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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high