John Ruskin on Soulful Imperfection

“To banish imperfection is to destroy expression.”

M. Allen Cunningham

Throughout the whole second half of the nineteenth century “to read [John] Ruskin was accepted as proof of the possession of a soul.” So the great art historian Kenneth Clark once put it.

Ranking high among the eminent figures of the Victorian age, Ruskin was a man of many passions: poet, artist, critic, teacher, social reformer, and early conservationist. He stood staunchly against the dehumanizing effects of England’s Industrial Revolution, defending the human dignity of the laborer and celebrating the “nobility” of “unrefined” objects manufactured by the skill of humans rather than machines. These man-made objects, he insisted, “bring out the whole mind” and “the finer nature” of the laborer. In contrast was the machine-made product, which asked nothing of the workman’s soul but that he subordinate himself to the laws of the assembly line — hence: ugly, soulless, mass-produced items, and human workers degraded to automatons.

To Ruskin, labor and art need not be polarized as the ethos of the modern factory would have it. Rather, labor should be more than a matter of economy, and art more than a matter of taste. Both should coalesce in expression of the vitality, inventiveness, heart, thought, and spirit of humanity. How’s that for big dreaming?

Actually, given Ruskin’s powers of eloquence, it all amounted to far more than mere fancy. Thanks in no small part to his preachments, the dynamic Arts & Crafts movements emerged in England and America, mini-Renaissances of a kind. And as Kenneth Clark notes,

The influence of Ruskin’s ideas on social reform has been immense. Most of the changes which he advocated — free schools, free libraries, town planning, smokeless zones, green belts — are now taken for granted. … Today his thoughts influence the lives of millions.”

(Among Ruskin’s latter day admirers was Mahatma Ghandi, who professed a huge debt to the Victorian’s influence.)

A society expresses itself and its values in what it produces, most notably in its architecture and spirit of design. As Joseph Campbell observed,

You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach an eighteenth-century town, it is the political palace … And when you approach a modern city, the tallest places are the office buildings, the centers of economic life.”

Ruskin’s writing is at its most vibrant when he gets going on this inseparability of what we are from what we make.

“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both,” he writes in The Stones of Venice (1853).

Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger-point, and the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last — a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in the world is concerned. …

On the other hand, if you will make a man of the living creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him. And whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.

I love Ruskin’s whole-hearted embrace of imperfectibility here. It is not efficiency nor “engine-turned precision,” nor speed nor unerring calculation that characterizes a human soul, but “roughness,” “dullness,” “pause after pause.” Humans are a motley bunch. We resist programming. And these traits go hand-in-hand with human “majesty.”

Now there’s some food for thought in our present digital age, which would have us prize the smooth and smoothly functional, the shiny, the “hi-res,” and the lightning-quick — capacities all patently unhuman.

Go forth again to gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be the first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.

Ruskin’s main subject here — the European gothic age — occasions his commentary upon the industrialized Victorian world around him. In the best gothic cathedrals he sees an age that values, in ways both broadly cultural and personal, individual creativity, eccentricity, and craftsmanship.

The laborer is an artist and the artist a laborer. Labor and art are both desired by society — man and man’s spirit, vision and product.

For contrast Ruskin levels his gaze on a contemporary England where ignoble labor systems suppress the human spirit, drain the dignity from work, and breed unnecessary shame and shallow desires in the exhausted worker:

It is not that men are ill fed, but that they have no pleasure in the work by which they make their bread, and therefore look to wealth as the only means to pleasure. It is not that men are pained by the scorn of the upper classes, but they cannot endure their own; for they feel that the kind of labor to which they are condemned is verily a degrading one, and makes them less than men. …This, nature bade not, — this, God blesses not, — this, humanity for no long time is able to endure.

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labor; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men — broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. …

…We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labor that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labor can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Ruskin wants the best and most vibrant part of a person to find natural expression in that person’s work. Consequently the work itself may be said to live, and in turn the work gives life to the worker — life, that is, in a form more significant than mere money for house and bread.

Returning to the subject of imperfectibility, Ruskin drives home with a poet’s persuasiveness the rightness, the needfulness, of the human imprint in whatever a human makes.

It is in laying the handprint of our soul upon things that we stay fully human and fully alive. If misguided ideals of progress, efficiency, profit, or perfectibility lead us to wipe this handprint clear, or to cherish whatever is sleek, robotic, and notably inhuman as the final aim of all our enterprise, we are in danger of giving up the nobler expressions of the human spirit, and thus endangering our souls.

…No good work whatever can be perfect. …[for] no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it. …

Imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. …In all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.

It is the soul’s business to strive toward expression, and maybe the soul’s greatest expression comes through imperfection nobly embraced, and through valuing in others what is imperfectly beautiful, what is beautifully imperfect — in a word, what is human.

(Ruskin’s “The Nature of Gothic” in its entirety is published in this book. )


This essay originally appeared on Soul Shelter.

M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM is the author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), and Partisans, a short story collection entitled Date of Disappearance, and the nonfiction volumes The Honorable Obscurity Handbook and The Flickering Page: The Reading Experience in Digital Times. He recently edited and wrote the introduction for Funny-Ass Thoreau. He is the founder and publisher of Atelier26 Books and a contributing editor for Moss literary magazine.

M. Allen Cunningham

Written by

Author of the novels The Green Age of Asher Witherow, Lost Son (about Rilke), & Partisans. Publisher of Atelier26 Books.

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