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Melancholy grandeur

October 13, 2002|Cristina Monet | Cristina Monet writes for the Times (London) Literary Supplement, among other publications.

"When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future," writes Christopher Woodward in "In Ruins." "To statesmen, ruins predict the fall of Empires, and to philosophers the futility of man's aspirations. To a poet, the decay of a monument represents the dissolution of the individual ego in the flow of Time; to a painter or architect, the fragments of a stupendous antiquity call into question the purpose of their art."

The concept of ruins captures in ironic suspension the struggle between human striving, nature and the hand of time. Ruins, Woodward persuasively argues, are momentous and romantic in essence, with scant relation to naturalism, rationalism or populism. Demystified, denatured and destatured, denuded of time's eroding verdure and antiseptically preserved by the rescue mission of men of science for the greater elucidation of the past, for the benefit and instruction of the greatest number -- they remain relics of civilization but they cease to be ruins: those ineffable inspirators of rumination and rapture in Western art.

Drawing a narrative arm through the reader's, Woodward sets off on a free-form but meticulously well-observed and well-traveled ramble through the highways and byways of his theme. His opening chapter, "Who Killed Daisy Miller?" takes as its focal point the rise and fall of that epic architectural emblem of hubris and of the "role of ruins" debate: the Colosseum.

The ruination of this quintessential "ruin" is signaled by the excavations of 1874. As the archeologists commence the disembowelment of its sewers and cellars, the ancient amphitheater expires with a malarial sigh. Daisy Miller, Henry James' brashly irreverent American heroine -- lounging at the foot of the cross within the doomed arena, perversely impervious to the noxious, night vapors -- is a casualty, and according to Woodward, the last artistic distillation of the Colosseum's death throes. "I cannot," he remarks with wry sapience, "find a single writer or painter who has been inspired by the Colosseum since 1870, and only one exception to the general rule: the failed painter, Adolf Hitler, and his architects .... Poets and painters like ruins, and dictators like monuments."

Woodward's meditation oscillates between bright fragments of insight and anecdote -- they shimmer in fugitive attitudes, then slide into freshly provocative patterns, scattered over the tides of time by this seasoned tourist to history's shoreline.

"In Ruins" is a picturesque hybrid of travelogue, personal memoir, lyric rhapsody, art history and cultural criticism. It draws its inspiration from sources as disparate, as intimately linked in their mystic vindication of Christianity's ethos of decay as the necessary prelude to resurrection: Chateaubriand's "Memoires d'Outre-Tombe," Rose Macaulay's "The Pleasure of Ruins," Giuseppe di Lampedusa's "The Leopard."

Carried along the current of a steady stream of ebullient erudition, embanked in so slim a volume, one feels churlish in swimming against the tide of so buoyant a nostalgie, so exhilarate an outpouring of melancholy grandeur as flows from Woodward's pen. Romanticists rally to long-lost causes; ruins draw the fire of youth and the pale, necrotic flame of the perverse; they are Romanticism's legacy. The Romantic must die young, the ruins decay sublimely -- and have no traffic with the banal accommodations and indignities that age is heir to in the interests of longevity.

One wonders what reflection would have elicited had Woodward extended his critical survey of devastation to include the murkier purlieus of human metaphor. An analogy might even be drawn from the corrosive eloquence of Caracalla's baths in Shelley's time in contrast to the anodyne theme parks of the present.

"In Ruins" concludes on a pensive note that is also a romantic's call to arms:

"Lampedusa once remarked that if Europe was destroyed by a hydrogen bomb, London would be immortal in the novels of Dickens but Palermo would disappear because not a single good writer had recorded the city on paper. That was before he began to write.... Sta Margherita, I realised -- and indeed I began to smile -- is more vivid as a ruin which can be explored with Lampedusa's writings to hand than if it had survived intact.... The statues have gone, as have the dolls' house, and the monkey cage. But spring-water still gurgles into the basin of the siren's fountain, and with the scent of ragged flowers, and the dusty rays of sunlight streaming through the ruined walls, Sta Margherita is tenderly, but ecstatically alive."


From 'In Ruins'

" Why, I wondered, does immersion in ruins instill such a lofty, even ecstatic, drowsiness? ... It is the shadow of classical antiquity which is the deepest source for the fascination with ruins in the Western world. Every new empire has claimed to be the heir of Rome, but if such a colossus as Rome can crumble -- its ruins ask -- why not London or New York?"

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