The Lion Gate at Mycenae

From The Smart Set:

Amongst ruins, there is a mood. Wordsworth captured an aspect of that mood in his poem “Tintern Abbey”:

And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

What is it that we understand about life, about the world, when we see it through our ruins? It isn’t simply the fleetingness and mortality of all things. It isn’t just the inevitable decay that pulls down all, no matter how great. It isn’t mere nostalgia. The 18th- and 19th- century Romantics did, of course, hit all of these notes in their fascination with ruins. But these feelings of lament do not capture the positive aspect of ruins, the way that ruins seem to add beauty to the world. It is a melancholy beauty, no doubt, but the pleasure that can be derived from that melancholy beauty is undeniable. Maybe the beauty of ruins cannot be analyzed any further. These mysterious places out of time, within time, are able to hold their mystery. That very fact is wonderful enough. Why, then, wouldn’t ruins express themselves in beauty? It seems they always have. The ancient Greeks were troubled and fascinated by the ruins of the Mycenaean civilization that had left its ruins to them. As long as we have had civilization, we have mused upon its ruins.

It is appropriate to the nuclear age that radiation unintentionally gave us a way to create instant ruins. The German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel already made the point 200 years ago that “[m]any works of the ancients have become fragments. Many works of the moderns are fragments at the time of their origin.” Radiation has the power to grab portions of the world and make them give off the same aura it normally takes generations to create. We are watching something like that happen right now. A “zone of alienation” — as the Soviets dubbed the area around Chernobyl — is being created in Japan around Fukushima as we speak. A portion of the planet is being cordoned off and removed from the space-time continuum the rest of us inhabit. In a few months it will be a ruin, too, as old as the oldest places we know, lonely and uncanny in its suspended state, preserved as a living relic to the present we are still making.

“The Power of Ruins”, Morgan Meis, The Smart Set