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Ruin Lust

Ruin gazing engendered ruin lust by the late eighteenth century, when the wealthy went so far as to build fake ruins both for aesthetic and political reasons. Fragments of monasteries and medieval castles, known as follies, were commissioned for English pleasure gardens both for their beauty and for the pleasure their patrons took in seeing the institutions these artificial ruins represented—the papacy and feudal aristocracy—in visible collapse.3 English and French garden follies also took the form of fake Roman temples, to symbolize classical virtues or ideals, as well as Chinese temples, Egyptian pyramids, or Tatar tents, in orientalizing gestures, or they took the form of rustic villages, mills, and cottages, to symbolize rural virtues. One of the most famous examples of such a rustic folly was built at Versailles, allowing Marie Antoinette to play at being a shepherdess.

Ruins of the classical world, consumed through the travel gaze of Europeans, tended to confirm for these viewers the status of European countries as the historical apex of civilization. The British in the eighteenth century, through the Grand Tour of the continent that included the Roman Empire, Greece, and the Middle East, confirmed their own sense of superiority by gazing on the ruins of other civilizations, evoking the terror and delight of the Burkean sublime. The most important aspect of this experience was that the civilizations the ruins represented were always other. The Grand Tour became a kind of ideological exercise intended to cultivate historical consciousness and prepare the upper class for their future position of leadership in the flourishing empire.4 Such scenes prompted travelers to make comparisons between past and present civilizations, and these comparisons inevitably privileged contemporaneous conditions over those in the past. Thus, as literary scholar Shane McGowan notes, “The act of ruin gazing reaffirmed the Enlightenment’s teleological narrative of progress, which depicted history as humanity’s inevitable journey from Oriental despotism to Occidental rationality.”5 This view necessarily regarded the ruins of antiquity, despite their grandeur, as vestiges of a more barbaric age, making ruin gazing a “ready tool of nationalism” as well as “an even more valuable tool of imperialism and colonialism.”6

By the nineteenth century, however, critique of empire entered the romantic lexicon in literature and art. Edward Gibbon’s multivolume history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), firmly established the idea of the unstable and transitory nature of all power, and after the 1793 Reign of Terror, romantics became increasingly skeptical of enduring faith in reason and progress. J. M. W. Turner’s painting The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, produced at the height of Great Britain’s wealth and power following the collapse of Napoleon’s empire in 1815, offered another warning of imperial decline, while Joseph Gandy’s painting An Imagined View of the Bank of England in Ruins (1830) pictured the collapse of the major financial underwriter of the Napoleonic Wars (figure 3). Gandy’s aerial perspective of the interlocking maze of offices became reality almost a century later when the bank’s interiors were demolished in the 1920s. Thomas Cole’s series The Course of Empire, depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary city that refers to Carthage, was influenced by Turner and carried the warning of imperial decline into 1830s America. Ed Ruscha then reimagined the fall of American empire in the post-9/11 era, producing a series of works representing industrialized modernity in decay as part of the exhibition The Course of Empire shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in conjunction with Cole’s series in 2006, transforming spectators into ruin gazers and witnesses to the decline of empire once more.7 Hovering over the Whitney exhibition were the spectral images of the Twin Towers as the most chilling warning of contemporary imperial decline.

The Third Reich provides an example of ruin lust in the form of planned future ruins. Albert Speer’s conception of “ruin value” in Nazi monumental architecture was designed with an eye toward its future picturesque decay through the use of stone rather than concrete and steel. The concept of ruin value was meant to assert both German imperial power far into the future and German mastery over its own ruination. While Speer asserted that his theory of ruin value arose in response to Hitler’s definition of architecture as a “bridge” across time, German studies scholar Julia Hell suggests that Speer reinvented the ruin gazer in the Third Reich because the Nazis were preoccupied with countering the specter of imperial decline, especially after publication of Oswald Spengler’s highly influential The Decline of the West

Joseph Gandy, An Imagined View of the Bank of England in Ruins, 1830. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum

FIG. 3 Joseph Gandy, An Imagined View of the Bank of England in Ruins, 1830. Courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum.

(the first volume was published in 1918 and revised in 1922; the second volume was published in 1923), which embraced modernity’s ruination.8 While Spengler allows for the possibility of a future barbarian ruin gazer from a foreign culture, Hell argues that Hitler and Speer were at pains to construct a future Aryan ruin gazer who would marvel at the spectacle of Nazi imperial power while keeping the future “barbarian” ruin gazer out of sight through their program of slavery and genocide.9 Hell also suggests that the unique Nazi articulation of imperial creation and destruction represents an anxious awareness and fear of the retaliation that awaited them for the crimes of monstrous proportions they knew they were committing. It was this awareness that ultimately drove the Nazi mania for ruins, a plan that was nevertheless foiled.10 Although Hitler insisted that his architects build for “eternity,” Speer’s Reich’s Chancellery, his most famous building, completed in 1939, did not crumble picturesquely like the Roman ruins shown to Hitler by Mussolini on his visit to Rome. Instead, the Chancellery was bombed by Allied air raids four years later and then razed by the Soviets, defeating the future realization of Aryan ruin gazing.

What distinguishes the experience of contemporary ruin gazing from that of viewing ancient ruins is not only the difference in the physical nature and materials of the ruin but also the greater mental effort required to distance oneself. This distancing is what facilitates a sense of political and cultural superiority over the disaster of ruination. But what happens when those ruins are in one’s own homeland? Modern ruins cannot be safely ensconced in obsolete civilizations that only demonstrate the superiority of our own. Unlike eighteenth-century follies and Grand Tours that reinforced notions of cultural and political superiority in relation to the failed empires of past foreign cultures, contemporary ruins function as a critique of our own social conditions and thus are more closely aligned with the critical perspective of late romantic art and literature. The warnings of imperial decline through a postapocalyptic aesthetic, which began to picture ruins within the West itself in the late romantic period, suggest a critique of empire that begins at home.11

The phrase “ruin lust” was coined by English novelist and essayist Rose Macaulay. When Macaulay returned to her flat in London following the death of her sister in 1941, she discovered that her home and all her possessions, including her beloved library, had been destroyed in a bombing a few nights before. Macaulay was haunted by the loss. Yet in 1953 she published Pleasure of Ruins, in which she discussed the history of ruin lust and meditated on the nature of “new ruins” and the pleasure they inspired:

New ruins have not yet acquired the weathered patina of age, the true rust of the barons’ wars, not yet put on their ivy, nor equipped themselves with the appropriate bestiary of lizards, bats, screech-owls, serpents, speckled toads and little foxes which, as has been so frequently observed by ruin-explorers, hold

high revel in the precincts of old ruins____But new ruins are for a time stark and

bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality. . . . What was last week a drab little house has become a steep flight of stairs winding up in the open between gaily-coloured walls, tiled lavatories, interiors bright and intimate like a Dutch picture or a state set; the stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the skyd2

In her phrases describing the “smell of fire and mortality” and the “roofless summit” of a staircase meeting the sky, Macaulay captures the rawness of new ruins while asserting that “ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art,” as well as poetry and fantasy. For ruin pleasure, she asserts, is “merely a phase of our fearful and fragmented age.”i3 Macaulay’s acute insight into the need for a “remove” in order for ruin pleasure to occur merits further exploration through the concept of the sublime.

 
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