Susan Stewart, The Ruins Lesson

The Ruins Lesson is a history of the social and artistic function of ruins from late antiquity to the twentieth century, mostly focused on the Roman empire, the Renaissance, and the Romantics. She is interested in exploring why the ruin has been such an enduring figure in art and culture, and why we are interested in things that are broken, partial, or unfinished. She argues that our taste for fragments in poetry and collages descends from our interest in ruins. As structures that are constantly in-between– organic and inorganic processes, interior and exterior, human and nature, structure and dissolved thing– they offer interventions in our usual ways of thinking about transience.

Lord Byron contemplating the Colosseum in Rome (14397672 ...

At the same time, ruins sometimes can’t hold all this symbolic weight: “form cannot express everything it is and has been, especially once it loses its finality” (379). Ruins all become ruined at some point, after all. In a discussion of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, she notes that the poem descends into a loss of context, in which the ruins come to symbolize nothing more than loss (381). She also discusses the decay of monuments, which she defines as structures that invite you to look and remember it, and the concept of “age value”– that the marks of ruin begin to gain their own independent value (i.e. patinas show that a book has been read) because in part they mark the resistance of human effort against nature. What does it mean, to extend a question I have asked several times already, when decay loses its meaning or loss is the only meaning? Is meaningless decay just unregarded decay?

Her last several chapters bounce between well-known depictions of ruins in literature, like The Waste Land and most Romantic poetry. As I am interested in writing about contemporary apocalypse fiction, I was interested to note that there is no contemporary work included here. She ends with what to me was a puzzling inversion of her project: if we have concluded that humans gain pleasure from looking at ruins, then will we gain the same pleasure from looking at the ruins of the natural world we are destroying?  She states that the natural world will surely outlive us as “minerals and chemicals” (396), if not as human life-forms, conjuring up the image of weeds poking up through the concrete. This turn reminds me of a moment at the end of Disco Elysium (spoliers for that game in an essay on its ending here) that similarly takes the long view of history– the world is not ok, but it will be ok, eventually, just not with us in it. I wonder if this in and of itself isn’t a new kind of ruins thinking; we are imagining ourselves and our civilization as ruins in advance, while we ruin things around us. This preemptive nostalgia is an interesting affect.

This reminds me of Sontag’s essay “Melancholy Objects”, which asserts that contemporary American photography’s surrealist tendencies compel it to focus on junk objects with no real artistic value. While Sontag frames this as an American tendency in particular, I think Stewart’s work makes it clear that there is a cross-period, cross-national focus on things that are broken and run down. Stewart does not call ruins melancholy, but I think it’s more than fair to read them as such (maybe with a little explanatory effort). This comparison also makes me wonder if things like Gothic ruins can be considered junk objects, or if the ephemera of things like medieval fairs (material cuture of medievalisms) can be. All of these things bring me back to Burton’s too-muchness.

Other interesting points include her assertion that Britain’s proliferation of decaying Roman and medieval monasteries developed a taste for fragmentary aesthetics, or the early modern connection between print-making and ruins (which she argues corresponds with the first time ruins were appreciated aesthetically, which I disagree with)– “the print is a trace of a ruined form” (72). Ruins force us to look at the surface of things, both literally (we don’t look at the material surface of a photo, she notes, but we do pay attention to the surface of ruins) and in their capacity to make interiors into exteriors. Or, there is her connection between mountains and human failure, citing early modern beliefs that mountains were imperfections in the earth just as warts and tumors are in the human body (54). The thing I am still most interested in is her brief discussion of the pleasure of the ruin, the idea that viewers take pleasure in ruin because they say to themselves “what if that were me– but it’s not!” (24). However, the book doesn’t go far beyond her initial claim that ruins are important because they showcase the duality of decay and new growth on top of it, because they provide a connection to the past, and they cast into disorganization our binaries about relationships to the natural world and the “natural” flow of time and decay.