How is it that armies, rulers, and petty builders could indiscriminately destroy the works of great beauty contained within ruins around the world? This question has often occurred to me as I look upon the ruins of Rome and other ancient cities, and it is a question particularly well suited to my sensibility. I have a budding interest in classics, and an inexplicable love for literature about dying social orders, whether in the Sicily of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or in the Great Britain of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Though some may find this interest dreary, not to say eccentric, I have always felt there was a certain aesthetic quality to such majestic declines. Thus it was in a mood of great interest that I attended Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities Susan Stewart’s recent lecture, “The Ruins Lesson.” Professor Stewart described her recent work on the phenomenology of ruins and explored their depictions in both art and poetry. Looking at the works inspired by decay, from Renaissance prints to William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” I felt more strongly the absurdity of destroying these ruins, of stripping them of their bronze to make bullets.
Yet this lecture also provided me with some level of understanding of why this destruction of destruction occurs. While Professor Stewart examined many complex questions, the point that struck me most was the necessity of distance for establishing a ruin’s acceptability. The very qualities that make ruins so aesthetically appealing also make them antithetical to society. A ruin fundamentally represents two different defeats of society, one at the hand of nature, and one at the hand of the past. As the lecture emphasized, a ruin loses the distinction between interior and exterior, inside and outside; the barrier between the building and its surroundings is broken, quite literally in those with caved-in roofs. Many ruins, and almost all artistic depictions of them, display ivy and lichens on their walls, decoration that slowly breaks the buildings down, as Professor Stewart emphasizes. This slow process implies the failure of human beings to maintain the buildings, repair their damage, and fight back the encroachment of plants and fungi. Yet while the dilapidated state of a ruin emphasizes the power of nature, its preservation points to the victory of the past. A preserved ruin not only says that its society cannot keep it up, but can also imply that society cannot match the glory of the past. One particularly illustrative example of this can be found in medieval Rome, a city that had lost much of the glory and size it enjoyed while it controlled an empire. Many of the Roman ruins represent architectural feats of such ambition as would not be equaled for a long time. Viewed in this context, the despoiling of Roman ruins can be seen as an assertion of importance by the city’s medieval residents, a refusal to value previous achievements more preciously than contemporary ambitions.
Indeed, when one looks upon the remains of ancient Rome, perhaps the quintessential image of ruins, it is important to note that the construction of these buildings too was predicated on the destruction of an older architecture. The city of marble that the emperors built depended upon the dismantling of the city of brick, which was thought unbefitting the Roman state. One might reasonably argue that the imperial renovations represented an improvement in a way that later despoiling did not. Nevertheless, the actions of grand architects of antiquity and petty builders of a later period differ only in effect, not in their nature. The same ambition that created such works of beauty inspired later builders to attempt to re-use their materials. The acceptance of a recent ruin in one’s city means, in a certain sense, an admission of the original building’s superiority. If a ruin is sufficiently old or from a foreign culture, then it may be viewed historically or even philosophically, as evidence of man’s limitations and transience. A ruin that is temporally and culturally close, however, must also be viewed competitively, as a statement about one’s present society. While people are not likely to spitefully damage great works of their recent past, they also are unlikely to feel a reverence for perceived detritus, which could be remade into functional buildings.
Indeed, this resistance towards ruins exists particularly strongly here in the United States. Before the lecture, I had the opportunity to speak with Professor Stewart, as we waited for the lecture hall to open. One point that she made in this conversation was the lack of emphasis upon ruins in American literature and art. Even the exceptions that came to mind, such as Hudson River School paintings of ruined churches and empires, concerned themselves with emphatically European ruins, not American ones. At the risk of gross simplification, it appears that America is too ambitious to tolerate ruins in its midst. Even the detritus of the housing bubble, the abandoned residences and half-finished hotels that exist in many cities, seems unlikely to remain in their state for long. Such abandoned buildings evoke more practical concern than aesthetic interest, and they will likely be demolished or refurbished, as well they should. It seems somewhat fatalistic, as well as unsafe, to leave large structures to decay on otherwise usable land. Yet if such action seems reasonable to us today, no doubt similar actions would seem reasonable to a Roman in the Middle Ages. While such a comparison does not diminish the beauty and value of the ruins visible today, it does elucidate the cost at which these ruins come. Among the many things I have learnt from “The Ruins Lesson,” perhaps the most notable is that ruins not only reveal the frailty and impermanence of man’s endeavor, but require such weakness in order to exist.