Morbid Pleasures

On our obsession with ruins.

By Nathan Goldman

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1787. Wikimedia Commons, Städel Museum.

In his 1796 painting Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvres as a Ruin, the French Romantic painter Hubert Robert depicts the museum in which the painting hangs in a state of devastation. The once-magisterial ceiling has crumbled and now lies open to the sky. The walls have been stripped of both paintings and paint; the gallery’s unornamented architecture remains—stark, dirtied, bare—while smashed and tattered masterpieces litter the floor. Only one sculpture still stands: the ancient Apollo Belvedere, which a seated man near the painting’s center busies himself sketching. One’s eye alights briefly on this pair—which seems, for a moment, more substantial than the other figures milling about the gallery—but soon the rubble and wanderers that surround them overtake the viewer, too.

Imaginary View of the Grande Galerie in the Louvre in Ruins, by Hubert Robert, 1796. Wikimedia Commons, Louvre Museum.

By the time he unveiled this work, Robert had been painting ruins for nearly three decades (though it is, in one key sense, a departure: it’s his only rendering of a ruin from the future rather than the past). It was Robert’s first showing of his work, at the Salon of 1767—a major exhibition hosted at the Louvre by the Académie des Beaux-Arts—that earned him the nickname “Robert des ruines,” a title bestowed by the French philosophe Denis Diderot in his review of the Salon. Inspired by Robert’s work, Diderot ruminated on the aesthetic impact of representations of ruins, suggesting that visions of past civilizations’ ruins send us back into ourselves, our own time, and our own prospective future doom. He writes (in John Goodman’s translation):

Our glance lingers over the debris of a triumphal arch, a portico, a pyramid, a temple, a palace, and we retreat into ourselves; we contemplate the ravages of time, and in our imagination we scatter the rubble of the very buildings in which we live over the ground; in that moment solitude and silence prevail around us, we are the sole survivors of an entire nation that is no more. Such is the first tenet of the poetics of ruins.

By Diderot’s lights, the young Robert des ruines was talented but misguided; he “[had] the technique” but “lack[ed] the ideal.” Diderot found Robert’s ruins overpeopled. “A solitary man, who’s wandered into these shadowy precincts, would have made a greater impression on me,” he writes. “Monsieur Robert,” he goes on, “you still don’t understand why ruins give such pleasure”—a pleasure he refers to as a “sweet melancholy.” (Whether Diderot would take Robert to have eventually learned his lesson we’ll never know. He died more than a decade before Robert painted the Louvres in ruins.)

Diderot’s writing on Robert captures an attitude toward images of ruin that resonates today. But it’s also characteristic of his era. Early in Dark Lens: Imaging Germany, 1945—a recent book concerned with ruins the likes of which Diderot could not have imagined—scholar Françoise Meltzer finds in Diderot a “nascent Romantic gaze” well suited to the eighteenth century, a “century obsessed with ruins.” Indeed, as Meltzer points out, this was a time in which it was “very ‘in’ to build fake ruins in your gardens.” Scholar Susan Stewart—in her own recent book, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture—affirms Meltzer’s claim, identifying the era Robert and Diderot shared as one in which ruins became “instruments of mood” and “objects of private meditation and subjective pleasure.” Among the most striking fruits of this epoch was the Désert de Retz, a garden of twenty “fabriques” constructed on a French aristocrat’s hundred-acre estate; Stewart reports that it included, in addition to a tin obelisk, a stone grotto, and a pyramid, “two imitations of classical ‘ruins’ (a Temple of Pan based on the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli, and a towering Broken Column,” and “an imitation of a medieval ruin (a Gothic church, which included the walls and arched window from the actual thirteenth-century church of the village of Retz).”

Ruins weren’t always valued primarily as objects of mood and pleasure. But they’ve long held some form of aesthetic interest in the West. This history, culminating in the Romantic period, is the subject of Stewart’s peripatetic study, an idiosyncratic expedition through the centuries. Ruins and their representations have served a dizzying variety of functions. Stewart collects and engages with a vast range of these uses, without claiming to have catalogued or interpreted them comprehensively. Ruins are material and sites for allegories about Christian absorption of a pagan past; clues to theories of classical architecture; the means of indulging “aristocratic Italophilia” and exploring “humanist interest in archaeology, history, and philology”; the vehicle for “the retrospective and proleptic representation of trauma.” As motivations, methods, and means vary across geography and history, what remains constant is this: ruins captivate, and ruins provoke a response.

All Saints Chapel, Bath, by John Piper, 1942. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

But why? The answer, Stewart’s canny analysis suggests, might be found by thinking of ruins as the shadow side of our predilection for building. “In Western culture,” Stewart writes, “for better or worse, men and women have located themselves in time and space by marking the earth.” All this marking—the ground on and by which we organize meaning—is bound up with an “illusion of…permanence” to which ruins give the lie. “What should be vertical and enduring,” Stewart writes, “has become horizontal and broken.” Ruins activate fundamental anxieties about the possibilities of human willing; they remind us that though our projects—whether writings or artworks or monuments—might outlive us, they will not endure indefinitely.


One might reasonably wonder why ruins have long been sources not just of interest but of pleasure. The novelist and essayist Rose Macaulay, in her 1954 book on the subject, Pleasure of Ruins, acknowledges the complexity of the titular pleasure by selecting as an epigraph this line from Henry James’ 1909 book of travel writing, Italian Hours: “To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows a note of perversity.” In the introduction, Macaulay briefly but beautifully indexes some of the possible varieties of perversity ruin pleasure might involve:

What part is played by morbid pleasure in decay, by righteous pleasure in retribution (for so often it is the proud and the bad who have fallen), by mystical pleasure in the destruction of all things mortal and the eternity of God (a common reaction in the Middle Ages), by egotistic satisfaction in surviving—(where now art thou? here still am I)—by masochistic joy in a common destruction…and by a dozen other entwined threads of pleasurable and melancholy emotion?

It is one of these elements in particular—the “righteous pleasure in retribution”—that worries Meltzer in Dark Lens, a work of scholarship organized around a collection of previously unpublished amateur photographs, taken by Jeanne Dumilieu (the author’s mother), that feature ruins in the wake of the Allied bombings of Germany in Berlin, Bremen, Düsseldorf, and other locales, the specifics of which are unknown. Meltzer reports that her mother told her little about her life during this era; for instance, it was only after her mother died that Meltzer learned she’d spent six weeks hiding from the Gestapo in a cellar. But Meltzer’s mother did tell her “that the entire time she photographed the ruins, she was constantly torn between a feeling of ‘Serves you right, bastards!’ and a profound humanitarian response to the suffering of which the ruins were stark witnesses.”

Both reactions are available to us, too, as viewers of the images. Our gaze is precisely what Meltzer is interested in investigating. What and how do we see when we see these photos? Can we even see the ruin as such? Or, as Meltzer asks in the first pages: “Do aestheticization, voyeurism, or a historical perspective, informed though they may be, occlude actually seeing the war ruins depicted?” Indeed, even the way Meltzer has gathered these images for the reader to consider inflects our experience of them. The first photographs—which appear halfway through the book, after Meltzer has spent two chapters setting the philosophical stakes by examining representation of ruins in text and in painting—show two men staring at and then passing by a half-obliterated bridge. The structure has been partially if haphazardly restored with wooden planks, allowing it to serve some specter of its former function. The images, taken as a pair or each in isolation, draw one’s attention to the bridge’s blighted, melancholy form. Each of the next fifteen photographs Meltzer scatters through the text and analyzes (twenty-four more appear in an appendix) offers itself up for a similar response. Yet taken together and viewed in quick succession, the photos begin to lose their emotional purchase. As the vistas accumulate, the singularity of each fades, leaving one feeling further from the ruins and closer to a blurred sense of historical tragedy. Seeing dissolves into seeing through, specificity into abstraction.

Devastation, 1941: East End, Burnt Paper Warehouse, by Graham Sutherland, 1941. Photograph © Tate  (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Though Meltzer admits, by the book’s end, that “the answers” she has offered to the questions she poses at the start “have been at best minimal, and certainly inconclusive,” she does offer this answer to the initial inquiry: “We cannot avoid reimaging the devastation presented to the eye.” This proposition suggests a provocative way of rereading the history of interest in and representation of ruins. Perhaps our enduring obsession with them—and our drive to depict and behold them—is fueled by our very inability to reckon with destruction.

Stewart, despite brief moralizing moments, appears much less convinced than Meltzer that aestheticizing ruins is inherently ethically suspect. Yet she echoes Meltzer’s conclusion about “reimaging” when she writes that for “most of Western history, ruins representations have provided a means to restore irreparably damaged objects to the closure offered by the intended forms of art.” Art enframes and—the artist hopes—persists; in this way it rebuilds, even redeems. The collapse of human willing is brought back within just such willing.


For Meltzer, the ethical concerns raised by depictions of the German ruins of 1945 are tied to the way ruins become metonyms for human suffering. The people who appear in her mother’s photos are not the images’ focus—and none, of course, were killed by the bombs that generated the ruins—but Meltzer notes what should be obvious: rubble can conceal corpses. In the photos, “the ruins return us, ineluctably, to the suffering of the populace.” To some degree, this association is at play whenever we gaze upon any ruins, but our temporal distance from the ruin can alter our sense of the human dimension that lies before us. Writing less than a decade after Meltzer’s mother took those photos, Macaulay—in her book’s final chapter, titled “A Note on New Ruins”—alludes to the wreckage of the recent war: “The bombed churches and cathedrals of Europe give us, on the whole, nothing but resentful sadness, like the bombed cities…Ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art…or centuries of time.”

Another key factor is the temporal scale of the ruination itself. In The Ruins Lesson, Stewart writes, “Ruination happens at two speeds: furious and slow—that is, sudden and unbidden or inevitable and imperceptible.” These speeds are associated with the possible causes of ruin, human or natural; human ruin tends to happen quickly, natural ruin slowly. (Stewart notes an important exception: sites ruined by natural disasters, such as Herculaneum and Pompeii.) The twentieth century was one of terrible progress in the velocity of human ruining. Stewart dubs it “a period of accelerated ruin, with technologies of destruction far outstripping the powers of ordinary human will and consciousness.” We still live there today, in the ruins of that century, equipped with its capacities to unleash further ruin.

But we are also poised on the brink of a new, unprecedentedly threatening form of ruination, one that confounds the categories of fast and slow and of human and natural: climatological ruin. Stewart turns briefly to this subject in her book’s last lines, asking: “Will we bear witness to the ruined forms of what we have known as the natural world with the same aesthetic pleasure and equivocation with which we look on” the “ruins images” of the past? It might seem that climate disaster is a simple inversion of the slow havoc the natural world has wreaked on human beings’ built environments. But to take this enticing view would be to fall into unexamined anthropocentrism. As Stewart points out, “The natural world will survive humankind”; thus, the “environmental catastrophe we think of as the ruin of nature is in fact the ruin of human nature, the end of our sustainable life on earth.”

A British soldier stands among the ruins of the German Reichstag in Berlin, looking at pillars covered in graffiti left by Soviet soldiers, 1945. Wikimedia Commons, Imperial War Museums.

Indeed, in the absence of adequate action, as we see more of the effects of climate change, though some will be visible in nature itself—scarred skylines, melting glaciers—most will circle back on human structures, devastating them like any other natural phenomena: we’ll see cities and towns abandoned by refugees, leveled by storms, consumed by fires, swallowed by rising seas. The difference, of course, will be in the cause, which is human. This brings into relief the way in which ruins, in addition to evincing the failure and collapse of human willing, also testify to its tragic triumphs. “The ruins stand,” Meltzer writes of her mother’s photographs, “tattered as they are, like witnesses to the machines of war; no longer quiet sources for contemplation, they show the murderous machines that are the result of human ingenuity.” It is human ingenuity, too, that is ruining our planet, and that will spur the planet to produce a new generation of ruins.

And what of those who, gazing upon these new ruins—or upon the images that represent, depict, or document them—find them beautiful? Will aestheticizing observers have, as Meltzer worries, failed to see them for what they are? Or might such viewers, rather, approach the essence of ruin itself, in all its awesome indifference? In his out-of-print 2004 book The Aesthetics of Ruins, philosopher Robert Ginsberg declares:

The ruin liberates matter from its subservience to form. As the chains of form are smashed, matter emerges in our presence, reformulating itself for our refreshed experience. Matter, which once had been conquered in the original, returns in the ruin to conquer form. Matter flexes its being in the absence of the formal whole. Yet exultant materiality brings forth form. The creative power of the material rushes in where form has fled. The destruction of the structure is rewarded with the resurgence of the substance. Matter builds its own unities amid ruin.

It’s a formalist vision—and for that, perhaps a cold one—that elides the human in ruination, agents and sufferers both. I, for one, am moved by it. When I bear it in mind as I look upon images of ruin, I am moved by them in turn. But of course, there’s the human who cannot be elided: the one who gazes on the ruins, who is interested, vexed, overcome—or not. Ruin will only find its true completion in our final, total absence, when there is no one left to gaze at all.