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ruins and fragments

10 january 2017

I was going to start this review by complaining that Robert Harbison's Ruins and Fragments is incoherent, lacks transitions, assembles its material haphazardly – all true, but then I looked at the title again and slapped my head. Whether craftily or by temperament (and he'd probably say it doesn't matter), Harbison has written a book about ragged bits and pieces that takes the form of ragged bits and pieces. The aesthetic of the study matches the aesthetic studied.

I should follow suit. Lists, Harbison argues, have a relation to ruins in that they preserve bare details of larger phenomena. So I'll list the fragmentary and ruined phenomena he's interested in: the Pergamon frieze, the subway-car graffiti of Lee Quiñones, Finnegans Wake, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Angkor Wat, the Franks Casket, the prose Edda, Puritan and Byzantine iconoclasm, heritage villages, Joe Orton's defaced library books, the Globe Theatre, Tristram Shandy, The Man with the Movie Camera and The Battleship Potemkin, the Acropolis, the Yale Art & Architecture Building, Robin Hood Gardens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Monte Testaccio, Zen gardens, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. This is an extremely partial list, and probably partial in both senses: fragmentary and self-interested. We all shore different fragments against our own personal ruins.

Harbison gets personal without preamble at times in Ruins and Fragments, as if the reader already knew something about his travels and his living situation – again, perhaps deliberately, as if to emulate frayed life records that enigmatically suggest a fuller lived experience behind them. And again, I suppose, don't all writers do this? from Joyce and T.S. Eliot to random idiots who write belated book reviews on the Internet.

Writing of James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Harbison might be obliquely writing of himself when he says that

throughout the verbally extravagant text there is always the sensation of words crucially missing and withheld, of a text that wants to burst on you without preparatory explanation. The idea, to which it stays true a surprising amount of the time, is immersion in an overpowering welter of detail, and that is how [Agee] renders lives beautiful in their ruin, and because they are ruined. (33)
One academic ideal is that of the magisterial, exhaustive treatise, one that leaves no item of knowledge "missing or withheld." Another is the suggestive, quicksilver essay that slides here and there across surfaces. Each has its place, and Harbison's Ruins and Fragments is a model of the latter.

I am drawn to ruins when I travel. I was about to say "like every other traveler," but that's not correct, is it? Lots of people want to cruise on a pristine ship and stop at immaculate resorts. Lots of people go to theme parks that perpetually look as if they were built yesterday. But others are like me, in search of the battered and the missing. I was looking through some pictures I took last March in New York City, which has no lack of new stuff to photograph. But I chose items like an abandoned auto shop in Harlem, some crumbling brick remains of God-knows-what on top of Fort George Hill, the Inwood Arch on upper Broadway, and, leading down off Coogan's Bluff, the Brush Stairway (now restored) that takes you down the steep hill to the Polo Grounds … which isn't there anymore. Nice as the stairway is today, I found myself wishing I'd come upon it before it had been restored – when it was a genuine ruin, and not a nostalgic recreation.

Yet is any ruin ever genuine? and is any building ever unruined? These are not just paradoxical questions. The "old naturalness" of many a ruin, as Harbison writes of Ta Prohm at Angkor, "was already a construct. If the vegetation were not aggressively managed, you couldn't get anywhere near the temples." Ta Prohm "has gone from the wildest to the most regulated ruin practically overnight" (214), a process that Harbison doesn't bewail so much as find inevitable. Every other year I trek across the island of Bornholm in the Baltic to the highly Romantic ruins of the castle of Hammershus, celebrated for the picturesque way the islanders, over the centuries, have scavenged the fabric of their homes from its walls. But of course it's a park, carefully maintained; the very attractiveness to a constant stream of tourists like me ensures that the forces that ruined Hammershus are held perpetually in check.

And on the other hand, last year I revisited the ballpark of my youth, Chicago's Wrigley Field, which has never seen happier times in its hundred-plus years. Cubs Park is both a shiny icon, constantly under construction to serve millions of fans a year at the apex of American sport – and a dump, perpetually threatening to fall apart, dingy, dirty, beloved. The ivy that climbs its outfield walls is as Romantic as anything at Hammershus and just as under control. Is Wrigley Field decaying? growing? organic? Harbison values buildings (like the Alte Pinakothek) which reveal the seams of their continual reconstruction. Much of central Europe was obliterated in the war of 1939-45 and then rebuilt: some of it with an eye to showing the discontinuities, some of it with an eye to obliterating the obliteration itself. Which is more a more beautiful or more important impulse? and can we ever not have both?

Harbison, Robert. Ruins and Fragments: Tales of loss and rediscovery. London: Reaktion, 2015.