Search Instagram for Michigan Central Station and you’ll find thousands of photographs taken by trespassers to this most spectacular ruin of Detroit’s city of ruins. The Central Station, abandoned in 1988, stands like a gritty cathedral at the center of the current taste for images of urban decay, often called “ruins porn.” Susan Stewart’s new book, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2020), details the long history of Western fascination of contemplating what Shakespeare describes (in Sonnet 55) as “unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.”
Through examinations of works of poetic and visual art, including Wordsworth’s visits to the roofless Tintern Abbey after the French Terror and Eliot’s invocation of a wasteland in response to World War I, Stewart argues that ruins have special interest in times of conflict and financial collapse. Stewart contends that the immediate emotional impact of looking at a ruin is a reminder of our own deaths, since, unlike a heap of rubble, a ruin bears some traces of what it once was before its fall. When we see how “age under-ate” the stones of a Roman monument, we think about how we, like its builders, will soon vanish into “gravesgrasp” (as did an Old English poet in a fragmentary poem known as “The Ruin,” probably from the 8th century, in Michael Alexander’s translation).
In a ruin, as Stewart puts it, “we are meeting presence on its way to absence.” Stewart, a Princeton professor and former MacArthur fellow, alternates between writing works of cultural criticism and books of poetry. This book’s arguments are weighty but its phrases, like this one, are often poetically deft.
Ruins help us imagine not only the “certainty without particulars” of our own deaths, but also lead us to thoughts of the death of our societies. Thus, Constantin-François de Chassebœuf, the Comte of Volney, when visiting the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in what is now Syria, in the early 1780s, imagined a future traveler sitting on the banks of the Seine, looking at the “silent ruins” of Paris. Volney’s memoirs of Palmyra, The Ruins; Or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires and the Law of Nature, written in the form of a treatise of political philosophy, attracted such interest that they were translated by Thomas Jefferson. Stewart points out that they are one of many examples of the use of ruins not to present a vision of the past but rather to give “a glimpse of future ruin viewed through an intact present.”
Discussing ruins means discussing Rome: the remains of whose ancient buildings have long been the prototype for ruins in the West. Roman ruins are the source imagery for everything from picturesque fallen columns in the background of countless landscape paintings to the Tower of Babel, which has often been represented, as by Breugel, as a hyperextended Colosseum.
Rome may be the Eternal City, but Stewart reminds us, it has never been a permanent one. It has endured many cycles of destruction and rebuilding, from the 410 sack by Alaric onwards. Even in times of peace, the city has had a complicated relationship with its ancient monuments. Manuel Chrysoloras, the Byzantine Greek scholar who visited Rome in 1411, remarked on the contrast between Roman appreciation of classical learning and their use of ancient buildings as quarries for stone for new construction. He wrote that Rome “both nourishes and consumes itself.” It was not until the artist Raphael complained to Pope Leo X in 1519 that Romans were finally prohibited from dismantling ancient buildings to produce lime for mortar by burning their marble.
Despite centuries of neglect as well as deliberate destruction, the bones of the past still lie thick in Rome. But anyone who has made their way up to one of the panoramic viewpoints over the Roman forum knows that its jumble of architectural fragments may speak of empire, but looks like an untidy builder’s yard. Even Goethe complained that Rome’s ruins, seen at last, did not live up to their representations in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s engravings.
We need guidance to know what to think about ruins beyond our initial emotional reaction. Thus, artistic representations of ruins, with their labels, potted histories, and neat moral lessons, are often more satisfying than direct encounters with the ruins themselves. Artists give us not only theories about what the ruined buildings once looked like, but also about what caused their ruination. These messages about the causes of the downfall of architecture and societies are the lessons of Stewart’s title.
Stewart is especially interesting on the obsession with ruins after the conquest of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527. The Emperor quashed an alliance between France and Pope Clement VII with the help of German troops. These troops, long unpaid and largely Lutheran, sacked Rome in a frenzy after the death of their commander. In the following decades, many visitors from Northern Europe came to look at what the poet Giovan Francesco Vitale called Rome’s “corpse of greatness.” Printmakers both in Rome itself and in the North, especially Antwerp, also sold thousands of images of Roman ruins to armchair travelers. These viewers, trying to decide whether to remain Catholic or convert to Lutheranism, saw in Rome’s ancient ruins reminders of the fate of heretics. Perhaps Rome had been struck down, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Looking at ruins was also a prompt to consider the destructive outcomes of the ongoing wars of religious conflict that viewers of these ruins images were living through.
Stewart writes that “ruination happens at two speeds: furious and slow.” Furious stories, like the near-instant ruination of Pompeii, capture our attentions more than those of gradual weathering and decay. Stewart describes these destructions as being like unnatural deaths, cutting short the process of aging.
One recent surge of interest in ruins, which Stewart does not mention, fits this model: the 2015 destruction of the ancient Roman temples of Bel and Balshamin in Palmyra, Syria, by the Islamic State. The ruins caused by war have long been fascinating to non-combatants. The Frenchman Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, who visited Dresden after its bombardment by Prussian forces in 1760, described the shards of mirrors, gilding, and torn Chinese wallpapers he could see in the exposed rooms of palaces whose facades had been torn off by bombs. He rejoiced that he could think this spectacle melancholy but picturesque, since it was not his country. This reaction to ruins, which Stewart traces to Lucretius’ theory in De Rerum Natura about the way that representations of things that would terrify us if we encountered them in real life, like an attacking tiger, produce pleasing feelings of security when we see them in art, since we are not ourselves in danger. As with Dresden, the spectacle of of Palmyra’s ruined ruins carried a very different emotional charge to Western observers than to those involved in the conflict that destroyed them.
Stewart’s book is wide-ranging. Besides architectural ruins, she also includes a long consideration of “ruined” women. For example, she takes the opportunity of examining the erotic scenes sometimes included in 16th century prints of Roman ruins to assert that “fornication” comes from the Latin “fornix,” arch, since the Colosseum’s crumbling arches were notorious as sites for prostitution. But ruins can also provide a setting for the celebration of virginity, as in the many Renaissance Nativity paintings in which Mary cradles the infant Jesus in a stable built into a ruined ancient monument.
At times, the wealth of subject-matter pushed together in this book can feel as jumbled as a ruin itself, with readings of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili cheek-by-jowl with an analysis of the sociology of vestal virgins. This far-reaching erudition is characteristic of Stewart, whose influential 1984 book, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, also looked at how we use objects to shape our understandings of society, and ranged from miniature books to tall tales. Stewart expects much of her readers, but her writing is also forceful and clear enough that anyone should be able to make it through, with a few side trips to Wikipedia for refresher lessons in, say, the politics of Emperor Constantine.
Stewart points out that the attitude towards antiquity has always been different in North America than elsewhere. We prefer our antiquity “newly polished,” and thus make our references to the ancient past in terms of pristine neoclassical courthouses rather than paying much attention to the deep time represented by Native American archaeological sites and traditions. It is well worth thinking about what our current fascination with ruins signals about the path our futures will take.