THE DESIRE OF MY EYES The Life and Work of John Ruskin By Wolfgang Kemp Translated from the German By Jan van Heurck Farrar Straus Giroux. 513 pp. $40
THE COLLECTED works of John Ruskin, not counting the great mass of his diaries, notebooks and correspondence, occupy 38 portly volumes. Recent scholarly commentary on them has run to thousands of pages every year. Yet in contemporary Germany he has been little known or read. The fullest translated edition (1903), long out of print, omitted all but one of his many books that treated subjects other than art, and by 1983, when Wolfgang Kemp's biography appeared, none of Ruskin's writings were available except for some 30 meager pages in anthologies.
Kemp, a professor of art history at the University of Marburg, has gone a long way toward remedying his countrymen's ignorance of one of the 19th century's commanding figures. The Desire of My Eyes, which Jan van Heurck has rendered into English so ably that one forgets it is a translation, is an admirable introduction to Ruskin for the English reading public as well. As a biography, it contains less year-to-year detail than do several fairly recent ones. But Kemp does not scant the two episodes that shadowed Ruskin's life, his unconsummated marriage to the future wife of the painter John Millais, and his frustrated nympholeptic love for Rose La Touche, an Irish teenager with a religious mania, whose early death unquestionably contributed to the intermittent insanity that clouded the last dozen years of his life.
Psychologically oriented biographies have said much about the unresolved inner tensions and, later, torments that underlay the operations of Ruskin's observant eye and restless intellect. His nature was even more many-sided than Goethe's, if only because the world he lived in and sought single-handedly to transform was much more complicated. He was an accomplished draftsman and watercolorist, an expert geologist, a lifelong student of meteorology, a keen-eyed botanist. But these diversified interests were subsumed under the linked principles that dominated his mind and motivated his entire career -- his belief in the inseparability of art and nature, his conviction that visual perception is the one human activity without which life is meaningless, and, finally, his insistence that society must be revolutionized if it is to afford the individual the fulfillment that only art and nature, combined into a seamless whole, can offer. The late Lewis Mumford's critique of modern urban society and its physical environment was tunnel vision when compared with the breathtaking scope and audacity of Ruskin's.
Ruskin preached, there is no question of that; and we resist preaching. Especially in the writings of his later decades, when the critic of society largely took over from the critic of art and architecture, one is frequently put off by his hectoring manner, which somehow reminds one of his fellow zealot Margaret Thatcher's anachronistic sermons on the desirability of reviving "Victorian values" (although some of those values, such as the sanctity of free enterprise, were the very ones Ruskin most vehemently denounced). Modern readers are also repelled by what is too dismissively called his "purple prose." But at its best, in certain sections of The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters, a magisterial five-volume work that began as a mere pamphlet defending Turner against hostile critics, Ruskin's style becomes a work of art in itself. He often exhorted his lecture audiences to "read" a painting, inch by inch. "Reading" a page or two of his word pictures in the same systematic way, phrase by phrase, image by image, noting the subtly managed rhythms and contrasts and harmonies, can be an adventure of literary discovery. No other writer of his time (I do not except even Carlyle and Pater, two other noted stylists) was so skilled at realizing the esthetic potential of the English language. KEMP considerately sketches for his German readers, as well as for us, the social and cultural background against which Ruskin's significance to his own age can be understood. Looked at from some distance, Ruskin's message to his fellow Victorians may seem unrelated to life in the 1990s, and much of it is. Still, it would be strange, in view of the scope of his concerns and the affinities between his age and ours, if he had not, on some occasions, spoken to, and for, us.
He was, for one thing, an environmentalist. He wrote of Scottish rivers so laden with inflammable waste that, like Cleveland's Cuyahoga River a few years ago, they could catch fire. He noted in his diaries and published works that the English climate in the 1870s and 1880s was steadily becoming damper and cooler, a fact that is substantiated by the meteorological records. In his lecture "The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century" he adopted the sulfur dioxide-laden industrial emissions that hung over the Midlands as an apocalyptic symbol of the darkening of the human spirit. He cited the second law of thermodynamics as prophetic of "man's sad fate" when the world would dissolve in fire; today he would likely cite global warming instead.
Ruskin was also a preservationist. He was among the first to publicize the decay and wanton destruction of Venice, the city he knew better than any other and whose architecture he recorded in over 3,000 drawings. Many of these meticulous drawings are invaluable representations of St. Mark's as it was before Ruskin's be~tes noires, the "restorers," took over. At home he inveighed against the desecration of the landscape by railways. An important duty of the art critic, as he saw it, was to sound an alarm when historic buildings were threatened by neglect or deliberate demolition.
He was, as well, a consumers' advocate, a Ralph Nader with a strong esthetic bias. Irate at first about the shoddiness of art supplies then available, he campaigned for better quality in all the commodities of everyday life, for unadulterated food and drink and durable clothing materials. He sounded an early warning about the dubious technological advance by which paper was beginning to be made from cheap but chemically unstable materials. We are paying a heavy price for it in the millions of books in our great libraries that are now crumbling into dust.
The very key to Ruskin's program of social improvement was "art for the people," which meant not only providing it in their homes, in the form of good pictures on the walls and pleasing design in furniture and household accessories, but making art galleries accessible and hospitable to all comers. In the current debate over populism versus elitism in the institutionalized display of art, there is no question where he would have stood. We can appreciate the dilemma into which the other art controversy of the present moment would have thrust him: Which was more vital to the health of society, the repression of "obscenity" (as the man who burned all the pornographic drawings that were among Turner's bequest to the British Museum, how appalled he would have been by the kind of art now at issue!) or governmental encouragement of the arts by way of grants?
Readers of Ruskin's later social criticism find the message obscured within an elaborate, highly personalized system of myth and symbol he developed to cope with the pressures of his tortured psyche. But sometimes, as in the stark sentence "The unemployed poor are daily becoming more criminal," a topicality that pierces the verbiage arrests us with its prescience. We can be sure that this moralizing sociologist would have been even unhappier in today's Western culture than he was in Victoria's England. His idiosyncratic mixture of radical socialism and quixotic confidence in the redemptive power of nature and art would have even less chance of bringing Utopia about in 1990 than it did then, which is to say none at all. But irrespective of the panaceas they urge, scourges and gadflies like Ruskin are indispensable to any organized society if it is not to atrophy, and as Wolfgang Kemp demonstrates in this excellent study, he ranked with the best of them. Richard D. Altick's most recent book, "The Presence of the Present: Topics of the Day in the Victorian Novel," will be published early next year.