One of the first phrases to ever strike me was a well-known one of Francis Bacon: “There is no great beauty that hath not some strangeness in proportion.” I liked it in part because I didn’t understand it. It perplexed me for years, without much real progress, until I developed a passion for a little picture. It was a small profile image of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose wavy fracture of a nose became something of a mystical icon to me. It was through the face of Akhmatova that I came to understand Bacon.
The Victorian art and social critic John Ruskin writes of beauty in a quasi-Baconian sense, only it is not some strangeness that beauty hath, it is imperfection. The two are closely linked. “The Nature of Gothic,” a chapter from Ruskin’s three-volume book The Stones of Venice (1851–1853), is a paean to strangeness. In it, Ruskin outlines the various elements of “Gothicness” in architecture—six in total, starting with Savageness and running down through Changefulness, Naturalism, Grotesqueness, Rigidity, and Redundance—as he implores industrial Britain to guide its laborers with a Gothic hand.
In Ruskin’s view, medieval architecture, with its “wildness of thought, and roughness of work,” might just save the pin-maker. Its bold energy would revitalize manufacture, where work was segmented and monotonous, and workers were increasingly “unhumanized.” The Gothic, for Ruskin, ranks rude reinvention over mere fealty to form. Imitation, vital to so much “perfect” architecture, chills imagination. But in Gothic architecture, each builder could contribute something individual. Sometimes distinct and original, but often redundant, images emerged, and the glory of the Gothic is that the mistakes were not erased. No master fixed the formal failures of the apprentice, but instead kept them for the sake of amateur pride. Better to sin creatively than mouth a tired piety. “Of human work,” Ruskin says, “none but what is bad can be perfect, in its own bad way.” Depictions may be sculpted in error, but they were conceived in truth.
The result is the compositional weirdness of these religious places—emblems of “that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit”—that Ruskin believed could correct the British craze for order. Ruskin wanted to restore life to work, and the answer lay in medieval quiddities such as the vaulted roof, archivolt, and flying buttress. Upon inspection, he notes, no buttress is alike, no filigree predictable, no figure copied from a diagram. Each stone deed is an uncivil riff: variegated, fanciful, imperfect. “[I]t is, perhaps, the principle admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture,” Ruskin writes, “that they thus receive the results of the labor of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.”
Ruskin perceives these stone scrambles to be the true mode of humanity. Imperfection is not ignorance, but a radiation of the soul in all its glorious wobbles. A Gothic façade is a kind of pluralist fossil, cut clumsily from the collective. Its intervals are not measured; its types are not typical. When we look at these ornate cathedrals we are looking at a beau travail, with ambitious crudity and visionary roughness. Such is the nature of nature. Just as “[n]o human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry,” no Gothic structure displays the same feature twice. “All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.”
The Gothic sacrifices neat cohesion for the delectably odd, because the delectably odd is the domain of nature herself. Perfection is an apparition used to subdue the spirit and lead it into the numb zone of mimicry. Westminster Abbey, Strasbourg Cathedral, or the Notre Dames of Paris and Chartres: all throb with the ardor of thousands. They are great buildings because they are petrified brainstorms.
Ruskin’s is a very Heraclitan concept of architecture. Heraclitus was a philosopher of flux, who claimed that life is akin to a heap of random sweepings and that one can’t step in the same river twice. In this sense, the Gothic destroys its ancient teachers, who, save for the dissenting Heraclitus, were very much into the idea of stepping into the same river twice. Known for perfecting proportions, the Greeks made their laborers carve “the same balls, ridges, and perfectly symmetrical foliage”—Ruskin simply calls the laborers “slaves.” These antecedents to the Gothic did not support the layman’s flourish; they pounded him into sameness and servility, producing what Western civilization has long admired: stiff, undeviating symmetry.
The Gothic, says Ruskin, deposed its Greek predecessors and opted for “[r]evolutionary ornament,” evident throughout the field of finish. All along its walls, the revolution is visible: “Examine once more those ugly goblins,” Ruskin says, “and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone.” These “signs of the life and liberty of every workman” are an evolving interlacement of strangeness and soul, bringing the Gothic down to man instead of up to gods. “Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent,” we read later on.
Ruskin knows we are likely to mock the Daedalus who hammers a whack-job from the rock. To us, he is an ignoramus. To Ruskin, he is a man. “If you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool,” Ruskin writes. “Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability.” Yet what also emerges is dignity. A flair in the molding is an ongoing document of focus. Permission to hesitate, to take one’s time, or to accept aborted fantasy as a moment’s truth, becomes another name for grace.
Yet the desire for perfection is our stubborn default setting. We want the assured consistency of a functioning tool, existentially as well as practically. Practically, that has many benefits. Existentially, it’s a recipe for limitation. Love of order is of great use in commerce and in “the foundation-stones of morality,” but “do not let us suppose that love of order is love of art… love of order has no more to do with our right enjoyment of architecture or painting than love of punctuality with the appreciation of an opera.”
The first draft of this essay unwittingly conflated a “love of punctuality with the appreciation of an opera.” My first reader, concerned, said she couldn’t find me in the words. It seemed that I did not much care about Ruskin’s ideas, no matter how surgically I laid them out. The writing was a safe reproduction, a polite piece of criticism, remote from the Gothic spirit. Ruskin himself says not to prioritize such “smooth minuteness above shattered majesty,” yet I still found myself reflexively evading controversy and appeasing anticipated censors. In writing about the splendor of free error, I did not even notice my own socialized aversion to it.
I narrate this little drama as a show of difficulty. The Gothic may be true to nature, but we work hard to shy away from such “savageness.” We deceive, rationalize, and suppress wildness for the sake of surviving civilization, and fall back on the comforts of order, the prescience of routine. But “failure is to form habits,” as the English essayist Walter Pater famously wrote. Growth in all directions is the fate of nature; thus it is ours, too.
Near the end of “The Nature of Gothic,” Ruskin arms us with a maxim. He writes, “in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry.” Why not romance the stone? Why not duck expectation and court surprise, mingle with nature’s nascence and decay? You might stumble on an egg and define the age, or you might not, but you’ll have essayed the original where others stay crushed by custom. The Gothic is ultimately a collaboration with the cosmos—the swelling bark, the racing cloud, the biting mineral—in all its sensual infinity and beautiful imperfection.