As Jim Crace's ‘Harvest’ shows, Ruskin was right to warn against romanticising the natural world

Plus: Why the Pope's resignation adds extra poignancy to one play and the British Museum's Ice Age art defies its own labels

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The Independent Online

I had that odd "missing step" experience last week of expecting a discussion about a book to go one way and then finding my expectations completely confounded. The book in question was Jim Crace's Harvest, a novel about the fragile social eco-system of a remote English village and what happens when a more mercantile attitude to the landscape is imposed upon it. It was up for review on a radio arts programme and I expected the conversation to play out as a set of polite reservations. I was completely wrong. Two of the readers who gave their opinions reacted instead with something like rapture. They didn't just like the book, they thought it was exceptional. They weren't alone. One newspaper reviewer announced the novel was worthy to stand alongside the work of William Golding. And having felt disappointment myself – with that weightless presumption that others would feel just as I did – I was momentarily doubtful about just why it was that I couldn't join in the chorus of praise.

I'm not anymore and it was Ruskin who helped me out – more specifically that section of his book Modern Painters in which he writes about the pathetic fallacy, his own coinage for the writerly habit of attributing to inanimate objects the sentiments and reactions of living ones. Crace is an absolute demon for the pathetic fallacy in Harvest.

Here is its troubled narrator writing about a sleepless night: "The night itself is keeping me awake. Its wind is pelleting its buckshot stars across the sky. The trees cry out already for their departed friends." A little later, preparing to plough a field, the same man takes aim on a distant oak. "An oak is trustworthy," he writes. "It wants the plough to find a true, straight way, then it can preside all year over a pattern that is pleasing to its eye." I'm afraid I found myself wondering if old Uncle Oak, so steady and sagacious, couldn't have had a quiet word to calm down those wailing hysterics who kept the narrator awake a few nights earlier.

Ruskin is quite brusque about the pathetic fallacy. It is, he announces, only "the second order of poets who much delight in it". Then again, he counts Keats and Tennyson in the "second order of poets", so it's not exactly terrible company. And Ruskin also concedes that the pathetic fallacy can be emotionally effective. It isn't pathetic in the most common current meaning of that word – feeble and faintly contemptible. It's pathetic because it relates to pathos and deep feeling. Ruskin offers bad examples (he gives Alexander Pope a furious pummelling) but also good ones. And what separates the latter from the former, he argues, is the sense that an emotion has somehow bled across from the writer to the thing written about.

You could argue, I guess, that Crace's narrator has personified the night out of the frustration of insomnia. It can feel as though nature is in conspiracy against you at such moments. But I still think you'd run into trouble attempting to parse that sentence about the buckshot. Has the wind got a licence for its shotgun? And what might this scene actually look like? Isn't the point about stars that they're fixedly indifferent to the weather? I just can't find a perspective from which that sentence doesn't look wildly overwritten. Nor one from which that passage about the oak doesn't sound like the wildest kind of townie romanticisation. Would a real countrymen ever think something quite so silly?

Ruskin, in grand Victorian style, ascribes to his readers the emotions his argument requires them to have. Pope's image, he declares magisterially "has set our teeth on edge". After last week, I'm not second-guessing anyone else's response but I surely can't be alone in having winced while others raved?

It was surely written in the stars

There must have been quite a murmur in the green room at the Swan Theatre in Stratford when Pope Benedict announced he was planning to hang up his crimson loafers. It was surely seen as a good omen of sorts, adding an extra frisson to Mark Ravenhill's new version of Brecht's Life of Galileo. In it Galileo pins his hopes on a new occupant of St Peter's throne, a mathematician he believes will be more sympathetic to a new cosmology and put the theological conservatives in their place. It doesn't work out quite as he hopes, the next Pope discovering pretty quickly that the Church rules the Pope, not the other way round. Odd to see it the other night thinking that even 450 years wasn't enough to consign some plotlines to history.

Enigmatic art that's difficult to label

There's nothing quite like prehistoric art for getting the imagination going – the ratio of patina to original intention offering the broadest possible scope for interpretation. You can see the effect in action at the British Museum's exhibition of Ice Age art (above), which combines some of its oldest exhibits with some of its most wildly speculative labels. One oddity is the way many of the images of women are described as "obese" in the labelling, as if the images they refer to are straightforwardly representative of Ice Age weight problems rather than an idealised symbol of some kind. The truth is nobody really knows. Quite liberating to feel that your guess is as good as theirs.