Such beautiful debris

In his monumental history of ruins, Alain Schnapp takes into account the multiple forms of resistance to oblivion, material or immaterial. Ruins designate less objects than processes put in place by societies to think about their inscription in history.

“A secret attraction for ruins”

Through this work of imposing dimensions and very beautiful iconography, Alain Schnapp, archaeologist and historian, founder and former director of the National Institute of Art History, endeavors to trace a history of the thought of ruins. “Not a history of all ruins in all societies, but an attempt at a stratigraphic exploration of the thought of ruins through diverse cultures that have left us traces of their interest or their aversion for the past” (p. 10). It is from the outset in a deliberately very broad sense that Alain Schnapp understands ruins in order to take into account, beyond the material remains, the multiple ways in which societies conceive their relationship to the past. From the first pages, drawing on the reflections of Chateaubriand in Genius of Christianitythe author therefore broadens the scope of the notion and introduces the idea of ​​a universal thought of ruins which is not limited to monuments but also includes traces and immaterial constructions. Like the author of Memoirs from beyond the grave for whom the fascination exerted by ruins is due to “a secret conformity between these destroyed monuments and the speed of our existence”, Schnapp detects in all men:

a secret attraction to ruins, even for those who do not use the word. I do not mean to say that the notion of ruin is consubstantial with all societies, but that its possible absence, or even its rejection, is a cultural trait that deserves examination. I therefore understand by universal history of ruins a questioning of differences, and not a graduated scale of values ​​from “ruinist” societies to societies without ruins. (p. 36)

Temple ta Som
Angkor, Cambodia

In order to deploy this “universal history” and to free ourselves from an overly modern and Eurocentric conception of ruins – the one which imposed itself with the Enlightenment – ​​Schnapp proposes to make a shift in the apprehension of the notion by dissociating the ruin of the monument. The monument is, he specifies, neither necessary nor sufficient for there to be ruin; and traces, poems, landscapes or collective rites bear witness, just as much as material constructions, to a close link to the past. “To understand the rest of the world, we must replace the term monument with that of trace and consider the simple imprint of human action on the ground and the landscape as much as the most intentional architecture. » (pp. 35-36). This consideration of what we could call “a wider field of ruins” makes the reflection both fascinating and abundant.

Memory combinatorics

For Schnapp, ruins ultimately designate less objects than processes: those put in place by societies to think about their place in history. Retracing a “universal history” of ruins therefore amounts to exploring the diversity and complexity of these processes, while being particularly attentive to the multiple tensions that run through them. The interpretation of ruins always oscillates, as the author notes, between several polarities: nature and culture, memory and forgetting, materiality and immateriality. The relationship with the past differs for each society and outlines a sort of combination of memory.

Some societies are built on an almost flawless desire for collective memory like ancient China, and have developed specific instruments to protect their heritage, both intangible and material. Others saw piles of stones or bricks in the ruins which could be profitably disposed of. Still others have themselves organized the cyclical destruction of their light architectures of wood and thatch in order to rebuild them better. The notion of ruin cannot remain limited to stone architecture, it appears in other aspects, as visible in the Chinese world as in certain African or Oceanian societies. It can take a diffuse form which combines orality and materiality (p. 14-15).

Churinga of an Aranda man (Australia)
in Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind

From the most intangible to the most concrete; from the story passed down from generation to generation to the pyramids designed to strike the imagination, Schnapp engages in meticulous and erudite work of investigation of the logic of memory. He thus lists the innumerable ways of resisting forgetting, of which we can only give a few examples here. Among the objects of memory, let us cite the churinga Australian: these traditional oval-shaped objects, carved from stone or wood and engraved with symbolic signs, which materialize the reincarnation of the ancestor. Let us also cite these theological treatises that the Buddhist monks of medieval Tibet buried in the ground of the temples, thus leaving to chance and time the discovery of the “hidden teachings” and therefore of what they considered to be the most sacred.

The gesture recalls that of the Mesopotamians who hid tablets covered with inscriptions in the foundations of their buildings, which played the role of instructions for their descendants. This practice is analyzed at length by Schnapp in a chapter devoted to the memorial strategies of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. While the former conceived the relationship to the past as a necessarily living link, hidden in these “foundation bricks”, and which had to be reactivated by the following generations, the latter related to it in a much more imposing and ostentatious way. In this regard, Schnapp notes that the Egyptian cult for monuments bordered on obsession. Each pharaoh, in competition with his predecessors and successors, strove to build “monuments of eternity”.

Paestum, plate V, 1778

In contrast to this posture of the great builder, we can think of ephemeral constructions which involve relentlessly putting work back on the craft to reactivate memory processes. In Japan, for example, “In the sanctuary of the imperial family at Isé a ritual takes place every twenty years which sees a new temple of wood and thatch rise next to the old temple. When the new construction is completed, the previous temple is dismantled: this ritual has been scrupulously repeated since the VIIIe s. AD” (p. 40). From a different perspective, but also based on a form of dematerialization of memory, we can evoke the Jewish tradition which, after the fall of the Second Temple, favors oral and written transmission and literally makes the Talmud a “textual monument” which comes to replace the destroyed Temple. Orality, the ephemeral nature of materials and constructions can therefore, in the same way as monuments, embody forms of resistance to forgetting.

The imaginary of ruins

The dialectic between stones and words occupies a central place in the work. Indeed, if the study is based on numerous historical, archaeological and anthropological sources, it also calls upon multiple literary texts throughout. These forays into literature, from Chateaubriand to Ismaïl Kadaré, via Jorge Luis Borgès and Francis Ponge and his “Notes for a Shell”, show the scale and power of the imagination of ruins.

By weaving a link between his research and these texts which, since the matrix stories of the Tower of Babel and the fall of Troy, bear witness to an awareness and poetry of ruins, Alain Schnapp underlines the need to make a detour through fiction to fully grasp its subject. In this way, he echoes the words of the British anthropologist Tim Ingold, for whom: “Scholarship and poetry, as well as science and faith, have been aligned on two sides of a division between reality and imagination. This division has caused considerable harm and must be erased. » Poetry, myths, novels are essential elements of this history of ruins.

Cyprien Gaillard

Schnapp thus returns several times to the attraction that the Great Wall of China exerts on Kafka, Borgès and Kadaré, who each dedicated a short story to it. Although the three writers approach the monument differently, the historian notes that their fables come together in the same clear conclusion: “the sovereigns’ concern for memory embodied in a megalomaniac construction has something trivial, totalitarian and vain” . (p. 654) According to the historian, these stories provide fundamental lessons on the use and collective function of monuments. This is particularly the case of Kafka’s short story which insists on the loss of meaning of these walls built in a fragmentary manner and without really knowing why, but which continue to haunt the landscape. Schnapp, extending the writer’s words, explains that although nothing guarantees the survival of the message of grandeur of monumental undertakings,

it is certain that they modify the landscape and, therefore, influence the awareness that successive generations may have of the past. From these installations emerges an aura that no one can escape: these monuments are semiophores whose meaning is lost, but which continue to emit a signal that each generation receives and can interpret as it wishes (p. 27).

“And the world will be nothing more than a confused ruin”

This summation book – whose cover reproduces a view of the Angkor temple, covered with roots and vegetation, a perfect symbiosis between nature and culture, the past and the present – ​​never ceases to open up and redeploy the idea of ruin. Because it is the complexity of this and the need not to stick to an overly reductive definition relegating the ruin to the monument which constitute the guiding principle of the work. Alain Schnapp therefore strives throughout his study, sometimes at the risk of disorienting the reader in the face of these multiple bifurcations, to readjust and broaden the notion.

From this reflection on the past, finally, a broader reflection on time unfolds. Ruins take us back to a bygone era, but they also project us, in their own way, into the future. This is demonstrated by the genre of “anticipated ruins” that runs through history, from the writings of Thucydides to Benjamin Péret’s essay, “Ruins. Ruin of Ruins”, in which the surrealist poet imagined archaeologists discovering one distant day “the gigantic fossil of a unique animal, the Eiffel Tower…” We still find an echo of this today in contemporary art with, for example, the series of etchings by Cyprien Gaillard entitled “Belief in an Age of Incredulity” (2005). This series, which combines views of large complexes and old prints, underlines, like Piranesi’s engravings, the impermanence of things but also the strange beauty of ruins.