Finger-wagging is Ruskin's modus operandi, in "Traffic" as elsewhere; his prose thrives on berating the ignorant for their presumptuous errors. Were Ruskin to aim his condescension at the defenseless, his essays would read as petty. Ruskin instead hectors the powerful, those who could positively influence culture but prefer to entrench common misunderstandings and misjudgments. At times Ruskin's targets are so lofty that he risks outsizing his argument, offending his audience, or both.
Good architecture is the work of good and believing men; therefore, you say, at least some people say, "Good architecture must essentially have been the work of the clergy, not of the laity." No — a thousand times, no; good architecture has always been the work of the commonalty, not of the clergy. "What," you say, "those glorious cathedrals — the pride of Europe — did their builders not form Gothic architecture?" No; they corrupted Gothic architecture. Gothic was formed by the thoughts, and hands, and powers of labouring citizens and warrior kings. By the monk it was used as an institution for the aid of his superstition: when that superstition became a beautiful madness, and the best hearts of Europe vainly dreamed and pined in the cloister, and vainly raged and perished in the crusade, — through that fury of perverted faith and wasted war, the Gothic rose also to its loveliest, most fantastic, and, finally, most foolish dreams; and in those dreams was lost. [pp. 282-83]
Ruskin's attempt to persuade an audience of finance wonks that Gothic architecture's loveliest achievements were also its most foolish strikes me as ludicrously quaint. It is possible, however, that those wonks had already closed their ears to Ruskin's argument, because of his inflammatory comments on the Church.
1. Was Ruskin gambling with his credibility when he referred to Christianity as superstition? Did he intend to shock, or did the Victorian businessman not care about the question of the Church's fallibility?
2. This passage, like much of "Traffic," contends that a beautiful aesthetic is not beautiful unless its social function harmoniously matches its physical characteristics. Does Ruskin run the risk of holding culture to too high a standard? If so, then he may be called a hypocrite or a bore. I prefer to think of him as a career contrarian, by which I mean he's immensely valuable. But what is the mood of this contrarian's prose? Is he pessimistic? Idealistic? Angry? Or does he calculate mood to lubricate his current argument?
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings. John D. Rosenberg, ed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 1998.
Last modified 15 March 2005