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The Ruins Lesson

Meaning and Material in Western Culture

How have ruins become so valued in Western culture and so central to our art and literature? Covering a vast chronological and geographical range, from ancient Egyptian inscriptions to twentieth-century memorials, Susan Stewart seeks to answer this question as she traces the appeal of ruins and ruins images, and the lessons that writers and artists have drawn from their haunting forms.

Stewart takes us on a sweeping journey through founding legends of broken covenants and original sin, the Christian appropriation of the classical past, myths and rituals of fertility, images of decay in early modern allegory and melancholy, the ruins craze of the eighteenth century, and the creation of “new ruins” for gardens and other structures. Stewart focuses particularly on Renaissance humanism and Romanticism, periods of intense interest in ruins that also offer new frames for their perception. The Ruins Lesson looks in depth at the works of Goethe, Piranesi, Blake, and Wordsworth, each of whom found in ruins a means of reinventing art.

Ruins, Stewart concludes, arise at the boundaries of cultures and civilizations. Their very appearance depends upon an act of translation between the past and the present, between those who have vanished and those who emerge. Lively and engaging, The Ruins Lesson ultimately asks what can resist ruination—and finds in the self-transforming, ever-fleeting practices of language and thought a clue to what might truly endure.

Author Information

Susan Stewart is the Avalon Foundation University Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University and a former MacArthur Fellow. Among her many books of prose are On Longing, The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, and The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making. Her books of poems include Columbarium, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Cinder: New and Selected Poems.


“At the crossroads of transience and endurance, form and chaos, memory and materiality, ruins have been among the most poignant markers of the vain human struggle to resist the ravages of time. Drawing on an astonishing range of examples from the histories of art and literature, Stewart brings to their interpretation her unique gifts of analytic acumen and poetic evocation. The Ruins Lesson is a master class in cultural criticism, revealing the sweet melancholy that fuels our fascination with the shards, fragments, and torsos of things past.”
— Martin E. Jay, University of California, Berkeley

The Ruins Lesson explores ruins without end and ruins as an end in themselves in Western culture—autotelic ruins. Wordsworth’s phrase ‘decaying never to be decayed’ signals the Romantic fascination with ruination that Stewart’s erudite book traces from the classical past to its culmination in the work of Goethe, Piranesi, Blake, and Wordsworth. Through dazzlingly imaginative connections and compelling visual illustrations, Stewart argues that ruins are at once the sign of what remains forever unfinished and sites for discovery. Ruins are the vestiges and traces by which the past inspires the future; whether in printmaking, aesthetics, or poetry, they offer a critique of a materialist approach to art.”
— Mary Jacobus, University of Cambridge

“In this expansive, beautifully wrought history of how ruins are imagined, they become sites of wonder, play, and love, places of making as well as places of destruction. In taking up the lessons of ruins, the book explores the varied, volatile forms in which we imagine and remember and care for, or fail to care for, the made and given world. That care shows itself in Stewart’s own quality of attention, the range of her curiosity, the depth of her scholarship, the risk of her thought. This is cultural history as poetic phenomenology.”
— Kenneth Gross, University of Rochester

"Stewart, a distinguished poet, a former MacArthur fellow and a Princeton professor of the humanities, charts the West’s fascination with decayed remains, from Egyptian relics to contemporary monuments of destruction and trauma. The Ruins Lessonis a sweeping cultural history that draws in Renaissance humanism, 18th-century changes in representing the past and the Romantic reconfiguration of memory. . . . Stewart writes with poetic grace and a nonspecialist’s appreciation of printmaking, painting, literature and architecture. Readers outside the academy will find much to value in this lovely book.”
— Michael S. Roth, The Washington Post

“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. . . . As motivations, methods, and means vary across geography and history, what remains constant is this: ruins captivate, and ruins provoke a response.”

— Nathan Goldman, Lapham's Quarterly

“Stewart’s new book details the long history of Western fascination of contemplating what Shakespeare describes (inSonnet 55) as ‘unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.’ . . . Stewart contends that the immediate emotional impact of looking at a ruin is a reminder of our own deaths, since, unlike a heap of rubble, a ruin bears some traces of what it once was before its fall.. . . . Stewart expects much of her readers, but her writing is also forceful and clear.”

— Erin L. Thompson, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Why is it, Susan Stewart asks in her deeply researched and gracefully written book The Ruins Lesson, that 'we so often are drawn—in schadenfreude, terror, or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged, and decayed?'. . . . Stewart is among our most erudite readers of poetry. She is a philologist in the old-fashioned sense: a scholar who combines knowledge of several European and classical languages, a historical awareness of the development and interaction of their literary traditions, and a commitment to philosophical aesthetics that one feels even in her close readings. But she is also a poet, and writes with unfaltering clarity and poise. Finally (a word Stewart might object to), she is a discerning art critic—a skill on full display in her new book.”
— Robyn Creswel, The New York Review of Books

Audience: Professional and scholarly;