Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sesame And Lilies - John Ruskin

This work was done in 1864.

This is not a book to be reviewed but a book to be revered. A book that one should make special effort to understand in its context and time, especially because of the wide chasm that separates today and the author’s period and the differences in social, political, economic, religious and other conditions that make the two worlds seem universes apart.

Ruskin attacked the current political economy.

It is very easy to read a few pages and then think the ideas anachronistic but it is difficult and important to understand the spirit underlying the words and to figure out how they can be applied to today’s life and situations.

The two lectures expound the subject of books & reading and the education of women.
The usefulness of the ideas of the author in today’s world lies in our ability to appreciate the following essence of the ideas.
The lecture on ‘books’ emphasizes the importance of reading and the necessity to assess a book’s worth before reading it.
The second lecture, on the education of women, though not very agreeable, provokes women to enquire into their role in the society, in this world and educate themselves to become equal to their roles.
The role of women as I observe has become more important in today’s time where there is a profusion of radical feminists revolting with a vengeance and creating imbalance and disharmony rather than helping women to lead lives in accordance with their true essence.

The language is of a high standard. Puritanical as the author himself is, needless to say, his writing is impeccable. Such is the standard, that each line could be a quotation in itself.

The interesting trivia about this book is that the cover, a moss green velvet gives the book an antique feel and makes my bookshelf look awe inspiring and its owner erudite. I picked it up at Select Bookshop upon Mr. Murthy's suggestion.

Ruskin was born in the middle of the industrial revolution which wrought changes in the lives of people. The salient features of this revolution were power driven machinery and the growth of large factories. Common land was put to private use. People had to sell their farms and become hired labourers at very low wages. Bulk of rural population was now a class without property and dependent upon an employing class. People drifted to the towns. Skilled craftsmen became 'hands' in a factory.

In 1825, 3 million of wage earners were children earning very low wages. Combination laws prevented formation of trade unions or participation in strikes. Most of the necessities of life were heavily taxed. There was no state education and the hours of work made it impossible for parents to hand down traditional knowledge.

Slums were built for workers. England was the richest country in the world but at the cost of 1000's of children worked or starved to death.

Ruskin, influenced by Thomas Carlyle, the great political prophet of his age, opposed this worship of greed on moral grounds and set himself to work out a saner political economy which should recognize that self interest is only one of the motives that move men; that the only true wealth of a nation is healthy happy citizens who have as far as possible, developed their faculties, are satisfying their creative and artistic instead of merely their acquisitive instincts.

The 2 lectures in this book were delivered at Manchester in 1864 and published the next year. Together they form a small tractate on education - education from books and the proper education of women.

He considers novels as books of the hour - 'strictly speaking, not books at all'. Later he banned from his ideal library, many of the world's greatest literary treasures.

He was too much influenced by his over-puritanical upbringing and judged all books by the extent to which they included morality.

The second lecture too reads a little oddly these days since the position of women has completely changed. But it must be remembered that Ruskin wrote for the well to do women of his time who lived sheltered lives in dependence upon their parents and husbands and especially for young unmarried women who normally spent all time in pleasure. He regards women as created solely for the benefit of men and does nothing to support the pioneers of his day who were pressing for woman suffrage.

Although he himself denounced the economic evils of her age, his ideal woman is not expected to question the source of the wealth provided by her father/husband.
His ideal woman has to cook for the sick poor, sew garments for poor children and all.

Yet there remains in these lectures much that is of value in our own age.

His method was always trenchant, his language often violent; but a prophet inspired by indignation and pity does not speak comfortable words.

Notes I made from the book.

1st Lecture – King’s Treasures

…We fancy glamour and riches, celebrities and ignore the genuine commoners around us all the time.

…Definition of a book - A book is written not to multiply the voice merely, not to carry it merely, but to preserve it. The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful. So far as he knows, no one has yet said it; so far as he knows, no one else can say it. He is bound to say it, clearly and melodiously if he may; clearly at all events. In the sum of his life, he finds this to be the thing, or group of things, manifest to him; - this is the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down forever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, "this is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory." That is his "writing"; it is, in his small human way, and with whatever degree of true inspiration is in him, his inscription or scripture. That is a 'Book'.

Though many of us will not agree to his definition especially in today's time when all kinds of ramblings and musings see print and sell like hot cakes. - this work definitely gives an understanding of the standards and outlook of people at that time (another era). This book surely draws our attention to the necessity of assessing the true worth and value add of books before reading them.

…Speaking of our approach towards a book the author says the following. You should rise to the level of the author, he will not stoop to you. You must have a true desire to be taught by them (book writers) and to enter into their thoughts. To enter into theirs, observe; not to find your own expressed by them.
Very ready we are to say of a book "how good this is – that’s exactly what I think" But the right feeling is "How strange that is! I never thought of that before, and yet I see it is true; or if I do not now, I hope I shall someday." Go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours. Step into the author's shoes. Annihilate yourself.

…Good and bad words - puritanical ideas
A well educated gentleman may not know many languages, may have read very few books. But whatever language he knows, he knows precisely; whatever word he pronounces, he pronounces rightly; above all, he is learned in the peerage of words; knows the words of true descent and ancient blood, at a glance, from words of modern canaille; remembers all their ancestry - their inter-marriages, distantest relationships, and the extent to which they were admitted, and offices they held, among the national noblesse of words at any time, and in any country. The accent, or turn of expression of a single sentence will at once mark a scholar. And this is so strongly felt, so conclusively admitted, by educated persons, that a false accent or a mistaken syllable is enough in the parliament of any civilized nation, to assign to a man a certain degree of inferior standing forever.

The book is full of absolutes. There is hardly anything left to relativity.
This aspect of writing - the stark classification the author makes of almost everything into good and bad, right and wrong, do’s and don’ts, reflects one aspect of those times – all was either black or white and greys were not very popular in contrast with the situation of today, a time when there are more grey shades than have ever been at any time in the past.
In fact, greys have become the only legitimate shades and anyone who thinks, sees black and white is termed fanatic.
We call them all judgmental and narrow in outlook.

…Most men's minds are indeed little better than rough heath wilderness, neglected and stubborn, partly barren, partly overgrown with pestilent brakes and venomous wind sown herbage of evil surmise; that the first thing you have to do for them, and yourself, is eagerly and scornfully to set fire to this; burn all the jungle into wholesome ash-heaps, and then plough and sow. All the true literary work before you, for life, must begin with obedience to that order, "Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns."

Interesting definition of vulgarity
…The ennobling difference between one man and another, and between one animal and another is precisely in this, that one feels more than another. If we were sponges, sensation might not be easily got for us; if we were earthworms, liable every instant to be cut in two by the spade, too much sensation might not be good for us. But being human creatures, it is good for us; we are only human in so far as we are sensitive, and our honour is precisely in proportion to our passion.

…The essence of all vulgarity lies in want of sensation; simple and innocent vulgarity is merely an untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind; but in true inbred vulgarity, there is a deathful callousness, which, in extremity, becomes capable of every sort of bestial habit and crime, without fear, without pleasure, without horror and without pity. It is in the blunt hand and the dead heart, in the diseased habit, in the hardened conscience, that men become vulgar.

…True passion is disciplined and tested passion, not the first passion that comes. The first that come are the vain, the false, the treacherous; if you yield to them, they will lead you wildly and far, in vain pursuit, in hollow enthusiasm, till you have no true purpose and no true passion left.
Any feeling possible to humanity is in itself not wrong, but only wrong when undisciplined.

…We are furious at a small private wrong while we are polite to a boundless public one: we are still brave to death, though incapable of discerning true cause for battle…

…Taking the example of the Swiss vintagers of Zurich expressing their Christian thanks for the gift of the vine, by assembling in knots in the 'tower of the vineyards', and slowly loading and firing horse pistols from morning till evening, the author says “it is pitiful to have dim conceptions of duty; more pitiful to have conceptions like these, of mirth.”

…The justice we do not execute, we mimic in the novel and on the stage; for the beauty we destroy in nature, we substitute the metamorphosis of the pantomime, and (the human nature of us imperatively requiring awe and sorrow of some kind) for the noble grief we should have borne with our fellows, and the pure tears we should have wept with them, we gloat over the pathos of the police court, and gather the night due of the grave.

…We are still kind at heart; still capable of virtue, but only as children are. Chalmers, at the end of his long life, having had much power with the public, being plagued in some serious matter by a reference to "public opinion", uttered the impatient exclamation, "The public is just a great baby". the reason I have allowed all these graver subjects of thought to mix themselves up with an enquiry into methods of reading, is that, the more I see of our national faults or miseries, the more they resolve themselves into conditions of childish illiterateness, and want of education in the most ordinary habits of thought. It is, I repeat, not vice, not selfishness, not dullness of brain, which we have to lament; but an unreachable schoolboy's recklessness, only differing from the true schoolboy's in its incapacity of being helped, because it acknowledges no master.

…Scythia was the old name of southern Russia…

Kings and how they should rule
…Enlargement of a king's dominion meant the same thing as the increase of a private man's estate. Kings who think so, however powerful can no more be the true kings of the nation than gad flies are the kings of a horse; they suck it, and may drive it wild, but do not guide it. The true kings rule quietly, if at all, and hate ruling.

…Estimate your dominion by the force of it, not geographical boundaries.
It matters very little whether Trent cuts you a cantel out here, or Rhine round you a castle less there. It does matter to you whether you can turn your people as you can Trent. Whether your people hate you and die by you or love you and live by you. You may measure your dominion by multitudes, better than by miles.

…Very few kings have ever laid up treasures that need no guarding - treasures of which, the more the thieves there were, the better! Broidered robe only to be rent-helm and sword only to be dimmed, jewel and gold only to be scattered-there have been 3 kinds of kings who have gathered these. The fourth kind of treasure - wisdom- and the fourth kind of king?

…We should bring up our peasants to a book exercise instead of a bayonet exercise, organized drill maintained with pay, and good generalship, armies of thinkers instead of armies of stabbers! - find national amusement in reading rooms as well as rifle grounds; give prizes for a fair shot at a fact, as well as for a leaden splash on a target.

…French and England- France and England literally buy panic of each other; they pay, each of them, for ten thousand thousand pounds worth of terror a year. Now suppose, instead of buying these, 10 millions’ worth of panic annually, they made up their minds to be at peace with each other - and buy 10 millions' worth of knowledge annually; founding royal libraries, royal art galleries, royal museums, royal gardens and places of rest. Might it not be better for them?

2nd lecture – Queen’s gardens

…There are no heroes in Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare has no heroes, he has only heroines. The catastrophe of every play is caused always by the folly of a man; the redemption, if there be any, is by the wisdom and virtue of a woman.
Women redeem men.

…Exceptions in Shakespeare's play. There is only one weak woman - Ophelia; and it is because she fails Hamlet at the critical moment, and is not, and cannot in her nature be a guide to him when he needs her most. Such in broad light, is Shakespeare's testimony to the position and character of women in human life.

…Walter Scott, Dante. With Walter Scott too, it is the woman who watches over, teaches and guides the youth; it is never, by any chance, the youth who watches over or educates his mistress.

(All the above reminds me of Tagore’ ideal woman.)

…We are foolish and without excuse foolish, in speaking of the 'superiority' of one sex to the other, as if they could be compared in similar things. Each has what the other has not; each completes the other, and is completed by the other; they are in nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give.

…The best romance becomes dangerous, if, by its excitement, it renders the ordinary course of life uninteresting, and increases the morbid thirst for useless acquaintance with scenes in which we shall never be called upon to act.

…Each will gather from the novel, food for their disposition. Those who are naturally proud and envious will learn from Thackeray to despise humanity; those who are naturally gentle, to pity it; those who are naturally shallow, to laugh at it. So, also, there might be a serviceable power in novels to bring before us, in vividness, a human truth which we had before dimly conceived;

…Observe the word 'state' - we have got into a loose way of using it. It means literally the standing and stability of a thing; and you have the full force of it in the derived word 'statue' - ' the immovable thing'. A king's majesty or state then, and the right of a kingdom to be called a state, depends on the movelessness of both: - without tremor, without quiver of balance; established and enthroned upon a foundation of eternal law which nothing can alter nor overthrow.

Good art was possible only in a nation morally sound...


milind kulkarni said...

Dear Soumya, I was extremely impressed by your study and analysis of the essay. The way you have made notes is simply fantastic !
milind kulkarni

Sowmya said...

Thanks Milind. Keep coming here often :)
I dont think there is much analysis here though; I have simply copied a copious amount of text from the book here with a few observations of my own thrown in...

strongBuddy said...

that kid in a candy store looks lovely....(i can't resist myself from saying it!..:) ).

Anonymous said...

hi...thanx for the review....its of great help...keep up the good work...

Juvi said...

You failed to mention the limitations of a good book. Also, Ruskin does not agree with all books being good as well as not agreeing with the fact that all good books are not necessarily meant to be intentionally written. He gave the example of letters one writes to his friends related to life events like travels and studies. If the language and description of the letters is appropriate and rich, some day they might end up compiled to form a "good book". Another point was how, if words are not carefully used as well as interpreted, the result could be catastrophic; as in the case of "Julius Caesar" where Decius chose his words with great cunning to convince Caesar that his dream was a prediction of his bright future.