We’re in the Mood for Ruination

Last week’s midterms revealed the electorate — left, right, and center — believed the country, and the world, were going to wrack and ruin. This suggested to me the time is ripe for an appreciation of actual ruins.

The subject has been on my mind for a month or more since I’ve been slowly reading through Rose Macaulay’s “Pleasure of Ruins.” It begins with a discussion of what the Germans call ruin sentiment, the attraction humans feel for crumbling reminders of a lost past.

She proposes a variety of moods within this fixation, a kind of schadenfreude — better them than us — and a nearly opposite memento mori realization that we’re next. There’s also the vanitas notion out of Ecclesiastes that all human endeavor is trivial and doomed alongside eternal things. And then there is the belief in a steady decline in human fortunes from a Golden Age to a Silver, followed by a Bronze and concluding with a brutal age of Iron. Guess which we’re in? Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, as the Romans said.

Macaulay then undertakes a leisurely amble through ruins and their chroniclers beginning with the ancient Middle East where many monuments, in places like Syria and Iraq, are no longer accessible due to the presence of the latest barbarian hordes. She moves on to Greece and Rome and to the Meso-American civilizations, the ruined abbeys of England and even to some gutted ruins from her own time, the remnants of the bombing campaign of World War II.

Her roll call is full of romance, Uxmal, Palmyra, Pompeii, Epidaurus, Carthage, Persepolis, Machu Picchu, Thebes, Troy, Caesarea, Nineveh, Tintern Abbey. A wonderful book that allows you to stroll through ages alongside a sympathetic guide who also quotes your fellow travelers from earlier ages who first laid eyes on the fallen past from the Renaissance onward.

Ruins of a more recent and localized sort are at the heart of “No Voice From the Hall: Memories of a Country House Snooper,” a memoir by a remarkable man, John Harris. As a school drop out at 14, Harris became a largely self-taught architectural historian and savior of English heritage. He began by aimlessly wandering about with his Uncle Sid who would take him fishing. but often on their rambles they encountered great country homes in the years just after World War II. Many were in their death throes.

Agriculture that had sustained these noble houses for centuries was no longer profitable beginning around the 1870s, as viewers of Downton Abbey will have learned. Then after World War I confiscatory death taxes made the upkeep of such homes financially impossible. Finally, during World War II many were commandeered by the military for use as headquarters, barracks and depots far from the urban centers. But they were woefully maltreated.

When young Harris fell under their spell they were crumbling to ruin, yet still grand in architectural detail. For years he hitchhiked around Britain staying at youth hostels and visiting the empty houses where he attended estate sales one jump ahead of the wrecking ball. He had the great good fortune to fall in with an antique dealer and an historian who understood his worth and became his mentors.

His obsession turned into an occupation. At length he became a curator at the Royal Institute of British Architecture and oversaw a famous exhibition, “The Destruction of the Country House,” that belatedly alerted his country to the loss of so much of its history and helped put a stop to it. Yet ii was too late to save 31 or the 53 houses described in this enhancing book.

The list of ruin-haunted writing is long, but I will close by mentioning a few poems that no ruin-minded person can do without. Shelley’s most anthologized piece, “Ozymandias,” is too familiar to need comment but repays rereading. Likewise “You, Andrew Marvell,” by Archibald MacLeish from the eve of World War II in which a person in our noonday hemisphere feels the darkness of night and fate from the Old World rushing toward him.

To feel creep up the curving east   
The earthy chill of dusk and slow   
Upon those under lands the vast   
And ever climbing shadow grow.

It darkens Persia and Palmyra, Spain and and the sands of Africa and hurries toward the narrator across the Atlantic

“…here face downward in the sun   
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on …”

From the same period, the great “Lapis Lazuli” by W.B. Yeats offer consolation for the endless tragedy of history, of “old civilizations put to the sword.” Yes, he says, “All things fall” but they “are built again.”

On a smaller scale is a Frost masterpiece, “Directive,” which visits a

…house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

Nearby is “the children’s house of make believe” along with some of their playthings. “Weep for what little things could make them glad.”

And in a similar mood and perhaps the inspiration for the Frost, “During Wind and Rain” by Hardy in which we follow a family from a poor cottage through years of improving and building and breakfasting under a summer tree until “They change to a high new house” with its clock and carpets, and chairs…

And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.”

It is notable that America has fewer ruins than the Old World and fewer poets enamored of ruin sentiment. But the mood of the electorate today may mean our optimistic country is becoming more amenable to a sentiment all but universal in the empires that preceded ours.

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