The Ethics of the Dust, by John Ruskin

Lecture IX.

Crystal Sorrows.

Working Lecture in Schoolroom.

L. We have been hitherto talking, children, as if crystals might live, and play, and quarrel, and behave ill or well, according to their characters, without interruption from anything else. But so far from this being so, nearly all crystals, whatever their characters, have to live a hard life of it, and meet with many misfortunes. If we could see far enough, we should find, indeed, that, at the root, all their vices were misfortunes: but to-day I want you to see what sort of troubles the best crystals have to go through, occasionally, by no fault of their own.

This black thing, which is one of the prettiest of the very few pretty black things in the world, is called ‘Tourmaline.’ It may be transparent, and green, or red, as well as black; and then no stone can be prettier (only, all the light that gets into it, I believe, comes out a good deal the worse; and is not itself again for a long while). But this is the commonest state of it, — opaque, and as black as jet.

Mary. What does ‘Tourmaline’ mean?

L. They say it is Ceylanese, and I don’t know Ceylanese; but we may always be thankful for a graceful word, whatever it means.

Mary. And what is it made of?

L. A little of everything; there’s always flint, and clay, and magnesia in it; and the black is iron, according to its fancy; and there’s boracic acid, if you know what that is; and if you don’t, I cannot tell you to-day; and it doesn’t signify; and there’s potash, and soda; and, on the whole, the chemistry of it is more like a mediæval doctor’s prescription, than the making of a respectable mineral: but it may, perhaps, be owing to the strange complexity of its make, that it has a notable habit which makes it, to me, one of the most interesting of minerals. You see these two crystals are broken right across, in many places, just as if they had been shafts of black marble fallen from a ruinous temple; and here they lie, imbedded in white quartz, fragment succeeding fragment, keeping the line of the original crystal, while the quartz fills up the intervening spaces. Now tourmaline has a trick of doing this, more than any other mineral I know: here is another bit which I picked up on the glacier of Macugnaga; it is broken, like a pillar built of very flat broad stones, into about thirty joints, and all these are heaved and warped away from each other sideways, almost into a line of steps; and then all is filled up with quartz paste. And here, lastly, is a green Indian piece, in which the pillar is first disjointed, and then wrung round into the shape of an S.

Mary. How can this have been done?

L. There are a thousand ways in which it may have been done; the difficulty is not to account for the doing of it; but for the showing of it in some crystals, and not in others. You never by any chance get a quartz crystal broken or twisted in this way. If it break or twist at all, which it does sometimes, like the spire of Dijon, it is by its own will or fault; it never seems to have been passively crushed. But, for the forces which cause this passive ruin of the tourmaline, — here is a stone which will show you multitudes of them in operation at once. It is known as ‘brecciated agate,’ beautiful, as you see; and highly valued as a pebble: yet, so far as I can read or hear, no one has ever looked at it with the least attention. At the first glance, you see it is made of very fine red striped agates, which have been broken into small pieces, and fastened together again by paste, also of agate. There would be nothing wonderful in this, if this were all. It is well known that by the movements of strata, portions of rock are often shattered to pieces:— well known also that agate is a deposit of flint by water under certain conditions of heat and pressure: there is, therefore, nothing wonderful in an agate’s being broken; and nothing wonderful in its being mended with the solution out of which it was itself originally congealed. And with this explanation, most people, looking at a brecciated agate, or brecciated anything, seem to be satisfied. I was so myself, for twenty years; but, lately happening to stay for some time at the Swiss Baden, where the beach of the Limmat is almost wholly composed of brecciated limestones, I began to examine them thoughtfully; and perceived, in the end, that they were, one and all, knots of as rich mystery as any poor little human brain was ever lost in. That piece of agate in your hand, Mary, will show you many of the common phenomena of breccias; but you need not knit your brows over it in that way; depend upon it, neither you nor I shall ever know anything about the way it was made, as long as we live.

Dora. That does not seem much to depend upon.

L. Pardon me, puss. When once we gain some real notion of the extent and the unconquerableness of our ignorance, it is a very broad and restful thing to depend upon: you can throw yourself upon it at ease, as on a cloud, to feast with the gods. You do not thenceforward trouble yourself, — nor any one else, — with theories, or the contradiction of theories; you neither get headache nor heartburning; and you never more waste your poor little store of strength, or allowance of time.

However, there are certain facts, about this agate-making, which I can tell you; and then you may look at it in a pleasant wonder as long as you like; pleasant wonder is no loss of time.

First, then, it is not broken freely by a blow; it is slowly wrung, or ground, to pieces. You can only with extreme dimness conceive the force exerted on mountains in transitional states of movement. You have all read a little geology; and you know how coolly geologists talk of mountains being raised or depressed. They talk coolly of it, because they are accustomed to the fact; but the very universality of the fact prevents us from ever conceiving distinctly the conditions of force involved. You know I was living last year in Savoy; my house was on the back of a sloping mountain which rose gradually for two miles, behind it; and then fell at once in a great precipice towards Geneva, going down three thousand feet in four or five cliffs, or steps. Now that whole group of cliffs had simply been torn away by sheer strength from the rocks below, as if the whole mass had been as soft as biscuit. Put four or five captains’ biscuits on the floor, on the top of one another; and try to break them all in half, not by bending, but by holding one half down, and tearing the other halves straight up; — of course you will not be able to do it, but you will feel and comprehend the sort of force needed. Then, fancy each captains’ biscuit a bed of rock, six or seven hundred feet thick; and the whole mass torn straight through; and one half heaved up three thousand feet, grinding against the other as it rose, — and you will have some idea of the making of the Mont Saléve.

May. But it must crush the rocks all to dust!

L. No; for there is no room for dust. The pressure is too great; probably the heat developed also so great that the rock is made partly ductile; but the worst of it is, that we never can see these parts of mountains in the state they were left in at the time of their elevation; for it is precisely in these rents and dislocations that the crystalline power principally exerts itself. It is essentially a styptic power, and wherever the earth is torn, it heals and binds; nay, the torture and grieving of the earth seem necessary to bring out its full energy; for you only find the crystalline living power fully in action, where the rents and faults are deep and many.

Dora. If you please, sir, — would you tell us — what are ‘faults’?

L. You never heard of such things?

Dora. Never in all our lives.

L. When a vein of rock which is going on smoothly, is interrupted by another troublesome little vein, which stops it, and puts it out, so that it has to begin again in another place — that is called a fault. I always think it ought to be called the fault of the vein that interrupts it; but the miners always call it the fault of the vein that is interrupted.

Dora. So it is, if it does not begin again where it left off.

L. Well, that is certainly the gist of the business: but, whatever good-natured old lecturers may do, the rocks have a bad habit, when they are once interrupted, of never asking ‘Where was I?’

Dora. When the two halves of the dining table came separate, yesterday, was that a ‘fault’?

L. Yes; but not the table’s . However, it is not a bad illustration, Dora. When beds of rock are only interrupted by a fissure, but remain at the same level, like the two halves of the table, it is not called a fault, but only a fissure; but if one half of the table be either tilted higher than the other, or pushed to the side, so that the two parts will not fit, it is a fault. You had better read the chapter on faults in Jukes’s Geology; then you will know all about it. And this rent that I am telling you of in the Saléve, is one only of myriads, to which are owing the forms of the Alps, as, I believe, of all great mountain chains. Wherever you see a precipice on any scale of real magnificence, you will nearly always find it owing to some dislocation of this kind; but the point of chief wonder to me, is the delicacy of the touch by which these gigantic rents have been apparently accomplished. Note, however, that we have no clear evidence, hitherto, of the time taken to produce any of them. We know that a change of temperature alters the position and the angles of the atoms of crystals, and also the entire bulk of rocks. We know that in all volcanic, and the greater part of all subterranean, action, temperatures are continually changing, and therefore masses of rock must be expanding or contracting, with infinite slowness, but with infinite force. This pressure must result in mechanical strain somewhere, both in their own substance, and in that of the rocks surrounding them; and we can form no conception of the result of irresistible pressure, applied so as to rend and raise, with imperceptible slowness of gradation, masses thousands of feet in thickness. We want some experiments tried on masses of iron and stone; and we can’t get them tried, because Christian creatures never will seriously and sufficiently spend money, except to find out the shortest ways of killing each other. But, besides this slow kind of pressure, there is evidence of more or less sudden violence, on the same terrific scale; and, through it all, the wonder, as I said, is always to me the delicacy of touch. I cut a block of the Saléve limestone from the edge of one of the principal faults which have formed the precipice; it is a lovely compact limestone, and the fault itself is filled up with a red breccia formed of the crushed fragments of the torn rock, cemented by a rich red crystalline paste. I have had the piece I cut from it smoothed, and polished across the junction; here it is; and you may now pass your soft little fingers over the surface, without so much as feeling the place where a rock which all the hills of England might have been sunk in the body of, and not a summit seen, was torn asunder through that whole thickness, as a thin dress is torn when you tread upon it.

(The audience examine the stone, and touch it timidly; but the matter remains inconceivable to them.)

Mary (struck by the beauty of the stone). But this is almost marble?

L. It is quite marble. And another singular point in the business, to my mind, is that these stones, which men have been cutting into slabs, for thousands of years, to ornament their principal buildings with, — and which, under the general name of ‘marble,’ have been the delight of the eyes, and the wealth of architecture, among all civilised nations, — are precisely those on which the signs and brands of these earth agonies have been chiefly struck; and there is not a purple vein nor flaming zone in them, which is not the record of their ancient torture. What a boundless capacity for sleep, and for serene stupidity, there is in the human mind! Fancy reflective beings, who cut and polish stones for three thousand years, for the sake of the pretty stains upon them; and educate themselves to an art at last (such as it is), of imitating these veins by dexterous painting; and never a curious soul of them, all that while, asks, ‘What painted the rocks?’

(The audience look dejected, and ashamed of themselves.)

The fact is, we are all, and always, asleep, through our lives; and it is only by pinching ourselves very hard that we ever come to see, or understand, anything. At least, it is not always we who pinch ourselves; sometimes other people pinch us; which I suppose is very good of them, — or other things, which I suppose is very proper of them. But it is a sad life; made up chiefly of naps and pinches.

(Some of the audience, on this, appearing to think that the others require pinching, the Lecturer changes the subject.)

Now, however, for once, look at a piece of marble carefully, and think about it. You see this is one side of the fault; the other side is down or up, nobody knows where; but, on this side, you can trace the evidence of the dragging and tearing action. All along the edge of this marble, the ends of the fibres of the rock are torn, here an inch, and there half an inch, away from each other; and you see the exact places where they fitted, before they were torn separate; and you see the rents are now all filled up with the sanguine paste, full of the broken pieces of the rock; the paste itself seems to have been half melted, and partly to have also melted the edge of the fragments it contains, and then to have crystallised with them, and round them. And the brecciated agate I first showed you contains exactly the same phenomena; a zoned crystallisation going on amidst the cemented fragments, partly altering the structure of those fragments themselves, and subject to continual change, either in the intensity of its own power, or in the nature of the materials submitted to it; — so that, at one time, gravity acts upon them, and disposes them in horizontal layers, or causes them to droop in stalactites; and at another, gravity is entirely defied, and the substances in solution are crystallised in bands of equal thickness on every side of the cell. It would require a course of lectures longer than these (I have a great mind, — you have behaved so saucily — to stay and give them) to describe to you the phenomena of this kind, in agates and chalcedonies only; — nay, there is a single sarcophagus in the British Museum, covered with grand sculpture of the 18th dynasty, which contains in the magnificent breccia (agates and jaspers imbedded in porphyry), out of which it is hewn, material for the thought of years; and record of the earth-sorrow of ages in comparison with the duration of which, the Egyptian letters tell us but the history of the evening and morning of a day.

Agates, I think, of all stones, confess most of their past history; but all crystallisation goes on under, and partly records, circumstances of this kind — circumstances of infinite variety, but always involving difficulty, interruption, and change of condition at different times. Observe, first, you have the whole mass of the rock in motion, either contracting itself, and so gradually widening the cracks; or being compressed, and thereby closing them, and crushing their edges; — and, if one part of its substance be softer, at the given temperature, than another, probably squeezing that softer substance out into the veins. Then the veins themselves, when the rock leaves them open by its contraction, act with various power of suction upon its substance; — by capillary attraction when they are fine, — by that of pure vacuity when they are larger, or by changes in the constitution and condensation of the mixed gases with which they have been originally filled. Those gases themselves may be supplied in all variation of volume and power from below; or, slowly, by the decomposition of the rocks themselves; and, at changing temperatures, must exert relatively changing forces of decomposition and combination on the walls of the veins they fill; while water, at every degree of heat and pressure (from beds of everlasting ice, alternate with cliffs of native rock, to volumes of red hot, or white hot, steam), congeals, and drips, and throbs, and thrills, from crag to crag; and breathes from pulse to pulse of foaming or fiery arteries, whose beating is felt through chains of the great islands of the Indian seas, as your own pulses lift your bracelets, and makes whole kingdoms of the world quiver in deadly earthquake, as if they were light as aspen leaves. And, remember, the poor little crystals have to live their lives, and mind their own affairs, in the midst of all this, as best they may. They are wonderfully like human creatures, — forget all that is going on if they don’t see it, however dreadful; and never think what is to happen to-morrow. They are spiteful or loving, and indolent or painstaking, and orderly or licentious, with no thought whatever of the lava or the flood which may break over them any day; and evaporate them into air-bubbles, or wash them into a solution of salts. And you may look at them, once understanding the surrounding conditions of their fate, with an endless interest. You will see crowds of unfortunate little crystals, who have been forced to constitute themselves in a hurry, their dissolving element being fiercely scorched away; you will see them doing their best, bright and numberless, but tiny. Then you will find indulged crystals, who have had centuries to form themselves in, and have changed their mind and ways continually; and have been tired, and taken heart again; and have been sick, and got well again; and thought they would try a different diet, and then thought better of it; and made but a poor use of their advantages, after all. And others you will see, who have begun life as wicked crystals; and then have been impressed by alarming circumstances, and have become converted crystals, and behaved amazingly for a little while, and fallen away again, and ended, but discreditably, perhaps even in decomposition; so that one doesn’t know what will become of them. And sometimes you will see deceitful crystals, that look as soft as velvet, and are deadly to all near them; and sometimes you will see deceitful crystals, that seem flint-edged, like our little quartz-crystal of a housekeeper here, (hush! Dora,) and are endlessly gentle and true wherever gentleness and truth are needed. And sometimes you will see little child-crystals put to school like school-girls, and made to stand in rows; and taken the greatest care of, and taught how to hold themselves up, and behave: and sometimes you will see unhappy little child-crystals left to lie about in the dirt, and pick up their living, and learn manners, where they can. And sometimes you will see fat crystals eating up thin ones, like great capitalists and little labourers; and politico-economic crystals teaching the stupid ones how to eat each other, and cheat each other; and foolish crystals getting in the way of wise ones; and impatient crystals spoiling the plans of patient ones, irreparably; just as things go on in the world. And sometimes you may see hypocritical crystals taking the shape of others, though they are nothing like in their minds; and vampire crystals eating out the hearts of others; and hermit-crab crystals living in the shells of others; and parasite crystals living on the means of others; and courtier crystals glittering in attendance upon others; and all these, besides the two great companies of war and peace, who ally themselves, resolutely to attack, or resolutely to defend. And for the close, you see the broad shadow and deadly force of inevitable fate, above all this: you see the multitudes of crystals whose time has come; not a set time, as with us, but yet a time, sooner or later, when they all must give up their crystal ghosts:— when the strength by which they grew, and the breath given them to breathe, pass away from them; and they fail, and are consumed, and vanish away; and another generation is brought to life, framed out of their ashes.

Mary. It is very terrible. Is it not the complete fulfilment, down into the very dust, of that verse: ‘The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain’?

L. I do not know that it is in pain, Mary: at least, the evidence tends to show that there is much more pleasure than pain, as soon as sensation becomes possible.

Lucilla. But then, surely, if we are told that it is pain, it must be pain?

L. Yes; if we are told; and told in the way you mean, Lucilla; but nothing is said of the proportion to pleasure. Unmitigated pain would kill any of us in a few hours; pain equal to our pleasures would make us loathe life; the word itself cannot be applied to the lower conditions of matter, in its ordinary sense. But wait till to-morrow to ask me about this. To-morrow is to be kept for questions and difficulties; let us keep to the plain facts to-day. There is yet one group of facts connected with this rending of the rocks, which I especially want you to notice. You know, when you have mended a very old dress, quite meritoriously, till it won’t mend any more ——

Egypt (interrupting). Could not you sometimes take gentlemen’s work to illustrate by?

L. Gentlemen’s work is rarely so useful as yours, Egypt; and when it is useful, girls cannot easily understand it.

Dora. I am sure we should understand it better than gentlemen understand about sewing.

L. My dear, I hope I always speak modestly, and under correction, when I touch upon matters of the kind too high for me; and besides, I never intend to speak otherwise than respectfully of sewing; — though you always seem to think I am laughing at you. In all seriousness, illustrations from sewing are those which Neith likes me best to use; and which young ladies ought to like everybody to use. What do you think the beautiful word ‘wife’ comes from?

Dora (tossing her head). I don’t think it is a particularly beautiful word.

L. Perhaps not. At your ages you may think ‘bride’ sounds better; but wife’s the word for wear, depend upon it. It is the great word in which the English and Latin languages conquer the French and the Greek. I hope the French will some day get a word for it, yet, instead of their dreadful ‘femme.’ But what do you think it comes from?

Dora. I never did think about it.

L. Nor you, Sibyl?

Sibyl. No; I thought it was Saxon, and stopped there.

L. Yes; but the great good of Saxon words is, that they usually do mean something. Wife means ‘weaver.’ You have all the right to call yourselves little ‘housewives,’ when you sew neatly.

Dora. But I don’t think we want to call ourselves ‘little housewives.’

L. You must either be house-Wives, or house-Moths; remember that. In the deep sense, you must either weave men’s fortunes, and embroider them; or feed upon, and bring them to decay. You had better let me keep my sewing illustration, and help me out with it.

Dora. Well we’ll hear it, under protest.

L. You have heard it before; but with reference to other matters. When it is said, ‘no man putteth a piece of new cloth on an old garment, else it taketh from the old,’ does it not mean that the new piece tears the old one away at the sewn edge?

Dora. Yes; certainly.

L. And when you mend a decayed stuff with strong thread, does not the whole edge come away sometimes, when it tears again?

Dora. Yes; and then it is of no use to mend it any more.

L. Well, the rocks don’t seem to think that: but the same thing happens to them continually. I told you they were full of rents, or veins. Large masses of mountain are sometimes as full of veins as your hand is; and of veins nearly as fine (only you know a rock vein does not mean a tube, but a crack or cleft). Now these clefts are mended, usually, with the strongest material the rock can find; and often literally with threads; for the gradually opening rent seems to draw the substance it is filled with into fibres, which cross from one side of it to the other, and are partly crystalline; so that, when the crystals become distinct, the fissure has often exactly the look of a tear, brought together with strong cross stitches. Now when this is completely done, and all has been fastened and made firm, perhaps some new change of temperature may occur, and the rock begin to contract again. Then the old vein must open wider; or else another open elsewhere. If the old vein widen, it may do so at its centre; but it constantly happens, with well filled veins, that the cross stitches are too strong to break; the walls of the vein, instead, are torn away by them; and another little supplementary vein — often three or four successively — will be thus formed at the side of the first.

Mary. That is really very much like our work. But what do the mountains use to sew with?

L. Quartz, whenever they can get it: pure limestones are obliged to be content with carbonate of lime; but most mixed rocks can find some quartz for themselves. Here is a piece of black slate from the Buet: it looks merely like dry dark mud; — you could not think there was any quartz in it; but, you see, its rents are all stitched together with beautiful white thread, which is the purest quartz, so close drawn that you can break it like flint, in the mass; but, where it has been exposed to the weather, the fine fibrous structure is shown: and, more than that, you see the threads have been all twisted and pulled aside, this way and the other, by the warpings and shifting of the sides of the vein as it widened.

Mary. It is wonderful! But is that going on still? Are the mountains being torn and sewn together again at this moment?

L. Yes, certainly, my dear: but I think, just as certainly (though geologists differ on this matter), not with the violence, or on the scale, of their ancient ruin and renewal. All things seem to be tending towards a condition of at least temporary rest; and that groaning and travailing of the creation, as, assuredly, not wholly in pain, is not, in the full sense, ‘until now.’

Mary. I want so much to ask you about that!

Sibyl. Yes; and we all want to ask you about a great many other things besides.

L. It seems to me that you have got quite as many new ideas as are good for any of you at present: and I should not like to burden you with more; but I must see that those you have are clear, if I can make them so; so we will have one more talk, for answer of questions, mainly. Think over all the ground, and make your difficulties thoroughly presentable. Then we’ll see what we can make of them.

Dora. They shall all be dressed in their very best; and curtsey as they come in.

L. No, no, Dora; no curtseys, if you please. I had enough of them the day you all took a fit of reverence, and curtsied me out of the room.

Dora. But, you know, we cured ourselves of the fault, at once, by that fit. We have never been the least respectful since. And the difficulties will only curtsey themselves out of the room, I hope; — come in at one door — vanish at the other.

L. What a pleasant world it would be, if all its difficulties were taught to behave so! However, one can generally make something, or (better still) nothing, or at least less, of them, if they thoroughly know their own minds; and your difficulties — I must say that for you, children, — generally do know their own minds, as you do yourselves.

Dora. That is very kindly said for us. Some people would not allow so much as that girls had any minds to know.

L. They will at least admit that you have minds to change, Dora.

Mary. You might have left us the last speech, without a retouch. But we’ll put our little minds, such as they are, in the best trim we can, for to-morrow.

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