in search of lost ruins

En roulant mes souvenirs dans son flux, l’oubli a fait plus que les user et les ensevelir. Le profond édifice qu’il a construit de ces fragments propose à mes pas un équilibre plus stable, un dessin plus clair à ma vue. Un ordre a été substitué à un autre. Entre ces deux falaises maintenant à distance, mon regard et son objet, les années qui les ruinent ont commencé à entasser les débris. Les arêtes s’amenuisent, des pans entiers s’effondrent ; les temps et les lieux se heurtent, se juxtaposent ou s’inversent, comme les sédiments disloqués par les tremblements d’une écorce vieillie… ”

Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques, 1955  


It happens that today we do not produce ruins anymore. Or at least real ones. It is in fact easier to destroy and rebuild anew, rather than assuming a long lasting perspective of existence of any artifacts. Progress in technology, materials, techniques etc. has rewarded a faster use and consumption of things – buildings, houses, objects, clothes… – denying and almost preventing the possibility of escape from the logic of consumption. It is more expensive to repair a damaged pair of shoes rather than buying new ones. Everything tends to follow the logic according which consumption is becoming more and more immediate and decisive. Everything happens in the present moment and thus completes ones existence. In diverse texts Giorgio Agamben has written about the “destruction of the experience” [1] evoking the emblematic image of tourists whose experiences foreign place only through the lens of a camera, a dispositive. By doing that, they reduce the possibility of having a real experience of space, destroying all possible uses of inhabiting the unknown. It is also worth mentioning another important essay by G. Agamben, the “Elogio della profanazione” [2], where the crucial notion and action of desecrating is employed by the author to explain how changing how something is used can actually deactivate the inner dispositive of power and return to common human use the confiscated thing. Moving from the Benjamin late fragment ” Capitalism as Religion”, Agamben notes that in its extreme forms the capitalist “religion” realizes the pure form of separation between the sacred and the profane thus making profanation impossible. By doing this, anything that cannot be used and accordingly desecrated, is consigned to its exhibition and consumption. And here comes that tourist again who, in a reality conceived as a museum, confirms the exhibition of the impossibility of using and experiencing what is around. Consuming does not correspond to using. For these reasons, the tourist today could be seen as a typical product of our societies, clearly showing ambiguities of our time. One is for example related to images, or the production of memories made through pictures seen before the departure and those produced during the voyage: it is all about a factice process of collecting simulacra of reality. The tourist elaborates his own “experience” on the basis of  suggestions received through the vision of ready-made sceneries, copies and visual interpretations of which he goes in search. As Marc Augé writes in the book “Le temps en ruines” [3] the most significant example of this contemporary attitude is Las Vegas, a place where copies of different monuments from all over the world coexist in the same place, as well as Disneyland where false characters, false cities and shops become real. These nonlieux of images, as Augé call them, and where spectacularization confuses reality and its representation, substitute (to the imagination of the tourist) images of simulacra and copies.

Las Vegas

But once upon time, tourism was totally different, maybe romantic, certainly aiming to the discovery of oneself. Joachim du Bellay was the first, with his collection of poems titled “Antiquités de Rome” in 1558, to introduce to European culture the so-called “cult of ruins”, admiring the greatness of the Roman Empire and moved by a feeling of melancholy for its fall. Later on, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ruins became more a pretext for moral means, as shown in literary works such as L’an 2440 written by Louis-Sébastien Mercier in 1770 and Les ruines ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires by Constantin-François Volney in 1791. However, in the eighteenth century a new way of looking at ruins arose and the new sensibility of some élites took shape in the Grand Tour. Authors such as William Hogarth, Edmund Burke, Thomas Whaltely and William Gilpin are representatives of this trend. But one of the major interpreters and promoters of this attitude is Denis Diderot who first presented the landscape of ruins according to not only a moral point of view but also aesthetic one: ruins do not exclusively talk about a past time but are offered to people as the projection of their destiny. “We anticipate the flow of time, and our imagination is dispersed on Earth and in the buildings we inhabit. Suddenly, loneliness and silence reigned around us. We are alone, orphans of a whole generation that no longer exists. This is the first verse of the poetic ruins. (Diderot 1767: 335)  [4]. With these words Diderot identifies, through the physical and visual perception of a landscape of ruins, a sort of “disorientation”, where time overlaps its different forms, making the author feel like orphan of his own time, of the present. According to this perspective, ruins are not considered as something that has survived the original work but as perceived in their autonomy, as the result of the passing of time: they are not an architectural fragment but a survival from oblivion. After Diderot, another great interpreter of the phenomenology of ruins was Chateaubriand with the famous Mémoires d’Outre-tombe (1849-50)  [5] for which ruins are the symbol of the author expressing his impossibility to dismiss the past. Even more interesting is his oeuvre is the “short circuit” of different temporal levels, heterogeneous and unexpected situations that stage hostile relation between man and memory. If the past is never ending because it appeals to the present, then the memories obsess the existence which has become, in fact, a ruin: “Evoking all these memories, by dint of ruins, I become crazy … My memory constantly opposed my trips to my travels, the mountains to the mountains, the rivers to the rivers, the forest to the forest. My life destroys my life.” (Chateaubriand 1849-50: 235-236). With these words Chateaubriand evokes a strict affinity between the panorama of ruins and the landscape of memories, also evoked by the words of Levi-Strauss mentioned at the beginning of the text.

Hubert Robert - Architectural Landscape with a Canal - 1783 The Hermitage

The power of ruins is in fact the ability of actualize the time under his different forms, hypostatising a temporal distance which cancels any possible simulacra and spectacularization of the reality. The perception of a missing “something” between what remains of the past and the current is therefore the real perception of time, of its fragile reality. In this regard, Marc Augé writes about the experience of pure time when contemplating ruins: “the sight of the ruins allow us to grasp the existence of a time that is not what the history books write about or that restoration try to bring to life. It is a pure time, not dated, absent from our world of images, simulacra and reconstructions, from this our violent world whose rubble no longer have the time to become ruins. A lost time that art sometimes manages to find.” [6] In this sense, ruins function for a collective imagination as memories do for a single individual, buried in the past under further constructions liable to be recalled to the present through the experience of pure time. Fragments of something that existed before unconsciously collected but left to the action of nature, come back to the present nullifying and exalting a temporal difference, the pure time which is, was and will be the now. As Chateaubriand or Diderot wrote about the experience of ruins, Marcel Proust did something similar with his whole oeuvre and universe; in his search of lost time, this happens to be exactly what has really survived to the destruction of the passing of time, ruins of a memory that, stimulated by experience, actualizes a temporal short-circuit where all levels of time coexist. “Mais, quand d’un passé ancien rien ne subsiste, après la mort des êtres, après la destruction des choses, seules, plus frêles mais plus vivaces, plus immatérielles, plus persistantes, plus fidèles, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps, comme des âmes, à se rappeler, à attendre, à espérer, sur la ruine de tout le reste, à porter sans fléchir, sur leur gouttelette presque impalpable, l’édifice immense du souvenir.” [7] We eventually know how Proust concludes, identifying the possibility of the existence of a pure time, of the presence of a temporal lapse able to simultaneously be past, present and future: art. The beauty of art, which does not capitalize time, depends in fact on its historical dimension, actualizing a temporal lapse that allows to perceive and have experience of the pure time. Art and ruins refer both to a variety of diverse pasts that are recalled as fragments and enigma opened on the verticality of time, intensifying their beauty. If something is missing today it is this beauty, this lost time. As Marc Augé concludes “the conscience of the missing has shifted: it does not concern a lost sense anymore but a sense of finding again.”  [8]  If we wish to produce ruins again, to be enchanted and troubled by their experience, we may need to find a new sense, a new future to imagine. If we keep destroying everything, no signs and traces will remain of the lost time, only a short-term memory will exist with the risk of making us forget and lose our past, our collective memory and identity, abandoning our connection to history. The less we are connected to time, the less we experience time, the more we are absorbed by the present, without any “content” [9] and temporal presence.

Pianeta delle Scimmie

[1] cfr. G. Agamben, Infancy and History: On the Destruction of Experience, Verso, London 1993.
[2] Elogio della profanazione, in G. Agamben, Profanazioni, Nottetempo, Roma 2005, pp. 83-107.
[3] M. Augé, Le temps en ruines, Galilé, Paris 2003. (Italian edition: Rovine e macerie, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 2004, p.57.)
[4] D. Diderot (1767), Ruines et paysage. Salon 1767, Hermann 2005, Paris.
[5] R. de Chateaubriand (1849-50), Memorie d’Oltretomba, Longanesi 2001, Milano.
[6] M. Augé, Rovine e macerie, p.8.
[7] M. Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, GF Flammarion, Paris, 1987, p. 140-145.
[8] M. Augé, Rovine e macerie, pp. 135-139.
[9] G. Agamben, The man without content, Stanford University Press, 1999.

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