“The Pleasure of Ruins”

Rose Macaulay’s The Pleasure of Ruins, published in 1952, is a “random excursion into the fantastic world” of ruins, that which time and circumstances have made of the external and material world of ancient cultures. This pleasure is a distinct phenomenon of the Western world, the taking of enjoyment in visiting and contemplating the ruins of ancient civilizations.

The fascination with the ruins of ancient Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman ruins predominated from the Renaissance through the 18th century. What was the fascination? A morbid pleasure, what Henry James called a “heartless pastime,” adding, “and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity.”

During the aforementioned centuries, the pleasure carried a touch of eccentric antiquarianism, a touch of cultural superiority, as if to say, “they are gone but I am here” — and only a bit of archeological or historical research interest. Add to this the extensive and shameless looting of antiquities carted back to England and the continent and one can built the case that the pleasure of ruins is a kind of cultural violence one hand removed. The ancient civilizations fell long ago through no doing of moderns, but moderns rob the graves in order to assure themselves that it won’t happen here.

Macaulay’s first chapter (the rest of the book is a detailed if chatty catalog) clearly shows how the pleasure of ruins is enjoyed by the Western world. The first note is the Old Testament, where the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel savor the vengeance of God on the enemies of the people, namely Babylon, Edom, Nineveh, Tyre. Already there was a touch of this sense in the earlier books of the Old Testament, where Yahweh directs the ravaging of Canaanite towns, farms, forests, and populations, but there the pleasure of ruins is attributed to God. The prophets evoke God’s vengeance, depicting the desired aftermath as prophecy. The pleasure of ruins shifts from God to his prophets, which is to say the observing culture. Thus Babylon (Isaiah 13:21+):

Wild beasts of the desert shall lie there, and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures, and owls shall dwell there, and wild goats shall dance there, and the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces. … Your pomp is brought down to the graves, and the noise of your harp strings. The worm is spread beneath you and the worms cover you. How you have fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! … I will make you a possession for the bittern, and pools of water …

Elsewhere it is the cormorant, the ravens, thorns, adders, and vultures.

Italian Renaissance writers are not vengeful but curious, reflective, flattered. The ruins are those of their intellectual and even physical ancestors, after all, and inspire them to better heights. The British at this time neatly divide into humors. Not that Shakespeare and the Elizabethans did not sprinkle their plays with bats and eyes of newt and the like, all on dark moors with strange fogs and witches and skulls buried a few inches below the soil surface. But these were literary contrivances, not real ruins to gaze upon, not yet, anyway.

Within a century or so, the ruins of classical antiquity provoke reflections of melancholy for some, but for others, the collecting of antiquities is a confirmation of empire-building, of moral superiority, and these bring back, like Elgin stealing whole Greek cities, as much as they can carry off. But the literary fashion was the discovery of ruins on one’s own soil, which inspires either genuine melancholy (always with a nobleman’s affectation) or outright pleasure. Macaulay quotes John Dyer’s poem “Grongar Hill,” describing a castle:

‘Tis now the raven’s bleak abode;
‘Tis now the apartment of the toad;
And there the fox securely feeds;
And there the pois’nous adder breeds,
Conceal’d in ruins, moss, and weeds;
While, ever and anon, there falls
Huge heap of hoary moulder’d walls.
Yet time has seen, that lifts the low,
And level lays the lofty brow,
Has seen this broken pile complete,
Big with the vanity of state;
But transient is the smile of Fate!
A little rule, a little sway,
A sunbeam in a winter’s day,
Is all the proud and mighty have
Between the cradle and the grave.

We are far beyond cursing an enemy’s proud towers or adding baneful props to a play or even the later cultural arrogance of antiquarian collectors. Dyer strikes the note of melancholy mixed with what Macaulay calls

cheerful enjoyment of the dismal scene, a brisk, approving gaiety, expressed in firm octosyllabic or decasyllabic lines, with satisfied enumerations of the gloomy objects perceived, and a good moral at the end.

Here Macaulay provides a valuable service in revealing an eerie side to our cultural psyche. Although the emphasis is especially British, the pleasures of melancholy are subtly expressed by all of the Western world. But — and here Macaulay only offers a few paragraphs — not the rest of the world. Not, she notes, the Arab, Indian, or Chinese. She notes the ancient Chinese reaction to ruins, ruins of war: the melancholy is genuine, the identification with the people in their last desperate hours is heartfelt and true. In particular, and not unexpected, is the identification of this suffering witnessed of a place familiar to the observer. Here Macaulay quotes a famous Chinese poem by Tsao Chih, written about the great city of the Warring States period:

In Loyang how still it is.
Palaces and houses all burnt to ashes,
Walls and fences broken and gaping,
Thorns and brambles shouting up to the sky. …
I turn aside, for the straight road is lost:
The fields are overgrown, and will never be plowed again.
I have been away such a long time
That I do not know which street is which.
How sad and desolate the empty moors are!
A thousand miles without the smoke of a chimney.
I think of the house in which I lived all those years:
I am heart-stricken and cannot speak.

Macaulay goes no further with non-Western opinion of ruins. But the sentiment of the Middle Ages is closer to the Eastern, as in the famous Old English Wanderer poem, reflection on the aftermath of war and human destructiveness. Our contemporary pleasure in ruins is videoed, televised, streamed, and made into movies for mass anesthetizing.

Almost an aside because Macaulay does not mention it but in passing is the fact that from the British view, the eccentric antiquarian view, can be seen the evolution of the idea of ornamental hermits to grace the ruinous appearance of a noble’s wide estate. The hermit is made another ornament, a column, a decaying wall, the remnants of an ancient abbey. The hermit by this era is but a ruin in the cultural sense, and so scarce that an ornamental one must be hired, instructed, and placed like an artificial flower in a sterile garden.