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Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Way of All Flesh

Midas Dekker's book, The Way of All Flesh: The Romance of Ruins, is a meditation on life and decay. It covers an astounding array of topics without really forming an hypothesis. Nonetheless, it is an interesting and thought-provoking read that is at times also uncomfortable, such as when there are pictures of preserved dead babies.

The most pertinent chapter to our studies is chapter 2: Romantic Ruins. Dekkers writes that he understands the need to restore buildings, but also wishes that somewhere there should also be places where buildings, locomotives, and animal carcasses are free to "truly rest in peace", decomposing or falling apart without interference (p.28) Regarding trains, he writes that in Netherlands (his home)
"Nothing, ever, anywhere, can die a natural death there anymore. Still warm from their fianl fun, old locomotives are put out to pasture according a to a schedule. Nuts and bolts are collected as if they were evidence for a murder trial and then polished to become pieces de resistance in those mausoleums known as railway museums. There the locomotives stand, as unauthentic as can be, too new to be old, yet too old to be new - sterilized, social misfits. Somewhere, beneath all those layers of varnish, is supposed to be the real locomotive, but you certainly can't see it. How can such an anomaly ever evoke anything in anyone? As readily as I can imagine the engine driver standing in such a Bolivian wreck or hear the fire roaring on the grate or smell the stokers' sweat, it is difficult for me in railway museums to envisage anything but the men restoring it. The links with the past have been polished out of existence."(28-29)
Dekkers gives a history of ruins and ruin fascination, a story that does not require rehashing for readers of this blog. But he brings in a wide array of analogies that shed light on our discussion. He talks about spoiled food, old men, and bacteria. He elaborates on the forces of nature that cause ruins, in a way that is reminiscent of Simmel but with a wildly different tone. In the end he arrives at a similar plea to that which we have made for the preservation of ruins:

"Give us back our ruins! Throw a few crumbs to the fungi and the beetles - a little villa here, a little warehouse there, an abandoned waterworks site over there - something the creatures can really get their teeth into. A waste of old buildings? It doesn't have to be old buildings; nature loves new buildings too. Just make a few holes in the gutters or rain pipes and within no time they'll be the ideal mouthful, thanks to the sour urine of moisture-loving micro-organisms. As well as a Monuments List of old buildings earmarked for restoration, there should be a Ruins List of new buildings earmarked for ruin. I have a few suggestions, if anyone's interested."(p. 57)
A ruins list - what a lovely idea!

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