The Ethics of the Dust, by John Ruskin

Lecture III.

The Crystal Life.

A very dull Lecture, wilfully brought upon themselves by the elder children. Some of the young ones have, however, managed to get in by mistake. Scene, the Schoolroom.

L. So I am to stand up here merely to be asked questions, to-day, Miss Mary, am I?

Mary. Yes; and you must answer them plainly; without telling us any more stories. You are quite spoiling the children: the poor little things’ heads are turning round like kaleidoscopes; and they don’t know in the least what you mean. Nor do we old ones, either, for that matter: to-day you must really tell us nothing but facts.

L. I am sworn; but you won’t like it, a bit.

Mary. Now, first of all, what do you mean by ‘bricks?’ — Are the smallest particles of minerals all of some accurate shape, like bricks?

L. I do not know, Miss Mary; I do not even know if anybody knows. The smallest atoms which are visibly and practically put together to make large crystals, may better be described as ‘limited in fixed directions’ than as ‘of fixed forms.’ But I can tell you nothing clear about ultimate atoms: you will find the idea of little bricks, or, perhaps, of little spheres, available for all the uses you will have to put it to.

Mary. Well, it’s very provoking; one seems always to be stopped just when one is coming to the very thing one wants to know.

L. No, Mary, for we should not wish to know anything but what is easily and assuredly knowable. There’s no end to it If I could show you, or myself, a group of ultimate atoms, quite clearly, in this magnifying glass, we should both be presently vexed because we could not break them in two pieces, and see their insides.

Mary. Well then, next, what do you mean by the flying of the bricks? What is it the atoms do, that is like flying?

L. When they are dissolved, or uncrystallised, they are really separated from each other, like a swarm of gnats in the air, or like a shoal of fish in the sea; — generally at about equal distances. In currents of solutions, or at different depths of them, one part may be more full of the dissolved atoms than another; but on the whole, you may think of them as equidistant, like the spots in the print of your gown. If they are separated by force of heat only, the substance is said to be melted; if they are separated by any other substance, as particles of sugar by water, they are said to be ‘dissolved.’ Note this distinction carefully, all of you.

Dora. I will be very particular. When next you tell me there isn’t sugar enough in your tea, I will say, ‘It is not yet dissolved, sir.’

L. I tell you what shall be dissolved, Miss Dora; and that’s the present parliament, if the members get too saucy.

(Dora folds her hands and casts down her eyes.)

L. (proceeds in state). Now, Miss Mary, you know already, I believe, that nearly everything will melt, under a sufficient heat, like wax. Limestone melts (under pressure); sand melts; granite melts; the lava of a volcano is a mixed mass of many kinds of rocks, melted: and any melted substance nearly always, if not always, crystallises as it cools; the more slowly the more perfectly. Water melts at what we call the freezing, but might just as wisely, though not as conveniently, call the melting, point; and radiates as it cools into the most beautiful of all known crystals. Glass melts at a greater heat, and will crystallise, if you let it cool slowly enough, in stars, much like snow. Gold needs more heat to melt it, but crystallises also exquisitely, as I will presently show you. Arsenic and sulphur crystallise from their vapours. Now in any of these cases, either of melted, dissolved, or vaporous bodies, the particles are usually separated from each other, either by heat, or by an intermediate substance; and in crystallising they are both brought nearer to each other, and packed, so as to fit as closely as possible: the essential part of the business being not the bringing together, but the packing. Who packed your trunk for you, last holidays, Isabel?

Isabel. Lily does, always.

L. And how much can you allow for Lily’s good packing, in guessing what will go into the trunk?

Isabel. Oh! I bring twice as much as the trunk holds. Lily always gets everything in.

Lily. Ah! but, Isey, if you only knew what a time it takes! and since you’ve had those great hard buttons on your frocks, I can’t do anything with them. Buttons won’t go anywhere, you know.

L. Yes, Lily, it would be well if she only knew what a time it takes; and I wish any of us knew what a time crystallisation takes, for that is consummately fine packing. The particles of the rock are thrown down, just as Isabel brings her things — in a heap; and innumerable Lilies, not of the valley, but of the rock, come to pack them. But it takes such a time!

However, the best — out and out the best — way of understanding the thing, is to crystallise yourselves.

The Audience. Ourselves!

L. Yes; not merely as you did the other day, carelessly, on the schoolroom forms; but carefully and finely, out in the playground. You can play at crystallisation there as much as you please.

Kathleen and Jessie. Oh! how? — how?

L. First, you must put yourselves together, as close as you can, in the middle of the grass, and form, for first practice any figure you like.

Jessie. Any dancing figure, do you mean?

L. No; I mean a square, or a cross, or a diamond. Any figure you like, standing close together. You had better outline it first on the turf, with sticks, or pebbles, so as to see that it is rightly drawn; then get into it and enlarge or diminish it at one side, till you are all quite in it, and no empty space left.

Dora. Crinoline and all?

L. The crinoline may stand eventually for rough crystalline surface, unless you pin it in; and then you may make a polished crystal of yourselves.

Lily. Oh, we’ll pin it in — we’ll pin it in!

L. Then, when you are all in the figure, let every one note her place, and who is next her on each side; and let the outsiders count how many places they stand from the corners.

Kathleen. Yes, yes, — and then?

L. Then you must scatter all over the playground — right over it from side to side, and end to end; and put yourselves all at equal distances from each other, everywhere. You needn’t mind doing it very accurately, but so as to be nearly equidistant; not less than about three yards apart from each other, on every side.

Jessie. We can easily cut pieces of string of equal length, to hold. And then?

L. Then, at a given signal, let everybody walk, at the same rate, towards the outlined figure in the middle. You had better sing as you walk; that will keep you in good time. And as you close in towards it, let each take her place, and the next comers fit themselves in beside the first ones, till you are all in the figure again.

Kathleen. Oh! how we shall run against each other! What fun it will be!

L. No, no, Miss Katie; I can’t allow any running against each other. The atoms never do that, whatever human creatures do. You must all know your places, and find your way to them without jostling.

Lily. But how ever shall we do that?

Isabel. Mustn’t the ones in the middle be the nearest, and the outside ones farther off — when we go away to scatter, I mean?

L. Yes; you must be very careful to keep your order; you will soon find out how to do it; it is only like soldiers forming square, except that each must stand still in her place as she reaches it, and the others come round her; and you will have much more complicated figures, afterwards, to form, than squares.

Isabel. I’ll put a stone at my place: then I shall know it.

L. You might each nail a bit of paper to the turf, at your place, with your name upon it: but it would be of no use, for if you don’t know your places, you will make a fine piece of business of it, while you are looking for your names. And, Isabel, if with a little head, and eyes, and a brain (all of them very good and serviceable of their kind, as such things go), you think you cannot know your place without a stone at it, after examining it well, — how do you think each atom knows its place, when it never was there before, and there’s no stone at it?

Isabel. But does every atom know its place?

L. How else could it get there?

Mary. Are they not attracted to their places?

L. Cover a piece of paper with spots, at equal intervals; and then imagine any kind of attraction you choose, or any law of attraction, to exist between the spots, and try how, on that permitted supposition, you can attract them into the figure of a Maltese cross, in the middle of the paper.

Mary (having tried it). Yes; I see that I cannot:— one would need all kinds of attractions, in different ways, at different places. But you do not mean that the atoms are alive?

L. What is it to be alive?

Dora. There now; you’re going to be provoking, I know.

L. I do not see why it should be provoking to be asked what it is to be alive. Do you think you don’t know whether you are alive or not?

(Isabel skips to the end of the room and back.)

L. Yes, Isabel, that’s all very fine; and you and I may call that being alive: but a modern philosopher calls it being in a ‘mode of motion.’ It requires a certain quantity of heat to take you to the sideboard; and exactly the same quantity to bring you back again. That’s all.

Isabel. No, it isn’t. And besides, I’m not hot.

L. I am, sometimes, at the way they talk. However, you know, Isabel, you might have been a particle of a mineral, and yet have been carried round the room, or anywhere else, by chemical forces, in the liveliest way.

Isabel. Yes; but I wasn’t carried: I carried myself.

L. The fact is, mousie, the difficulty is not so much to say what makes a thing alive, as what makes it a Self. As soon as you are shut off from the rest of the universe into a Self, you begin to be alive.

Violet (indignant). Oh, surely — surely that cannot be so. Is not all the life of the soul in communion, not separation?

L. There can be no communion where there is no distinction. But we shall be in an abyss of metaphysics presently, if we don’t look out; and besides, we must not be too grand, to-day, for the younger children. We’ll be grand, some day, by ourselves, if we must. (The younger children are not pleased, and prepare to remonstrate; but, knowing by experience, that all conversations in which the word ‘communion’ occurs, are unintelligible, think better of it.) Meantime, for broad answer about the atoms. I do not think we should use the word ‘life,’ of any energy which does not belong to a given form. A seed, or an egg, or a young animal are properly called ‘alive’ with respect to the force belonging to those forms, which consistently develops that form, and no other. But the force which crystallises a mineral appears to be chiefly external, and it does not produce an entirely determinate and individual form, limited in size, but only an aggregation, in which some limiting laws must be observed.

Mary. But I do not see much difference, that way, between a crystal and a tree.

L. Add, then, that the mode of the energy in a living thing implies a continual change in its elements; and a period for its end. So you may define life by its attached negative, death; and still more by its attached positive, birth. But I won’t be plagued any more about this, just now; if you choose to think the crystals alive, do, and welcome. Rocks have always been called ‘living’ in their native place.

Mary. There’s one question more; then I’ve done.

L. Only one?

Mary. Only one.

L. But if it is answered, won’t it turn into two?

Mary. No; I think it will remain single, and be comfortable.

L. Let me hear it.

Mary. You know, we are to crystallise ourselves out of the whole playground. Now, what playground have the minerals? Where are they scattered before they are crystallised; and where are the crystals generally made?

L. That sounds to me more like three questions than one, Mary. If it is only one, it is a wide one.

Mary. I did not say anything about the width of it.

L. Well, I must keep it within the best compass I can. When rocks either dry from a moist state, or cool from a heated state, they necessarily alter in bulk; and cracks, or open spaces, form in them in all directions. These cracks must be filled up with solid matter, or the rock would eventually become a ruinous heap. So, sometimes by water, sometimes by vapour, sometimes nobody knows how, crystallisable matter is brought from somewhere, and fastens itself in these open spaces, so as to bind the rock together again, with crystal cement. A vast quantity of hollows are formed in lavas by bubbles of gas, just as the holes are left in bread well baked. In process of time these cavities are generally filled with various crystals.

Mary. But where does the crystallising substance come from?

L. Sometimes out of the rock itself; sometimes from below or above, through the veins. The entire substance of the contracting rock may be filled with liquid, pressed into it so as to fill every pore; — or with mineral vapour; — or it may be so charged at one place, and empty at another. There’s no end to the ‘may be’s.’ But all that you need fancy, for our present purpose, is that hollows in the rocks, like the caves in Derbyshire, are traversed by liquids or vapour containing certain elements in a more or less free or separate state, which crystallise on the cave walls.

Sibyl. There now; — Mary has had all her questions answered: it’s my turn to have mine.

L. Ah, there’s a conspiracy among you, I see. I might have guessed as much.

Dora. I’m sure you ask us questions enough! How can you have the heart, when you dislike so to be asked them yourself?

L. My dear child, if people do not answer questions, it does not matter how many they are asked, because they’ve no trouble with them. Now, when I ask you questions, I never expect to be answered; but when you ask me, you always do; and it’s not fair.

Dora. Very well, we shall understand, next time.

Sibyl. No, but seriously, we all want to ask one thing more, quite dreadfully.

L. And I don’t want to be asked it, quite dreadfully; but you’ll have your own way, of course.

Sibyl. We none of us understand about the lower Pthah. It was not merely yesterday; but in all we have read about him in Wilkinson, or in any book, we cannot understand what the Egyptians put their god into that ugly little deformed shape for.

L. Well, I’m glad it’s that sort of question; because I can answer anything I like, to that.

Egypt. Anything you like will do quite well for us; we shall be pleased with the answer, if you are.

L. I am not so sure of that, most gracious queen; for I must begin by the statement that queens seem to have disliked all sorts of work, in those days, as much as some queens dislike sewing to-day.

Egypt. Now, it’s too bad! and just when I was trying to say the civillest thing I could!

L. But, Egypt, why did you tell me you disliked sewing so?

Egypt. Did not I show you how the thread cuts my fingers? and I always get cramp, somehow, in my neck, if I sew long.

L. Well, I suppose the Egyptian queens thought every body got cramp in their neck, if they sewed long; and that thread always cut people’s fingers. At all events, every kind of manual labour was despised both by them, and the Greeks; and, while they owned the real good and fruit of it, they yet held it a degradation to all who practised it. Also, knowing the laws of life thoroughly, they perceived that the special practice necessary to bring any manual art to perfection strengthened the body distortedly; one energy or member gaining at the expense of the rest. They especially dreaded and despised any kind of work that had to be done near fire: yet, feeling what they owed to it in metal-work, as the basis of all other work, they expressed this mixed reverence and scorn in the varied types of the lame Hephæstus, and the lower Pthah.

Sibyl. But what did you mean by making him say ‘everything great I can make small, and everything small great?’

L. I had my own separate meaning in that. We have seen in modern times the power of the lower Pthah developed in a separate way, which no Greek nor Egyptian could have conceived. It is the character of pure and eyeless manual labour to conceive everything as subjected to it: and, in reality, to disgrace and diminish all that is so subjected; aggrandising itself, and the thought of itself, at the expense of all noble things. I heard an orator, and a good one too, at the Working Men’s College, the other day, make a great point in a description of our railroads; saying, with grandly conducted emphasis, ‘They have made man greater, and the world less.’ His working audience were mightily pleased; they thought it so very fine a thing to be made bigger themselves; and all the rest of the world less. I should have enjoyed asking them (but it would have been a pity — they were so pleased), how much less they would like to have the world made; — and whether, at present, those of them really felt the biggest men, who lived in the least houses.

Sibyl. But then, why did you make Pthah say that he could make weak things strong, and small things great?

L. My dear, he is a boaster and self-assertor, by nature; but it is so far true. For instance, we used to have a fair in our neighbourhood — a very fine fair we thought it. You never saw such an one; but if you look at the engraving of Turner’s ‘St. Catherine’s Hill,’ you will see what it was like. There were curious booths, carried on poles; and peep-shows; and music, with plenty of drums and cymbals; and much barley-sugar and gingerbread, and the like: and in the alleys of this fair the London populace would enjoy themselves, after their fashion, very thoroughly. Well, the little Pthah set to work upon it one day; he made the wooden poles into iron ones, and put them across, like his own crooked legs, so that you always fall over them if you don’t look where you are going; and he turned all the canvas into panes of glass, and put it up on his iron cross-poles; and made all the little booths into one great booth; and people said it was very fine, and a new style of architecture; and Mr. Dickens said nothing was ever like it in Fairyland, which was very true. And then the little Pthah set to work to put fine fairings in it; and he painted the Nineveh bulls afresh, with the blackest eyes he could paint (because he had none himself), and he got the angels down from Lincoln choir, and gilded their wings like his gingerbread of old times; and he sent for everything else he could think of, and put it in his booth. There are the casts of Niobe and her children; and the Chimpanzee; and the wooden Caffres and New-Zealanders; and the Shakespeare House; and Le Grand Blondin, and Le Petit Blondin; and Handel; and Mozart; and no end of shops, and buns, and beer; and all the little-Pthah-worshippers say, never was anything so sublime!

Sibyl. Now, do you mean to say you never go to these Crystal Palace concerts? They’re as good as good can be.

L. I don’t go to the thundering things with a million of bad voices in them. When I want a song, I get Julia Mannering and Lucy Bertram and Counsellor Pleydell to sing ‘We be three poor Mariners’ to me; then I’ve no headache next morning. But I do go to the smaller concerts, when I can; for they are very good, as you say, Sibyl: and I always get a reserved seat somewhere near the orchestra, where I am sure I can see the kettle-drummer drum.

Sibyl. Now do be serious, for one minute.

L. I am serious — never was more so. You know one can’t see the modulation of violinists’ fingers, but one can see the vibration of the drummer’s hand; and it’s lovely.

Sibyl. But fancy going to a concert, not to hear, but to see!

L. Yes, it is very absurd. The quite right thing, I believe, is to go there to talk. I confess, however, that in most music, when very well done, the doing of it is to me the chiefly interesting part of the business. I’m always thinking how good it would be for the fat, supercilious people, who care so little for their half-crown’s worth, to be set to try and do a half-crown’s worth of anything like it.

Mary. But surely that Crystal Palace is a great good and help to the people of London?

L. The fresh air of the Norwood hills is, or was, my dear; but they are spoiling that with smoke as fast as they can. And the palace (as they call it) is a better place for them, by much, than the old fair; and it is always there, instead of for three days only; and it shuts up at proper hours of night. And good use may be made of the things in it, if you know how: but as for its teaching the people, it will teach them nothing but the lowest of the lower Pthah’s work — nothing but hammer and tongs. I saw a wonderful piece, of his doing, in the place, only the other day. Some unhappy metal-worker — I am not sure if it was not a metal-working firm — had taken three years to make a Golden eagle.

Sibyl. Of real gold?

L. No; of bronze, or copper, or some of their foul patent metal — it is no matter what. I meant a model of our chief British eagle. Every feather was made separately; and every filament of every feather separately, and so joined on; and all the quills modelled of the right length and right section, and at last the whole cluster of them fastened together. You know, children, I don’t think much of my own drawing; but take my proud word for once, that when I go to the Zoological Gardens, and happen to have a bit of chalk in my pocket, and the Gray Harpy will sit, without screwing his head round, for thirty seconds, — I can do a better thing of him in that time than the three years’ work of this industrious firm. For, during the thirty seconds, the eagle is my object, — not myself; and during the three years, the firm’s object, in every fibre of bronze it made, was itself, and not the eagle. That is the true meaning of the little Pthah’s having no eyes — he can see only himself. The Egyptian beetle was not quite the full type of him; our northern ground beetle is a truer one. It is beautiful to see it at work, gathering its treasures (such as they are) into little round balls; and pushing them home with the strong wrong end of it, — head downmost all the way, — like a modern political economist with his ball of capital, declaring that a nation can stand on its vices better than on its virtues. But away with you, children, now, for I’m getting cross.

Dora. I’m going down-stairs; I shall take care, at any rate, that there are no little Pthahs in the kitchen cupboards.

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