Monday, March 26, 2007

Ruskin at Princeton: or, with apologies to people who actually study what I'm talking about...

A fact about myself that has nothing to do with my scholarship (though there are days I wonder if it doesn't) -- I am an architecture snob. When I say architecture snob, however, I don't mean that I like the avant garde or the ultra modern -- what I know about modern architecture fits on the head of a pin. No, the architecture I love is the Gothic (not that I know considerably more about that, come to think of it): The vaulted ceilings, the arches, the windows -- the play of light and shadow that you only seem to notice in places where you feel so incredibly small. I like the feeling of gazing up at the impossible height of Notre Dame de Paris, of standing in the majesty of the unfinished St John the Divine and feeling, for just a moment, as though there is or could be something bigger -- something that draws the eye upward, both outside the building and within it. I love the narrow stairways and hidden doors -- the stain glass and the immensity of the towers. I love Gothic architecture precisely because it makes me feel small -- and the quiet of a church empty of worshipers, or the echo of the chants I sing with my Compline group each Sunday in the dark of a smaller church made more immense by the lowering of lights, heightens that feeling. Not because of the ceremony -- which though historically "accurate" is not a religious service for its participants -- but because the flickering candles perform the same effect of voices, prayers in the darkness -- offering a way to feel oneself in the world. And perhaps more importantly, offering a way to feel connected beyond a solitary self, whether in the relation of human form to stone or the complexity of two human voices sharing a single line of chant.

It's no wonder, then, that trips to Princeton are a treat for me, even when they aren't punctuated by engaging seminars and productive meetings (as today was). There's something about the openness of a distinctly non-urban landscape, the green of grass that doesn't end in gray pavement and the artificial interruptions of the sky by architecture that, though it doesn't "belong" here, is still a place I find familiar, a place I feel at ease. It's not quite the ease I felt a Wake Forest -- where the colonial architecture was familiar but still definitively learned. The ease I feel at a place like Princeton is the strange, imported sense of feeling connected to something I can't quite touch, something that can never really "belong" to me -- a history that my part of the world doesn't have, an architecture that never made its natural home (if human artifice can be said to have a natural place) on this side of the ocean. It's too sculpted, too planned. But at the same time, it reminds me of those fabulous lines from Ruskin's Stones of Venice, that seem to posit not the truth of a Gothic architecture or Gothic nature, but the possibility that Ruskin's very formulation seems to deny it, in the possibility for the actual embrace of change:

The vital principle is not the love of Knowledge, but the love of Change. It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied

In that lovely Victorian way (and here I ought apologize to actual Victorianists -- what I know about the period fits on the head of a pin, and this is an awful generalization itself!), Ruskin seems to destroy the very thing he's trying to observe. The flattening, if it can be called that, of the "nature of the gothic spirit" into a romanticized vision of a love of change seems to make change itself static -- it becomes the signature of gothic art's progenitors, to be unsatisfied, unfulfilled, always searching. Yet the "Gothic spirit" still manages to escape Ruskin, and manages to escape me every time I find myself in a great Cathedral -- or on Princeton's campus -- and feel a sense of being able to breathe slightly easier. It's almost as though the "nature of the gothic spirit" -- at least in my own, singular and individual experience of it -- is not the love of Change, but its acceptance. That the endurance of the architecture -- or, in the case of this imported Gothic, its perceived endurance, the legacy of which it partakes -- is a reminder by its imposition on the landscape (the alliance of temporal and religious power in the domination enacted by an architectural form) of all that will not endure, and a certain smallness of one human in the face of the very sky her eyes are drawn to by the height.

It's probably not a coincidence that I also learned today, from one of my dear friends who's also pursuing a PhD: that the only way we ever get through this mess of a profession -- and this mess of a human life -- is together. That's what makes it worthwhile -- the connections we make with interesting people, who teach us things we could never have learned on our own. Whether they live 10 blocks away or 10 centuries.


Carolingian said...

That was a lovely post, I felt like I was back in Sainte Chapelle for a moment.