Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is There an Aesthetics of Ruins?

Some of my most powerful aesthetic experiences, well, some of my most powerful experiences period, have been associated with ruins, usually seen on vacations.  Why do ruins move me so much?  And is this really an aesthetic form of experience?  I remember wandering around the grounds of Paestum, mostly by myself, looking at the ancient Greek ruins there.  I felt so lucky to be there, it was a high point of youth.  Part of the experience of ruins is just pleasure taken in architecture, for example in the details of buildings that remain.  Part of it, however, is in a feeling of nostalgia, a kind of regretful longing for a place and time not my own.  There is a magic for me in ruins.  Robert Ginsberg has written about ruins in his book, The Aesthetics of Ruins.  He says that in ruins we experience matter for its own sake.  This is a nice idea, but it doesn't quite fit my own experience.  I am not convinced that in ruins matter has been forsaken by form, as Ginsberg puts it.  Rather, there is always a formal as well as a material element to a ruin, and so, in this respect anyway, ruins are not all that different from architectural works in their prime. What is different perhaps is that in the ruin materiality of the matter is made more evident:  the stuff is showing through, the brickness of the brick is more evident.  The Parthenon is a ruin much of the form of which is still visible and worth contemplation.  Still, something about the feel of decay and loss of form is contained in our aesthetic experience of ruins.  Although Ginsberg, too, is moved in a deep way by ruins, he seems to respond to them in a very different way.  He sees matter as achieving a kind of presence in the ruin, a certain vitality, in which Being shows forth.  For me, there is something more like a communication between myself and a long dead culture.  Maybe not so much communication as a sense of meaning arising out of a presence which is also an absence.  It is not that I explicitly imagine how these streets would have been filled with people during the city's heyday.  Rather, there is the presence of the power of a people in the remains themselves...a magical presence.  Ruins, unlike reconstructions, connect one to a past, to a past that went through a life and then a death...a past with a complete history, one that ends, of course, in tragedy.  Ruins represent civilizations once alive and now dead.  Even ruins that have resulted from recent wars and disasters speak of an earlier life for a culture, a thriving time that exists no more.  The ruin contains within itself a ghost of former self.  

Above all, what interests me about ruins is the way they have had such an effect on me personally.  I remember going over Marley-le-Roi, the ruins of the palace of Louis XIV, and how the experience was moving because of the immensity and quietude of the space, because of the magical (that word again) way in which it unfolded before us as we entered through a door in a stone wall that surrounds it.  Why are ruins so moving for me?  Ginsberg says "the ruin captivates us" and I would certainly say that ruins captivate me.  I seem possessed when in a ruin, at least full of wonder.  Ginsberg has a way of aestheticizing the experience of a ruin, and I am not opposed to that.  However, this doesn't work unless we realize that this is his own experience, perhaps no one else's.  Similarly, what I have described of my experience may be unique to me.  Or, more likely, Ginsberg and I represent types.  We are both lovers of ruins, although for somewhat different reasons.  For Ginsberg, the ruin takes on the quality I have called "aura." (I discuss this idea at length in the fourth chapter of my book.)  He says that the brick stands in its self-hood, broken it reveals a new texture, more tangible and exciting.  For Ginsberg, something about the experience of a brick as part of a ruin allows it to give an intensified aesthetic experience (one not available to the same object in, say, a yard of bricks.)  For me, wandering through ruins, for example those to be found in the Guatemalan city of Antigua, is almost a religious experience.  It is not the individual bricks or even their arrangements that captivate me but the paths I follow, the sudden views, the half-understood arrangements of arches and other architectural elements, the sense of space and of history.  The pace of walking is important here:  it is a contemplative slow pace. 

I have written much in recent times about the aesthetics of everyday life, distinguishing this from the aesthetics of nature and the aesthetics of art.  The experience of ruins really belongs (usually) to the aesthetics of tourism, which is not really everyday life unless we are talking about the everyday life of the tourist.  Recent definers of the aesthetics of everyday life would seek to exclude the experience of the tourist from the everyday.  The tourist in particular is in search of the strange and interesting, although the comforting can also be of interest, as when one searches for mildly pleasant experiences to balance off the stresses of travel - for example, that favorite patisserie in Paris one goes back to again and again.  If the aesthetics of everyday life is to be limited to that which is literally every day and to that which one experiences at home, then we need a wider domain, perhaps the "aesthetics of life" to include the experience of the tourist.  Of course, for those who live near or amidst ruins, experience of ruins is part of their everyday lives, and they probably experience ruins quite differently from those of us who pay large sums to visit them from afar.  But what is theoretically interesting is that there is a place in our lives for aesthetic experiences of something which is both architecture and non quite architecture anymore because in ruins.  

For me, ruins are one of the main aesthetic interests of travel.  They, of course, do belong in part to the aesthetics of art, since ruins were once buildings, or are buildings now-ruined. And some ruins are sculptures that still appear outdoors on a ruin site and not just in a museum, as well as mosaic floors and even fragments of wall paintings.  So architecture is not the only art form appreciated in the appreciation of ruins.  Yet architectural elements are everywhere in ruins, and they are the main interest outside of purely historical interest.  Also they belong in part to the aesthetics of everyday life since one is aware of the everyday lives of the people who lived in these towns and cities when they flourished, not as something present but as something hovering in the background, as a possibility that can be contemplated if one wishes.  So, this raises the question of whether the historical interest evoked in our experience of ruins can be separated from aesthetic interest.  Is curiosity about what Rome must have been like something other than aesthetic interest?

And then of course there is the photographer's take on ruins, in which focus can be taken on formal features, although, again, one can also focus on scenes where historical context plays a stronger role.  Ginsberg speaks of an "aesthetic field for us to explore" and this seems right, although one would want to include something more than merely formal interest in all of this.  

We limit ourselves if we see the ruin as merely a sign leading us to the aesthetic unity of the place in its heyday.  We should not also forget the element of ruins that relates to the aesthetics of nature.  Ruins are half human artifact, half nature:  they are the human insofar as it is being reduced to nature.  Henry James in a quote given by Ginsberg refers to the wandering ivy as part of the interest in a ruin, and that is certainly right. 

Another thought:  ruins encourage those of us who are attracted to the messy.  They violate neatness:  they are once-neat worlds (maybe not so neat as one imagines) that now are messy.  The decay of the ruin, the antiquing of it, allows for the emergence of a special aesthetic quality.  What is that exactly?

1 comment:

Altoon Sultan said...

I agree with you that looking at and walking through ruins brings a strong sense of loss, a feeling of trying to understand another culture. There is also for me a kind of Ozymandias reckoning: the inevitable decline of civilizations, including our own. I don't see nature encroaching on ruins as "messy" but as a sign of its strength and persistence, so much stronger than the works of humans.