Welcome to Day 8 of 31 Days of Kissing the Wounds, a month of posts about the beauty, longing, and soul inherent in our damaged selves; in the world’s brokenness; in the imperfection, incompleteness, and transience of all that we love; in our recognition of each other as the walking wounded; and in the jagged, messy, splintery, deformed, sullied, unhealed parts of me, you, the natural world, our communities, the culture. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others.
“Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens and wallflowers need ruin to make them grow.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, from “Preface” to The Marble Faun (1859)
I’m drawn to ruined places. Hawthorne himself says in the preface (linked above) that Europe (specifically, Italy) has the ruins, while America doesn’t, because America has “no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight.” I guess that was one way to see it in the 1850s but history and other works of literature give us another picture of America, full of shadow and gloomy wrong even then. (q.v. How the Other Half Lives (1890) by Jacob Riis, about the slum-like conditions of the Lower East Side tenements and the “dire consequences of marginalizing peoples of different backgrounds and opinions;” Poe’s works (1830s-1840s); Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). And Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter itself isn’t exactly shadow-free.)
The Old Garden of The Fells, in Newbury, NH, summer home of John Hay and his family — Hay was private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State for presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt — was created in 1909 by Hay’s son Clarence. I’m not sure what it looked like when first built and planted, but now it’s photogenic in the voluptuous yet melancholy way that worn, decaying places are. Now it’s full of shadow, mystery, antiquity, gloom.
Almost any place with the right mixture of these ingredients can express the broody, mellow mood of ruin: stone walls, stairs, buildings, or weathered wood; lichen, moss, fungus; vines, ferns, dried and dead leaves and flowers, topiary; shadows, moisture, snow, fog, bare trees; urns, stone and concrete sculptures, sundials, obelisks, benches, small pools; rusted metal, broken windows, disused (and not repurposed) train tracks.
Ruin looks abandoned, decayed, empty in a certain way. Void. As architect Simone Pizzagalli says in his essay Space, Poetics and Voids (cited at The Poetry of Decay on the Failed Architecture website), “[V]oid contains in itself all the potential of the space, all the relation not written and experienced. […] Void is the place of tension of something that will be, a space in power, but also the only place where the recollection of reality, the composition of the parts, fragments, of life can happen.” [italics mine]
Tim Edensor speaks of this fragmentation and recollection in relationship to ruins in his Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality (2005; check out his website on British industrial ruins). He (or his book jacket) says that the neglected sites of industrial ruins evoke “an aesthetics of disorder, surprise and sensuality, offering ghostly glimpses into the past” and cautions against razing them to build something new because it’s “precisely their fragmentary nature and lack of fixed meaning that render ruins deeply meaningful. They blur boundaries between rural and urban, past and present and are intimately tied to memory, desire and a sense of place.” Further, “[m]emories do not merely invoke the past. They contain a still and seemingly quiescent presence [like the void Pizzagalli talks about, above], and they also suggest forebodings, pointing to a future erasure and subsequently, the reproduction of space, thus conveying a sense of the transience of all space.” Mark Minkjan, the writer of the essay The Poetry of Decay, similarly notes that ruins “raise questions, about memories and imaginations of a foregone past, and of potential futures. They visualise the passage of time and the inevitability of collapse, reminding us of our own transience.”
Now the sweet bells of mercy
Drift through the evening trees
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves,
The boarded up windows,
The empty streets
While my brother’s down on his knees
My city of ruins
My city of ruins (Bruce Springsteen, My City of Ruins)
While one could point to decaying vegetation, e.g., soggy aquatic plants dying for lack of oxygen due to natural changes, and term it “ruined,” most commonly we think of “ruins” as intersecting with human construction, human care, human presence, human life in some way, such as a stone wall, a house or shed, a factory, statuary and urns. Things humans create and touch can become ruins, because we perceive abandonment, disuse, and neglect to occur when humans are absent from places were they were once present. I think it’s our perception of ourselves as once part of the picture, now no longer, that lends a sense of transience, loss, fragmentation, melancholy, unease, and sadness to the viewing of ruins, whether industrial, agrarian, urban, suburban (abandoned playgrounds come to mind), or rural.
As Harrison Stark, a student apparently in a class on Architecture and Memory at Brown University, wrote in 2011 on a class board about recent industrial ruins, “they stand as symbols of ruination and abandonment although they themselves have yet to decay. What this reveals is that there is a deeper meaning to ruins than simply their metaphorical use in terms of biological decay and death – – a building need not be destroyed to evoke a profound discomfort in the viewer. Instead, I would argue, that ruins and abandoned buildings are disconcerting because of their paradoxical relationship to human interaction. These buildings simultaneously invite and resist interaction — creating an unsolvable tension. On the one hand, they still stand in relatively their original form, begging almost to be seen, to be used, to be explored. On the other, the absence of people, and therefore the absence of traces of interaction, give the building a sense of inertia, a sense that the space is a mausoleum of sorts. This tension between interaction and further non-use makes the recent industrial ruin a sort of fantastical in-between space, not quite a heterotopia, but not quite a real space either.”
(Minkjan, mentioned above, notes that decay is “a process … not in sync with progress, modernisation and determined narratives, which are characteristics of modern Western society.” For that reason alone — that they challenge our beliefs about the inevitability and desirability of progress as a virtue — ruins evoke tension and ambivalence.)
Stark is distinguishing between recent industrial ruins and other ruins, but I think what he says can actually apply equally to most other modern-day ruins, and certainly the garden ruins I find so suggestive; though they may be more “romantic” in aesthetic than industrial ruins, they nonetheless both invite and resist interaction, as Stark puts it, because though they are decaying, they are not destroyed but still usable, “begging … to be seen,” and yet they have a silence about them that reminds us of our own absence from them. Just as someone once built and inhabited an industrial building, with the hope of creating something new, useful, beautiful, so someone once enjoyed sitting on this bench, someone once took time to make this wall for a purpose; someone once imagined and created this urn, this sculpture; someone, maybe a family, once lived in this house; and now, this bench, wall, urn, sculpture, house feel only the wind, rain, snow, the hot sun, lichen, moss, vines, rust, insects, animal teeth and paws, cold.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.