Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Andrew Hui reviews The Ruin Lesson

Susan Stewart. The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 379 pp.

Review by Andrew Hui

24 June 2020

“All men take a secret delight in beholding ruins. This sentiment arises from the frailty of our nature, and a secret conformity between these destroyed monuments and the caducity of our own existence,” Chateaubriand writes in The Genius of Christianity (1802).[1] As the doyen of the French Romantics, he was not the only person in his period to take delight in such obsolescent monuments. For many, such delights were open rather than secret. Volney writes Les ruines, ou meditation sur les revolutions des empires, an essay on the philosophy of history (which Thomas Jefferson translates and Mary Shelley has Frankenstein read in his self-education); Bryon sees himself as a “ruin amidst ruins.” Blake pens "Jerusalem," Wordsworth “Tintern Abbey,” Shelley “Ozymandias.”

Susan Stewart’s new book, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture, has a finely wrought section on the Romantics, but the special interest of this book is its transhistorical scope and imaginative amplitude. For forty years now, she has been one of our most admired poet-critics. On my bookshelf I place her next to luminaries such as Marina Warner, Anne Carson, and Robert Pogue Harrison. This latest title arrives as an elegiac, crowning monument on the perennial entanglement between les mots et les choses of European civilization. This is simply the best work on the aesthetics of ruins out there.

Stewart gives us a magisterial omnium-gatherum. Her eloquence has the wine-dark plushness of a Brahms symphony and her erudition the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink virtuosity of a Liszt concerto. Anyone who writes on ruins at once fragments and collects: you wrest pieces from the past to craft your own corpus. Jesus says after the miracles of the loaves and fishes: “gather these fragments lest they perish” (John 6:12). T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land calls the poetic act “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Stewart begins with the Tower of Babel and ends somewhere after Eliot and Holocaust memorials. In between she addresses the ancient and Christian practice of spolia, the presence of ruins in Nativity paintings, the unclassifiable phantasmagoria that is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and Spenser’s unending Faerie Queene. She ponders why virginity, nymphomania, rape, and ruin narratives are often linked together. She notes that Renaissance ruins and printmaking are similar in that they are both “multiple, portable and widely disseminated.” The printmaker, she observes, “uses many of the same processes that have resulted, in the case of ruins, in erasure—the production of images depends thereby . . . on the ruin of the plate” (p. 122). She notices how the incongruity between the tiny human figures (“staffage”) and the monumental decay in Piranesi's prints as an allegory of the grandeur that was antiquity and the squalor that is contemporary social life. Through a brilliant reading of Clérisseau’s Stanza delle rovine in the Santa Trinità church in Monti, Rome, she argues that by the late eighteenth century, “ruins had become autotelic; at this point they are about their own forms and details and the artist’s powers of representation” (p. 210).

As Stewart piles on spolia after ornaments, capricci after fantasies, she performs the role of a breathless yet refined Roman cicerone. Within fifteen pages (pp. 35–50) she can roam from Rodolfo Lanciani to Goethe to Louis Khan to learned discussion of opus quadratum, opus incertum, opus reticulatum, opus latericium to the Italian psychologist Fabio Metelli on the perception and reality of transparency to Leonardo to the Iliad then Plutarch and Livy, Baudelaire’s “Le Cygne,” back to Lucan and then Mesopotamian city laments and finally landing in the Old Testament (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Kings, Genesis). Umberto Eco in Infinity of Lists says that “the infinity of aesthetics is a sensation that follows from the finite and perfect completeness of the thing we admire, while the other form of representation we are talking about suggests infinity almost physically, because in fact it does not end, nor does it conclude in form.”[2] So the ruin.

“I am the grass. / Let me work,” so declares Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.” The past year has been particularly verdant for works on ruins: Francoise Meltzer’s Dark Lens, Germany 1945; Julia Hell’s Conquest of Ruins, Patricia A. Rosenmeyer’s Language of Ruins: Greek and Latin Inscriptions on the Memnon Colossus, and Stewart Mottram’s Ruins and Reformation in Spenser, Shakespeare, and Marvell. Next year Martin Devecka’s Broken Cities: A Historical Sociology of Ruins will appear. In 2019 there was also an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, “Monumental Journey: The Daguerreotypes of Girault de Prangey,” documenting the French photographer’s travels throughout Italy, Greece, Egypt, Anatolia, Palestine, and Syria. (What is so intriguing about these photographic images is that their silvery, spectral quality—their penumbral patina, mottled marks, and burned borders—reflects perfectly the faded splendor of the monuments themselves.)

I read this book during COVID-19, when most of the globe was under some sort of stay-at-home restrictions. Unlike wars or natural disasters, this angel of destruction bypasses architecture. By many reports, nature is slowly reclaiming our planet: wildlife spotted in city centers, the oceans cleaner, the skies bluer. After the financial crisis of 2008, there was the slightly uncomfortable genre of “ruin porn” documenting Detroit and other urban carcasses. While stones and glass are immune to the virus, they do not have antibodies for economic collapse. Who knows what beauteous decay the post-COVID-19 future will bring to our architecture? One thing we know for certain: without our landscapers and poets, grass will one day cover all.


[1] F. A. Chateaubriand, The Beauties of Christianity, trans. Frederic Shoberl, vol. 1 (London, 1813), p. 368.

[2] Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists, trans. Alastair McEwen (New York, 2009), p. 17.