The Mildew and the Flame

“You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame; and the soul of man is to its own work as the moth that frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illuminate. All these lost treasures of human intellect have been wholly destroyed by human industry of destruction; the marble would have stood its two thousand years as well in the polished status as in the Parian cliff; but we men have ground it to powder, and mixed it with our own ashes. The walls and the ways would have stood — it is we who have left but one stone upon another, and restored its pathlessness to the desert; the great cathedrals of the old religion would have stood — it is we who have dashed down the carved work with axes and hammers, and bid the mountain-grass bloom upon the pavement, and the sea-winds chant in the galleries.”

— John Ruskin

I was wrong to believe it, but the reason I copied this down was because I’d thought Ruskin was saying something different. I thought he was saying nature doesn’t destroy, because its own process is neither creative nor destructive, it’s boring and steady. If someone didn’t build something out of it, nature would just maintain a constant, homogeneous state forever, but by building, mankind creates the conditions for inevitable destruction to occur. In other words, nature as nature doesn’t destroy, it just resumes. If you leave an egg in the nest, it won’t break because it won’t go anywhere. The tragedy is that if you carry it to the roof, you’ve created the future where it falls and cracks open. That’s not it, though.