Reviewing Susan Stewart’s “The Ruins Lesson”

Recently The Washington Post published my review of Susan Stewart’s excellent The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture. As we contemplate the renovation of some of our historical buildings, the lessons of the built environment are much on my mind. I repost the review here.


How to explain our taste for ruins? Are we attracted to their echoes of transience and decay, and perhaps of our own mortality? Or are we moved by traces of a past that has not quite disappeared — messages from an era otherwise inaccessible? “We are so often drawn to the sight of what is broken, damaged and decayed,” notes Susan Stewart in her admirably researched and beautifully produced volume, “The Ruins Lesson.” Ruins excite our imagination with the lesson that our greatest structures will one day return to the ground, while reminding us that in their fallen states these sites are endowed with beauty, even redemption.

 (University of Chicago Press)
(University of Chicago Press)

Stewart, a distinguished poet, a former MacArthur fellow and a Princeton professor of the humanities, charts the West’s fascination with decayed remains, from Egyptian relics to contemporary monuments of destruction and trauma. “The Ruins Lesson” is a sweeping cultural history that draws in Renaissance humanism, 18th-century changes in representing the past and the Romantic reconfiguration of memory. Our buildings, no matter how grand, are bound to fall. This is a lesson of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel; we are fated to live in a fallen, scattered state. God does not, Stewart notes, strike the builders mute, but they are condemned to a confusion of tongues, to the ruins of communication. For Western traditions, only the divine is preserved from decay; human achievement will always be marked by the inevitability of a fall.

Ruins are ripe for allegory, but they are also very material. Old stuff, even ancient stuff, can just get in the way, or it can be reused for new buildings. A classical pagan temple can be repurposed as a church; stones used to mark the advance of a historic empire can come in handy when you have to build a new wall. But sometime in the Renaissance, writers and artists began to see ruins, particularly Roman ruins, as having intrinsic value. Their antiquity was taken to be both beautiful and meaningful. Poets rhapsodized about the excavation of traces of the mighty empire more than 1,000 years after its fall. The corpse of the great city still breathes warnings, wrote the 18th-century Welsh poet and painter John Dyer. It’s often the poets, Stewart emphasizes, who “dream of making artworks that will not be vulnerable to the erosion that weather and time can wreak upon even the greatest of built human structures. Even so, the anxiety that their words, too, might not endure is palpable.”

At the center of Stewart’s study is the mid-18th-century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi. The son of a Venetian stonemason, his effort to preserve ruins forever through printmaking illustrates the paradox implicit in the representation of decay. We are attracted to slowly falling buildings because they embody the effects of time passing, yet the artist attempts to defy time by creating a representation aimed at permanence. Piranesi strove for scientific rigor in his depiction of Roman ruins; he was determined to represent the exact proportions of architectural achievements from the past. Yet he was also determined to create art that would itself stand the test of time. He wanted to be at once faithful to the material artifacts and unbounded in his creative practice. As Stewart puts it, “Rarely has an artist been able to combine rationality, measure, and science with a near-melodramatic theatrical sense of presentation as Piranesi.” The artist’s many depictions of Roman ruins were so powerful that they came to define the experience of the past for those visiting the ancient sites — with some visitors afterward recalling Piranesi’s prints even more vividly than the ruins themselves.

In the 20th century, culture came to be seen as a ruin, a troubled witness to human violence. We are struck less by nature’s sublime powers than by the enormity of our capacity for ruination. The sentimental attachment to the ruin, the contemplative gaze that finds signs of renewal in mossy growth on broken stones, has been deconstructed. In our age of climate crisis, we might ask: When humans cause mass extinction, what does it mean to find beauty in decay?

“The Ruins Lesson” is in many respects a scholarly tome, with hundreds of footnotes and an extensive bibliography. But Stewart writes with poetic grace and a nonspecialist’s appreciation of printmaking, painting, literature and architecture. Readers outside the academy will find much to value in this lovely book. It takes no scholarly preparation to appreciate the ways in which culture-makers grappled with the lessons of decay even as they strove to create works of lasting value. The book is copiously illustrated, and the color prints powerfully illuminate the detailed descriptions of prints and paintings.

As part of the opening of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1997, I co-curated “Irresistible Decay,” an exhibition on ruins and their representations. It seemed worthwhile to recall the veneration of decay as we welcomed visitors to the beautiful new cultural center in the hills of Southern California. A museum can be like a monument, which Stewart reminds us “can be a temporary means of teaching the living about the past.” She goes on to conclude, though, that “it is only in the continual transmission of our values, in the life of thought, language, and critical reconsideration, that we can find any permanence.” With “The Ruins Lesson” she has made a critical and substantial contribution to that ongoing but fragile transmission.

The Ruins Lesson

Meaning and Material in Western Culture

By Susan Stewart

Chicago. 378 pp. $35