Saturday, March 06, 2010

'Nothing Besides Remains' - Some thoughts about ruins, and the Gothic

Percy Shelley's sonnet 'Ozymandias', written in 1817 and published the following year, interrogates the curious fascination that ruins hold for an enlightened, early nineteenth-century imagination. The particular ruin in this poem, 'two vast and trunkless legs of stone' accompanied by 'a shatter'd visage' half-buried in the sand, is a broken statue of an Egyptian king.One straightforward reading of this piece is as a kind of vanitas. The king's statue has fallen, the civilisation which he ruled over has been superceded, the boast engraved at the base of the edifice – 'Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair!' - has been rendered absurd by death and time. But Ozymandias represents more than just a simple moral lesson. Shelley's poem exhibits a number of preoccupations, and trades in a number or themes which, taken collectively, stretch beyond the Romantic and into the Gothic. The ruined totem of the dead king is equally totemic of post-Enlightenment interest in what is ancient and exotic, in the waning civilisations of the East. The fable of Ozymandias is about timeless issues of hubris and usurpation, mortality and haunting, decay and degeneration. These are Gothic concerns, and the landscape of Gothic fiction is scattered with ruins which invariably stand for more than simply the remainder of things. I thought it might be interesting to explore the role of ruins in the Gothic tradition, and also to examine the ways in which we interact with, or 'read' real historical ruins, and how these approaches differ from or correspond to our reading of ruins in fictional artefacts.

Shelley's vivid rendering of the dismembered, monumental body of Ozymandias is prefigured in one of the earliest Gothic texts, Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. In this short novel a usurped, long-dead prince, Alfonso the Good, restores his descendants to 'the lordship of Otranto' by manifesting severally as a giant helmet, a giant sword and a giant, disembodied fist. When the giant helmet appears in the courtyard of the castle, crushing the sickly Conrad (false heir to Otranto, milksop) and setting the novel's plot in motion, another helmet disappears from a marble statue of Alfonso in a nearby church. The 'ominous casque' has shifted from one sense of being monumental to another. It is no longer memorial, but is instead simply massive. The transubstantiation of the helmet is emblematic of the instability of even the most stable things. The hardest, densest materials are subject to the influence of external forces, whether natural, supernatural, or political. What is built to memorialise, to last, Walpole indicates, is not guaranteed to do so, at least not in its original form. Everything is subject to ruin. Appropriately for a Gothic text, in The Castle of Otranto this ruination is complicated, perhaps even perverse. In restoring Theodore, his descendant, to the lordship of Otranto, Alfonso destroys his seat. 'The moment Theodore appeared, the walls of the castle were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins.'Assuming that the disappearance of the marble helmet is followed by further disintegration of the statue, is seems that Alfonso has to disassemble himself, to reduce himself to ruins in order to effect change. If we take this interpretation of The Castle of Otranto as our model we might conclude that ruins are a necessary by-product of political change. Our feelings about ruins, more recent ruins at least, are certainly coloured by politics, and our ideological position in relation to the ruined artefact. The Berlin Wall, a symbol of Cold War division for forty years, toppled in 1989, dissected, commoditized and fetishised ever since, is a political ruin par excellence. Its destruction can be read as marking the triumph of capitalism in a post-feudal world. Accordingly, fragments of the wall are displayed throughout the west, the majority of them in the U.S.A., the principal antagonist on the winning side of the Cold War. These fragments serve either as a a kind of ongoing concrete vindication of the Pax Americana, or as evidence that the unbridled materialism of America and its associate nations has turned suffering into a product of sorts. Similarly, in the latter part of the sixteenth century the ruined abbeys and monasteries of post-Reformation England signalled either the success of the protestant project and the birth of a new nation, free from the influence of Rome, or the sacrilegious destruction of holy institutions. The response of someone encountering these reminders of a defeated mode of living will depend on their political or religious sensibilities.

It is, of course, impossible to engage with ruins politically without engaging with them historically. What makes a ruin significant, in a political realm, is its history. It might also be problematic to read ruins ahistorically in fiction or poetry. Ozymandias can be understood by a reader as a specific historical figure (his name is a Greek rendering of Usermaatre, the praenomen of Ramesses II), simply as a product of Shelley's Romantic imagination, or, perhaps most fruitfully, as something of each. Whichever approach is adopted, it is impossible to engage fully with the poem without bringing even the most basic understanding of Ancient Egyptian history, or at least the cultural imprint of a kind of macro-history, in which empires and kings rise and fall, to bear. Absent this understanding the sonnet loses much of its significance. Those pieces of the Berlin Wall that have been preserved are often those which are decorated with striking graffiti art or poignant messages in permanent ink. Someone standing in front of one of these recontextualised fragments, someone who was entirely ignorant of the aftermath of World War II, would be alerted that there was something remarkable about the slab of concrete in front of them by the way it was displayed, disembodied, outside a museum or a bank, but their experience of the Wall would be materially different from someone who was familiar with what the Berlin Wall meant in the quarter century between its construction and fall.

We might choose to analyse a ruin from a political or historical perspective, but it is more challenging, perhaps, to consider how ruins act upon our imaginations. We don't simply look at a ruin, register its shape, smile at its pleasing asymmetry and then move on. We savour it, shiver at it, and in a sense (I'll come back to this) we absorb it. Ruins are disturbing and fascinating, even when they are not spectacular. This is in part because they stimulate a sensitivity to chaos and disorder which is probably infantile in origin. Almost every parent will agree that children create disorder, not just by omission, but wilfully. Unable to control their world children quickly realise that the simplest way to influence one's existence is by disorganising it. The bombed-out terraces of East London proved popular playgrounds for boys and girls in the 1940's not because they were picturesque but because they represented a consummation of the childish desire to level the adult world, and to occupy a space free from even childish responsibilities. Layered on to this early enthusiasm for the ruin, as soon as we can read and often sooner, is an appreciation of the fictional energies of the decrepit castle and the crumbling haunted house, both commonplaces in children's stories, (which are often extravagantly Gothic). A literate child understands that ruins, while apparently static objects, exert a dynamic on the story. When ruins appear, things happen. In a fictional sense we read ruins as a marker of excitement from an early age, a practice which we never altogether abandon. Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey, an avid consumer of Gothic romances, is carried away by the idea of vile goings-on amongst remote, ruinous stones, and is affectionately teased for it by her suitor, Henry Tilney, en route to the eponymous abbey. Disappointed by the pedestrian situation and considerable comforts of Northanger, she is obliged to fabricate her own Gothic story, in which her host, General Tilney, has done away with his wife. Appropriately for a quixotic reader, Catherine is unable to separate this exciting fiction from the prosaic truth, that the late Mrs Tilney died of natural causes. In upbraiding her for her foolish suspicions, Henry describes a society which is free from chaos, and free from mystery. Feel free to insert your own italics as you read.

"Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you – Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this? [...] Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?"

Catherine's immersion in the Gothic constitutes a new education which may not have prepared her for any atrocity but has at least taught her to look for the clues. Henry presents her fantasy as a kind of suspension of rational thought, an interlude of childishness. Perhaps he has missed the point, perhaps even, he is jealous. Catherine experiences the texts of Radcliffe and Lewis primally, eyes wide open. Henry Tilney is a jaded figure whose country and age, by his own account, offer little to divert him. The Gothic in general an escapist type of entertainment - television soap operas set in inner cities amongst the working class rarely exhibit Gothic traits - which explains in part its interest in what is remote in space and time.

Gothic markers such as ruined castles, crazed aristocrats, supernatural interventions and so on, offer familiarity because we recognise them from an early age. The Gothic is accordingly both exotic and familiar at the same time. We might also observe that generically, it repeats its improbabilities, over and over again. Freud suggests that these qualities, of entwined familiarity and unfamiliarity, and of improbable repetition can be defined as unheimlich, or 'uncanny'. What Freud says about the conjunction between heimlich and unheimlich is particularly interesting when related to a discussion of ruins and how they are situated both within Gothic fictions and within the individual imagination. Ruins fulfil his larger criteria for uncanniness because they resemble buildings but are not buildings. Parts of a ruin - window arches, thresholds, stairwells - if they are still standing, perform a parody of their former function. Sections of a ruin which stand apart from others are, in effect, disembodied from the rest of the structure, and disembodiment, as we have seen, has its own subset of Gothic associations. Freud notes that the meanings of heimlich are so various that they eventually intersect with certain meanings of unheimlich (interestingly, one might make the same observation about 'canny' and 'uncanny' which both carry a sense of possessing supernatural capacities. The sense of unheimlich that most interests Freud is that defined by the Idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling. 'According to him,' Freud paraphrases, 'everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.'The ruination of a building reveals its inner structure, often to disturbing effect. Exposed brickwork is considered chic in certain contexts, plaster is preferred in others, but there is something discomforting about brickwork which is visible behind crumbling plaster. The most thrilling part of the Roman auditorium which lays beneath the Guildhall Art Gallery is not the remainder of the walls but the timber guttering, revealed by the archaeologist's trowel, which once drained water, and on occasion, presumably blood, away from the arena. Similarly, we may find skeletons creepy and puncture wounds may make us wince, but there is a special horror to the sight of bone poking through flesh. The ruin which reveals its workings, its substructures, is particulary uncanny because it speaks to us of our physical vulnerability. When we consider the peeling screed we are also forced to reflect upon the fragility of the human structure. Schelling's definition of the Unheimlich might also be sensibly applied to the ruins of Gothic romance. In The Castle of Otranto the secrets which surround Manfred's illegitimate occupation of the castle are revealed as Alfonso reassembles himself and razes it to the ground. Emily and her aunt come to appreciate just how deplorable Montoni is and his motives for sequestrating them as they first approach his dilapidated Appenine retreat in The Mysteries of Udolpho Secrets are both contained and revealed by the crumbling walls. This idea is closely related to how we experience historical ruins.

When we walk through or stand in front of any historical structure we are in dialogue with it, in a sense. It presents itself to us, we respond to it, emotionally or aesthetically. This dialogue is intensified in the case of a ruin because it has no other function than this dialogue. It is not slept or worshipped or exercised in. At some level of consciousness, the fabric of the ruin is understood to be doubly porous. What has been absorbed into the stones, the iniquities and suffering and celebrations they have separated or enclosed, continuously permeates back out of them. Self-evidently this dialogue goes on in our heads, but it doesn't feel that way. Ruins may act upon us rather as the romances of Mrs Radcliffe act upon Catherine Morland. We might respond to them unthinkingly,immersing ourselves in their projected melancholy. Or our approach might be more analytical. We might contemplate the machinations of Cranmer as we walk around the arches of Tintern Abbey. The Reformation is contained within those walls, and not simply within a figurative sense, just as the great pageant of the Twentieth Century, and its two world wars, is somehow soaked into the concrete of the Berlin Wall. These kinds of ruins are fascinating because they represent a historical or political trajectory which has stalled. Fictional ruins are often similarly coded; the ruin is the abode of the villain traditionally, to whom no good will come. Ruins, both real and fictive remind us of the thrilling narratives of childhood, but this nostalgia is tempered, and ruins acquire a new ambiguity as we grow and our understanding of history develops. However, there remains an ineffable quality to ruins which has survived the rationalisations of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age. To engage with ruins, therefore, is to engage with ideas that are both thought and unthought, and it is this miscibility of effect, ultimately, that characterises our interaction with ruins and sustains our interest in them.