The Ethics of the Dust, by John Ruskin

The Ethics of the Dust.

Lecture I.

The Valley of Diamonds.

A very idle talk, by the dining-room fire, after raisin-and-almond time.

Old Lecturer; Florrie, Isabel, May, Lily, and Sibyl.

Old Lecturer (L.). Come here, Isabel, and tell me what the make-believe was, this afternoon.

Isabel (arranging herself very primly on the foot-stool). Such a dreadful one! Florrie and I were lost in the Valley of Diamonds.

L. What! Sindbad’s, which nobody could get out of?

Isabel. Yes; but Florrie and I got out of it.

L. So I see. At least, I see you did; but are you sure Florrie did?

Isabel. Quite sure.

Florrie (putting her head round from behind L.’s sofa-cushion). Quite sure. (Disappears again.)

L. I think I could be made to feel surer about it.

(Florrie reappears, gives L. a kiss, and again exit.)

L. I suppose it’s all right; but how did you manage it?

Isabel. Well, you know, the eagle that took up Sindbad was very large — very, very large — the largest of all the eagles.

L. How large were the others?

Isabel. I don’t quite know — they were so far off. But this one was, oh, so big! and it had great wings, as wide as — twice over the ceiling. So, when it was picking up Sindbad, Florrie and I thought it wouldn’t know if we got on its back too: so I got up first, and then I pulled up Florrie, and we put our arms round its neck, and away it flew.

L. But why did you want to get out of the valley? and why haven’t you brought me some diamonds?

Isabel. It was because of the serpents. I couldn’t pick up even the least little bit of a diamond, I was so frightened.

L. You should not have minded the serpents.

Isabel. Oh, but suppose that they had minded me?

L. We all of us mind you a little too much, Isabel, I’m afraid.

Isabel. No — no — no, indeed.

L. I tell you what, Isabel — I don’t believe either Sindbad, or Florrie, or you, ever were in the Valley of Diamonds.

Isabel. You naughty! when I tell you we were!

L. Because you say you were frightened at the serpents.

Isabel. And wouldn’t you have been?

L. Not at those serpents. Nobody who really goes into the valley is ever frightened at them — they are so beautiful.

Isabel (suddenly serious). But there’s no real Valley of Diamonds, is there?

L. Yes, Isabel; very real indeed.

Florrie (reappearing). Oh, where? Tell me about it.

L. I cannot tell you a great deal about it; only I know it is very different from Sindbad’s . In his valley, there was only a diamond lying here and there; but, in the real valley, there are diamonds covering the grass in showers every morning, instead of dew: and there are clusters of trees, which look like lilac trees; but, in spring, all their blossoms are of amethyst.

Florrie. But there can’t be any serpents there, then?

L. Why not?

Florrie. Because they don’t come into such beautiful places.

L. I never said it was a beautiful place.

Florrie. What! not with diamonds strewed about it like dew?

L. That’s according te your fancy, Florrie. For myself, I like dew better.

Isabel. Oh, but the dew won’t stay; it all dries!

L. Yes; and it would be much nicer if the diamonds dried too, for the people in the valley have to sweep them off the grass, in heaps, whenever they want to walk on it; and then the heaps glitter so, they hurt one’s eyes.

Florrie. Now you’re just playing, you know.

L. So are you, you know.

Florrie. Yes, but you mustn’t play.

L. That’s very hard, Florrie; why mustn’t I, if you may?

Florrie. Oh, I may, because I’m little, but you mustn’t, because you’re — (hesitates for a delicate expression of magnitude).

L. (rudely taking the first that comes). Because I’m big? No; that’s not the way of it at all, Florrie. Because you’re little, you should have very little play; and because I’m big I should have a great deal.

Isabel and Florrie (both). No — no — no — no. That isn’t it at all. (Isabel sola, quoting Miss Ingelow.) ‘The lambs play always — they know no better.’ (Putting her head very much on one side.) Ah, now — please — please — tell us true; we want to know.

L. But why do you want me to tell you true, any more than the man who wrote the ‘Arabian Nights?’

Isabel. Because — because we like to know about real things; and you can tell us, and we can’t ask the man who wrote the stories.

L. What do you call real things?

Isabel. Now, you know! Things that really are.

L. Whether you can see them or not?

Isabel. Yes, if somebody else saw them.

L. But if nobody has ever seen them?

Isabel (evading the point.) Well, but, you know, if there were a real Valley of Diamonds, somebody must have seen it.

L. You cannot be so sure of that, Isabel. Many people go to real places, and never see them; and many people pass through this valley, and never see it.

Florrie. What stupid people they must be!

L. No, Florrie. They are much wiser than the people who do see it.

May. I think I know where it is.

Isabel. Tell us more about it, and then we’ll guess.

L. Well. There’s a great broad road, by a river-side, leading up into it.

May (gravely cunning, with emphasis on the last word). Does the road really go up?

L. You think it should go down into a valley? No, it goes up; this is a valley among the hills, and it is as high as the clouds, and is often full of them; so that even the people who most want to see it, cannot, always.

Isabel. And what is the river beside the road like?

L. It ought to be very beautiful, because it flows over diamond sand — only the water is thick and red.

Isabel. Red water?

L. It isn’t all water.

May. Oh, please never mind that, Isabel, just now; I want to hear about the valley.

L. So the entrance to it is very wide, under a steep rock; only such numbers of people are always trying to get in, that they keep jostling each other, and manage it but slowly. Some weak ones are pushed back, and never get in at all; and make great moaning as they go away: but perhaps they are none the worse in the end.

May. And when one gets in, what is it like?

L. It is up and down, broken kind of ground: the road stops directly; and there are great dark rocks, covered all over with wild gourds and wild vines; the gourds, if you cut them, are red, with black seeds, like water-melons, and look ever so nice; and the people of the place make a red pottage of them: but you must take care not to eat any if you ever want to leave the valley (though I believe putting plenty of meal in it makes it wholesome). Then the wild vines have clusters of the colour of amber; and the people of the country say they are the grape of Eshcol; and sweeter than honey; but, indeed, if anybody else tastes them, they are like gall. Then there are thickets of bramble, so thorny that they would be cut away directly, anywhere else; but here they are covered with little cinque-foiled blossoms of pure silver; and, for berries, they have clusters of rubies. Dark rubies, which you only see are red after gathering them. But you may fancy what blackberry parties the children have! Only they get their frocks and hands sadly torn.

Lily. But rubies can’t spot one’s frocks as blackberries do?

L. No; but I’ll tell you what spots them — the mulberries. There are great forests of them, all up the hills, covered with silkworms, some munching the leaves so loud that it is like mills at work; and some spinning. But the berries are the blackest you ever saw; and, wherever they fall, they stain a deep red; and nothing ever washes it out again. And it is their juice, soaking through the grass, which makes the river so red, because all its springs are in this wood. And the boughs of the trees are twisted, as if in pain, like old olive branches; and their leaves are dark. And it is in these forests that the serpents are; but nobody is afraid of them. They have fine crimson crests, and they are wreathed about the wild branches, one in every tree, nearly; and they are singing serpents, for the serpents are, in this forest, what birds are in ours.

Florrie. Oh, I don’t want to go there at all, now.

L. You would like it very much indeed, Florrie, if you were there. The serpents would not bite you; the only fear would be of your turning into one!

Florrie. Oh, dear, but that’s worse.

L. You wouldn’t think so if you really were turned into one, Florrie; you would be very proud of your crest. And as long as you were yourself (not that you could get there if you remained quite the little Florrie you are now), you would like to hear the serpents sing. They hiss a little through it, like the cicadas in Italy; but they keep good time, and sing delightful melodies; and most of them have seven heads, with throats which each take a note of the octave; so that they can sing chords — it is very fine indeed. And the fire-flies fly round the edge of the forests all the night long; you wade in fire-flies, they make the fields look like a lake trembling with reflection of stars; but you must take care not to touch them, for they are not like Italian fireflies, but burn, like real sparks.

Florrie. I don’t like it at all; I’ll never go there.

L. I hope not, Florrie; or at least that you will get out again if you do. And it is very difficult to get out, for beyond these serpent forests there are great cliffs of dead gold, which form a labyrinth, winding always higher and higher, till the gold is all split asunder by wedges of ice; and glaciers, welded, half of ice seven times frozen, and half of gold seven times frozen, hang down from them, and fall in thunder, cleaving into deadly splinters, like the Cretan arrowheads; and into a mixed dust of snow and gold, ponderous, yet which the mountain whirlwinds are able to lift and drive in wreaths and pillars, hiding the paths with a burial cloud, fatal at once with wintry chill, and weight of golden ashes. So the wanderers in the labyrinth fall, one by one, and are buried there:— yet, over the drifted graves, those who are spared climb to the last, through coil on coil of the path; — for at the end of it they see the king of the valley, sitting on his throne: and beside him (but it is only a false vision), spectra of creatures like themselves, set on thrones, from which they seem to look down on all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. And on the canopy of his throne there is an inscription in fiery letters, which they strive to read, but cannot; for it is written in words which are like the words of all languages, and yet are of none. Men say it is more like their own tongue to the English than it is to any other nation; but the only record of it is by an Italian, who heard the King himself cry it as a war cry, ‘Pape Satan, Pape Satan Aleppe.’1

Sibyl. But do they all perish there? You said there was a way through the valley, and out of it.

L. Yes; but few find it. If any of them keep to the grass paths, where the diamonds are swept aside; and hold their hands over their eyes so as not to be dazzled, the grass paths lead forward gradually to a place where one sees a little opening in the golden rocks. You were at Chamouni last year, Sibyl; did your guide chance to show you the pierced rock of the Aiguille du Midi?

Sibyl. No, indeed, we only got up from Geneva on Monday night; and it rained all Tuesday; and we had to be back at Geneva again, early on Wednesday morning.

L. Of course. That is the way to see a country in a Sibylline manner, by inner consciousness: but you might have seen the pierced rock in your drive up, or down, if the clouds broke: not that there is much to see in it; one of the crags of the aiguille-edge, on the southern slope of it, is struck sharply through, as by an awl, into a little eyelet hole; which you may see, seven thousand feet above the valley (as the clouds flit past behind it, or leave the sky), first white, and then dark blue. Well, there’s just such an eyelet hole in one of the upper crags of the Diamond Valley; and, from a distance, you think that it is no bigger than the eye of a needle. But if you get up to it, they say you may drive a loaded camel through it, and that there are fine things on the other side, but I have never spoken with anybody who had been through.

Sibyl. I think we understand it now. We will try to write it down, and think of it.

L. Meantime, Florrie, though all that I have been telling you is very true, yet you must not think the sort of diamonds that people wear in rings and necklaces are found lying about on the grass. Would you like to see how they really are found?

Florrie. Oh, yes — yes.

L. Isabel — or Lily — run up to my room and fetch me the little box with a glass lid, out of the top drawer of the chest of drawers. (Race between Lily and Isabel.)

(Re-enter Isabel with the box, very much out of breath. Lily behind.)

L. Why, you never can beat Lily in a race on the stairs, can you, Isabel?

Isabel (panting). Lily — beat me — ever so far — but she gave me — the box — to carry in.

L. Take off the lid, then; gently.

Florrie (after peeping in, disappointed). There’s only a great ugly brown stone!

L. Not much more than that, certainly, Florrie, if people were wise. But look, it is not a single stone; but a knot of pebbles fastened together by gravel; and in the gravel, or compressed sand, if you look close, you will see grains of gold glittering everywhere, all through; and then, do you see these two white beads, which shine, as if they had been covered with grease?

Florrie. May I touch them?

L. Yes; you will find they are not greasy, only very smooth. Well, those are the fatal jewels; native here in their dust with gold, so that you may see, cradled here together, the two great enemies of mankind, — the strongest of all malignant physical powers that have tormented our race.

Sibyl. Is that really so? I know they do great harm; but do they not also do great good?

L. My dear child, what good? Was any woman, do you suppose, ever the better for possessing diamonds? but how many have been made base, frivolous, and miserable by desiring them? Was ever man the better for having coffers full of gold? But who shall measure the guilt that is incurred to fill them? Look into the history of any civilised nations; analyse, with reference to this one cause of crime and misery, the lives and thoughts of their nobles, priests, merchants, and men of luxurious life. Every other temptation is at last concentrated into this; pride, and lust, and envy, and anger all give up their strength to avarice. The sin of the whole world is essentially the sin of Judas. Men do not disbelieve their Christ; but they sell Him.

Sibyl. But surely that is the fault of human nature? it is not caused by the accident, as it were, of there being a pretty metal, like gold, to be found by digging. If people could not find that, would they not find something else, and quarrel for it instead?

L. No. Wherever legislators have succeeded in excluding, for a time, jewels and precious metals from among national possessions, the national spirit has remained healthy. Covetousness is not natural to man — generosity is; but covetousness must be excited by a special cause, as a given disease by a given miasma; and the essential nature of a material for the excitement of covetousness is, that it shall be a beautiful thing which can be retained without a use. The moment we can use our possessions to any good purpose ourselves, the instinct of communicating that use to others rises side by side with our power. If you can read a book rightly, you will want others to hear it; if you can enjoy a picture rightly, you will want others to see it: learn how to manage a horse, a plough, or a ship, and you will desire to make your subordinates good horsemen, ploughmen, or sailors; you will never be able to see the fine instrument you are master of, abused; but, once fix your desire on anything useless, and all the purest pride and folly in your heart will mix with the desire, and make you at last wholly inhuman, a mere ugly lump of stomach and suckers, like a cuttle-fish.

Sibyl. But surely, these two beautiful things, gold and diamonds, must have been appointed to some good purpose?

L. Quite conceivably so, my dear: as also earthquakes and pestilences; but of such ultimate purposes we can have no sight. The practical, immediate office of the earthquake and pestilence is to slay us, like moths; and, as moths, we shall be wise to live out of their way. So, the practical, immediate office of gold and diamonds is the multiplied destruction of souls (in whatever sense you have been taught to understand that phrase); and the paralysis of wholesome human effort and thought on the face of God’s earth: and a wise nation will live out of the way of them. The money which the English habitually spend in cutting diamonds would, in ten years, if it were applied to cutting rocks instead, leave no dangerous reef nor difficult harbour round the whole island coast. Great Britain would be a diamond worth cutting, indeed, a true piece of regalia. (Leaves this to their thoughts for a little while.) Then, also, we poor mineralogists might sometimes have the chance of seeing a fine crystal of diamond unhacked by the jeweller.

Sibyl. Would it be more beautiful uncut?

L. No; but of infinite interest. We might even come to know something about the making of diamonds.

Sibyl. I thought the chemists could make them already?

L. In very small black crystals, yes; but no one knows how they are formed where they are found; or if indeed they are formed there at all. These, in my hand, look as if they had been swept down with the gravel and gold; only we can trace the gravel and gold to their native rocks, but not the diamonds. Read the account given of the diamond in any good work on mineralogy; — you will find nothing but lists of localities of gravel, or conglomerate rock (which is only an old indurated gravel). Some say it was once a vegetable gum; but it may have been charred wood; but what one would like to know is, mainly, why charcoal should make itself into diamonds in India, and only into black lead in Borrowdale.

Sibyl. Are they wholly the same, then?

L. There is a little iron mixed with our black lead but nothing to hinder its crystallisation. Your pencils in fact are all pointed with formless diamond, though they would be HHH pencils to purpose, if it crystallised.

Subyl. But what is crystallisation?

L. A pleasant question, when one’s half asleep, and it has been tea time these two hours. What thoughtless things girls are!

Sibyl. Yes, we are; but we want to know, for all that.

L. My dear, it would take a week to tell you.

Sibyl. Well, take it, and tell us.

L. But nobody knows anything about it.

Sibyl. Then tell us something that nobody knows.

L. Get along with you, and tell Dora to make tea.

(The house rises; but of course the Lecturer wanted to be forced to lecture again, and was.)

1 Dante, Inf. 7. 1.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33