The Literature of Ruins: On ISIS, Tom McCarthy and the Fiction of Antiquity
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by Adam Fleming Petty
In Don DeLillo’s The Names, James Axton is a risk analyst living in Greece, monitoring market fluctuations, getting drunk with expatriates, and tracking the murders committed by a mysterious cult. The Parthenon, that synecdoche for everything ancient and glorious, is always nearby, but he can’t bring himself to visit it. “What ambiguity there is in exalted things,” he says. “We despise them a little.” At the end of the novel, however, after evading an attempt on his life by the aforementioned cult, Axton makes like a tourist and approaches the Parthenon.
I walk to the east face of the temple, so much space and openness, lost walls, pediments, roof, a grief for what has escaped containment. And this is what I mainly learned up there, that the Parthenon was not a thing to study but to feel. It wasn’t aloof, rational, timeless, pure. I couldn’t locate the serenity of the place, the logic and steady sense. It wasn’t a relic species of dead Greece but part of the living city below it. This was a surprise. I’d thought it was a separate thing, the sacred height, intact in its Doric order. I hadn’t expected a human feeling to emerge from the stones but this is what I found, deeper than the art and mathematics embodied in the structure, the optical exactitudes. I found a cry for pity. This is what remains to the mauled stones in their blue surround, this open cry, this voice we know as our own.
Recently, I had the unfortunate occasion to be reminded of this passage. In late February, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria released a video of their members grabassing their way through a museum in Mosul, destroying statues, busts, friezes and other artifacts, some of them millennia old. Mosul was founded upon the ruins of Nineveh, the biblical city visited by the prophet Jonah, though not before he attempted to evade God’s command and was swallowed by a whale. I watched the footage in impotent rage as the vengeful delinquents brandished drills and jackhammers, defacing the likenesses of kings and deities, all the while blaspheming the name of the Prophet Mohammed by claiming their actions bore his imprimatur. As I rewatched it, however, dragging the cursor back to the start of the embedded video, another emotion rose up within me, stronger, eventually, than anger: a kind of intimate sadness, a response to the cry of pity Axton found in the Parthenon. Those antiquities were the expression of human desires, and it was an irony, though not an unkind one, that their humanity was most palpable at the instant of their destruction.
This perception of antiquities as fragile rather than permanent, and all the more affecting for their fragility, is common in literature. Writers have often found their imaginations piqued when encountering the broken, the cracked, the falling-apart. The stories that ruins tell are incomplete, fragmentary, and the literary imagination is often compelled to fill in the gaps of fractured narratives. The Names is the strongest example of this in DeLillo’s oeuvre, the result of DeLillo living in Greece and seeing the relics of the ancient past persist into the anxious present. A contemporary writer who pursues this theme of the past enveloped in the present, to the point of obsession, is Tom McCarthy.
McCarthy’s aims are often portrayed as essentially ones of subtraction: he takes the novel and systematically removes from it character, motivation, interiority, plot and so forth, leaving an object as sleek, sterile and blank as an iPod Nano. This is in part a result of critics and readers growing self-conscious in the presence of McCarthy’s Euro-louche, art world cool, which he works hard to cultivate. Step back, liberal humanists, and watch the Continental theorist dispel your pieties! The blankness of his characters, however, is a byproduct, rather than a primary goal. McCarthy’s real interest is in systems and patterns as they play out in space and time, and this has led him to gnaw at three interrelated questions in his work: 1) What is the present? 2) What is the past? 3) What is the difference?
McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, sees him continue to explore these themes, although the means are somewhat different than his other books. Actually, that’s part of the point. He’s made clear that, while his style may change from book to book, the underlying concepts are much the same. With its numbered paragraphs and penchant for digression, Satin Island looks like a lost demo tape from the Frankfurt School. The narrator, who simply calls himself U, is an anthropologist at a London-based consulting firm. U’s personal hero, Claude Levi-Strauss, made the field of anthropology into an art form while studying indigenous tribal groups, their rituals and customs functioning like living relics. U uses the same techniques to advise corporations and governments on how to best present their goods and services so consumers and citizens will purchase them. The primitive within the postmodern, you could say. U often sounds like he’s giving a TED talk, which means he often sounds like a shaman performing a healing ritual. At one point, U considers his boss, Peyman, and the logo he designed for their consulting firm:
The Company’s logo was a giant, crumbling tower. It was Babel, of course, the old biblical parable. It embodied one of Peyman’s signature concepts. Babel’s tower, he’d say, is usually taken to be symbol of man’s hubris. But the myth, he’d carry on, has been misunderstood. What actually matters isn’t the attempt to reach the heavens, or to speak God’s language. No: what matters is what’s left when that attempt has failed. This ruinous edifice (he’d say), which serves as a glaring reminder that its would-be occupants are scattered about the earth, spread horizontally rather than vertically, babbling away in all these different tongues — this tower becomes of interest only once it has flunked its allotted task. Its ruination is the precondition for all subsequent exchange, all cultural activity. And, on top of that, despite its own demise, the tower remains: you see it there in all the paintings — ruined, but still rising with its arches and its buttresses, its jagged turrets and its rusty scaffolding. What’s valuable about it is its uselessness. Its uselessness sets it to work: as symbol, cipher, spur to the imagination, to productiveness. The first move for any strategy of cultural production, he’d say, must be to liberate things — objects, situations, systems — into uselessness.
The Parthenon, the artifacts in Mosul, and other antiquities affect the imagination more acutely when they become ruins. And it is certainly more disturbing when that ruining is carried out by human hands, rather than the indifferent dismantling caused by time. Indeed, watching ISIS destroy the antiquities made me feel strangely parental, as if they were children rather than ancient artifacts, children I had somehow failed to protect. The whole event gave me a skewed sense of time, of confusing one’s heritage with one’s offspring. In fact, McCarthy addressed this sensation of different eras getting layered on top of each other in his previous novel, C.
C follows the exploits of a young man named Serge Carrefax. Serge’s brief life spans from 1898 to 1922, coterminous with the dawn of modernism, a movement that was premised, after all, on finding the affinities the contemporary world shared with the ancient. Serge experiments with the first radios, gets marooned in a Swiss sanitarium, flies fighter planes in World War I, and eventually descends into an Egyptian tomb, recently unearthed, where he is fatally bit by a poisonous scarab. Midway through the novel, Serge is at Oxford, studying architecture. One of his lecturers describes the influence of ancient Greece on subsequent styles:
“The modern tendency,” he declaims without notes, turning to face the students from plan drawings of the Parthenon and Hephaesteum into which sketches of peripetal and prostyle columns, metopes and triglyphs are inset, “is to consider these structures as ruins rather than as functioning buildings. The temples, as they present themselves to us today, stripped of their original stucco, colour and so on. What we lose is the effect of reflected light flowing over the smooth, coloured wall surfaces, across the bronze gills and balustrades, the gold, ivory and precious stones. I want you, when contemplating the incomplete edifices of the Attic and Hellenic periods, to turn back the clock and think of them as under construction, not beyond it . . .”
The era of the Greeks, of the pharaohs, of Nineveh and the Babylonian Empire, is not past. We are still within it. Preserving the works of antiquity preserves ourselves just as much. And destroying them makes us amnesiacs, unable to recall our individual histories, to say nothing of our collective ones. This is, of course, exactly what ISIS is trying to accomplish.
What is an amnesiac to do? This is, famously, a question that McCarthy tried to answer. His first and still best-known novel, Remainder, is about a man who has suffered a terrible accident, the particulars of which he can’t recall. The novel follows him as he tries to remember something of his former life, and former self. He fails, and fails, until one day, he has a vision. A vision of . . . a wall. With a crack in it. He doesn’t know if this is an actual memory, but it sure feels like one. He begins to use the huge amount of money he received as a settlement for his accident to try and recreate that memory, and so live within
Much of the talk on Remainder has focused on its aesthetic forebears, particularly Alain Robbe-Grillet and other proponents of the “New Novel” from the 60s and 70s. McCarthy is their heir, self-consciously so, continuing the work of dismantling the novel, and the society that reads novels along with it. Far less has been made of the book’s political significance, its portrait of a dehistoricized present. To be fair, McCarthy rarely speaks in terms of political relevance. But his depiction of a man who can’t remember the past, and creates simulacra in place of it, is resonant in ways he may not have even intended.
What is unique about ISIS’s destruction of millennia-old antiquities is that it isn’t unique. Long before the borders of present-day Iraq were drawn by the British Empire, the land saw countless crimes perpetrated against its cultural heritage. Every empire worth its salt made a point of dropping by and seeing what it could take for its own, or destroying it outright. The land’s most valuable natural resource isn’t oil, it’s history.
The most traumatic of these crimes, one that reverberates to the present, occurred in 1258. The Mongols, led by the grandson of Genghis Khan, ransacked the city of Baghdad, killing thousands of its citizens. Legend has it that the river Tigris ran red one day, and black the next. The red came from the blood of the citizens, their bodies cast into the river; the black came from the ink of the books taken from the city’s many libraries and universities, their pages bled of meaning, their words lost.
The late journalist Anthony Shadid described the effect this event still has in his book Night Draws Near, an account of the Iraqi people struggling to survive in the first years of the war.
Rome can still see its past, the magnificence of its ancient empire gracing the modern cityscape. Paris and London, storied cities reinventing themselves as they age across centuries, live in their histories, which surround them. Baghdad, its ancient grandeur utterly destroyed, cannot see its past, its glory. It can only remember. Baghdad’s is a culture of memory; the city draws strength and pride from the myths to which it continually returns. But the curse of recalling is the reminder of what has been lost.
Even this recollection was nearly impossible during the regime, as Saddam Hussein framed the city’s history as a precursor to his own glorious reign. Saddam is long gone, but opportunists like ISIS continue to sweep into the power vacuum created by the U.S.-led war, further destroying the country’s history, terrorizing citizens who already find it deeply painful to recall the past. What can these people do? Will they, like the narrator of Remainder, receive a vision of a small corner of their pasts and recreate it somehow, if only in their imaginations?
I found a suggestion in the work of another writer obsessed with systems and patterns, Jorge Luis Borges. His work is filled with the ruins and literatures of lost cultures, both real and imagined, such that if those proverbial aliens of the future were to reconstruct our world based solely on a volume of his collected works, they would have more than enough material.
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is one of his most famous stories. It begins as do many of his stories, with a semi-fictitious Borges discussing literature with a friend. The friend, fellow Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, mentions an epigram that Borges finds especially compelling. Borges asks Casares where he found it. Casares says he read it in a work of Uqbar literature. After consulting Borges’ library, however, they find no mention of Uqbar. Casares says he is quite certain that Uqbar was “a region in Iraq or Asia Minor.” After extensive research in far-flung libraries (remember, no Wikipedia), Borges discovers that Uqbar is a country in an imaginary planet called Tlön, whose whole history, down to the last detail, was created by hundreds of scholars working over generations. At the story’s close, the history of Tlön stands to overtake the history of earth.
A classic story, open to many interpretations. Here’s mine: the choice of “Iraq or Asia Minor” as a portal into a complete alternate world was deliberate. Borges knew the history of the region — he knew everything — and was deeply familiar with the struggle of its artists and scholars to create meaning out of ruins and fragments. It’s a struggle that continues today.
Photo courtesy of Ian Halsley/Flickr