Susan Stewart and the Phenomenon of Representation
On March 5, poet and critic Susan Stewart of Princeton University delivered her lecture “The Ruins Lesson” as part of the Plutzik Centennial Series at the University of Rochester. Jenny Boyar, a Ph.D. student in Medieval Literature at the U of R, returns to “a fistful of words” with her reflections.
It was pointed out more than once during Susan Stewart’s lecture that “ruin” can function as both a noun and a verb. Neither form of the word has a particularly positive connotation within our more colloquial language: to “ruin” something usually means to spoil it; similarly, we might hear—sometimes, it seems, with increasing frequency—that various institutions, places, or in some cases entire worlds, are “in ruins.” Stewart’s lecture did not shy away from these darker aspects of ruins, but her primary focus was on experience and representation: the ways that ruins demonstrate how the world is perceived, as opposed to how it has been destroyed in pieces.
|An example of Anglo Saxon poetry in manuscript: the first page of Beowulf 1|
Certainly the body of Stewart’s work as a poet, critic, and translator stands remarkably tall. She has published influential critical work on art and aesthetics, translations of Greek tragedies, and poetry collections that take as their subjects anything from forests to mediev- al dream visions. Stewart’s talk, however, did not indicate loyalty to any particular scholarly role—rather, what was most apparent was the eloquent insight that guided her discussion.
Of course, the literary awareness that could be said to unite all of Stewart’s work was not absent from her lecture, especially as she explored ruins as a subject of continued fasci- nation (and anxiety) for poets. The Anglo Sax- on corpus, with its resonances of the ubi sunt motif (from the Latin phrase Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? or, “Where are those who came before us?”), easily lends itself to any assess- ment of ruin poetry, and so it was unsurprising that Stewart spent some time on the Anglo Saxon Ruin poem from the Exeter book, pair- ing the Old English alongside a striking trans- lation by Michael Alexander. A translation could be seen as a monument in its own right, a reconstruction of something removed by time and place. And indeed all of the poems Stewart showed, when projected on the same screen that had displayed so many images, appeared themselves to be almost ruin-like.
|The Pyramid of Cestius and the Bank of England rotunda (19th century etching) 2|
In fact, visual examples—mainly of prints of ruins—accompanied almost all of Stewart’s points. The ima- ges were largely of Roman structures, but she also included edifices like the Bank of England rotunda and the Pyramid of Cestius. Some pictures isolated the ruins while others showed people collected at their ed- ges or—in one memorable case—using their shelter for covert copulation. Stewart explained how ruins are located within places but also allow us to place oursel- ves. In some ways they mimic the human body— Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is an obvious example of this, but ruins can also be corporeal in the ways we are unable to see inside them, or know exactly how they were constructed. And then there is the relationship between ruins and speech: our own multiplicity of languages, according to the scriptures, emerged from the ruins of the Tower of Babel.
Stewart frequently returned to the idea of ruins as a joining site for things that are otherwise opposed: light and shadow, space and confinement, nature and artifice, past and present, the living and the dead. The thriving natural settings that so often provide context for ruins also, over time, erode them. Thus ruins are a testament to what is, and not what has been—or rather, a way in which we can construct what has been within the space of what is. They stand stoically before us, but only in pieces.
Stewart closed her talk with the problem that ruins present, the violence of representation that insistently reifies a particular object. She noted that form cannot, ultimately, express everything that has been, which inevitably leaves us wanting more. And in fact Stewart’s lecture was susceptible to these very sorts of problems (I think I heard a few exclamations of “Where was Stonehenge?” as everyone filed out of the presentation venue).
So often lectures are driven by argument, and it would be tempting to compare Stewart’s more meditative exploration against such expectations—as well as against her earlier, theory-driven scholarship. But it seems like any singular analysis would fail to capture a subject that is by its very nature all-encompassing and elusive, only half-standing. As was pointed out during the talk, it is often only through looking at pieces that we can see a greater whole. One of Stewart’s final points was how ruins—whether encountered in life, in print, or on a projection screen in a lecture—ultimately exist and survive in the imagination. The importance, then, is less in what withers or is incomplete than that that which is, through close attention, continuously constructed.
To read Jenny’s previous contribution to this blog, click here.