Assistant Professor, Department of English, Yale University
Third speaker, Workshop on Conceptual Blending in Literary
"The Structure of Organic Form":
Projections of the Body in John Ruskin
Studies of conceptual blending and conceptual projection by have relied extensively on evidence found in literary texts. This research, however, has tended to treat its textual data ahistorically and to concentrate on discrete, readily analyzable statements, rather than on wider discursive correlations. The broad contention of this paper, developed through an analysis of John Ruskin, is that attention to patterns of blends and projections in particular works or corpuses can be a powerful mode of literary-historical study.
Readers of Ruskin have long recognized the important transitional role played by his writings on architecture. Conventionally, Ruskin's movement from critic of art to critic of society has been understood in terms of the moral implications of his aesthetics: as he takes up what he calls "the distinctively political art of Architecture," he attention necessarily gravitates towards the moral state of the polis Within this critique, Gothic architecture comes to represent a positive, utopian alternative to the excesses of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism, which finds its greatest emblem in the railroad.
Yet these relations are evident as well in an intricate pattern of conceptual projections linking Ruskin's representations of buildings, bodies, and railroads throughout his canon. In Modern Painters II, Ruskin takes the schematic organization of animal and human bodies as a model of the right relation between beauty and utility: just as the body's internal anatomical structures are masked by its external form, so matters of utility should be subordinated to aesthetic concerns: it is "a beautiful ordinance of the Creator," he writes, "that all these [anatomical] mechanisms are concealed from sight, though open to investigation; and that in all which is outwardly manifested, we seem to see His presence rather than His workmanship, and the mysterious breath of life rather than the adaptation of matter." Since this natural relationship between structure and form, utility and beauty, is rarely violated, except in cases of traumatic injury or death, it readily lends itself to moral interpretation. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture and subsequent works, Ruskin projects his concept of the body onto architecture and the railroad. He recruits his concept of bodily form to justify his architectural precepts--"The architect is not bound to exhibit structure; nor are we to complain of him for concealing it, any more than we should regret that the outer surfaces of the human frame conceal much of its anatomy . . ." (emphasis original)--and conversely, to denigrate the railroad as an expansive network of "iron veins" and "throbbing arteries." Just as he idealizes architecture by emphasizing its structural correspondence to the order of the body, so he stigmatizes the railroad by emphasizing its violation of this order. In terms of the conceptual projection structuring such representations, any sense of beauty in railroads is necessarily sadistic. If railroads are indeed vast flayed bodies, then admiring them amounts to taking pleasure in the display of physical pain. As Ruskin tells the artist Jemina Wedderburn, who professed just such an appreciation: "your taste is morbid and must be changed" (emphasis original). Attention to Ruskin's conceptual projections thus allows us to arrive at a more satisfactory literary understanding of his work. His repeated analogies between buildings and bodies, his fantastically grotesque figurations of railroads, and the exacting precision of his vocabulary in his comment to Wedderburn are not isolated exercises of rhetorical virtuosity. Rather, they are the linguistic traces of a cognitive map that structures diverse aspects of Ruskin's thought.