This exegetic essay surveys the key writings on ruinology, specifically Walter Benjamin’s the allegory as emblem of ruins, which discern aspects of history, form, and memory. I used his work along with Sigmund Freud’s exploration into the unconscious as ‘ruins’ to explore how it may translate as a thematic concern in poetry and as lens to reflect on personal loss. The discussion engages the role of poetry—a language that fathoms fragments and dissonance—in restoring meaning amidst chaos.
Keywords: ruins—sacred ruins—landscape—poetry—healing and recovery
Discerning Ruins: An Overview
This essay is a meditation on ‘ruins’, a field of study found under other topic markers such as ‘ruinology,’ ‘ruinophilia,’ ‘ruinscape,’ or ‘ruinlust.’ As an exegesis, it charts the routes into which I have come upon this thematic concern: initially, as a sociological exploration into sacred ruins, how such an attempt led me into a deeper introspection of a personal tragedy following my encounter with the work of Walter Benjamin on allegory, and how its expression would eventually take the form of poetry.
Naming the Ruins is my third collection of poetry.1 It is in progress. As an extension of my main research on travel theory and narratives at the National University of Singapore Asia Research Institute (NUS ARI),2 I proposed a new study to visit the ruins and sacred sites in Southeast Asia. Its initial goal was to inquire into the sites’ ecological implications against the region’s rising urbanisation. Wanting to gain for the project a legitimacy acceptable to an institution largely social sciences in nature, I focused on the trends of tourism and environment especially on patterns of tourist behaviour.
The personal underpinnings of my pursuit were lost on me at first. I did not realise that as i was formulating the project's conceptual framework I was already pre-empting my emotional investment in it. Walter Benjamin's work in reviving the art from of the allegory by way of scrutinising the German tragic drama (Trauerspiel) came as a belated discovery in the review of the literature on the field. Yet encountering it gradually illumined the reason my personal experience of ruins—physical and its other embodiments—inadvertently yearned for the language of poetry. His insistence on ruins, fragments, and the transitory as defining the core of human experience that strip off the ‘material content’ in order to reveal its truth lends well to the argument of poetry. The pith of experience is distilled uncompromisingly in order for a new insight to re-awaken us into existence. This insight which inheres from the “antinomies of allegory”, the dialectics which finds in the profane what is sacred, upholds the intrinsic value of human experience at its basest—and more so in that state. It is thus that an individual’s struggle to remain whole remains a futile attempt. We are assailed by forces to allow for our seeming defeat to paradoxically open us to the deepest realisation of our truths and, hence, redemption. It is the poet as allegorist who forges possibilities from objects and images into an infinite way of seeing.
What I saw during my travels were edifices unique to certain places in the region but as I considered their textures closely they emerged as the amalgam of history and nature. The attention to stones as the site where processes locate their dwelling inevitably drew me to another work that complements the already teeming metaphorical work of Benjamin—that of Sigmund Freud’s work on the excavation of consciousness as a method to explore the disjunctures of self. What it offered was another aspect to the notion of ‘ruins’ as a psychic impulse. At the outset, the wealth of these two great works can never be exhausted, but how their conceptual strands weaved into my own work startled me into a poetics that intensely engaged both the artist and theorist in me. It was in this twin voice that the creative imagination seemed to have appeared less nebulous by depicting it as a series of conscious decisions.
A loss unravelled in my life about the time I began the research project on ruins. The tragedy shook me to the core and questioned my ability to make sense of who I am—the woman, scholar and, most especially, the poet that I am. Reeling from the confusion it had thrown me into, my sense of landscape shrunk. I could not explain how I survived the months that ensued. That period in my life was the closest I got to knowing how the body could shut down from so much distress. The rational side of me knew a part of my life had ended, with the new one to be lived against the rough grain of everyday. But such was no balm to the vicious tearing apart of which the body, in its inviolable binds of flesh and spirit, had to exorcise before any calm could be known again.
Because the first instance of turmoil dazed me into motion beyond myself, the fieldwork became a welcomed distraction. It gave me a unique experience of space and place. On those weeks I needed to go on travelling, I did away with comfort much of the time. I would take long overnight bus trips that cut across borders and showed me the endless paddy fields of the region’s countryside (often with the local piped in music of forlorn love drowsing me). I shared the journey with local travelers, coughing monks, with mothers who could not be kept still by the toilet needs of their children, and passengers who kept on nibbling on whatever food could be had on the bus. The sense of day coming to a close while on the road allowed for shifts of thoughts. This is what the slow land trip offered—the luxury of sitting with time. Arriving at our destinations in the wee hours of the morning with no one to wait upon me and my companion made me keenly aware of one’s vulnerability and the need to entrust oneself to the locals of the place.
My itinerary partly consisted of those that count as the popular travel destinations in the lists of travel books. I began with Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City where I visited the War Remnants Museum then proceeded to inspect the intricately wide reaching Cu Chi tunnels that gave me an eerie sense of the irreversible horrors people suffered during the war years. Hue, which is located 700 km south to the national capital of Hanoi and about 1100 km north of Ho Chi Minh City, offered a different panorama with its sprawling complex of historical buildings of ancient feudal dynasties. The 12-hour bus trip from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap was a quiet way to prepare myself for the grand Angkor Wat. Unfortunately, the rains of those months flooded the more remote temples and prevented the visitors from going any further the main structures. The next visit was made to Myanmar’s Yangon and to the exhilarating Bagan where we arrived at around 2 a.m. Not being able to gain our coordinates in the pitch of darkness, all we could do was to accept the offer of the horse carriage driver to bring us to our destination. I thought that my urban instinct would make me anxious in such a state of unknowing but it was refreshing to be introduced into an unfamiliar place with only the star-like glimmers from the stupas guiding us through the grassy patch. In an earlier stretch of time, I also visited Malaysia’s Batu Caves, Indonesia’s Purah Besakih in Bali, Pambranan and Borobudur in Yogyakarta and, much later, Thailand’s Ayuthaya ruins. My journey through the region’s terrains concluded with an arduous drive through the mountain ranges of Laos that began in Vientianne into Vang Vien and, lastly, Luang Prabang.
The magnificence of these places at once inspired awe and reverence. They commanded a visceral response from me. And though assailed by tourists from all over the world, there were instances when an evocation of the ruins’ former state made me nostalgic. The ruins were a ‘rupture’ from the ordinary landscapes. They made a strong solitary stance. They were sublime.
At hindsight, I could not distinguish anymore whether the personal loss was what shaped my distinct response to the sacred ruins—a response strong enough for me to abandon the original project to embark on a third volume of poetry.3 That these structures may have been preserved either for motives of commerce or culture or both did not lessen their richly textured presence. Charles Mitchell in an essay titled ‘Reclaiming the Sacred Landscape,’ discusses how certain writers depict such places in their work. He notes of a utopian vision among many that vilifies human agency as the cause of defilement. This notion echoes how sacred landscapes are now painfully part of a market economy that exploits the pervasive dichotomy of the sacred/profane. The human has to be taken out of the landscape if its sacredness is to be preserved. Such thinking has been criticised for its neoromantic strain and opposing this is the argument that ‘a place becomes sacred, and retains its spiritual significance, as a result of the history of human involvement with that place; it does not achieve sacred status simply because it embodies some pre-human, dehumanised vision of the sublime’ (2003: 166).
The nuances of the binary ‘sacred/profane’ are examined in-depth in recent studies on sacred places by social scientists (2011: 147-148). Central to the varying perspectives of traditional geography and humanistic geography is the distinction made between the key terms ‘topos’—which in Greek literally means ‘place’—and ‘chora’ which stresses the participation of the human being in imbuing meaning to a place. ‘Chora’ releases place from a static geography and sets it instead as a function of relationality. This concept becomes poignant when framed in the yearning for ‘home’, where home is a universal sense of belongingness and community. It is this ‘rootedness’ that enables us a sense of direction, confidence in journey, and an assurance of return—the archetypal paths of human life. Equally, from the loss of ‘home’ comes pain and confusion. The affect of sacred ruins thus becomes profound during pilgrimages when one searches for places embracing of communal participation and, in many ways, unbounded. With human and nature working on these remnants, sacred ruins thus function as the ultimate reservoir of the sublime.
My travels became a search for a metaphoric compass, a geographic centre. With the sacred ruins I saw, the axiom suddenly came to life ‘devastation respects no boundaries’ (2003: 169). The landscape that slowly figured before my sight was something that did not alienate. It was not something outside of myself. It was as the author Svetlana Boym writing on the appreciation of ruins terms as an ‘existential topography,’ or borrowing from the nomenclature of the social sciences—sacred ruins provide the individual with ‘restorative environments’ or ‘therapeutic landscapes’ (2011: 158).
Southeast Asia was the geographical scaffold to my recovery. My travels were a rich discovery of the varying textures of ruins and their temporalities. I did not realise that as I was traversing stretches of roads, crossing the seemingly endless Mekong River, arriving at places in the thick of darkness, staying at rundown hotels, negotiating with aggressive vendors at the temples’ entrances, scorching my feet on midday walks on temple grounds, touching and being touched in return by the grounds’ and walls’ thick moss, and being walled in the hallow spaces of stupas, that I was fortifying a landscape I thought I had lost. My encounter with sacred ruins during a great personal upheaval brought me to an understanding of places as ‘embodied’ in us. Here I borrow the equation ‘the primacy of perception’ as also ‘the primacy of the lived body.’ (2011: 153) The sacred ruins’ symbologies, historical, religious, and cultural narratives, and myths coalesced to a new significance which deeply resonated with me. It was as if my inner and outer journeying was now through a deeper, transformed landscape.
The preceding views gave me a nuanced appreciation of the notion of ‘landscape’ and ‘ruins’ as they are part of the contemporary vista but my need to understand them not only as a physical place but as a ‘psychic’ one grew more urgent beyond my actual travelling. At such point I turned to specific writings in the literature in which the rigours of theory underscored the consideration of ruins in disciplines. An epiphany of language ensued to shed light on the exegetic tensions of some of the poems in my collection.
The engagement with the topic resulted in questions that continue to inspire the collection’s structural design: What subjectivity do ruins embody? Why are ruins resonant to stages of life? What memories or mishaps are evoked in our apprehension of such remains? What layer of past do they represent? If ruins are about destruction, why do artists aestheticise them?
An investigation of ruins brought me to the work of the German-Jewish intellectual, critic and theorist Walter Benjamin, hailed as the founding father of ruinology, and whose writings responded to the historical upheavals of his time. His fascination for ruins, as objects of both intellectual and sensual appreciation, encompasses the deep narratives in history and aesthetics. His now iconic assertion: ‘Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things’ (1998: 178)—evoke a continuum in matter and thought. Rooted in his critique of the ‘Baroque tragic drama’ or ‘Trauerspiel’, Benjamin proceeds to scrutinise the premium placed on ‘beauty’ as something misleading and fleeting. This yearning for ‘beauty’, as a concept accorded to the classical works of art, functioned as ‘symbolic’— tautological to unity and perfection. This he traces to the Aristotelian concept of art that aims at transcendence, and where time is considered perfect and thus unmoving. The ‘allegorical sensibility’, on the one hand, not only contrasts the totalising aims attributed to symbolism with its stress on the ephemeral and uncertain but renders it problematic. Where history is considered, one is only able to limn the actualisation of time in the ‘Passion of the world’ that ‘resides slowly in the stations of its decline’ (1998: 166).
The flame of criticism gives way to the gradual erosion of wholeness, the painful scraping of gloss to reach the ‘truth content’ and peel off the veil of illusion so that the ‘expressionless’ can appear. Hence the allegory is said to function in the baroque drama on a ‘primordial landscape’ (1998: 166). It is a stage of infinite fragments that are made intelligible in an antithetical, dialectical opposition—the ‘antinomies of the allegorical’ (1998: 174). What is viewed as the profane world at once evokes the sanctified by its ability to refer to something else through a method of reading called the ‘allegorical textual exegesis’ (1998: 175).
Unlike symbols where enclosure of a perfect correspondence becomes its aim, the allegory allows for profundity. Commenting on Benjamin’s work, Richard Wolin argues for the ‘antinomies of allegory’ as paving the way for a ‘negative theology whereby fragments of profane life are transformed into emblems of salvation’ (1994: 70). In the depths of wretchedness, one finds also the endless possibilities of blissfulness (1994: 71). The allegorist’s task in this regard is to foreground by referentiality what is hidden by the material content, and to alert the audience of what is being laid bare by the antithesis borne in things themselves. How the allegorist intervenes is through his own effort at restoring meaning. That in its most poetic assertion, Benjamin writes ‘does not faithfully rest in the contemplation of bones, but faithlessly leaps forward to the idea of resurrection’ (1998: 233).
Thus ruins cannot be seen as an end by itself but a process that underlines not so much eternal life but eternal decay. The physical ruins that result from this process embody history as physically merged with the setting’ (1998: 178). Violence and destruction disrupt history’s fluidity to leave in its wake a de-mythified field of fragments and detritus. It is in this inevitable spiritual signification, as Benjamin pointedly became so in his conclusion of this critical endeavor that the task of the allegorist is to offer a ‘restoration of meaning’ through a mystifying transformation.
Benjamin’s writing on the allegory as emblems of ruins have been built upon as a conceptual template against which to read ruins onto the canvas of history. And as with any great work its existence is appropriated without acknowledgment that one is no longer able to distinguish where his ideas begin and end.
The rich glossary of Benjamin’s writings has likewise pulled me into another work that confronts ruins at a different level. The vocabulary of aesthetics and metaphysics finds congruence in the realm of psychology. Sigmund Freud’s use of ruins brings us to the work of memory as a work of excavation. In Diane O’Donoghue’s award-winning paper ‘Negotiations of Surface: Archaeology Within the Early Strata of Psychoanalysis’, the genesis of Freud’s seminal work is contextualised within specific occurrences of the period. O’Donoghue’s paper proceeds to lay out how Freud’s articulation of an ‘expanse of ruins’ is indicative of a layered site analogous to psychic processes that could be traced to the highly publicised actual excavations of Troy and other important sites in Europe in the late 1800s. The nomenclature of excavation, the acts of unearthing, of laying bare what had long been concealed under the rubbles of living, of stripping away at the surface fueled much of Freud’s rhetorical world.
There is a detail in the study of Freud’s excavation that struck me for the way it made me realise how primal and archetypal the image of the stone is. In constructing his own narrative of psychoanalytical exploration, Freud heeded the phrase ‘Saxa loquuntur’ [The stones talk!”] to celebrate the achievements of archaelogy. In Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today, the phrase is claimed as ‘describing the moment when the archives offers unmediated engagement from the present with the past’ (2011: 191).
The excavation of the ruin under the close scrutiny of the psychoanalyst allows for the articulation of the shattered self, the broken pieces of the unconscious as one that can be identified, given resolution to and finally buried in the past in the form of reconciliation. Such resolution thus forges a sense of the future, a hope that does not emanate from a preconceived wholeness but one built upon the possibilities intrinsic in ruins. It is this regard that they are claimed to hold a key role in defining time—past and present exist in the rubbles—the past haunting the present in the detritus of time, space, and self.
Although these readings have been important to my understanding of ruins, how they have come into being as poems is far more difficult to write about. Theory exists only as a frame along which to measure one’s comprehension of things. The artist knows too well that the sole parameter she can work with is the unknown poem itself. An attempt to write one gives way to the unfolding of another, surprising the poet in its ability to clarify what she longs to articulate. The blank page is nothing but a surfeit of fragments, a world of possibility that renders writing a poem a struggle.
To finally gather the poems into a collection is not to argue for a thesis but, more importantly, to embrace a meandering that exhausts all insights toward a new awareness. I consider each poem I write as a mnemonic device or a precision tool. It was thus that when confronted with my experience of sacred ruins, the temporalities embedded in them resonated not only with my own state of being then but moved me forward to a more habitable future.
In each poem is a stone that lends legibility to the ruins.
Saxa Loquntuur!: Writing ‘Angkor Wat’ and Other Poems
The writing of the poems in the present collection has been an incursion into a painful stage of my life whose resolution was not containment but an implosion of what had given it a veneer of wholeness. That alone purifies what can come after. The spirit that continues to hold the entire collection is driven by the insights I have discerned from delving into the ruins’ physical, psychical, and metaphysical valences. Human experience shares the very processes places undergo in their continued exposure to the elements. Worked on by time, the progress is in divesting oneself of extraneous weight, loosening the façade that defines the structure. In disintegration is freedom, exploration, and a great potential for growth.
In The Aesthetics of Ruins, Robert Ginsberg provides a plethora of axioms instructive of how ruins are appropriated by all art forms. Ruins are the purifier of form and form flourishes amid destruction are two assertions I consider in depth (2004: 15). What I have come to realise in writing some of the poems is that destruction and purification can only be embodied in particular cadences. The structure of the collection begins with an implosion, a defiance, an unceasing questioning, a levelling off as with death. One of the poems that surprised me into composition was ‘The Liturgy’ which I wrote after coming across Olena Kalytiak Davis’ poem ‘Six Apologies Lord.’ The poem’s agonised voice is engagingly raw and does not make for apologies in presenting a culpable self which grows more distinct as the technique of repetition creates an undeniable sonic appeal of anguish. I experimented with such voice and found it liberating to use on familiar materials such as prayers. In the stanzas below, I engaged with the declaration ‘Be still and know I am God’ to create a disquiet that comments on one’s frailty to discern how our suffering is our own redemption after all.
The way out of fire.
I grit my teeth, Lord, until I knew.
‘Be still,’ You said. ‘And know
I am God.’ I know. I am still.
To Know, and Be Still. Only prayer
tending to my soul as the world pays
for its mortal heart—each day, Lord,
unknowing of the ascent
from the crucifixion.
The poem ‘Repetition Compulsion’ draws from the psychological phenomenon known by the same term. I was introduced to it by way of an intense exercise in self-reflection. To what/whom do we trace our actions, decisions, and compulsions that largely define who we are and likely to explicate the tragedies and losses we experience in life? The journey into the self entails knowing our original caretakers who were by themselves products of people subject to the care (or lack thereof) of their own custodians. It is said that the people who enter our lives are not arbitrary presences but responses to energies that emanate from our own struggles with our childhood deficiencies. Thus, by looking closely at the tangle of stories of how we received and were denied love and care, deep self-knowledge is achievable. The self-awareness may thus resolve earlier traumatic experiences which further enhance the dynamics in our lives and lead us to more productive lives. Yet the fascination (and, probably, the resistance) I felt toward the idea is what I perceived as the impossibility of untangling the layers of relationality which make up the ‘self.’ Who can we be beyond the web of relationships we were condemned into at birth? The Biblical undertones of being created in the ‘likeness of’ did not escape me. Writing the poem was more of an admission to the hurdles to undoing who we are, and the fact that our fate is nothing beyond the moment we were born into our parents.
The subsequent sections address the aftermath with a growing calm, a discernment of a new landscape. The purview is much wider as my own journeying offers new materials to work with. My discoveries of poets whose works focus on ‘ruins’ have introduced to me the fertile ground of myths, legends, epics—the archetypal narratives. Fecund as these sources may be, the challenge lies in integrating the ‘big idea’ within my own. In a poem entitled ‘Ferry Crossing’ I experienced the impasse of employing the ‘exodus’ to frame the poem’s narrative. I originally wanted the poem to stay close to the images of the Biblical exodus itself. This inadvertently only produce failed drafts. I was only able to pick up the poem again after the lines—‘Whatever rest comes to me now/Is simple to know water’—came to me one day as I recalled the many ferry crossings I had between Singapore and Indonesia. The lines sounded so light and natural that the rest of the poem seemed to have flowed from them.
The concluding section has a more restrained tone that aspires to a certain abstraction as the sacred ruins become the object of contemplation. This is where I momentarily ended an exacting journey. For with the acceptance of my new state of being, I finally beheld the sacred ruins as the synecdochies and metonymies of lives. Remnants they may appear but they demand our eyes to limn the wholeness from which they arose. They instill in us a finer sensibility of seeing.
Of the poems that came out from my attempts at representing sacred ruins, it is the poem on Angkor Wat that summarises the collection’s thesis. During my first visit, the sheer magnificence of Angkor Wat overwhelmed me as it did inspire artists and poets from many generations. The question of utmost importance is of representation—how best to translate its ruinous existence into metrical and sonic significances. As I ventured into laying the lines and forging the stanzas, the narrative that emerged was archetypal and anchored on the singularity of ‘stone’ as the underlying material of the earth.
My intimate encounter with the rough mystical texture of the temples was inside their most hallowed of spaces—where the stone walls varied, where the bas reliefs told more of ancient tales. The perceiving was a totally different experience as the design of the temples dictated on how the interaction was to best take place. It was when I removed myself from the crowds that I became more attentive to the unique angles of the slabs, how the pillars stood in the silence of the sacred corners, and how moist the air was in the darkest and deepest parts of the temples. The senses are sharpened as one become keenly alone inside its recesses.
In Freud’s own locution, Saxa Loquuntur was an address to the stone’s mystical capacity to reveal the secrets of the earth. As a singular element that underlies all structures, it carries the weight of stories, the secret of cohesion. While his articulation was his own foray into ruins as a ‘psychic place,’ the attempt to get at the core of things, where much life and circumstance gain a layered texture, the sheer assault on stone, concrete, was an act of discovering what holds our existence together. The ruins also invite the spectator to fill in its own history. A creative act in itself, we become complicit to understanding the ruins as having surfaced from its own wholeness into our own fleeting present.
I locate the poem’s energy on the two penultimate stanzas. Not only do they attest to the centrality of love’s power to both build and destroy but mark as well its inexhaustibility. The oracle has been unwavering in its vision of what renews us all.
In the ruinous sweep
Of love, we build and rise
To let the oracle abide.
Speak to me stone: Tell me
Where I can lay down and rise
From my own ruins.
What do we want spoken each time we write a poem? It is a stone unearthed from the rubbles of our imaginative unconscious. Each excavation is an act of revelation. It is thus that we claim how poetry is not for the frail of heart as each attempt is a hard-earned emotional truth. It can only be a step to somewhere, a taming of memory, a rising from one’s own shatters, to a more accepting and authentic vitality. Yet before such can occur, the inevitable unfolding in and of life should be grasped as our human contract with this world. And if by any chance this prods us to an unfamiliar destination, let the new landscape inspire beyond its ruins.
Note: I presented the initial outcome of my fieldwork at the seminar of Cultural Studies Cluster on May 5, 2012. Prof. Chua Beng Huat, the cultural cluster leader and head of the NUS Sociology Department, strongly discouraged me to write the final outcome of my project in the discourse of critical studies. Instead, he suggested that I heed the language of enchantment inherent in ruins as to do otherwise would deflate their nature. I am also indebted to the following friends and colleagues for their generous time in reading and listening to drafts of both the lecture and poems: Anne Blackburn of Cornell University, Jazmin Llana of De La Salle University; and Alvin Pang, most especially, who lost no time in asking me for a revised copy of the lecture and its accompanying poems.
- 1. The collection will be published by Vagabond Press, an independent literary publisher. For further information refer to www.vagabondpress.net
- 2. The current essay is a revised version of a lecture delivered on April 4, 2013 at De La Salle University, Manila in fulfilment of the Remedios Bosch Jimenez Professorial Chair in Music (originally established for studies in the humanities).
- 3. I was a Research Fellow of the NUS Asia Research Institute Cultural Studies Cluster (June 2010-June 2012) during the time I worked on the project. It gave me the initial travel grant with which to undertake the ‘sacred ruins’ fieldwork.
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