Why ruins are disappointing
My next gig is in Paris – at a conference on Ruins.
As almost always, two days in Paris in early June seemed a very nice idea when I agreed to give a paper last year. Whether the 6.30 am Eurostar on Thursday seems quite such an attractive prospect now is another question.
It wasn’t just Paris in the spring that made me say yes to the invitation. I’ve been brewing up a somewhat deviant view on ruins (academically deviant, that is) for some time.
Which is to say, I want to think a bit harder about why most ruins are – lets face it – disappointing.
I don’t mean all ruins, of course. I challenge anyone to find Pompeii or the Parthenon or the Colosseum disappointing or boring (though, according to Peter Green, William Golding did mount the Athenian Acropolis, muttering, “the bloody Parthenon again” and sit down firmly with his back to the monument gazing out at the Eleusis cement works). I mean those ivy clad mouldering walls of some third rate English Abbey or the pile of stray stones outside some jolly Cretan village which claim to be the remains of a Minoan rural settlement.
To most people in the world, this disappointment will not seem a great revelation, but to archaeologists and cultural theorists ruins are an object of intense interest (and so they are to me when I am wearing one of those hats). Archaeologists will bang on for hours about the minute significance of the position of one stone against the next. Cultural theorists will bang on even longer about ruins as a metaphor for the past, the fragility of human success, the melancholy of contemplating the death of the past, and so on.
The voice that most academics refuse to hear is that of most other people in the world who do not share this enthusiasm. In fact, not to appreciate ruins or “fragmentarity” is seen as a mark of boorish lack of comprehension. So for, example, when Benjamin Haydon overheard an ordinary member of the public say in front of the newly on-show Elgin Marbles, “How broken down they are, a’ant they”, he and most critics (me included) ever after have treated this as an example of naive ignorance.
In fact not only is it absolutely true that they are very broken down (and disappointed many when they first arrived), but there was also a considerable move at the time to have them restored.
Even elite travellers could chime in to this effect (although we tend to prefer to linger over their enthusiasm for ruins). A friend put me on to a great passage of the nineteenth-century traveller William Forsyth, moaning about how difficult it was to make anything out of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli: “This villa was at first so diffuse, so deficient in symmetry or connexion, and is now so ruined, so torn by excavation, that is original plan is become an object extremely difficult for a stranger to recover.” And he goes on in the same vein with several paragraphs of complaint.
My point is going to be that we need to think harder about those on the anti ruin side – and to see them not as being indifferent to, or ignorant of, the past but having a different way of engaging with it.
That might be helped by looking at those non-Western cultures who haven’t bought into the romantic idea of ruins. Japan is an obvious examples, where traditionally the “oldest” temples were entirely rebuilt every 20 years or so (suggesting a view of history as process rather than material).
China is instructive too, especially the recent debates about the restoration and rebuilding (or not) of the Garden of the Old Summer Palace (brutally destroyed in 1860 by the French and British , under the command of Lord Elgin, none other than the son of Lord “Parthenon” Elgin). In this, we don’t hear of the picturesque value of the “garden as ruin” (and a very run down ruin it is indeed). If there is a value in the ruin for the Chinese debaters, it is the ruin as “evidence of Western atrocities . . .the scene of a crime”.
Not exactly how we see old Coventry Cathedral?