River of Junk

“A ruined structure may be nothing more than a structure that has fallen into ruins; a Ruin is a ruined structure that has been contemplated. Ruined structures have been noticed for millennia, often as signs of humanity’s decay from the time of the gods, when there were giants in the earth: but as sacred drama, not the passage-work of history. Focused contemplation of the ruin qua Ruin as a creative dynamic – where the contemplator of a Ruin not only enjoys an ironic/elegiac perception of the inevitability of the passage of past glories, but refigures that perception into a vision of his own world transformed into Ruins as contemplated by a future observer – seems not to have become a recognized topos until the eighteenth century, either as part of the conventional rhetoric attending the Grand Tour, or as a literary device. Neither a transformation from the soap operas of sacred drama to historical perspective, nor the consequent awareness that we live in some future mortal’s past, was likely to have become commonplace until antiquity 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 take both exemplary and continuous with the present. The perspectives that Gibbon brought into focus for the West – en passant making Ruins contemplatable as both Icon and lesson – made the past storyable.

“There is a further implication of this alteration in the perspective of the West. Once it is conceived that our own world may be gazed upon from the future, just as we gaze upon the past, then it follows that the world of the future – in order to give habitation to a plausible contemplator – should somehow, in our imaginations, be as livable as the ancient world we were now begun to domesticate into history. The fully-developed topos – where our contemplation of the past is specifically linked to a future observer’s contemplation of our own world – shapes Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires (1791; trans anon as The Ruins; Or, a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires 1792) by Constantin François de Chassebouf, comte de Volney (1757-1820), published only two years after the French Revolution. It is most clearly articulated at the climax of Chapter Two, after de Volney has meditated upon a valley of ruins along the Euphrates, and contrasts 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.

Text: Theme: Ruins And Futurity, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction.

Image: River of Junk surrounds, Adventure Time Wiki.


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