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  • Durations of Presents Past: Ruskin and the Accretive Quality of Time
  • S. Pearl Brilmyer (bio)

In what consists the present? For the turn-of-the-twentieth-century philosopher Henri Bergson, the present consists in the accretion of experiences past. Think of time like a tape with two spools: one winding, the other unwinding. As a person grows older, she senses one spool becoming thinner, the other thicker—the past becoming “larger and larger with the present it picks upon on its way” (137), the present given dimension by the strata of moments past. Time is contiguous, and it functions additively.

We find a curious precursor to Bergson’s additive theory of time in the work of the Victorian art critic and architectural theorist John Ruskin. In Ruskin, the layers of the present are always getting caked on to the infinite strata of history. Like Bergson’s gradually enlarging spool, Ruskin’s writings on the Gothic gesture toward the accretive quality of time—that is, the extent to which the present keeps on adding to the past, and vice versa: the traumas, the seemingly insignificant incidents of the then, shaping and coloring the now. Like Bergson, Ruskin too figures time in material terms. That is, he theorizes time in and through descriptions of physical structures that endure.

Where one begins to notice a difference between the two thinkers is on the question of loss: one is hard pressed to find in Ruskin any sign of Bergson’s second tape, the tape unwinding, becoming smaller. In Ruskin, one has the sense that there’s no negation whatsoever. If the Gothic had a mantra, it might be never less, always more. For Ruskin, even the processes of weathering and decay— far from forces of destruction—are (ontologically) positive. Construction and [End Page 94] destruction are not equal and opposite forces, the former positive, the latter negative; rather, they are two modes through which the past persists—is bodied forth—within the present.

The surface of the monument was for Ruskin the place where this accretion could be experienced. I propose that Ruskin’s theorization of the surface as a site of the becoming-present of the past can help us to understand what might be strategic about a presentism that would not take the present to be the opposite of the past—nor surface to be the opposite of depth—but which would understand the surface as the site of the inscription of difference and the duration of presents past. Reading architectural surface in Ruskin as a material figure for the present, I thus approach the surface not as pure presence but as a place where the past cannot but endure, a place where the injustices of the past, moreover, can never be erased but only papered over.

In much of his work, though most notably in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851–53), Ruskin traces the appeal of Gothic architecture to its elaborate ornamentation, which manifests the undulating temporality of history through inscriptions on the surface. The defining qualities of an aesthetic object for Ruskin were thus not structural qualities such as form or outline but rather surface phenomena like color and texture. “Variegation,” Ruskin wrote in a diary entry dated December 20, 1848, “is the arbitrary presence or absence of colouring matter, and the beauty is more in the colour than the outline. Hence stains, blotchings, cloudings, etc., in marble, on skins, and so on, and their beauty of irregularity” (8:178 n2). The surface was for Ruskin a space of lively variability where the essential irregularity of nature could not but erupt—the place where, infamously, the mark of the craftsman’s body is bodied forth, stamped by the uniqueness of his desires, his technique.

Ruskin’s fascination in his writings on painting with the textural irregularities of skin and hair likewise affirms the value of color and texture in art. In The Seven Lamps he explores the representation of fur, grass, and clouds in the paintings of Tintoret (Tintoretto) and Peter Paul Rubens, celebrating how meaning in their paintings inheres not in the structure or essence of an anatomy or a landscape but...


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