'To See the Finger of God in the Dimensions of the Pyramid': A New Context for Ruskin's "The Ethics of the Dust" (1866)

Article excerpt

The Ethics of the Dust (1866) (1) seems to be Ruskin's most obviously audience-specific work. A set of lectures on crystallography for 'little housewives', (2) this dramatization of discussions between an Old Lecturer of 'incalculable age' (3) and a group of schoolgirls aged from 9 to 20 plainly belongs, or so it appears, in a classroom. Certainly, it grew from Ruskin's real-life teaching experience. The lectures, as he said himself in the preface, 'were really given' (XVIII, 201) in Margaret Bell's innovative girls' school, Winnington Hall in Northwich, Cheshire, which he first visited in 1859. Although there has been little criticism of this book and some hostile readings, recent years have seen approaches that have emphasized its significance in Ruskin's intellectual development in the 1860s, a particularly difficult decade for him. They have considered its place in Ruskin's changing conception of his own authority, its relation to his gender position, and how it revealed aspects of his views on the formation of ideal audiences. William Arrowsmith analysed the pedagogic burden of flint in the moral scheme and self-apostrophe in The Ethics in 1982; (4) Paul Sawyer assessed the importance of playfulness in 1985, (5) while the lectures' significance in the development of Ruskin's thoughts about his authority as a critic was discussed in 1988 by Dinah Birch, who also examined its celebration of female powers; (6) Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, reflecting further on gender, thought about the book's representation of the life force as feminine in 1993. (7) Judith Stoddart surveyed the text's imagining of ideal reading in 1998, (8) and, most recently, Catherine Robson, in 2001, in a new approach to Ruskin's gendered self-construction, analysed what The Ethics revealed about Ruskin's idealization of girlhood and how it compared to the strategies of Praeterita (1885-89) through which Ruskin associated himself with girlishness. (9)

Criticism has identified significant themes in a once disregarded text. But it has either omitted to consider context or has confined itself to thinking only of Winnington. Though understandable, this has meant that a revealing dimension of the text has been missed. Emphasizing its roots in Margaret Bell's school, critics have overlooked The Ethics' broader gesture to the public world. Ruskin's implicit, tactful transaction with the heterodox scientific subject of pyramidology, given momentum by arguments about weights and measures in Parliament in 1864, just before the book was written, imparted depth as well as contemporaneity to his formulation of the spirit of life as associable with human personality in The Ethics. The allusive strategy also amplified the text's critique of materialist science, set terms for a literary practice that was to be characteristic of Fors Clavigera (1871-84), and indicated an aspect of Ruskin's sympathy with dissonant movements in the mid-1860s, a period when he was particularly aware of his own cultural dissonance.

In his autobiography, Praeterita, Ruskin remembered his father reading Barbara Hofland's The Young Pilgrim; or, Alfred Campbell's Return to the East and his Travels in Egypt, Nubia, Asia Minor, Arabia Petrea (1825) (10) to the family on Sunday evenings. It was perhaps Ruskin's first acquaintance with tales from Egypt. Later, in his major early works, Egypt was not forgotten. It figured in The Stones of Venice (1851-53), where it was described as the source of Venice's mystical sacred language (XI, 236-37); Egyptian ornamentation of colossal shafts, Ruskin said, was nobler than any nation's (IX, 355). But it was after the loss of his Evangelical faith--Ruskin dated this to 1858--that he became most interested in, and able to admire, the values and beliefs of Egypt. This approbation went originally side by side with his growing respect for ancient Greek religion in the 1860s. In the end, Greece was to be more important, and its increasing significance in his writing is traceable from The Ethics of the Dust and The Cestus of Aglaia (1865-66) to the climax of The Queen of the Air (1869). …