Saturday, September 19, 2015

`If We Lose the Ruins Nothing Will Be Left'

“Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth.” 

I suspect Rose Macaulay didn’t have in mind the purposeful destruction of millennia-old ruins, their re-ruination. A temple or market endures the attritions of time. Its fragments are discovered, unearthed, studied and preserved only to be more thoroughly and lastingly pulverized by the latest barbarians, a human tribe that never deserts us. After all, the urge to enact Macaulay’s “ruin-drama” is indelibly human: we build, we destroy, though some take more pleasure in the latter than the former. 

A small number of treasured books are grab bags of learning, autodidactically organized according to their authors’ sensibilities. One such is Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins (1953), written in the immediate wake of the world’s unprecedented ruin-making. A novelist, not an archeologist or historian, she describes herself as a “pleasurist,” a devotee of “this strange human reaction to decay.” About the Syrian city of Palmyra, sadly in the news of late, she writes: 

“A more showy and exciting pleasure, indeed one of the most showy and exciting ruin-pleasures in the world, has, for several centuries, been Palmyra, that ancient Arab settlement in the Syrian desert.” 

Macaulay covers some of the same ground as my friend Marius Kociejowski, a Canadian-born poet who lives in London and recently presented an oral essay, "Palmyra Told Its Own Story," for the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme. Marius has written two books about Syria -- The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool (2004) and The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (2011) – and edited an anthology, Syria: Through Writers’ Eyes (2006). All are “travel books” that transcend the banalities of the category. Marius is interested less in ideas than in human beings, and he writes beautifully. With ancient places, levels of time can induce a sense of temporal vertigo. Here is Macaulay more than sixty years ago writing about an unimaginably old and human place, and I would love to hear Marius’ reaction to her words: 

“What we see to-day, the fabulous golden-ochre colonnades, the Temple of the Sun with its pillared court, the great field of ruins like a garden of broken daffodils lying within the long low shattered line of Justinian’s wall, is Syrian Graeco-Roman of the more florid period, and has excited, perhaps, a more startled ecstasy in beholders than almost any other of the world's wrecked cities.” 

In the West, as we observe from an uncertainly safe distance the destruction of our civilization’s cultural inheritance, inevitably we think of Rome’s protracted fall, hastened by an earlier pack of barbarians. For the purposes of historical orientation, here is Edward Gibbon (vol. 1, chap. 11, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) on Palmyra’s earlier fate: 

“Amid the barren deserts of Arabia a few cultivated spots rise like islands out of the sandy ocean. Even the name of Tadmor, or Palmyra, by its signification in the Syriac as well as in the Latin language, denoted the multitude of palm-trees which afforded shade and verdure to that temperate region. The air was pure, and the soil, watered by some invaluable springs, was capable of producing fruits as well as corn. A place possessed of such singular advantages, and situated at a convenient distance between the Gulf of Persia and the Mediterranean, was soon frequented by the caravans which conveyed to the nations of Europe a considerable part of the rich commodities of India. Palmyra insensibly increased into an opulent and independent city, and, connecting the Roman and the Parthian monarchies by the mutual benefits of commerce, was suffered to observe an humble neutrality, till at length, after the victories of Trajan, the little republic sunk into the bosom of Rome, and flourished more than one hundred and fifty years in the subordinate though honourable rank of a colony. It was during that peaceful period, if we may judge from a few remaining inscriptions, that the wealthy Palmyrenians constructed those temples, palaces, and porticos of Grecian architecture, whose ruins, scattered over an extent of several miles, have deserved the curiosity of our travellers. The elevation of Odenathus and Zenobia appeared to reflect new splendour on their country, and Palmyra, for a while, stood forth the rival of Rome; but the competition was fatal, and ages of prosperity were sacrificed to a moment of glory.” 

Implicitly, Macaulay, Kociejowski and Gibbon urge upon us the long view. The “rival of Rome” has been conquered, forgotten, recovered, celebrated, conquered again and perhaps destroyed. Zbigniew Herbert – as a Pole, ideally situated to witness the depredations of history -- writes in “Report from the Besieged City” (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1982): 

“all we have left is the place the attachment to the place
we still rule over the ruins of temples spectres of gardens and houses
if we lose the ruins nothing will be left”

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