In later posts I’ll strive for a substantive engagement with Ruskin, but I want to make a general preliminary comment here. Ruskin was one of those figures who lived through a massive social transition and who never forgot what the world was like before its change. “It has been my fate,” he wrote in a late work, “to live and work in direct antagonism to the instincts, and yet more to the interests, of the age; since I wrote that chapter [in the first volume of Modern Painters] on the pure traceries of the vault of morning, the fury of useless traffic has shut the sight, whether of morning or evening, from more than the third part of England; and the foulness of sensual fantasy has infected the bright beneficence of the life-giving sky with the dull horrors of disease, and the feeble falsehoods of insanity.”
This article was originally published by The New Atlantis.
That sounds like the ranting of an angry old man, and yet … Ruskin not only watched the sky and noted the weather every day but also kept a detailed record of what he saw — for decades. And in a pair of lectures called “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” he described in great detail the alterations in the sky and the weather, not just of England but of Europe as a whole, that he had observed. It turns out that everything he said in this seemingly most crazily extreme of his writings was precisely correct: the emissions of factories, and other side-effects of the Industrial Revolution, really were changing European weather. As Wolfgang Kemp records in his excellent biography of Ruskin,
The 1870s and 1880s form a unique period in the history of environmental and weather study. The skies darkened, the air became thicker and unhealthier, the climate damper and colder. One result was a progressive increase in the numbers of people dying from respiratory ailments. Trees and animals died too, not only in foggy England but also on the Continent. For example, starting in the 1880s, there were widespread reports of damage to forests in Germany. Rosenberg tells us that “From 1869 through 1889 the temperature in London was below average for eighteen of the twenty-one years … reliable figures for sunshine are available only after 1879, but sixteen of the twenty autumns and winters from 1880 through 1889 were below average, and the total sunshine was below average for more than sixty per cent of the decade.”
So old men may complain about the condition of their times simply because they’re old men and (therefore?) grumpy; but they may also complain because things really have changed and they’ve seen it. And the people who live on both sides of a cultural or political (or even meteorological) divide may be very useful observers of their scene.
Jacques Ellul is another such figure, who lived through a massive transformation in French society; and I might also cite Lesslie Newbigin, who left England as a young man to serve as a pastor in South India and returned forty years later to find a very different culture, which he sought to address theologically and pastorally in a brilliant book called The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. People who have experienced massive social changes and do not merely react against them, but rather strive to comprehend them analytically, tend to be very valuable thinkers indeed. And their habits of critique can be enormously helpful to those of us who are living through our own period of change. That is why when I try to understand our current technopolic moment I find that the thinkers who help me the most are not the ones fully immersed in our own time, but those who remember an earlier time, or those from the past who underwent similar social transformations. It is very hard from within this technologically oversaturated moment of ours to discern its outlines clearly. I’m therefore drawn to thinkers whose vocabularies are tilted or skewed in relation what I see and hear every day. This is one of the many uses of reading old books.