Melancholy roar

John Ruskin: no wealth but life

John Batchelor <em>Chatto & Windus, 488pp, £25</em>

ISBN 1856195

We live in a culture of literary biography, doorstoppers pounding out by the ton - perhaps because we are too idle to come to terms with the books, or perhaps because of the valet's sneaking resentment of the hero, forgetting that the only reason we would be interested in the life is because of the books. And what light does biography throw on the books? And in Ruskin's case, do we need yet another biography?

Ruskin himself said that the author of a book "has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful or helpfully beautiful . . . He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on a rock, if he could, saying: 'This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but . . . this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory'." This point was also made by the inveterate Ruskinian Marcel Proust as he turned his life into one of the great works of art of our culture. In a sense, Ruskin did the same to his own life in Praeterita; not quite Proust perhaps, but infinitely more interesting than any Ruskin biography, because in it we get Ruskin's own ideas and observations on what would otherwise be the inevitable dross and mess of a life.

John Batchelor's effort is perfectly serviceable, though my 13-year-old daughter found the writing rather dry and lifeless compared with Ruskin's own account of his childhood. The main drawback is Batchelor's tendency to psychologise, explaining this and that in Ruskin's life and books because of his parents, his tussles with his father, his "bizarre sexuality", his psychological illness and so on. Well, we all have parents, many of us have overbearing fathers, few of us have entirely straightforward sexual lives (and anyway, why should we accept the 20th-century dogma about sexual normality?) and Ruskin isn't the only adult to engage in embarrassing baby talk. Batchelor does not particularly dwell on these facets of Ruskin's life, and he does give plenty of space to Ruskin's writings and public life, but the private oddities are all there, presented as a kind of counterpoint to the works. In consequence, some of those who don't know it already will be relieved to learn that the great Victorian prophet, thundering about art and fulminating about society, was in his own life hardly a model for a safe and comfortable existence in the modern world, or even in the 19th century.

But this rather begs the question about safe and comfortable existence in the modern world. As our leaders drive on with their inexorable projects of modernisation and forgetfulness of the past, does Ruskin have anything to tell us about the nature of work? Rather against the spirit of our time, he was in no sense an egalitarian. For Ruskin there was nothing inherently wrong in one man being a master and another a servant. But it was wrong to make the servant - or even the master - engage in work that dehumanised him, that allowed no expression of his personality or creative spirit. This was at the root of Ruskin's preference for the gothic over the classical or, even more, over mass production and the division of labour. For the gothic craftsman was able to express himself in what he did, even his imperfections of skill and vision. One of Ruskin's most scandalous beliefs, even in his own time, was an insistence that perfection in design and execution was actually flaw: "You shall draw out your plates of glass and beat out your bars of iron till you have encompassed us all with endless perspective of black skeleton and blinding square," he told the architects of his time. The soul of the worker is deadened by the perfection of modern means of production, and so are the souls of all of us, surrounded as we are by the infinitely reproducible dead blanks of modern technology.

Ruskin would have hated the corruption and depredation of modern art and entertainment. But he would not have been surprised. Long before "art for art's sake" was heard of, Ruskin was distinguishing between what he called aesthesis and theoria. Aesthesis was when the artist was interested in "the mere sensual perception of the outward qualities and necessary effects of bodies", "a mere animal consciousness of the pleasantness". Art conceived under this jurisdiction would "sink into a mere amusement", ministering "to morbid sensibilities, ticklers and fanners of the soul's sleep". Theoretic art, by contrast, penetrates to the true nature of the thing represented, and ultimately to the relationship between human beings, the natural world and the Creator.

Today, few are even interested in Ruskin's fundamental preoccupation: the mutually sustaining and mutually contested relationship between art and religion. But we ought to be. Even at a superficial level, it is hardly coincidental that a degraded art is a concomitant of religious unbelief. It surely should concern us all that contemporary art and literature are so obsessed with the trivial, the disgusting and the plain ugly.

More profoundly, and less controversially, there is widespread though often inarticulate unease with the interaction between technology and the environment, and also with the depersonalised nature of much of modern life and work. One can surely raise these concerns without implying that everything was better in the gothic age, or that any human work is a violation of a pristine nature. Given the force and generosity of his vision, the acuity of his insight and judgement, and the absence of easy sentimentality in his writing, there can be few better ways of pursuing these vital but publicly neglected matters than by reading Ruskin.

Unsystematic though he is, Ruskin has an infallible sense of where the key issues lie and has an uncomfortable knack of reminding us of things that are more conveniently forgotten. Such is the power of his writing that, in reading Ruskin, questions about his biography become irrelevant.

The author is professor of philosophy at Bradford University