Ruins and Futurity

Tagged: Theme

Ruins are not a necessary prelude to Futurity. A ruined structure may be nothing more than a structure that has fallen into illegible ruins, leaving no message for us to draw upon: no warning to the world we live in, no anticipation of things to come. But from time immemorial a Ruin, or in more recent times an Edifice constructed in the shape of a Ruin [for Edifice see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], has also been understood as a ruined structure meant to be contemplated. For millennia Ruins have served to make political points; or more interestingly, as emblems of vanitas, they have served as signs of humanity's decay from the time of the gods, when there were giants in the earth; or even more recently as dramatic backdrop for some time-honoured human drama, for instance the erotic tangles narrated in Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499; partial trans Joscelyn Godwin as The Strife of Love in a Dream 1592), the original composed probably by Francesco Colonna (circa 1433-1527), where passions are conveyed both in words and through drawings of architectural fantasias whose complex seemingly ruined antiquity track the state of the romance. As far as Fantastika as a whole is concerned, however, the linkages here are typological, where this may prefigure that, and give it meaning, a familiar example of this being "Aeneas and his Family Fleeing Burning Troy" (1654) by Henry Gibbs (1631-1613); but typological equations of this sort are designed more to illustrate allegorical intent than to articulate narrative passage; and therefore typically fail to enact some form of story to fill in the gap – the inconceivable-until-conceived vacuum – between the then and the now. Exempla do not narrate that gap. In these centuries the future is untracked. Fantastika, which colonizes the vacuum, and which needs Time to breed there, comes later.

From the early years of the sixteenth century new buildings in the shape of ruins began to appear, usually constructed in ceremonial gardens or parks where they served the wealthy as places of retreat and restful contemplation of mortality. Set safely into this gated framework, and perceived as capstones of an aesthetic presentation, these ruins as ruins to a modern eye seem fatally static: typologies unjoined to memory or consequence. Nothing can happen here; nothing is intended to. Hundreds of these anxiety-allaying cubbyholes for aristocrats were constructed over the next few centuries, until Gothic models began to appear, supplanting the contemplative stasis of the Classical with an underlying transgressive rendering of the past as a prison. But Gothic Ruins are designed both to represent immurement and the escape from prison. The storyable Edifice was just around the corner. The detached storyless aesthetic of the ruin built to represent a ruin began to lose purchase on the Western mind in the eighteenth century. Few edifices of this sort were constructed after the time of the French Revolution.

Focused contemplation of the Ruin as a complex memento mori and presentiment of the continual unveiling of new history – where the contemplator of a Ruin may enjoy an ironic/elegiac perception of the inevitable passage of past glories, but is motivated to reconfigure that perception into an implied or explicit narrative where his own world is transformed into Ruins – seems not to have become a recognized visual topos until around the middle of the eighteenth century, though another few decades would pass before that topos gained much narrative weight. Giovanni Battista Piranesi's Invenzioni Capric di Carceri ["Fanciful Images of Prisons"] (graph 1745; rev vt Carceri d'Invenzione ["Imaginary Prisons"] 1761) may for instance depict an imaginary Underground world-contaminating Ruin where past and present, imprisonment and sublimity, seem immiscible, as though the flood gates of history had burst, and the world had become a story, without explanation or escape: but the scrim of the present is not shattered, and an unspoken light-absorbing gap occludes the next day. No passagework associating the contemplated Ruin and the rapture of Consequence could really be conceived and executed until some time after antiquity itself had been both domesticated and dramatized through the new historiography of writers like Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), whose immensely detailed, secular History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1766-1788 6vols) demonstrated to civilized Western Europeans that the story of the ruin and revival of the ancient world was a story both exemplary and continuous into the present moment (see Decadence). These perspectives that Piranesi and Gibbon began to dramatize, in which reanimated Ruins threatened to contaminate the present, were inevitably subversive, like the Gothic Monster: for to contemplate a Ruin as part of history was by extension to treat the pretensions of any contemporary government, or ruler, as ruinous. This combined allure and terror generated a word to describe it: Ruinenlust, an eighteenth century German coining brought much later into English usage by Rose Macaulay in her Pleasure of Ruins (1953), and which – journalistically translated as "Ruin Lust" – provided the title for a desultory 2014 Tate Britain exhibition devoted to the fascination of Ruins. Paintings like "The Artist Overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins" (1779) by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) [for Fuseli see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] seem precisely to embody the addicting appeal of Ruinenlust, the Doppelganger-vivid past suddenly made animate in the mirror.

But such works precisely lack the estranging cognitive engine of contemplation implied by the title of this entry, where a future observer's gaze fixes on the consequences of some Disaster in our future but his past. One further step was required before the Ruin could be grasped as an Engine of Time (see Gothic SF), and for fixated rapture to begin to become Fantastika. For decades the necessary grammar hovered at the edge of useful articulation. As early as 1749, James Caulfeild, first earl of Charlemont (1728-1799), recorded in his travel journal what may be the first instance of that future tense:

Is this the renowned Athens? How melancholy would be the reflection should we suppose, what certainly must come to pass, that in a few ages hence, London, the Carthage, the Memphis, the Athens of the present world, shall be reduced to a state like this, and travellers shall come, perhaps from America, to see its ruins.

This passage was only published in The Travels of Lord Charlemont in Greece and Turkey, 1749 (1984), edited by E J Finopoulos and W B Stanford, and so Horace Walpole [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] seems unlikely to have lifted its central image when, in a private letter written 24 November 1774, he suggested that "... some curious traveller from Lima will visit England and give a description of the ruins of St Paul's ..." The first known published iteration of this pregnant image appears a few years later in Thomas Lyttelton's Poems, by a Young Nobleman ... (coll 1780 chap), where a future tourist is portrayed regarding the decayed stones of London; it is not very clearly presented by Lyttelton, who was a feeble writer, but is discussed, with further examples, in the New Zealander entry, the most important of these being Gustave Doré's frontispiece to London: A Pilgrimage (graph 1872) by Blanchard Jerrold (1826-1884).

The fully-developed topos – where our contemplation of the past is syntactically and imaginatively parlayed into a fully imagined future observer's own story-embedded contemplation of our present world – first seems to appear in Les Ruines, ou méditation sur les révolutions des empires (1791; trans anon as The Ruins; Or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires 1792) by M Volney, published only two years after the future-creating paroxysm of the French Revolution. As the text begins, Volney has been meditating upon a valley of ruins that is all that remains of Palmyra [in present-day Syria], and has contrasted this abandoned solitude with the prosperity of "modern Europe". But then a thought strikes him:

Reflecting that such had once been the activity of the [Ruins] I was then contemplating, who knows, said I, but such may one day be the abandonment of our countries? Who knows if on the banks of the Seine, the Thames, the Zuyder-Zee, where now, in the tumult of so many enjoyments, the heart and the eye suffice not for the multitude of sensations, – who knows if some traveller, like myself, shall not one day sit on their silent ruins, and weep in solitude over the ashes of their inhabitants, and the memory of their former greatness. [Chapter Two, first English translation; italics added]

The grammar of the contemplatable world had begun to change; through a blithe or even inadvertent acceptance of the philosophical impertinence of the future tense, it became possible to fancy the inhabiting of realms of imagination previously inconceivable by sophisticated adult minds. Within a few years – partly through specific awakeners like Volney's extremely influential text, a prolepsis whose effect was insidiously profound in the context of a Western Europe which, galvanized by political and cultural revolutions, was rapidly beginning to resemble the world we still inhabit – the idea of radical change becomes easier to think about (see History of SF), and the closely-linked contemplation of extinction becomes an integral part of the grammar of change. For if we can contemplate the extinction of animals through a series of catastrophes – a concept, new to the world, dramatically introduced in a famous lecture by Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) on 4 April 1796, where he argues that Evolution is caused by serial Disasters which exterminate successive waves of species, leaving fossil Ruins behind – then we can more easily contemplate the human drama of Ruins, and the extinction of empires, within a frame of understanding impelling us to conceive that the extinction dramas of times past shall happen again. And of course if we can contemplate a Future History like Volney's that is arguably continuous with the present (see also Félix Bodin's later arguments about the habitable future), we can contemplate how it changed, how the Western world found itself, perhaps uniquely, in possession of narrative models for telling stories set in the future.. Here – where Gothic imageries of the imprisoning past are leveraged into Gothic SF where the future must be explained – we can see beginning to take shape something like modern sf as we know it: a form whose origins at least are more deeply energized by attempted escape and likely disaster than was perhaps entirely obvious in the twentieth century. The spatial focus of traditional Proto SF begins to fade around now; it is from this point that the Fantastic Voyage risks belatedness, and authors of what is becoming Fantastika begin to create narratives that plausibly address the central concern of the sf to come, which is Time (see also Time Abyss).

Between 1754-1765, at the beginning of his career, the painter Hubert Robert (1733-1808) lived and studied in Rome, in the circle and under the almost hypnotic influence of Piranesi [see above]; unsurprisingly, much of his career was spent creating large works in which contemporary edifices were conceived as Ruins, most famously with the Monuments de France series of 1787, which includes a depiction of the Arc de Triomphe in ruins, though the triumphal arch pictured here was of course the Roman Arch of Titus, not the familiar nineteenth-century Arch at the heart of the Champs-Élysées. Radically different in conception from this antiquarian sublime, and almost hysterically expressive of late eighteenth century economic and cultural insecurities about the future, were two associated paintings executed in 1796 (the year of Cuvier's address): the first depicts the Louvre in that year, and the second depicts the Louvre in ruins. There may be no future contemplator visibly narratizing the gap between the two, but this double work is hugely important because that gap – that absence concealing a narrative of Disaster – cries out visibly to be filled (all the more so because Present and Future are simultaneously visible), a cry that would almost immediately be answered by sf, which in this context might be defined as that literature which narrativizes the gap between Ruins and Futurity. (Nature abhors a vacuum.) In 1798 John Soane (1753-1837), architect for the Bank of England, asked his pupil the painter Joseph Michael Gandy (1771-1843) – whose much admired "A Bird's Eye View of the Bank of England", where the ruins of the great building are splayed out like a corpse after autopsy, climaxed his career – to paint two images of the new rotunda, one intact, the second in ruins. In the "View of the Rotunda of the Bank of England in Ruins" (1798), as with Robert's slightly earlier painting, we witness a scene some time after some great Disaster, with clouds roiling in the disturbed heavens: it is a cradle of Fantastika; and although no contemplator is visible, we are seeing through his eyes. Within a very few years, the Last Man topos would enter the literature in Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's The Last Man (1805), which opens with a reference to the ruins of Volney's Palmyra. A few years further one,Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: A Poem (1812 chap) sees American tourists in ruined England after a gloom-laden "Napoleon Wins" (see Hitler Wins) conclusion to the then-current European war. Lord Byron's "Darkness" (in The Prisoner of Chillon, and Other Poems, coll 1816 chap) employs the device to depict the End of the World in terms so unremittingly unmetaphorical that the poem might be deemed the first Scientific Romance, a form of sf which often deploys contemplators of the coming world who draw conclusions from the historical past. And one year after "Darkness", Byron's friend (and companion at the Villa Diodati during the "Year Without Summer"), Percy Bysshe Shelley created in "Ozymandias" (11 January 1818 The Examiner as "On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below") what remains the most famous Ruins and Futurity image: that of the "vast and trunkless legs of stone [standing] in the desert", all that remains of "Ozymandias, king of kings"; the words inscribed on his pedestal – "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" – neatly represent both the tyrant's boast and the poet's contemporary warning. Shelley wrote this sonnet in friendly competition with his friend, the highly competent poet Horace Smith, the sestet of whose own sonnet, "On a Stupendous Leg of Granite ..." (25 January 1818 The Examiner), perfectly domesticates the topos:

We wonder [at Ozymandias], and some hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when through the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the wolf at chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What wonderful, but unrecorded, race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

For further examples of the contemplation of London, see again New Zealander.

More dramatic variations on this elegiac approach may be found in William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City; Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942 (1880 chap), in which the ruined City is London; in J A Mitchell's The Last American (1889 chap; exp 1902), where archaeologizing visitors from the future visit New York; in Reginald Berkeley's Cassandra (1931); in Robert Herrick's Sometime (1933); in Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907); in several works by Stephen Vincent Benét; in Nelson S Bond's "The Priestess Who Rebelled" (October 1939 Amazing; rev vt "Pilgrimage" in The Thirty-First of February, coll 1949), where the matriarchal assumptions of a Ruined-Earth tribe are deflated by actual sighting of its supposed deities, the carved Presidential heads of Mount Rushmore; in Horace C Coon's 43,000 Years Later (1958), which like Mitchell's novel features the Statue of Liberty overseeing the ruins of New York, an image famously recycled in Planet of the Apes (1968): though New York in that film is buried beneath the sand, we know it is there.

Frequent Satirical use has been made of such a distanced future viewpoint, grounded in Anthropology or archaeology, to cast a cold eye on our present civilization's quirks. The first such text featuring a future antiquarian confused by a contemporary ruin may be "Crude Hints Towards the History of my House in L. I. Fields" (written 30 August-22 September 1812; first appeared in Visions of Ruin, anth 1999, edited by Helen Dorey) by John Soane [see above], describing the future ruins of his home in Lincoln's Inn Fields (then under construction) as possibly "the residence of a magician", or a temple, or a convent, and making specific reference to Piranesi, citing the "Carcerian dark Staircases" found in his "ingenious dreams for prisons". Early fictions employing this subtheme include Jonquil's Queen Krinaleen's Plagues (1874), Alfred Franklin's Les Ruines de Paris en 4875 (1875 chap), F Carruthers Gould's Explorations in the Sit-tee Desert: Being a Comic Account of the Supposed Discovery of the Ruins of the London Stock Exchange some 2000 Years Hence (1880 chap), and Charles Duff's non-sf satire Anthropological Report on a London Suburb (1935) as by Professor Vladimir Chernichewski, which applies the technique to London. Apparently without satirical intent, Albert Speer began around this time to design mortmain monumental macrostructures, for Hitler's delectation, which would only show their true nature after a thousand years, when all was in ruins, and anthropologists absorbed in the edifices of the Third Reich would stand in awe. Well-known later examples of anthropological responses presented as mock-scientific papers are The Weans (November 1956 Harper's Magazine as "Digging the Weans"; much exp 1960 chap) by Robert Nathan, and "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema" (June 1956 The American Anthropologist) by Horace Miner, both of which discuss contemporary Americans as irrational and hard-to-understand primitives. This Satire extends to the investigating Scientists who persistently fail to grasp the "rituals" associated with toilet and other activities, as also in Leo Szilárd's "Report on 'Grand Central Terminal'" (June 1952 University of Chicago Magazine; vt "Grand Central Terminal" in Great Science Fiction by Scientists, anth 1962, ed Groff Conklin), whose puzzled archaeologists are Aliens; and again in David Macaulay's Motel of the Mysteries (graph 1979), where the unfathomable strangeness of a twentieth-century motel is lovingly analysed. Here a woman wears an uncomprehended lavatory seat as exotic headgear, a specific echo of Heinrich Schliemann's wife adorning herself with the treasures of Troy. Serge Lamothe's Les Baldwin (2004; trans Fred A Reed and David Home as The Baldwins 2006 chap) is sf. If there is a ghost that haunts Anthropology- and Archaeology-based tales of the sort described immediately above, it is probably the Lost Race story, where ruins and/or surviving descendants of great civilizations are routinely discovered. The very numerous nineteenth-century examples of the form are, however, so distorted by the occluding mindset of Western Imperialism that the discovery of a lost race is exceedingly unlikely to generate the contemplative dynamic characteristic of almost any title mentioned here. If at times the classic lost race tale hardly seems to be sf at all, it is perhaps because a doctrinal belief in Progress, and an incapacity to think of the various races of Homo sapiens as a family, hamstrung any story that might threaten an already unstable system of beliefs.

What might be called a topos of decipherment leads readily to more abstract formulations as well. Within the almost unplumbable complexities of Chris Marker's seminal La Jetée, La (1962), it seems clear that the protagonist's quasi-archaeological sifting through the ruins and museums of the past, in order to recover a central moment, creates a kind of propulsion fueled by desire and desiderium that sends him into his own future, where he is in turn observed; throughout its brief compass, the film constantly enforces a sense that Time Travel can be understood as a drama of contemplation. Austerlitz (2001; trans Anthea Bell 2001) by W G Sebald (1944-2001), though not literally an example of Fantastika, is haunted by circular ruins only decipherable when it is understood that they are the shape of the future.

As the twentieth century progressed, and the Lost Worlds had all been discovered, the take-off point for Ruins and Futurity exercises began to focus more resolutely on the ruins we had ourselves created; Walter Benjamin's Der Passagen-Werk (1982; trans Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin as The Arcades Project 1999) is haunted by a sense that the arcades and expositions that flourished between around 1850 and the onset of World War Two were premonitory of decay, and in fact half- or wholly-consciously designed as ruins to contemplate at some possibly distant future point. The built and unbuilt schemes of Adolf Hitler's chief architect Albert Speer (1905-1981) stand as a parodic counterpoint to this pessimistic cultural sense that the Western world might be ageing; Speer's concept of Ruinenwert ["ruin value"] – according to which principle state edifices were to be constructed with a view to their survival, after the passage of a millennium, as noble ruins contemplated by our awed descendants – grossly deforms Benjamin's intuition. In any case, after the devastation inflicted during the War, much of East London was in ruins; the contemplation of these horrific exemplars of loss soon transformed them – in Patrick Abercrombie's Greater London Plan 1944 (1945) and follow-the-leader but revelatory books like How Should We Rebuild London? (1945) by the town planner C B Purdom (1883-1965) – into lessons for the Utopian future soon to be imposed on the region, and upon Britain as a whole. With irredeemable clarity, texts like these degradingly transformed the concept of the ruin: what had been useful to the human imagination as a prophetic exemplar became a set of lessons in bad urban planning. The urban landscapes of the many British Near Future Dystopias published over the next decades almost invariably reflect the imposed sourness of the worlds created in these terms as Thought Experiments whose implausible imposition upon the real world otherwise beggars the imagination. Much of the work of J G Ballard implicitly or directly portrays the constructions of the post-War world – from council estates to motorways to Cape Canaveral/Kennedy – as cenotaphic imagos of their true ruined state. By the turn of the century, these "Ballardian" developments (almost invariably conceived and executed by architects and planners who had no intention of ever living in one) had themselves become horrific exemplars to contemplate; though its focus is on more recent decades, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (2010) by Owen Hatherley (1981-    ) usefully demonstrates the case.

More overtly sf versions of the contemplation-of-ruins topos include Arthur C Clarke's "History Lesson" (May 1949 Startling; vt "Expedition to Earth" in Expedition to Earth, coll 1954), in which historians from Venus attempt to understand vanished humanity from a surviving record which proves to be a Disney animation; Fritz Leiber's "Later Than You Think" (October 1950 Galaxy), where archaeology reveals an extinct past civilization on Earth – not humanity as canny readers have been led to expect, but our successors the rats; and Randall Garrett's "No Connections" (June 1958 Astounding) – a Parody of Isaac Asimov – wherein Far-Future seekers for the planetary origin of humanity fail to recognize complexly "alien" toilet plumbing excavated from the Ruined Earth. The best known example is A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup 1960) by Walter M Miller, whose Post-Holocaust monks devotedly create illuminated copies of holy relics which include a shopping list and circuit diagrams. Norman Spinrad adds a twist to the theme with "The Lost Continent" (in Science Against Man, anth 1970 ed Anthony Cheetham), where it is made clear that the mindset of vanished "Space-Age America" ultimately became incomprehensible, not only to the story's African tourists in derelict New York but also to ourselves.

Many sf works employ the Linguistic tease of common Earthly personal- and place-names that have supposedly mutated over the centuries, the earliest example of the trope perhaps being found in Edgar Allan Poe's "Mellonta Tauta" (February 1849 Godey's Lady's Book), looking back from 2848 CE to the differing philosophical stances of "Aries Tottle" and "Hog" (Francis Bacon), the ancient "Amriccans" of the "Kanadaw continent", etc; another early example is the portmanteau name "Bab-y-london" in Explorations in the Sit-tee Desert (cited above). Isaac Asimov's Pebble in the Sky (1950) has "Senloo" (St Louis); the many corruptions of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980) include Cambry (Canterbury) and its Ardship or Archbishop; landmarks in a future London reclaimed by forest in Diana Wynne Jones's A Tale of Time City (1987) include "Spauls" and "Laununsun" for Lord Nelson, ie Nelson's Column; Stephen Hunt's The Kingdom Beyond the Waves (2008) alludes to a drowned City of Lost Angels (Los Angeles, California); the titular City of Gerald Kersh's "Voices in the Dust of Annan" (13 September 1947 Saturday Evening Post as "Voices in the Dust"; vt in Sad Road to the Sea, coll 1947) is ruined London; Cordwainer Smith's far-future Instrumentality sequence features such names as the supposedly meaningless Meeya Meefla (Miami, Fla); Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) is set in a much-changed Far Future South America, implying that its mighty city Nessus was once Buenos Aires. Further instances are very numerous.

Earth itself vanishes into legend in various Far Future sf scenarios. Thus Sol is regarded as merely one of several possible candidates for humanity's original Sun in Foundation (May 1942-October 1944 Astounding; fixup 1951; cut vt The 1,000 Year Plan 1955 dos) by Isaac Asimov. The prolonged galactic quest for lost Earth in E C Tubb's Dumarest sequence is met with incredulity even at the name, as in the opening volume The Winds of Gath (1967 dos US; rev vt Gath 1968): "Please do not jest [...] Many races so call the substance of their planet as they call it dirt or soil." Variations of this speech recur throughout the sequence. [JC/DRL]

see also: H Grattan Donnelly; Lang-Tung; Norman Lavers; Alan Seymour.

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