My life is ruined…

My fascination with ruins can be firmly dated to my final year in high school. I had a wonderful British Literature teacher named Mr Wagner who spent as much time teaching about the lives of the poets and authors and the places talked about in their works as we did reading the works themselves. It worked–I still remember snippets about Chaucer, or Milton, or Keats or Elizabeth Barrett Browning after nearly twenty-five years.

As part of this, we studied Wordsworth, specifically “Tintern Abbey.” (The name of the poem is much longer, but that’s what everyone knows it as.) If you don’t know the poem, it’s here.

I particularly liked Wordsworth and the way he evokes nature, but what made it for me is that Mr. Wagner showed us photos he had taken when he had visited the actual Tintern Abbey. It was a ruin. (I later heard it’s been called the most romantic ruin in all of England). Here’s a website with some lovely shots.

I had fallen in love with my first ruin. It presaged my eventual move to study classical history, which is full of ruins and relics of all sort, but what I didn’t realize at the time is that ruins could be found everywhere, and didn’t need to be several centuries old to be evocative.

Ruins and relics give us a tangible piece of a different time. We can close our eyes, make open roofs whole again, reconstruct crumbling pillars, and see them once again bustling with activity. Ruins happen for all kinds of reasons. Civilizations rise and fall, the economy changes, disasters and wars happen, or perhaps only peoples’ tastes change. Some are made through tragedy, others merely by abandonment and neglect. Some ruins are nearly or completely invisible, but the ghosts of what were once there remain if you listen quietly.

Some ruins and relics are not buildings at all. Some of them are written works. I met several of these while working on my doctorate–the manuscripts that existed in fragmentary form, inviting you to solve the puzzle of what is missing. Some are musical works.

One of these musical works was the source of the name of this blog. One of the very last songs ever written by Joy Division before the suicide of Ian Curtis was a song called Ceremony. It exists in four recordings. Two were made before Curtis’ death and are both deeply flawed. One is a live performance where the vocals are barely audible until the second chorus–although the instrumentals are powerful and driving. The other is a studio rehearsal rescued from a scratchy more-or-less home recording, where (again) the vocals are garbled. Two recordings were made afterward by New Order (formed of the remnants of Joy Division) and sound like almost nothing else the group subsequently did. Having no written lyrics, they recreated them by playing the recordings that existed over and over again until they more or less figured them out. Ceremony, therefore, is a musical ruin. Joy Division was a ruin when it was recorded, and like sometimes happens with ruins, a new edifice was being built on its still stable foundations.

The sung portion of the song ends thusly:
Oh I’ll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows, it’s got to be this time,
Avenues all lined with trees,
Picture me and then you start watching,
Watching forever

Ruins watch us forever. I will be watching them regularly in this space.

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