Read on to watch video of A.E. Stallings and James K. A. Smith discussing this essay.
Susan Stewart. The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture. University of Chicago Press, 2020.
ONE OF THE USEFUL WORDS I learned from Susan Stewart’s perfectly timed The Ruins Lesson is the Dutch word Beeldenstorm (or, in German, Bildersturm)—a statue storm. In the Protestant “surge” of 1566, the “Year of Wonders,” crowds and rioters in Antwerp and elsewhere started smashing statues, destroying images of the Virgin Mary and various other saints and apostles, in a frenzy against the “graven images” of Catholicism. “Iconoclasm,” a perfectly good English word of Greek provenance, has had its edges worn smooth by allegorical use; it will not serve. No, I would say the summer of 2020 has been a statue storm, as angry protestors topple statues, on both sides of the Atlantic, of figures associated with slavery, racism, and colonial oppression, controversy eddying in the wake of these symbolic unseatings. Is it a slippery slope—are students serious now about removing a statue of Walt Whitman in Rutgers–Camden? Or have things not gone far enough? (I grew up in the shadow, as it were, of the enormous carving of Confederate generals in Stone Mountain—the largest bas-relief carving in the world—that was finished in 1972. Of much greater artistic value than Mount Rushmore, it is also much more problematic, Stone Mountain being the birthplace of the Klu Klux Klan. Popular summer laser shows used to end by animating the generals and having them gallop off into the night, the Confederate banner waving, to a rendition of Dixie.) Scholars have been busy telling us that iconoclasm is nothing new, reminding us of the Roman practice—cancel culture, if you will—of “damnatio memoriae,” or condemning the memory, when the Senate would try to erase every image and inscription relating to an individual, and even their families. Caligula and Nero are among Roman emperors treated thus; they have hardly been erased from history.
In our statue storm summer, Stewart brings us The Ruins Lesson, a meditation on monuments and ruins, how we read meaning into them, and what they teach. “Monument,” as Susan Stewart points out, comes from the Latin “mone¯re”—to remind, to warn—and is related, by its Proto-Indo-European root, men, both to mind and memory. “Out of sight, out of mind,” is exactly what the monument attempts to avoid. Subject to the weathering of time and vegetation, to the overturning of violence, to dismantling by edict or mob, a monument is prone to ruination, and to becoming a ruin. “Ruin” is also from Latin: rue¯re, to rush down headlong, to collapse. Monuments and ruins are, like particle and wave, two aspects of the same energy—the stay against confusion, the downrush of catastrophe. The German word for a monument, Denkmal, could be translated as “thought-moment.” The monument is essentially didactic: look on my works, ye mighty. But the ruin, the legless trunk, is often the real lesson, on the passing of time and the erosion of reputation. We are living in a Denkmal of great anxiety about monuments and ruins, as the future seems to harden and the past quicksands under our feet.
Susan Stewart, a former MacArthur fellow, is a professor of humanities and English at Princeton University, also serving on the faculty of the department of art and archaeology, and as editor of the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. She has written books, not only of poetry, but of art criticism and aesthetics, and a volume entitled Poetry and the Fate of the Senses. The Ruins Lesson, about “meaning and material” in western culture, is a natural extension of her interests and passions. It is meet that a book about materiality should itself be a handsome artifact. The book is meticulously produced, from the jacket, which sports a detail from a 1766 print of a “ruined room,” vines and sky and cypresses peeking through the ceiling of a once luxurious ancient interior, to an exhaustive index, black-and-white illustrations, and full-color plates. The notes and works-cited pages alone come to a seventy-six-page sheaf of heavy paper. The book lays out its argument and exploration in chapters such as “Matter: This Ruined Earth,” “Mater: Nymphs, Virgins, and Whores—On the Ruin of Women,” and “Matrix: Humanism and the Rise of the Ruins Print.” Images of ruins, Stewart asserts, are somehow most suitable to prints—it is prints much more than paintings where there is an explosion of ruins imagery. Prints not only enabled an intimate engagement with monumental public buildings, but a series of prints might show a building from different angles or in different stages of dilapidation. Further, the print itself arguably embodies and performs ruin. As Stewart expresses it: “Printmaking is an art of inscribing stone and other mineral surfaces and involving the erosion and eventual destruction of the work’s own material: the print is a trace of a ruined form.”
Another nifty word I learned from Stewart, staffage, refers to those tiny figures, human and animal, that often add a touch of local color (exotic native costume; a flock of sheep or even a camel) or dramatic tension or irony (washerwomen hanging out ragged clothes in the shadow of crumbling Roman imperial glamor). Violence, very often the suggested “ruin” of a woman, often plays out against a backdrop of ruins. This unfurls not only in visual art, but in literature. Stewart gives the example of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles “meeting her doom” (a good Hardy-esque word) at Stonehenge.
For men, ruin is professional and financial. For women, ruin is physical and moral, the loss of virginity or chastity by rape or seduction outside of society-approved marriage. To speak of the ruin of women in the way that we speak of a ruined building might seem a stretch, but in fact virginity was strongly associated with the intact foundation, for instance, of the Roman empire. In ancient Rome, the college of vestal virgins, women pledged to thirty years of chastity from the time they were prepubescent girls, kept the sacred flame that was believed to be the safety of the city. The Virgin Mary in turn becomes the single woman whose pregnancy out of wedlock and subsequent motherhood involves not ruin, but glory. Depictions of the nativity scene in the West (in the Orthodox icon tradition, the setting is generally not a wooden stable, but a cave used as an ad hoc sheepfold) often set the humble stable scene in the midst of ruined buildings, indicating both the antiquity of the Holy Land and the falling away of an old order.
Stewart touches on theories of ruin, including Alois Riegl’s notion of “age value.” Along with their art value and historical value, we prize ruins precisely for their visible wear and tear, their patina, their roughened texture. Monuments and statues, aging, but over generations rather than a single lifespan, function as timekeepers and memento mori. For the Roman poet Lucretius, for instance, the bronze statues at the city gates served as a visible example of the atomic theory, their matter worn away particle by particle as passersby touched and polished the statues’ right hands.
Age value is “the estimation of age and its signs of presence as valuable in themselves.” Stewart goes on to suggest that this appreciation of age value, and thus the desire to leave ruin in an “authentic” state of dilapidation, counter to the urge to repair and reconstruct, is a particularly western enthusiasm, from the Renaissance onward. (She puts forward the mended and reconstructed artifacts in the Shanghai Museum of Ancient Art and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum as examples of the opposing aesthetic.) Greece, perhaps, as often is the case, falls somewhere in between. Yet I can think of nothing more western, in a way, than the rather bizarre and yet glorious reconstruction—a complete Disney-world reimagining—of Arthur Evans’s palace at Knossos, with whole frescoes “restored” from minimal fragments to their original Minoan-cum-art-deco glory. Stewart’s focus is squarely on Rome—the seeds of the book came out of her teaching graduate seminars there at the Tyler School of Art—and centers largely on a study of eighteenth-century prints. Greece is often an afterthought, and, appropriately enough given the eighteenth-century western focus, seen as a backwater outpost of the Ottoman Empire. But time and again I found myself applying the “ruins lessons” to Greece, where I live, rethinking the monuments and ruination all around me.
Stewart is a poet as well as a scholar and critic, and so is especially good on ruin and monument, from early depictions of ruin (starting with the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili—“The Strife of Love in a Dream,” printed in Venice in 1499 with 172 woodcuts), to poets of ruin, including du Bellay, Goethe, Milton, Spenser, Petrarch, Blake (Blake being of course also a printmaker), Shelley (his “Ozymandias” is surely the essential poem of monument and ruin), and on to the modernists. Consider Stewart’s description of Spenser: “Spenser’s iconoclastic imagination, its suddenness and irreversibility, adds to the inorganic, near-mineral quality of his epic as a whole.” “Mineral” is a favorite Stewart adjective.
The fragment is cousin to the ruin, as the unfinished building reflects the collapsed one. “Companion to the ruin, the unfinished is not the sign of a damaged form but the sign of damaged intention.” The Tower of Babel is the ur-unfinished building—or the unfinished building of Ur, perhaps. Its most famous depiction is the much-reproduced painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (or paintings, to be precise, as two versions are in existence, slightly varied, like an early spot-the-difference game), itself based on a ruin: he pictures the mythological ziggurat after the breakdown in human communication as a lurching wedding-cake pile-up of layers of colonnades based on the Roman Coliseum.
Modernism thus is a kind of culmination of the ruins lesson, with its fetishizing of fragment, its palimpsests, its Babel of language and voices, its concern with the “age value” of ancient quotation, and its fascination with physical ruin. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” concludes, right after the fall of London Bridge, a smattering of Dante and Latin, and an allusion to the rape of Philomela, who is turned into a swallow, and before lapsing into Jacobean English and stuttering into Sanskrit and silence. The ruins of the Wasteland—a wasteland being British English for a vacant urban lot—are literal, and allegorical. Every possible kind of ruin is on display, from the ruined virtue of the typist “When lovely woman stoops to folly and” to Lil’s abortion, from Phlebas the Phoenician’s shipwreck (a special species of ruin) to Mr. Eugenides’s Smyrna, a cosmopolitan polyglot city about to be razed in 1922, the year of the poem’s publication. Even the currants in Mr. Eugenides’s pocket have the musty odor of ruin—catastrophic financial ruin—the Currant Crises of 1879 and 1908 that, in a familiar pattern of Greek economic crises reaching to the present day, destabilized the Greek economy and led to mass emigration.
Reading The Ruins Lesson, not only in the summer of statue storm, but in a pandemic Athens eerily empty of tourists and just opening up after a hard, early lockdown, felt like reading a future commentary on a history of the present. Even though Stewart’s focus is primarily Rome, much of what she discusses is directly relevant to Athens, a city whose heart and symbol is a ruined monument, perhaps the most famous and recognizable such ruin in the world. As Stewart says, ruin can happen slowly or suddenly, through weathering and the lapse of time, or through accident (an earthquake, say) or even deliberate violence.
The Parthenon is all of these at once. Begun in 447 BC, in part as a monument to the older (and unfinished) Parthenon that had been razed by the invading Persians thirty-three years before, it survived intact until the mid-third century AD, when a fire consumed the famed marble roof. The roof was rebuilt, at a steeper pitch, and not in marble, and that survived until 1687, when the building was being used by the Ottomans as a munitions magazine in the Morean War with Venice. After eight days of bombardment by the Venetians under the command of Francesco Morosini, the temple took a direct hit and exploded. The blast blew off the roof and destroyed much of the middle, leaving the same skeletal outline we have today. Morosini also attempted to take down some sculptures from the west pediment, but only succeeded in smashing them. It would take a mad syphilitic adulterous Scottish lord to commit the final humiliation of pulling down most of the remaining friezes and shipping them to England, where he would sell them to the British government, which in turn settled them in the British Museum. Lest we think that outrage over their removal is a purely modern phenomenon, lest we worry about judging the past by the sensibilities of the present, it is useful to remember that eyewitnesses reported that some of Elgin’s own workmen, including the Italian artist in his employ, were uneasy about the operation.
Edward Daniel Clarke, who witnessed the taking down of one metope, which dislodged an adjacent block of marble that smashed to the ground in a thunderous explosion of white shards and dust, noted that the disdar present (an Ottoman title for fortress commander) exclaimed “Telos!”—the Greek for “End!” (“Stop! Enough already!”) a one-word utterance that would have been perfectly intelligible to Pericles. Byron was disgusted, and devoted an entire poem, “The Curse of Minerva,” to predicting all kinds of ills for Britain—the loss of empire, for instance—unless it returned the marbles. (Brexiters might take note.) One of the caryatids shipped to London was reported to have wept through the journey.
At that time, the rock of the Acropolis, where the Parthenon stands, had acquired numerous more recent buildings and structures—a tower built when the erstwhile temple was converted from an Orthodox church to a Latin one was eventually extended into a mosque’s minaret. (The spiral staircase, as far as the architrave, still survives.) Numerous Ottoman structures and even humble houses crowded the rock. Today, these accretions to the fifth-century temple complex have been scraped clean from it like barnacles. For the twenty years we have lived in Athens, the building has been under “repair,” covered in scaffolding, as marble workers fit columns back together and even insert new pieces of marble—although, as this marble is from the same ancient quarry on Pentelis, it is arguably the same age as the old marble. (That said, by the sheer pressure of gravity over the centuries, the marble in individual column drums has fused together at the molecular level, as if growing back into a mountain.) As I walk my children to the school bus stop in the morning and turn a corner, and the Parthenon heaves into view, my daughter inevitably asks, “Why isn’t it finished yet?” To her, it is not a ruin but a building forever under construction, perhaps stopped mid-way as the workmen speak a confusion of languages.
One of the glories of the Parthenon is the blue Greek sky gleaming through it, or gold beams of sun streaming through the columns from the West at sunset. Sometimes it seems to radiate and almost float, for all of its colossal heaviness, or to be made itself of light, an image rather than an object. But this would not have been a feature of the original, intact monument, which would have glittered as sunlight bounced off it, not been suffused as light shot through it. (Consider, for instance, the Nashville Parthenon, a full-scale replica built for the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, originally of wood and brick, and later of concrete—which gives an accurate idea of the Parthenon’s mass, but principally speaks of solidity and sinking heaviness rather than grandeur and loftiness.)
As Stewart points out, one of the paradoxes of ruins is how their collapse opens them up, exposing the inside to the outside, revealing cross sections of construction, building materials that had been covered over, the bone structure of beauty. “A ruin confuses the interior with the exterior and the transparent with the opaque as it also shows the interrelatedness of those aspects of perception,” she writes. Consider the geode: complete, it is an uninteresting rock. Broken open, it is an Aladdin’s cave of wonders.
In late May, as my family and I walked around the Acropolis on an afternoon warm but not hot, with startlingly pollution-free blue skies, so clear that you could see the cargo ships sitting at anchor off the port of Piraeus, we were nearly alone on the rock, aside from the temple’s passel of cats. The guards at the ticket booth were wearing masks and gloves, and a sign in Greek reminded us to “Observe your apostasies” (Observe social distancing). Signs of the reconstruction work were everywhere, while signs of the Acropolis’s interim history were scarce, now mostly reduced to a pile of cannonballs, possibly from the 1821 siege by Greek rebel forces.
Having the place to ourselves made us feel unhurried, and we noticed things we had not before, such as the base of a statue to Athena Hygeia (the Athena of Health) just inside the monumental Propylaea gates, which frame, so a new theory tells us, the straits of Salamis, site of Athenian revenge. Plutarch writes that this cult site was used by ancient construction workers who had been injured, but it seems more likely that it was used during the famous plague which swept through the city in waves, in 430, 429, and 427 BC, laying low the Athenian leader Pericles himself. I touched the stone, like knocking on wood, saying a few words to Athena Hygeia in my mind. The temple, erected in part to keep the atrocities of the Persians forever in the Athenian mind (the Persians’ burning of Athens and the older temple in 480 has been described by writers such as Joan Bretton Connelly as the Athenian 9/11), in part to glorify Athens’s imperial power and wealth, had seen pandemics before, and fire and explosions, siege and famine, the rise and fall of empires and nations. It had been a temple, a church, and a mosque. It was on the rock of the Acropolis that the Nazis flew their red and black banner of evil, and from which Greek teenagers Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas clambered up at risk of life and limb—indeed firing squad—to tear it down. During the decade-long financial crisis (less crisis than depression), the economic ruin of Greece was nearly always depicted by some variation on the temple’s broken Doric columns. Beneath it, a glittering new museum has been purpose-built as a rhetorical gambit to invite the return of the marbles to a spot where they can be in conversation with their original situation, and exhibited the right way round. (In the Duveen gallery, which suffers its own slow ruin of water leakages, they face inward, and are interrupted by entrances and exits to the gallery, gaps of attention.)
Of course, the Parthenon is just one of hundreds of ruins within the city, not only from classical times, but Roman and Byzantine. Greek law requires that if a ruin exists and is visible on private property, it must be accessible to the public. So the floor of a Zara clothing store might be made of Plexiglas so that you can view a cistern below. A Lidl supermarket has a section of the ancient Long Wall on display in its parking lot.
Ruins and monuments and the incomplete jostle at every viewpoint in the center of the city. A monstrous new hotel going up that would have blocked many views of the Parthenon has been ordered to take down its upper floors, and is both unfinished and ruin at once.
In an early chapter of The Ruins Lesson, Stewart makes interesting observations on how the Christian West has tended to view mountains, particularly in the early modern era. Mountains were not particularly amenable to civilized human habitation or farming—the haunts of brigands and wild beasts—and were ungainly interruptions on the horizon. They were associated with the monstrous and the demonic, and were disturbing features in a world that was supposed to be fashioned by God for the use and enjoyment of his pet project, human beings. “Mountains were flaws in an otherwise harmonious world,” writes Stewart. In the words of Andrew Marvell, they represented “ill design.” By the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they would be associated with the sublime. By its own sudden ruin, one mountain in particular, Vesuvius, did more to create our ideas of ruin—in Pompeii and Herculaneum—than any other natural event. Mountains, though generally not made by man, share many characteristics with monument and with ruin, and are often made of the same material: limestone, marble. They make us stop and think (Denkmal). They become covered with vegetation that weathers them.
As Stewart concludes in her last chapter, “Resisting Ruin: The Decay of Monuments and the Promises of Language,” “Monuments are among the most controversial of built forms, and their controversy always lies in their inadequacy and in the inevitability of their failure.” A monument is a future ruin. I was recently startled to read, for instance, that the sculptor of the colossal figures on Stone Mountain, the self-taught artist Roy Faulkner (the carving is his only art work), told an interviewer, “I always keep in mind that I am carving the largest piece of sculpture anyone ever attempted, a memorial that will stand through eternity.” The carvings may well outlast this present iconoclastic moment, being too enormous to remove, but what will they be a memorial to? A ruin is a reminder, on the graspable scale of human history, that on the larger, geologic scale, nothing, not even mountains, lasts for eternity.
The Stone Mountain carvings were meant to glorify a romanticized “Lost Cause” view of the Civil War, and on a spot sacred to white supremacy. Can these carvings somehow come to symbolize something else—an Ozymandias-like vainglorious failure? As the carvings are kept clean of vegetation at “effort and expense,” one suggestion is to simply stop doing so and let nature take its course. Writing in The Guardian, Ryan Gravel, an architect of the Atlanta Beltline, and the historian Scott Morris suggest: “We should allow growth to also overtake the sculpture’s many clefts and crinkles as they naturally collect organic material and allow moss and lichen to obscure its details. We should blast it with soil to encourage such growth and consider this new camouflage as a deliberate creative act, transforming the sculpture into a memorial to the end of the war—not to the traitors who led it.” That is, to let vegetation weather a monument into a ruin, to let a ruin grow back into a mountain.
We think of natural features such as mountains as permanent, even as we make the entire world a ruin. Through our climate catastrophe, geologic time becomes compressed into human time. Permafrost is neither. Things we had taken for granted (or even for granite) as lasting countless generations are lost within a single lifetime. My daughter, who is ten, is acutely aware of the wonders that she was born only to lose (wild polar bears, monarch butterflies), products of billions of years of evolution, whether or not you believe in a creator God or divine miracles. She watches nature documentaries with a solemnity that belies their status as entertainment: they are elegies.
“Glacial” was once a byword for movement so slow as to be imperceptible. Now, perhaps, it might describe something that vanishes with startling speed. Just last August, Iceland marked its first ever loss of a glacier to climate change. The country observed the event in a human way and on a human scale, with a funeral. And to mark the Okjökull glacier’s ultimate ruin, they erected a monument, a stone with a brazen plaque, on which is written, in Icelandic and English, a “letter to the future,” speaking, as monuments often do, in the first person to a future passerby. At the end is inscribed a date, and also, like a new kind of archaeological dating system, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 415 parts per million.
Does The Ruins Lesson offer any words of comfort, any wisdom? What Stewart finds to counter the relentless process of ruin, the counterintuitive ephemerality of monuments, is the resilience of language, how even dead languages are continually renewed in new readings and translations, most particularly of poetry, which has always had within it the power to “go viral.” A sonnet is a “moment’s monument” (in the words of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) that cannot be destroyed by being torn from its pedestal. Horace asserts something even stronger when he writes, in his Ode 3.30 (Stewart quotes David Ferry’s translation):
Today I have finished a work outlasting bronze
And the pyramids of ancient royal kings.
The North Wind raging cannot scatter it,
Nor can the rain obliterate this work,
Nor can the years, nor can the ages passing.
Some part of me will live…
“Non omnis moriar,” Horace asserts: “I shall not entirely die.”
Horace, the son of a freed slave, a father who insisted upon getting him the best education he could, survives more fully even than Maecenas, his wealthy patron, whose name lives only as a byword for munificence.
Language is poised to make an even larger jump than it ever has—as so many animals, plants, and natural phenomena for which we have words perish, leaving their names behind them. The Oxford Junior Dictionary has started removing words about the natural world that children no longer use or encounter. Words like “acorn,” “bluebell,” “kingfisher”: cancelled, erased. In their book The Lost Words, Robert MacFarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris set out to preserve these words—and perhaps in some way cast a protective spell on the things themselves. If we cannot speak something, perhaps it is well and truly lost, and the natural world will be not only ruin, but unfinished tower of Babel, a monument to our inability to communicate. But if we keep these words alive in the mouths of children, perhaps they cannot altogether die.
A.E. Stallings is an American poet, critic, and translator who lives in Greece. Her most recent poetry collection is Like (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and her recent verse translations include Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin Classics) and an illustrated Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice (Paul Dry).
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.