Friday, October 07, 2011

`There Is Nothing More to Say'

“To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.”

This is Henry James in “Roman Rides” from Italian Hours (1909), a collection of travel pieces written over a span of forty years. Before she settled on Pleasure of Ruins as her title, Rose Macaulay contemplated calling her 1953 study of architectural decay A Heartless Pastime. For months I’ve driven almost daily past the foundation of a house that was standing when I moved from Houston more than three years ago. I didn’t notice it until it was gone, and I stopped this week to take a closer look.

Like most houses in Houston, it had no basement. What remains is a cement slab. Leading to what was once the front door are a stone sidewalk and two cement steps. I’m not sure this constitutes a “sentient ruin,” as in capable of feeling, but like any former dwelling it carries an aura of habitation. The lines traced by the interior walls that no longer exist are visible. Imagination fills in the rooms, five of them. Plaster, pipes, lathing and glass litter the slab, and grass grows in cracks and dust.

Is it accurate to say this torn-down house is beautiful? If not, it certainly stirs something akin to an aesthetic reaction. There’s a poignancy and human resonance, a great latency of feeling in what is no longer there. If I viewed a house destroyed in a war zone, especially if I knew its inhabitants had been wounded or killed, my response would be different, closer to pity or sorrow. A house abandoned or demolished for less malevolent reasons suggests, in their absence, the lives of its former occupants. Is this tainted by James’ “note of perversity?” Two sentences after the passage above from Italian Hours, he writes: “Beauty is no compensation for the loss, only making it more poignant.”

Looking at some of Wright Morris’ photographs of empty houses, many in his native Nebraska, I thought of E.A. Robinson’s early villanelle “The House on the Hill”:

“They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

“Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

“Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

“Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

“And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

“There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.”

Villa: from the Latin for “country house.” Villanelle: the same, by way of Italian for “rural, rustic.” Villain: “a low-born base-minded rustic” (OED).

1 comment:

George said...

For houses damaged by war, I think of Richard Wilbur's "First Snow in Alsace".