The Palmyra Arch in London was disappointing. Seems like a waste of good Renaissance marble. If the public intention of the Emirati money behind it was to ‘rouse the West to anger’ over ISIS’s swathe of destruction then it could almost have the opposite effect. (Also, perhaps stop funding them?)
What was considerably more impressive were our St George’s Day outing sites, Netley Abbey and Porchester Castle, some final parts of our ongoing Norman project. A couple of weeks ago, when we were at Pevensey Castle, it was cold, rainy and blustery. Just how I like my ruins.
Not today, though.
My partner and I joke about how I only enjoy these sites if there is sufficient sleet and mud. It’s far from true but it does make me think of the cult of the ruin.
It was in the 18th century, however, that the ruin arrived centre-stage in European art, poetry, fiction, garden design and architecture itself. A cult of melancholy collapse and picturesque rot took hold, especially of the English aristocracy, for whom no estate was complete without its mock-dilapidated classical temple, executed in stone, plastered brick or even (as the garden designer Batty Langley advised in 1728) cut-price painted canvas. The craze inspired some well-known architectural absurdities: in Westmeath in 1740 Lord Belvedere built a ruined abbey to block the view of a house where his ex-wife had taken up with his brother, and in 1796 William Beckford first contrived his fantastical Fonthill Abbey, “a sort of habitable ruin”, according to Macaulay – “sort of'” because the thing kept falling down.
Alongside such follies there flourished a literature of pleasing desuetude, encompassing aesthetic theory, romantic poetry’s rubble-strewn excursions and the dank precincts of the gothic novel. In his Elements of Criticism of 1762, Lord Kames had approved ruins, real or confected, for their embodying “the triumph of time over strength, a melancholy but not unpleasant thought”. And the English romantics took to ruination with a paradoxical energy, Wordsworth uncovering his poetic self among the remnants of Tintern Abbey, Coleridge in the unfinished “Kubla Khan” deriving a whole aesthetic of the literary fragment out of his botched architectural fantasia. [More.]
The article linked about goes on to say that the cult of the ruin is associated with a ‘fretful modernity’. I’m not sure if it’s Dillon explaining himself at his best. It risks falling into the materialist/behavioural trap of ‘explaining’ the cult as being a response to modernity or industrialisation.
This sense of having lived on too late, of having survived the demolition of past dreams of the future, is what gives the ruin its specific frisson, and it still animates art and writing. But it’s historically bound up with more pressing worries about the fate of one’s own civilisation[.]
But the feeling is older than that, or at least it is today. It feels like everything is Babel. One’s own civilisation reduces it too much. It overly smacks of material/functionalist reductionism. The cult of the ruin is more cosmic in its horror. I like Dillon better here, paraphrased slightly.
Dillon believes that the contemporary fascination with the ruin is due to the detrimental effects of our economic output in the 90s, which caused a major decline of prosperous industrial sites around the world. This belief in the modern ruin being a post-industrial, post-capitalist, post-modern and post-technological manifestation is something I agree with. There seems to be an acute awareness within contemporary thought on the mutability of time and the inevitable decline of humanity, despite technological and industrial endeavours. [More.]
The English relationship to these ruins is very… well, it’s very English, and has a tendency to choke the life out of a more romantic ruin cult experience. The excellent Simon Jenkins:
While on the continent castles continued fit for purpose into the 19th century, in England they had mostly followed monasteries into collapse by the middle of the 17th.
England thus started early on ruination. It bequeathed the Georgians an astonishing collection of gaunt and gutted structures, ready for the Romantics to swoon over and the ministry of works to grasp to its bosom and timidly surround with nationalised grass. While old cathedrals and churches were vigorously restored by the Victorians, to be repaired and updated ever since, most abbeys and castles were frozen in time. They were for the delight of scholars, but their mounds of stone were largely meaningless to the public. England’s ruins are a collective memorial to the unknown archaeologist.
“Timidly surround with nationalised grass”. Exactly. When we arrive at Porchester Castle we show our English Heritage member cards and the woman behind the counter asks if we want to buy a guidebook. Nope. She then asks if we want the audio guides. Nope. She looks faintly anxious. “But they’re free.” Still nope. This lady meant well, naturally, but this is nationalised grass by another name.
The sensation of place should be fully experienced. Now, an audio guide is very 70s technology but it is nevertheless still a technological advice that puts up a barrier between you and experience. It also guarantees you only have one experience of the place… some kind of watered down BBC kids show version of history. Example. The keep at Porchester Castle was used as a prison in the early 1800s. They had to build extra wooden floors to fit all the men in. How much buttsex went on in there, do you think? Probably not in the audioguide, but my partner and I speculated for a good twenty minutes.
On a more serious note, the guides can tell you nothing about the sound of the birds or the smell of the sea or the feel of the rock. No one was touching any of the rock. These are some of the best preserved Roman walls in all of Europe.
Perhaps most seriously, the audio-guides, a variant of the tyranny of the ‘nationalised grass’, deny the ruin its afterlife. Ruins, to have their full effect, must be allowed to go on ruining. The process of what they stand for is otherwise interrupted. And they must be engaged with beyond the velvet rope. Here’s a different English Heritage employee story, in a different gift shop: When we were visiting Furness Abbey in Cumbria in the absolute, absolute off-season -mid January- (there was sleet), the woman behind the counter and I chatted about favourite abbeys for a while. She was/is a medieval history Masters graduate which may explain why she was working part time in a gift shop. Anyway, she was impressed with our off-season holiday chops and she likes to do the same, for the very same reasons… no one else is around.
Furness Abbey has one of the tallest remaining abbey towers anywhere in the country. It was at this point that the gift store attendant leaned in and said “You know what I like to do. I like to go and stand in the tower, look up past where the roof was, up at the sky, feel the wind and just… yell.”
I liked her.
The cult of the ruin offers a persistent lesson in how we can engage in history, even as the cult itself undergoes a process of ruination. There is a wider point about our individual approaches to the story of the past here:
Experience the original material -place, text, food or sound- supplement with book-learning before or after the experience, touch the rocks, never take the audio guide and always, always remember that the grass is not the boss of you.
Happy St George’s Day from a magnificently ruined place.