Mad Ruskin

I love to quote the opening line of Praeterita, John Ruskin’s uncharacteristically light & playful book of autobiographical sketches, happily completed just before he went insane:

“I am, & my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school; — Walter Scott’s school, that is to say, & Homer’s.”

As pendant to my last post, I thought perhaps to parry a criticism received in email. Like too many of my correspondents, this critic did not wish to advertise his name, & therefore would not post a formal Comment. He nevertheless had a complaint, that I’m “beginning to sound like John Ruskin,” & this was accompanied by a reminder of John Ruskin’s fate.

With world enough & time, I should love to ramble on about Ruskin & Ruskinism. My relation with that grand Victorian sage; with the Pre-Raphaelites buzzing around him; with the painter J.M.W. Turner for that matter (whom Ruskin worshipped); with Pugin & neo-Gothicism, including the neo-Gothic Tracts for the Times; with the whole cumbrous tide of Victorian Romanticism & Reaction — is full to choking with love & hate. It trails off on William Morris wallpaper in a mixture more of hatred & contempt. (O Lord do I despise William Morris!) But in the descent of Ruskinian opinion & ideals I trace shadows from my own family. Kipling, too, came out of that fecund primal ooze, to which I can return by a straight line passing through my father & grandfather.

Hatred & love are not an odd combination. It flourishes within most families.

I would love to ramble on about Ruskin, but had better not. I propose, today, to come swiftly to my point. Any other approach would be suffocating. Even the paradoxes run too thick, as we advance from the Victorian Reaction, to the anti-Victorian Reaction; from Their House to Bauhaus, as it were. We are dealing with a huge & catastrophic failure — as I see it now, the failure of the drowning English mind to catch the life-line of Catholic Christianity.

The points I would make are anyway almost perfectly captured in a book published in 1939. It is by Rosalind Murray — daughter of the august Gilbert Murray, sometime wife of Arnold Toynbee, mother of Philip, grandmother of Polly Toynbee, &c — who skipped ship, or turned traitor to her own class. For the book, entitled The Good Pagan’s Failure, presents the high-minded Victorian paganism from which she herself sprang, & the high-minded Liberalism it begat — the Enlightenment of the Enlightenment, if you will — in all its best arguments & finest poses. And then it utterly demolishes them.

The flaw in the heart & mind of Ruskin is not to be found in his raging Toryism. It is instead to be found in the largely unacknowledged, high-minded paganism that was admixed to it. In a sentence, Ruskin, as so many of his contemporaries & followers, embraced the external signs of high civilization, as if they were that civilization itself. At core, he is not a believer. He merely believes that he believes. At core he is as self-creating as his exact contemporary in madness, Friedrich Nietzsche. And of course Ruskin thinks that art can save us, & more subtly, that politics can save art.

Yet he is gloriously right in discerning the cheapness of modern life; in attacking evils that have only become worse since his time. His excoriating tract, Unto This Last, & his many lesser tracts that deal with “political economy,” are, if gentle reader will forgive the occasional atrocious pun, “right on the money.” He understands what is wrong with what we might call “optimistic capitalism” — with the whole analytical school descending from Adam Smith, & the entire Utilitarian project beside it.

Let us put the argument plainly. The problem is not with trade, per se. Trade is noble, or potentially noble; private enterprise goes without saying. The problem is with the development of trade in the direction of cheapness. Products of an inferior nature drive out products of a superior nature, because they are cheap. Capitalists become obscenely rich by cutting corners, & offering cheap, through methods of mass production which drive the decent & honourable tradesman out of business. If he survives at all, it must now be by making & selling luxuries to those rich. But meanwhile the broad world fills up with garbage, in the strict sense of goods disposable by design.

My shirts, for instance. I would be happy to own two shirts, that would stand up to a little wearing. Instead, for the same price I might pay for those, my closet is filled with shirts (I count nine at the moment) which survive for a year or two only by alternating use, & very gentle laundering. Indeed, I have roughly calculated that the best the shopping malls offer will begin to disintegrate — the collars fray, the elbows come out, stains become unwashable, &c — after being worn only a few dozen times; which is to say, their life expectancy can be expressed in weeks. Better than that comes only from a tailor; though no longer from just any tailor.

Now, Ruskin can be laughed off as naïve. As he was himself too angrily aware, the ideology of “cheap” was prevailing; of “free market competition” to obtain the lowest price; of quality standards enforced to “the lowest common denominator” — as much by the demands of the market as by any legal requirement. It would be wrong to suggest there are no quality standards at all. (A shirt that disintegrates the first time one puts it on is unlikely to sell a second time.) But it is amazing how many corners can be cut, over time, & how acceptable this will be in the marketplace when it is done gradually. Mass “lifestyle” advertising is itself designed to make it acceptable, by distracting from each product’s essential worthlessness, & has proved cheaper & more efficient than any effort to improve the goods. The whole idea is wonderfully conveyed by the vulgar expression, “bottom line.”

Ruskin’s solution to the problem can also be laughed off. It was to end competition for price, & replace it with competition for employment. The tradesman selling inferior goods, the craftsman making them would be, under his regime, soon out of business — instead of the purveyor of superior goods. True, Ruskin rather relished the idea of the hucksters starving.

What he advocated was close to mediaeval economic arrangements, & he further bought into the guild systems by which they were regulated. Guild regulation should not be compared (invidiously) with “free markets” — which in practice never exist for long, & are as rare to start with as “perfect communism.” Rather they should be compared (fairly) with the massive centralized bureaucracies which are our way of regulating trade, & perfectly inevitable in any democracy.

To a Ruskinian view, the truly naïve & laughable position consists of failing to see the real choice. This is not between “free markets” & “socialism” — the propaganda simplification by the ideological fanatics on both sides. That is a choice between abstract positions, neither of which can survive in our human world — the law of the jungle versus cages in a zoo. Nor is “something in between” much of a choice, either. It is one foot in the fire & one foot in the freezer, on the theory that this yields a comfortable average.

It is true that Ruskin went insane. This may have been from some other cause than his views on art & political economy. But let us suppose him a victim of his own over-earnestness. His condition may then be sanitized, by supplying just one missing Catholic dogma. It is never to take too seriously one’s hopes for improvement in this world.