The Ethics of the Dust, by John Ruskin

Lecture VIII.

Crystal Caprice.

Formal Lecture in Schoolroom, after some practical examination of minerals.

L. We have seen enough, children, though very little of what might be seen if we had more time, of mineral structures produced by visible opposition, or contest among elements; structures of which the variety, however great, need not surprise us: for we quarrel, ourselves, for many and slight causes; — much more, one should think, may crystals, who can only feel the antagonism, not argue about it. But there is a yet more singular mimicry of our human ways in the varieties of form which appear owing to no antagonistic force; but merely to the variable humour and caprice of the crystals themselves: and I have asked you all to come into the schoolroom to-day, because, of course, this is a part of the crystal mind which must be peculiarly interesting to a feminine audience. (Great symptoms of disapproval on the part of said audience.) Now, you need not pretend that it will not interest you; why should it not? It is true that we men are never capricious; but that only makes us the more dull and disagreeable. You, who are crystalline in brightness, as well as in caprice, charm infinitely, by infinitude of change. (Audible murmurs of ‘Worse and worse!’ ‘As if we could be got over that way!’ &c. The Lecturer, however, observing the expression of the features to be more complacent, proceeds.) And the most curious mimicry, if not of your changes of fashion, at least of your various modes (in healthy periods) of national costume, takes place among the crystals of different countries. With a little experience, it is quite possible to say at a glance, in what districts certain crystals have been found; and although, if we had knowledge extended and accurate enough, we might of course ascertain the laws and circumstances which have necessarily produced the form peculiar to each locality, this would be just as true of the fancies of the human mind. If we could know the exact circumstances which affect it, we could foretell what now seems to us only caprice of thought, as well as what now seems to us only caprice of crystal: nay, so far as our knowledge reaches, it is on the whole easier to find some reason why the peasant girls of Berne should wear their caps in the shape of butterflies; and the peasant girls of Munich their’s in the shape of shells, than to say why the rock-crystals of Dauphiné should all have their summits of the shape of lip-pieces of flageolets, while those of St. Gothard are symmetrical; or why the fluor of Chamouni is rose-coloured, and in octahedrons, while the fluor of Weardale is green, and in cubes. Still farther removed is the hope, at present, of accounting for minor differences in modes of grouping and construction. Take, for instance, the caprices of this single mineral, quartz; — variations upon a single theme. It has many forms; but see what it will make out of this one, the six-sided prism. For shortness’ sake, I shall call the body of the prism its ‘column,’ and the pyramid at the extremities its ‘cap.’ Now, here, first you have a straight column, as long and thin as a stalk of asparagus, with two little caps at the ends; and here you have a short thick column, as solid as a haystack, with two fat caps at the ends; and here you have two caps fastened together, and no column at all between them! Then here is a crystal with its column fat in the middle, and tapering to a little cap; and here is one stalked like a mushroom, with a huge cap put on the top of a slender column! Then here is a column built wholly out of little caps, with a large smooth cap at the top. And here is a column built of columns and caps; the caps all truncated about half way to their points. And in both these last, the little crystals are set anyhow, and build the large one in a disorderly way; but here is a crystal made of columns and truncated caps, set in regular terraces all the way up.

Mary. But are not these, groups of crystals, rather than one crystal?

L. What do you mean by a group, and what by one crystal?

Dora (audibly aside, to Mary, who is brought to pause). You know you are never expected to answer, Mary.

L. I’m sure this is easy enough. What do you mean by a group of people?

Mary. Three or four together, or a good many together, like the caps in these crystals.

L. But when a great many persons get together they don’t take the shape of one person?

(Mary still at pause.)

Isabel. No, because they can’t; but, you know the crystals can; so why shouldn’t they?

L. Well, they don’t; that is to say, they don’t always, nor even often. Look here, Isabel.

Isabel. What a nasty ugly thing!

L. I’m glad you think it so ugly. Yet it is made of beautiful crystals; they are a little grey and cold in colour, but most of them are clear.

Isabel. But they’re in such horrid, horrid disorder!

L. Yes; all disorder is horrid, when it is among things that are naturally orderly. Some little girl’s rooms are naturally disorderly, I suppose; or I don’t know how they could live in them, if they cry out so when they only see quartz crystals in confusion.

Isabel. Oh! but how come they to be like that?

L. You may well ask. And yet you will always hear people talking as if they thought order more wonderful than disorder! It is wonderful — as we have seen; but to me, as to you, child, the supremely wonderful thing is that nature should ever be ruinous or wasteful, or deathful! I look at this wild piece of crystallisation with endless astonishment.

Mary. Where does it come from?

L. The Tête Noire of Chamonix. What makes it more strange is that it should be in a vein of fine quartz rock. If it were in a mouldering rock, it would be natural enough; but in the midst of so fine substance, here are the crystals tossed in a heap; some large, myriads small (almost as small as dust), tumbling over each other like a terrified crowd, and glued together by the sides, and edges, and backs, and heads; some warped, and some pushed out and in, and all spoiled and each spoiling the rest.

Mary. And how flat they all are!

L. Yes; that’s the fashion at the Tête Noire.

Mary. But surely this is ruin, not caprice?

L. I believe it is in great part misfortune; and we will examine these crystal troubles in next lecture. But if you want to see the gracefullest and happiest caprices of which dust is capable, you must go to the Hartz; not that I ever mean to go there myself, for I want to retain the romantic feeling about the name; and I have done myself some harm already by seeing the monotonous and heavy form of the Brocken from the suburbs of Brunswick. But whether the mountains be picturesque or not, the tricks which the goblins (as I am told) teach the crystals in them, are incomparably pretty. They work chiefly on the mind of a docile, bluish coloured, carbonate of lime; which comes out of a grey limestone. The goblins take the greatest possible care of its education, and see that nothing happens to it to hurt its temper; and when it may be supposed to have arrived at the crisis which is, to a well brought up mineral, what presentation at court is to a young lady — after which it is expected to set fashions — there’s no end to its pretty ways of behaving. First it will make itself into pointed darts as fine as hoar-frost; here, it is changed into a white fur as fine as silk; here into little crowns and circlets, as bright as silver; as if for the gnome princesses to wear; here it is in beautiful little plates, for them to eat off; presently it is in towers which they might be imprisoned in; presently in caves and cells, where they may make nun-gnomes of themselves, and no gnome ever hear of them more; here is some of it in sheaves, like corn; here, some in drifts, like snow; here, some in rays, like stars: and, though these are, all of them, necessarily, shapes that the mineral takes in other places, they are all taken here with such a grace that you recognise the high caste and breeding of the crystals wherever you meet them; and know at once they are Hartz-born.

Of course, such fine things as these are only done by crystals which are perfectly good, and good-humoured; and of course, also, there are ill-humoured crystals who torment each other, and annoy quieter crystals, yet without coming to anything like serious war. Here (for once) is some ill-disposed quartz, tormenting a peaceable octahedron of fluor, in mere caprice. I looked at it the other night so long, and so wonderingly, just before putting my candle out, that I fell into another strange dream. But you don’t care about dreams.

Dora. No; we didn’t, yesterday; but you know we are made up of caprice; so we do, to-day: and you must tell it us directly.

L. Well, you see, Neith and her work were still much in my mind; and then, I had been looking over these Hartz things for you, and thinking of the sort of grotesque sympathy there seemed to be in them with the beautiful fringe and pinnacle work of Northern architecture. So, when I fell asleep, I thought I saw Neith and St. Barbara talking together.

Dora. But what had St. Barbara to do with it?1

L. My dear, I am quite sure St. Barbara is the patroness of good architects: not St. Thomas, whatever the old builders thought. It might be very fine, according to the monks’ notions, in St. Thomas, to give all his employer’s money away to the poor: but breaches of contract are bad foundations; and I believe, it was not he, but St. Barbara, who overlooked the work in all the buildings you and I care about. However that may be, it was certainly she whom I saw in my dream with Neith. Neith was sitting weaving, and I thought she looked sad, and threw her shuttle slowly; and St. Barbara was standing at her side, in a stiff little gown, all ins and outs, and angles; but so bright with embroidery that it dazzled me whenever she moved; the train of it was just like a heap of broken jewels, it was so stiff, and full of corners, and so many-coloured, and bright. Her hair fell over her shoulders in long, delicate waves, from under a little three pinnacled crown, like a tower. She was asking Neith about the laws of architecture in Egypt and Greece; and when Neith told her the measures of the pyramids, St. Barbara said she thought they would have been better three-cornered: and when Neith told her the measures of the Parthenon, St. Barbara said she thought it ought to have had two transepts. But she was pleased when Neith told her of the temple of the dew, and of the Caryan maidens bearing its frieze: and then she thought that perhaps Neith would like to hear what sort of temples she was building herself, in the French valleys, and on the crags of the Rhine. So she began gossiping, just as one of you might to an old lady: and certainly she talked in the sweetest way in the world to Neith; and explained to her all about crockets and pinnacles: and Neith sat, looking very grave; and always graver as St. Barbara went on; till at last, I’m sorry to say, St. Barbara lost her temper a little.

May (very grave herself). ‘St. Barbara?’

L. Yes, May. Why shouldn’t she? It was very tiresome of Neith to sit looking like that.

May. But, then, St. Barbara was a saint!

L. What’s that, May?

May. A saint! A saint is — I am sure you know!

L. If I did, it would not make me sure that you knew too, May: but I don’t.

Violet (expressing the incredulity of the audience). Oh, — sir!

L. That is to say, I know that people are called saints who are supposed to be better than others: but I don’t know how much better they must be, in order to be saints; nor how nearly anybody may be a saint, and yet not be quite one; nor whether everybody who is called a saint was one; nor whether everybody who isn’t called a saint, isn’t one.

(General silence; the audience feeling themselves on the verge of the Infinities — and a little shocked — and much puzzled by so many questions at once.)

L. Besides, did you never hear that verse about being ‘called to be saints’?

May (repeats Rom. i. 7.)

L. Quite right, May. Well, then, who are called to be that? People in Rome only?

May. Everybody, I suppose, whom God loves.

L. What! little girls as well as other people?

May. All grown-up people, I mean.

L. Why not little girls? Are they wickeder when they are little?

May. Oh, I hope not.

L. Why not little girls, then?

(Pause.)

Lily. Because, you know, we can’t be worth anything if we’re ever so good; — I mean, if we try to be ever so good; and we can’t do difficult things — like saints.

L. I am afraid, my dear, that old people are not more able or willing for their difficulties than you children are for yours. All I can say is, that if ever I see any of you, when you are seven or eight and twenty, knitting your brows over any work you want to do or to understand, as I saw you, Lily, knitting your brows over your slate this morning, I should think you very noble women. But — to come back to my dream — St. Barbara did lose her temper a little; and I was not surprised. For you can’t think how provoking Neith looked, sitting there just like a statue of sandstone; only going on weaving, like a machine; and never quickening the cast of her shuttle; while St. Barbara was telling her so eagerly all about the most beautiful things, and chattering away, as fast as bells ring on Christmas Eve, till she saw that Neith didn’t care; and then St. Barbara got as red as a rose, and stopped, just in time; — or I think she would really have said something naughty.

Isabel. Oh, please, but didn’t Neith say anything then?

L. Yes. She said, quite quietly, ‘It may be very pretty, my love; but it is all nonsense.’

Isabel. Oh dear, oh dear; and then?

L. Well; then I was a little angry myself, and hoped St. Barbara would be quite angry; but she wasn’t. She bit her lips first; and then gave a great sigh — such a wild, sweet sigh — and then she knelt down and hid her face on Neith’s knees. Then Neith smiled a little, and was moved.

Isabel. Oh, I am so glad!

L. And she touched St. Barbara’s forehead with a flower of white lotus; and St. Barbara sobbed once or twice, and then said: ‘If you only could see how beautiful it is, and how much it makes people feel what is good and lovely; and if you could only hear the children singing in the Lady chapels!’ And Neith smiled, — but still sadly, — and said, ‘How do you know what I have seen, or heard, my love? Do you think all those vaults and towers of yours have been built without me? There was not a pillar in your Giotto’s Santa Maria del Fiore which I did not set true by my spearshaft as it rose. But this pinnacle and flame work which has set your little heart on fire, is all vanity; and you will see what it will come to, and that soon; and none will grieve for it more than I. And then every one will disbelieve your pretty symbols and types. Men must be spoken simply to, my dear, if you would guide them kindly, and long.’ But St. Barbara answered, that, ‘Indeed she thought every one liked her work,’ and that ‘the people of different towns were as eager about their cathedral towers as about their privileges or their markets;’ and then she asked Neith to come and build something with her, wall against tower; and ‘see whether the people will be as much pleased with your building as with mine.’ But Neith answered, ‘I will not contend with you, my dear. I strive not with those who love me; and for those who hate me, it is not well to strive with me, as weaver Arachne knows. And remember, child, that nothing is ever done beautifully, which is done in rivalship; nor nobly, which is done in pride.’

Then St. Barbara hung her head quite down, and said she was very sorry she had been so foolish; and kissed Neith; and stood thinking a minute: and then her eyes got bright again, and she said, she would go directly and build a chapel with five windows in it; four for the four cardinal virtues, and one for humility, in the middle, bigger than the rest. And Neith very nearly laughed quite out, I thought; certainly her beautiful lips lost all their sternness for an instant; then she said, ‘Well, love, build it, but do not put so many colours into your windows as you usually do; else no one will be able to see to read, inside: and when it is built, let a poor village priest consecrate it, and not an archbishop.’ St. Barbara started a little, I thought, and turned as if to say something; but changed her mind, and gathered up her train, and went out. And Neith bent herself again to her loom, in which she was weaving a web of strange dark colours, I thought; but perhaps it was only after the glittering of St. Barbara’s embroidered train: and I tried to make out the figures in Neith’s web, and confused myself among them, as one always does in dreams; and then the dream changed altogether, and I found myself, all at once, among a crowd of little Gothic and Egyptian spirits, who were quarrelling: at least the Gothic ones were trying to quarrel; for the Egyptian ones only sat with their hands on their knees, and their aprons sticking out very stiffly; and stared. And after a while I began to understand what the matter was. It seemed that some of the troublesome building imps, who meddle and make continually, even in the best Gothic work, had been listening to St. Barbara’s talk with Neith; and had made up their minds that Neith had no workpeople who could build against them. They were but dull imps, as you may fancy by their thinking that; and never had done much, except disturbing the great Gothic building angels at their work, and playing tricks to each other; indeed, of late they had been living years and years, like bats, up under the cornices of Strasbourg and Cologne cathedrals, with nothing to do but to make mouths at the people below. However, they thought they knew everything about tower building; and those who had heard what Neith said, told the rest; and they all flew down directly, chattering in German, like jackdaws, to show Neith’s people what they could do. And they had found some of Neith’s old workpeople somewhere near Sais, sitting in the sun, with their hands on their knees; and abused them heartily: and Neith’s people did not mind at first, but, after a while, they seemed to get tired of the noise; and one or two rose up slowly, and laid hold of their measuring rods, and said, ‘If St. Barbara’s people liked to build with them, tower against pyramid, they would show them how to lay stones.’ Then the little Gothic spirits threw a great many double somersaults for joy; and put the tips of their tongues out slily to each other, on one side; and I heard the Egyptians say, ‘they must be some new kind of frog — they didn’t think there was much building in them.’ However, the stiff old workers took their rods, as I said, and measured out a square space of sand; but as soon as the German spirits saw that, they declared they wanted exactly that bit of ground to build on, themselves. Then the Egyptian builders offered to go farther off, and the Germans ones said, ‘Ja wohl.’ But as soon as the Egyptians had measured out another square, the little Germans said they must have some of that too. Then Neith’s people laughed; and said, ‘they might take as much as they liked, but they would not move the plan of their pyramid again.’ Then the little Germans took three pieces, and began to build three spires directly; one large, and two little. And when the Egyptians saw they had fairly begun, they laid their foundation all round, of large square stones: and began to build, so steadily that they had like to have swallowed up the three little German spires. So when the Gothic spirits saw that, they built their spires leaning, like the tower of Pisa, that they might stick out at the side of the pyramid. And Neith’s people stared at them; and thought it very clever, but very wrong; and on they went, in their own way, and said nothing. Then the little Gothic spirits were terribly provoked because they could not spoil the shape of the pyramid; and they sat down all along the ledges of it to make faces; but that did no good. Then they ran to the corners, and put their elbows on their knees, and stuck themselves out as far as they could, and made more faces; but that did no good, neither. Then they looked up to the sky, and opened their mouths wide, and gobbled, and said it was too hot for work, and wondered when it would rain; but that did no good, neither. And all the while the Egyptian spirits were laying step above step, patiently. But when the Gothic ones looked, and saw how high they had got, they said, ‘Ach, Himmel!’ and flew down in a great black cluster to the bottom; and swept out a level spot in the sand with their wings, in no time, and began building a tower straight up, as fast as they could. And the Egyptians stood still again to stare at them; for the Gothic spirits had got quite into a passion, and were really working very wonderfully. They cut the sandstone into strips as fine as reeds; and put one reed on the top of another, so that you could not see where they fitted: and they twisted them in and out like basket work, and knotted them into likenesses of ugly faces, and of strange beasts biting each other; and up they went, and up still, and they made spiral staircases at the corners, for the loaded workers to come up by (for I saw they were but weak imps, and could not fly with stones on their backs), and then they made traceried galleries for them to run round by; and so up again; with finer and finer work, till the Egyptians wondered whether they meant the thing for a tower or a pillar: and I heard them saying to one another, ‘It was nearly as pretty as lotus stalks; and if it were not for the ugly faces, there would be a fine temple, if they were going to build it all with pillars as big as that!’ But in a minute afterwards, — just as the Gothic spirits had carried their work as high as the upper course, but three or four, of the pyramid — the Egyptians called out to them to ‘mind what they were about, for the sand was running away from under one of their tower corners.’ But it was too late to mind what they were about; for, in another instant, the whole tower sloped aside; and the Gothic imps rose out of it like a flight of puffins, in a single cloud; but screaming worse than any puffins you ever heard: and down came the tower, all in a piece, like a falling poplar, with its head right on the flank of the pyramid; against which it snapped short off. And of course that waked me!

Mary. What a shame of you to have such a dream, after all you have told us about Gothic architecture!

L. If you have understood anything I ever told you about it, you know that no architecture was ever corrupted more miserably; or abolished more justly by the accomplishment of its own follies. Besides, even in its days of power, it was subject to catastrophes of this kind. I have stood too often, mourning, by the grand fragment of the apse of Beauvais, not to have that fact well burnt into me. Still, you must have seen, surely, that these imps were of the Flamboyant school; or, at least, of the German schools correspondent with it in extravagance.

Mary. But, then, where is the crystal about which you dreamed all this?

L. Here; but I suppose little Pthah has touched it again, for it is very small. But, you see, here is the pyramid, built of great square stones of fluor spar, straight up; and here are the three little pinnacles of mischievous quartz, which have set themselves, at the same time, on the same foundation; only they lean like the tower of Pisa, and come out obliquely at the side: and here is one great spire of quartz which seems as if it had been meant to stand straight up, a little way off; and then had fallen down against the pyramid base, breaking its pinnacle away. In reality, it has crystallised horizontally, and terminated imperfectly: but, then, by what caprice does one crystal form horizontally, when all the rest stand upright? But this is nothing to the phantasies of fluor, and quartz, and some other such companions, when they get leave to do anything they like. I could show you fifty specimens, about every one of which you might fancy a new fairy tale. Not that, in truth, any crystals get leave to do quite what they like; and many of them are sadly tried, and have little time for caprices — poor things!

Mary. I thought they always looked as if they were either in play or in mischief! What trials have they?

L. Trials much like our own. Sickness, and starvation; fevers, and agues, and palsy; oppression; and old age, and the necessity of passing away in their time, like all else. If there’s any pity in you, you must come to-morrow, and take some part in these crystal griefs.

Dora. I am sure we shall cry till our eyes are red.

L. Ah, you may laugh, Dora: but I’ve been made grave, not once, nor twice, to see that even crystals ‘cannot choose but be old’ at last. It may be but a shallow proverb of the Justice’s; but it is a shrewdly wide one.

Dora (pensive, for once). I suppose it is very dreadful to be old! But then (brightening again), what should we do without our dear old friends, and our nice old lecturers?

L. If all nice old lecturers were minded as little as one I know of ——

Dora. And if they all meant as little what they say, would they not deserve it? But we’ll come — we’ll come, and cry.

1 ‘St. Barbara.’

I would have given the legends of St. Barbara, and St. Thomas, if I had thought it always well for young readers to have everything at once told them which they may wish to know. They will remember the stories better after taking some trouble to find them: and the text is intelligible enough as it stands. The idea of St. Barbara, as there given is founded partly on her legend in Peter de Natalibus, partly on the beautiful photograph of Van Eyck’s picture of her at Antwerp: which was some time since published at Lille.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/ruskin/john/dust/chapter8.html

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