food. "Hey," I said, "I know that one, too." Both of those stories are from The Odyssey, of course. The Arabian Nights tales date from the middle ages, first collected in Persian in around 840 AD. So I will keep my eye out for other Greek influences as I read on. The story of Sindbad thrown into the communal tomb with his late wife's corpse appears to be a Persian original, and does not show our hero in a particularly heroic light, though now that I think about it, there might be a strong hint of the wily Odysseus in his self-serving survival tactics. Hard to say. 1001 Nights are not exactly morality plays; they're more an enumeration of the sins of mankind, warnings of the dangers of unfaithful servants and pretty women. Just like Elizabethan theater, then, right?

A lot of the stories are bawdy tales, and women don't come out well in most of them. There's also a good deal of racial bigotry, which is no surprise given the age of the stories.

Another pleasure of reading folktales is the view into ancient cultures' ideas about the natural world. Many old texts are part bestiary, and there are a lot of beasts in the 1001 Nights travelogue:
There is in this island the rhinoceros, a creature less than the elephant, but greater than the buffalo. It has a horn upon its nose about a cubit long, which is solid, and cleft in the middle ; there are upon it draughts representing the figures of men. The rhinoceros fights with the elephant, runs his horn into his belly, and carries him off upon his head ; but the blood and fat of the elephant run into his eyes, and make him blind. He falls to the ground, and what is very astonishing, the roc carries them both away in her claws, to be meat for her young ones.
I had no idea that rhinos and elephants were natural enemies. Thank God for the printed word.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

the love and thoughts of the workman: final thoughts on Bleak House

I hardly know whether to note under the head of ├Žsthetic or constructive law, this important principle, that masonry is always bad which appears to have arrested the attention of the architect more than absolute conditions of strength require. Nothing is more contemptible in any work than an appearance of the slightest desire on the part of the builder to direct attention to the way its stones are put together [...] Exhibited masonry is in most cases the expedient of architects who do not know how to fill up blank spaces, and many a building, which would have been decent enough if let alone, has been scrawled over with straight lines, on exactly the same principles, and with just the same amount of intelligence as a boy’s in scrawling his copy-book when he cannot write. The device was thought ingenious at one period of architectural history; St. Paul’s and Whitehall are covered with it, and it is in this I imagine that some of our modern architects suppose the great merit of those buildings to consist. There [...] is but one law upon the subject, and that is easily complied with, to avoid all affectation and all unnecessary expense, either in showing or concealing. Every one knows a building is built of separate stones; nobody will ever object to seeing that it is so, but nobody wants to count them. The divisions of a church are much like the divisions of a sermon; they are always right so long as they are necessary to edification, and always wrong when they are thrust upon the attention as divisions only. There may be neatness in carving when there is richness in feasting; but I have heard many a discourse, and seen many a church wall, in which it was all carving and no meat. [edits mine]
That's John Ruskin from The Stones of Venice, warning us away from making technique an end in itself. The literary equivalent to Ruskin's "all carving and no meat" might be what is called purple prose. Which brings us to Dickens, that being the conceit behind these recent posts. In Bleak House, Esther Summerson's narration is generally written in plain, functional language:
I was brought up, from my earliest remembrance--like some of the princesses in the fairy stories, only I was not charming--by my godmother. At least, I only knew her as such. She was a good, good woman! She went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures; and never missed. She was handsome; and if she had ever smiled, would have been (I used to think) like an angel--but she never smiled. She was always grave and strict. She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life.
The other narrator--the Nameless Omniscient speaker--uses a more complex language, winding sentences around and going on flights of figurative fancy:
Like a dingy London bird among the birds at roost in these pleasant fields, where the sheep are all made into parchment, the goats into wigs, and the pasture into chaff, the lawyer, smoke-dried and faded, dwelling among mankind but not consorting with them, aged without experience of genial youth, and so long used to make his cramped nest in holes and corners of human nature that he has forgotten its broader and better range, comes sauntering home. In the oven made by the hot pavements and hot buildings, he has baked himself dryer than usual; and he has in his thirsty mind his mellowed port-wine half a century old.
Plenty of meat there to be carved. What about this, though:
All that prospect, which from the terrace looked so near, has moved solemnly away and changed--not the first nor the last of beautiful things that look so near and will so change--into a distant phantom. Light mists arise, and the dew falls, and all the sweet scents in the garden are heavy in the air. Now the woods settle into great masses as if they were each one profound tree. And now the moon rises to separate them, and to glimmer here and there in horizontal lines behind their stems, and to make the avenue a pavement of light among high cathedral arches fantastically broken.

Now the moon is high; and the great house, needing habitation more than ever, is like a body without life. Now it is even awful, stealing through it, to think of the live people who have slept in the solitary bedrooms, to say nothing of the dead. Now is the time for shadow, when every corner is a cavern and every downward step a pit, when the stained glass is reflected in pale and faded hues upon the floors, when anything and everything can be made of the heavy staircase beams excepting their own proper shapes, when the armour has dull lights upon it not easily to be distinguished from stealthy movement, and when barred helmets are frightfully suggestive of heads inside. But of all the shadows in Chesney Wold, the shadow in the long drawing-room upon my Lady's picture is the first to come, the last to be disturbed. At this hour and by this light it changes into threatening hands raised up and menacing the handsome face with every breath that stirs.
No, that's pitch perfect, too. I was looking for something that was too much, but Dickens--even when he's at his most baroque--is never too much. Certainly those 19th-century writers used a prose style that is generally thicker than today's English, especially the English written by American novelists. In his descriptive passages, Dickens' texture is richer and denser than anything that comes from my own pen, surely, but he's not speaking a foreign tongue from an exotic land, nor is he being showy (well, I'm sure there were plenty of moments when old Charles sat back from his work and smiled with pleasure and pride, and why not?). He's not merely being showy, is what I mean. John Ruskin also labored over his prose, to make it beautiful yes, but also to better carry his message to the reader. Possibly for Ruskin, there was little difference because Ruskin's message was that we should open ourselves to an appreciation of the many forms of beauty which surround us. So I'll let Ruskin have the last word: decoration or beauty, it is less the actual loveliness of the thing produced, than the choice and invention concerned in the production, which are to delight us; the love and the thoughts of the workman more than his work: his work must always be imperfect, but his thoughts and affections may be true and deep.


  1. Cynthia LeeJanuary 30, 2014 at 1:26 PM
    Gosh, I love Dickens. Sometimes I have to set his books aside and take a break from them because the writing is sometimes so beautiful that I just can't stand it. I get too emotional.

    Seriously. I really do that.

  2. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 31, 2014 at 9:31 AM
    I have been utterly gobsmacked by some of Dickens' passages before, but I've never set it aside; I keep plowing forward into it all, because it's so beautiful I want to stay in that moment.

    My next Dickens will be a re-read of Hard Times, the first Dickens I ever read. For a class in political science, as it happens. I have almost no memory of that novel; all I know is that it put me off Dickens for about 20 years. So it'll be interesting to go back to it.
  3. marly youmansFebruary 3, 2014 at 11:28 AM
    Oh, I think that I read "Hard Times" too young. Maybe you did too. He is wondrous--the characters, the fluent and surprising passages, the indelible images.

    Scott, I want you to know that I at long last found your book! Somehow it surfaced when we took down (at long last) the Christmas tree. And it was in the most obvious place--a stack of new books in the living room. (Of course, there are other stacks of new books...)
  4. scott g.f.baileyFebruary 3, 2014 at 12:07 PM
    When I was a kid taking poli sci classes at university, I was very earnest and I also thought I was very avant garde, so I wanted every book to be edgy in a William S Burroughs manner. The riches of Dickens were totally lost on me. Pearls, swine, etc. I was such a little prig then. I am a little bit less of one now.

    When you find time to read it, I hope you enjoy the Astrologer even if it's a bagatelle and not a real meal.

    At some point late this week (I hope), I will begin sending out queries to literary agents for another project. Wish me luck.

    I have no idea how many stacks of new books we have about the house. A lot of them. I have no idea what books are in those stacks.
  5. marly youmansFebruary 3, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    Although I must say that today I encountered a 6-figure book so bad that it shook me for a moment, made me wonder for about twenty minutes how and why I so easily tossed my life onto the altar of art so long ago. So just remember that out there in the world are a bunch of attractive-looking evil ones trying to print money instead of make culture.
  6. scott g.f.baileyFebruary 3, 2014 at 1:58 PM
    Thank you for the luck!

    This will not be my first dance with agents/submissions/publishers, so I have my eyes wide open.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again" Esther tells us about Esther

By and by my strength began to be restored. Instead of lying, with so strange a calmness, watching what was done for me, as if it were done for some one else whom I was quietly sorry for, I helped it a little, and so on to a little more and much more, until I became useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again.

I'm about 65.5% of the way through Charles Dickens' 1852-ish novel Bleak House. It occurred to me yesterday that whenever Esther Summerson appears in a scene, that scene is narrated by Esther herself. In other words, we only have her word for how others behave in her company; we only know the opinion of Esther that other characters hold via Esther's reportage of their speech. Nobody else gets to talk about Esther (except for Guppy, who has her image engraved upon his heart, but of course Mr Guppy is essentially a stranger to Esther and only loves her for her beauty, while it lasts; and Lady Dedlock, who similarly doesn't know Esther in actuality). If this were a Nabokov novel, I might begin to get suspicious about all of this.

But it's not a Nabokov novel, it's a Dickens novel, and we take Esther for the person she presents herself to be. Mighty Reader pointed out yesterday that, while Esther is an actual round character--rare for a Dickens hero--she is still essentially passive. Things happen to her. Esther wants nothing but to be good, which is one of the themes of Bleak House to be sure, but like in the story of Mr Oliver Twist, the story happens around Esther Summerson. She suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, none of which she's caused. Again, that's one of the themes of the book so this is an observation rather than a complaint, you.

There is no personal villain in Bleak House, by which I mean there is no character who becomes the focus of Dickensian Evil and sets himself against the hero in person. This is no surprise because Dickens novels (at least the five and six-tenths Dickens novels I've read thus far) aren't structured around a conflict between hero and villain. Society, and the lazy selfish ills thereof, is the villain in Dickens, and it is here or there personified and victimizes a great many people of various levels of innocence. I don't know why I'm writing any of this; anyone who has read Dickens knows this. Bleak House isn't The Hunger Games or Harry Potter and the Side Order of Fries or whatever. Dickens wrote complex social novels and wrestled with the ongoing battle between Good and Evil. Dickens' novels, entertaining and sentimental as they are, also serve as a scourge upon England, a whip to drive the moneylenders from the temple. I think here of John Ruskin's fear for the future of England and I can see that he and Dickens both shared that fear. Both writers wished to wake England up to the truth. But Ruskin retreats into an imagined past and begs England to move backward with him into that fantasy (at least he does in his books on art and architecture; I will have to better familiarize myself with his essays on economics or hope someone will add an illustrative comment here). Dickens attempts to drive England into his imagined future. Both men, I'm pretty sure, failed. That failure in no way diminishes their separate accomplishments in the world of letters. Etc etc etc. I've gone well past my point so here I stop.


  1. Amateur Reader (Tom)January 21, 2014 at 10:28 AM
    Just a little bit suspicious. That is fair.

    I am getting to the point in Great Expectations, late in the book, where the story is taking on more of a "hero and villain" structure, but it is curious how unimportant that kind of structure is for Dickens, even when the novel has a blatant villain like Quilp or Rogue Riderhood or that feline fellow from Dombey and Son. They are among the least effective villains in all of literature.

    The villain in Bleak House does manage to - well.

    I believe Ruskin's economic and social essays support your point. He is on the path that leads to Tolkien's hobbits.
  2. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 21, 2014 at 1:49 PM
    I forget that Great Expectations is all in first person. Not that Pip is particularly good or innocent; he's a wastrel and all of that. Who's the villain in that one? Combreysomething? Interesting that the villain goes after the father figure instead of the child there.

    Plenty of villainous types in Bleak House: Hortense the maid, Vholes the lawyer, Tulkinhorn, Skimpole, Smallweed--Smallweed is an excellent evil muppet; I'm very fond of him.

    Tolkien, I think, was suspicious of industry and scientific/technological progress. Maybe he had a loathing for factories, too. [Trot out stereotypes of the effects of the World Wars upon civilized Englishmen.]
  3. R.T.January 21, 2014 at 2:06 PM
    The irony (or is it paradox) is that Bleak House is so similar to and different from Dickens' other novels. Esther is much more interesting than the 3rd person narrator. And what is this about no villain? Hmmmmm.
  4. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 21, 2014 at 2:11 PM
    Oh, no no no! I prefer the 3rd-person narrator! He's much more fun than Esther. Though as the book continues along, she starts to become like that nameless narrator. Her language is getting quite similar to his* and her remarks about the character flaws in the weaker cast members are becoming sharper every chapter.

    * Why "his," I wonder. That nameless narrator is not Charles Dickens any more than Esther Summerson is Charles Dickens; they are both imaginary characters created by the author. No reason to assign a masculine gender, yet I did. Hmm.
  5. marly youmansJanuary 21, 2014 at 6:24 PM
    Funny comments... Ruskin on the road to hobbits seems very true. Smallweed as excellent evil muppet I like as well.

    Tolkien's childhood was pastoral and green but swept away--that'll do it to a writer. Never forgive! Not when they drag down the party trees of life!
  6. Amateur Reader (Tom)January 21, 2014 at 9:02 PM
    That's right - bad old Compeyson. You hardly see him. He is barely a character at all. Probably for the best.

    Mrs. Omniscient is certainly a better writer than Esther. Just for the candle with a flame like “a great cabbage head and a long winding-sheet.” Esther would never have come up with that. Hey, Dickens reuses the winding-sheet in GE, although not the cabbage. Anyway, Esther becomes a better writer as she goes along, or else Dickens becomes less vigilant about distinguishing the two parts, or both, but she is no Charles Dickens! Nor is David Copperfield, nor is Pip.

    When I was a young fellow, I was confused by the anti-climatic end of Lord of the Rings where evil men industrialize the Shire, previously a model Arts & Crafts society, but now I find it hilarious.
  7. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 22, 2014 at 9:17 AM
    It was a cold, wild night, and the trees shuddered in the wind. The rain had been thick and heavy all day, and with little intermission for many days. None was falling just then, however. The sky had partly cleared, but was very gloomy--even above us, where a few stars were shining. In the north and north-west, where the sun had set three hours before, there was a pale dead light both beautiful and awful; and into it long sullen lines of cloud waved up like a sea stricken immovable as it was heaving. Towards London a lurid glare overhung the whole dark waste, and the contrast between these two lights, and the fancy which the redder light engendered of an unearthly fire, gleaming on all the unseen buildings of the city and on all the faces of its many thousands of wondering inhabitants, was as solemn as might be.

    That passage sounds like Mrs. Omniscient to me, not like Esther, but it's Esther who writes it.

    Last night I got to the section where Jarndyce writes his letter to Esther, and Esther replies in the affirmative. I must say I'm disappointed. And a little creeped out.

    The "Scouring of the Shire" section of LotR is just an appendix, best skipped.
  8. Amateur Reader (Tom)January 22, 2014 at 9:28 AM
    Eh, close to Mrs. O., but see her in action at the beginning of Ch. 40, for example, about four paragraphs in, starting with "This present summer evening" and going on for several more paragraphs.

    Gee whiz, that's a good passage.
  9. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 22, 2014 at 9:49 AM
    Some of the omniscient sections are among the best prose I have ever read in my life. This is an amazing book. Also, some of the best scenes ever written. Tulkinghorn's midnight confrontation with Lady Dedlock is a great piece of work: so restrained and careful, so still, and Dickens avoids the danger of making the chapter claustrophobic by opening that window to the leads and letting the stars and the bright moonlight into the scene. Beautiful craftsmanship, real artistry there.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Stones of London (or, The Foundations of Bleak House)

John Ruskin says, in The Stones of Venice, volume I:
The foundation is to the wall what the paw is to an animal. It is a long foot, wider than the wall, on which the wall is to stand, and which keeps it from settling into the ground. It is most necessary that this great element of security should be visible to the eye, and therefore made a part of the structure above ground. Sometimes, indeed, it becomes incorporated with the entire foundation of the building, a vast table on which walls or piers are alike set: but even then, the eye, taught by the reason, requires some additional preparation or foot for the wall, and the building is felt to be imperfect without it. This foundation we shall call the Base of the wall.
Now, let the reader simply ask himself how, on such a surface, he would set about building a substantial wall, that should be able to bear weight and to stand for ages. He would assuredly look about for the largest stones he had at his disposal, and, rudely levelling the ground, he would lay these well together over a considerably larger width than he required the wall to be, in order to equalise the pressure of the wall over a large surface, and form its foot. On the top of these he would perhaps lay a second tier of large stones, or even the third, making the breadth somewhat less each time, so as to prepare for the pressure of the wall on the centre, and, naturally or necessarily, using somewhat smaller stones above than below (since we supposed him to look about for the largest first), and cutting them more neatly...and then begin the work of the wall veil itself, whether in bricks or stones.

I have supposed the preparation here to be for a large wall, because such a preparation will give us the best general type...The reader will find these members, though only of brick, in most of the considerable and independent walls in the suburbs of London.
Ruskin is talking about architecture, but he is also a writer, a long-form essayist, and he prepares the ground for his tall structures by laying the necessary groundwork, the foundation. This chapter on the bases of walls, for example, is the foundation for later chapters about walls and towers and spires and the reaching up, the pointing toward heaven, of great buildings and temples, etc.

You see where this immediately leads me to Dickens, and his foundation stones in Bleak House. Dickens, however, is not just building a single temple; he is building a whole city--and in one brilliant passage he quickly throws up Paris for us as well and then briskly rides away from that city, leaving it as a couple of gray mounds on the horizon--and so he will continually lay large stones in straight and curving lines away from where we now stand, in order to later erect great walls upon them as his story expands. The lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce is of course the immense stonework which props up everything else in Dickens' Bleak House landscape, and there is something else, a hidden (so far) connection of blood relationships, upon which more walls are being erected, but those are all being raised in the distance and are indistinct, especially through the thick London fogs. Dickens is clever (or it's just that he sees it all at once, knows what the reader can't) and he builds his city all at once, in what appears an uncertain order, throwing gargoyles into the high air where they hang upon the corners of towers yet invisible to the reader. It's pretty cool, is what it is. The nameless omniscient narrator does the majority of the building, racing across courts and down streets, pulling whole neighborhoods into being in his wake. The other narrator, Esther, walks along the pavements more slowly, showing us the people moving through this fantastic landscape. Etc. I've worked this metaphor too long and said, perversely, less than I'd intended.

Here is the flight out of Paris from Bleak House:
...they rattle out of the yard of the Hotel Bristol in the Place Vendome and canter between the sun-and-shadow-chequered colonnade of the Rue de Rivoli and the garden of the ill-fated palace of a headless king and queen, off by the Place of Concord, and the Elysian Fields, and the Gate of the Star, out of Paris.

Sooth to say, they cannot go away too fast, for even here my Lady Dedlock has been bored to death. Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady under the worn-out heavens. Only last Sunday, when poor wretches were gay--within the walls playing with children among the clipped trees and the statues in the Palace Garden; walking, a score abreast, in the Elysian Fields, made more Elysian by performing dogs and wooden horses; between whiles filtering (a few) through the gloomy Cathedral of Our Lady to say a word or two at the base of a pillar within flare of a rusty little gridiron-full of gusty little tapers; without the walls encompassing Paris with dancing, love-making, wine-drinking, tobacco-smoking, tomb-visiting, billiard card and domino playing, quack-doctoring, and much murderous refuse, animate and inanimate--only last Sunday, my Lady, in the desolation of Boredom and the clutch of Giant Despair, almost hated her own maid for being in spirits.

She cannot, therefore, go too fast from Paris. Weariness of soul lies before her, as it lies behind--her Ariel has put a girdle of it round the whole earth, and it cannot be unclasped--but the imperfect remedy is always to fly from the last place where it has been experienced. Fling Paris back into the distance, then, exchanging it for endless avenues and cross-avenues of wintry trees! And, when next beheld, let it be some leagues away, with the Gate of the Star a white speck glittering in the sun, and the city a mere mound in a plain--two dark square towers rising out of it, and light and shadow descending on it aslant, like the angels in Jacob's dream!


  1. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 13, 2014 at 3:51 PM
    I have of course failed to mention the biggest thematic foundation stones of Bleak House, and the importance of documents, of writing, of reading and understanding, and of the deaths (Dickens is full of death; how quickly I forget that fact) of witnesses.
  2. Amateur Reader (Tom)January 13, 2014 at 7:48 PM
    I have been enjoying all of this a lot, comments and all, as you might guess.

    Later in life, in "Fiction - Foul and Fair" (1880) Ruskin even turns against Bleak House, apparently on the grounds that it is set in or perhaps even about London, a city so evil that it is apparently unethical to even acknowledge that it exists.

    In the essay, Ruskin includes a list of all the ways people die in Bleak House (search for "phthisis"),
    "And all this, observe, not in a tragic, adventurous, or military story, but merely as the further enlivenment of a narrative intended to be amusing," an ironic comment since the list is itself a great comic bit.
  3. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 13, 2014 at 10:44 PM
    Ruskin clearly sees London as a city gone wrong. In the Stones period, I think, he's still trying to save it. Certainly he is in Seven Lamps.

    I have read that Ruskin essay, and it is awfully amusing. His own long lists are very Dickensian: mixed dust of every unclean thing that can crumble in drought, and mildew of every unclean thing that can rot or rust in damp: ashes and rags, beer-bottles and old shoes, battered pans, smashed crockery, shreds of nameless clothes, door-sweepings, floor-sweepings, kitchen garbage, back-garden sewage, old iron, rotten timber jagged with out-torn nails, cigar-ends, pipe-bowls, cinders, bones, and ordure, indescribable; and, variously kneaded into, sticking to, or fluttering foully here and there over all these,--remnants broadcast, of every manner of newspaper, advertisement or big-lettered bill, festering and flaunting out their last publicity in the pits of stinking dust and mortal slime. I think Ruskin almost feels that London has betrayed him, him personally, deliberately. I don't know how much more mileage I can get out of this Ruskin/Dickens conceit. We'll see. I'm glad someone is having fun besides me. Did you catch the Ruskin/Kafka crossover on Umbagollah's blog? Hi-larious.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"but treat him kindly without any economical purpose, and all economical purposes will be answered" Ruskin on Dickens, briefly

Over on Umbagollah's blog Pykk, I have been indulged and allowed to chat about Ruskin, among other things. Umbagollah asks exceedingly interesting questions about what writers are doing on the page and in their heads. Anyway, I am indebted to the abovementioned Umbagollah at the blog Pykk for pointing me to the following, which is a footnote to an essay on economics in John Ruskin's Unto this Last, a footnote which concerns Dickens. I have snipped the first paragraph of the footnote, which reveals that Ruskin has read Bleak House, but my reader can rest assured that Ruskin did read that novel, and apparently a great many (maybe all) of Dickens' other novels. Which fact I find greatly interesting. But here's that footnote:
The essential value and truth of Dickens's writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons, merely because he presents his truth with some colour of caricature. Unwisely, because Dickens's caricature, though often gross, is never mistaken. Allowing for his manner of telling them, the things he tells us are always true. I wish that he could think it right to limit his brilliant exaggeration to works written only for public amusement; and when he takes up a subject of high national importance, such as that which he handled in Hard Times, that he would use severer and more accurate analysis. The usefulness of that work (to my mind, in several respects, the greatest he has written) is with many persons seriously diminished because Mr. Bounderby is a dramatic monster, instead of a characteristic example of a worldly master; and Stephen Blackpool a dramatic perfection, instead of a characteristic example of an honest workman. But let us not lose the use of Dickens's wit and insight, because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire. He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them, but especially Hard Times, should be studied with close and earnest care by persons interested in social questions. They will find much that is partial, and, because partial, apparently unjust; but if they examine all the evidence on the other side, which Dickens seems to overlook, it will appear, after all their trouble, that his view was the finally right one, grossly and sharply told.
Ruskin mistakes Dickens' intentions, thinking that Dickens writes either "for public amusement" or to address subjects of "importance." Dickens does the latter via the former; that was his art, yes? His great strength and great weakness all rolled into one. Nobody--I am apparently prepared to claim--has carried it off as well as Dickens has.

But John Ruskin was a serious guy, who despite having often lit a circle of fire about his own pronouncements and having often been carried aloft on wings of rhetorical fancy, he never (no, never) resorted to burlesque or caracature. Well, he may have; I've only read something like 2% of his output. See Pykk's blog for an amusing Ruskin anecdote about a Japanese tumbling act, where he resorts to the sort of reductionist tactics for which he chides Dickens.

Meanwhile, in Stones of Venice, Ruskin is telling his reader about the six divisions of architecture:

1. walls
2. piers (columns, etc.)
3. lintels or arches beneath roofs
4. roofs
5. doors and windows
6. buttresses

The last-mentioned item should rightly go before doors and windows, but blogger's text editor and I hate each other so I won't move it up the way I should. Mr Ruskin assures his reader that, once he has been educated in the principles behind the six divisions of architecture, the reader will know enough about building and design to make informed judgments about the rightness or wrongness (aesthetic rightness or wrongness, that is) of any building that hoves into view.


  1. UmbagollahJanuary 11, 2014 at 10:18 AM
    His caricature of the Japanese jugglers is actually so cruel that I didn't quote it. (This is what happens when you enter imaginatively and forcefully into your abstract purpose and withdraw imaginatively from the nonabstract people in front of you.)
  2. marly youmansJanuary 14, 2014 at 8:07 AM
    That's an interesting note, though one has to be careful with Ruskin and the subject of what is "grossly" depicted. (Though Dickens certainly does make wondrous, extreme flat characters in his minor figures.) I'm recollecting his marriage and remembering that his sensibilities were evidently sometimes over-delicate.
  3. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 14, 2014 at 9:16 AM
    I'm possibly more sympathetic to Ruskin's opinion of Dickens than most fans of the novels because I always find myself having to overlook the unrealistic characterizations Dickens created. I don't believe in a single cast member of Bleak House, for example. None of those people could exist off the page. And I seem to be the only person on Earth who doesn't fall in love with Esther.

    I think I read Dickens for the other halves of his books, the halves that contain the long detailed descriptions of city life, the biting and tightly focused social commentary, those openings (I still get breathless over the first pages of Our Mutual Friend with the dawn on the river, the raft, etc). But I have a hard time caring about the characters, I admit, and I've always found the author's sentimentality to be his greatest weakness. But his strengths so overtop his weaknesses that I enjoy his books, so there you go.
  4. marly youmansJanuary 14, 2014 at 8:48 PM
    Oh, I think there are some Esther-doubters, particularly when readers reach the end of her tale.

    But I dearly love his flat characters. They fizz with energy, and I don't require them to be "realistic." What's realistic, anyway? Nothing in a book is ever precisely like life. If they didn't have that energy, they would be poor things, but they do. And I think there are a lot of major novels that contain flat characters who work because they bottle energy.

    And I would say that I value a book containing energy or life more than a book containing a solid plot or pretty sentences or many another praised element. I say that even though I have tossed down many books that didn't please my ear.

    I don't like it when he becomes soppy or mawkish; I agree with you there, of course. And I love his sense of a whole active world composed of many people and many working sub-worlds, some of them abusive and evil. And yes, he is marvelous with openings.

    But I can't do without Miss Havisham and the Micawbers and Mrs. Jellyby and Miss Flyte and a whole parade more...
  5. scott g.f.baileyJanuary 15, 2014 at 9:46 AM
    I should know better than to talk about "realism," shouldn't I? But life, yes! Dickens books are so so so alive. It's easy for me to poke at his possible weaknesses, but those "weaknesses" are really just things I wouldn't do, not actual failings in Mr Dickens' technique. I keep reading his books, don't I? I keep finding things to admire and emulate in them, don't I? I don't believe in Jo the Sweeper, but I keep reading about Jo the Sweeper, don't I?

    I'm also aware that, because his books are so immense and complex, his characters (like everything else) have to be painted in bolder shades.