In “The Lamp of Memory” (text) John Ruskin connects his analysis of past and present architecture to broader cultural questions, a rhetorical decision that allows him to use art criticism as a vehicle for voicing related concerns about the values and priorities of Victorian society. Ruskin maintains that architecture crucially facilitates national memory in societies: “we cannot remember without her,” he claims. As a result, all buildings reflect the goals, concerns, and self-image of their age. Ruskin uses this assumption to interrogate the validity and worth of the social ideals and practices exhibited by everyday Victorian domestic architecture, suggesting that aesthetic and structural decisions made by men building homes can offer telling insight into the stagnant philosophical foundations of a society in danger of losing its moral virtue. Ruskin decries the lack of respect for home life indicated by the careless construction of contemporary homes:
I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples — temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers' honour, or that our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only. And I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up, in mildewed forwardness, out of the kneaded fields about our capital upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone upon those gloomy rows of formalised minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely struck in their native ground; that those comfortless and unhonoured dwellings are the signs of a great and spreading spirit of popular discontent; that they mark the time when every man’s aim is to be in some more elevated sphere than his natural one, and every man’s past life is his habitual scorn; when men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived; when the comfort, the peace, the religion of home have ceased to be felt; and the crowded [226/227] tenements of a struggling and restless population differ only from the tents of the Arab or the Gipsy by their less healthy openness to the air of heaven, and less happy choice of their spot of earth; by their sacrifice of liberty without the gain of rest, and of stability without the luxury of change.
Ruskin’s true focus in this passage is not architecture itself, but decayed and untenable social values; he attacks modern homes because their design and construction belie the mobility, both physical and social, engendered by the Industrial Revolution’s destabilizing effects on traditional class divisions and occupations. He dislikes “splintered wood and imitated stone” because these aesthetic qualities reveal underlying social changes that, in Ruskin’s opinion, undermine the traditional values that constitute England’s moral bedrock. Ruskin’s censure of modern architecture is therefore reactionary on two levels: the contemporary aesthetic trends and practices he deplores reflect deeper social changes he finds equally alarming. “The Lamp of Memory” thus serves not only as art criticism, but also as social criticism.
1. Compare the (general) uniformity of Ruskin’s sentence length and structure to the style of other writers we have read. Is his an effective style for this type of argument? Do the rhythms of the sentences match the points he makes about art as a mirror of values and priorities?
2. More than any other writer, even Carlyle, that we have read, Ruskin writes without much sarcasm or irony. How does this style affect his delivery of cultural critcism — criticism that, in its distaste for contemporary social changes, is not very different from Wolfe or Carlyle?
3. Does this passage, which occurs early in the chapter, effectively work in concert with the major questions that Ruskin addresses later? How does this passage help to contextualize Ruskin’s focus on the historical and the specific in the rest of the chapter?
4. Does Ruskin persuasively argue his point in this passage? Do the strong words with which he condemns contemporary domestic architecture and social trends convince you that both are pernicious threats to England’s social health?
Last modified 28 February 2011