The Ruins of Ankor Wat
Another look at the Aesthetics of Ruins, at an-other ruin, an Other ruin, using philosophical concepts of Western origin, applied mutatis mutandis to Eastern ruins (one of the most famous and evocative) the ruins of Ankor Wat. And including Eastern history and religion (as all translations into another culture involve its inescapable connotations, its history and religion… in medias res).
In the inexorable winding and thickening of these all-embracing roots, in an embrace become a stranglehold, in the cold embrace of a immense snake, whose coils, once enveloping, now begin to constrict; a vast snake, whose sinuous coils will crush a culture, divide its stones and topple them… or hold the remains in its embrace in an act of ironic preservation - precisely as digestion preserves the indigestible (leaving behind only the stones). In this place of tumbled edifices and twisting roots. What do we see? A mocking reminder to others, a vaunting of the power of the destroyer in the face of a culture: in the place of the culture that would have vaunted its power, in any culture that would vaunt its power; its claim to everlasting fame… now reduced to ruins.
A vaunting of the power of the destroyer in the face of all culture.
(First look… first impression). If the traditional reading usually given too the prospect of ruins applies, then we have the revenge of Nature against an arrogant Culture, of time against that which would dare to be permanent, of the Heavens against worldly success of any kind (Nature and the Heavens may be read as interchangeable here, indicating an universal exterior, as in traditional Chinese culture where the translation of the ‘tian’/天 character includes both Nature and Heaven and their attendant, and overlapping, meanings – in modern Chinese usage the word ‘tian’ is restricted to Heaven). The traditional, general, so, dominant reading; the first to arrive, the last to go; a meditation on first and last things – and on what it is that … lasts. So if the meaning of ruin, of the scene of ruin, begins with a melancholic, even nostalgic, meditation upon the fate of a particular past civilization; then the larger function of the ruin seems to lie in the putting of ‘us’, mere mortals, in our place. So functioning as a kind of momento mori, usually represented in the history of Western art by a human skull, another less subtle reminder of our supposed debt to the heavens, or to the religion, be it sacred or secular, that would interpose itself onto this awaiting space of interpretation, in effect claiming the last word… so transforming the ruin into an act of rhetoric… Everything must pass… (but the remains, of what remains, and how… to support these meanings, may themselves ask: who is it who claims the meta-view… the last word?). Mutabilitie. ‘Everything passes’, but something, someone, nevertheless remains to say this… to lay claim to this position of the one who knows: we do, so finding in the ruin a convenient excuse for our superiority (an identity proposition of a colossal order, matching in everyway the supposed arrogance of the culture mocked by its ruins; as in Shelley’s poem, ‘Ozymandias’ where the mocker is mocked, as the table are turned, as they may be again, turned upon us… in turn). Old cultures, indeed all cultures, are as fallen in the light of the eternal (or whatever would fill its space… whatever we nominate to fill this space). The aesthetics of ruins would include the joy, indeed Schadenfreude, of the survivor (the surviving, or inheriting culture) as well as the prompt to consider all things temporal as temporary, to take the long view, including that of our culture’s point of view on history as well as ourselves as occupying our historical position for a brief moment in time (this latter triggering of a chain of meanings, which in the past would have been overwhelmingly religious, but now include ideology and history and other variations on ‘last things’).
(Second look… a ‘second meaning’). The preceding constitutes the
received view the dominant reading: but the reverse or reactive reading is also
possible. What Nature destroys when it destroys (a) culture is also the heavens
(the heavens as imagined by that culture, its Heaven). The religion which
inspired the building of the ruins, the religion of the civilization that was
the builder of the ruins, of that which became ruined… itself has been
de-legitimised, deposed from the apex of a world view (‘Heaven’ is after all
only a particular cultural reading of the Eternal or ‘outside of time’ as
ultimate foundation; all cultures have some version of this… they must after
all be founded on something…). On this reading something deeper has returned to
reclaim its own, the last word, the hand of destruction, the revenge of a forgotten
(or pace Freud, ‘repressed’) substratum, where something that had previously
lain below the surface, the thin surface veneer of our civilization, had
finally re-awakened to claim its own (a Romantic reading, D. H. Lawrence would
have cleaved to this stage of interpretation). Nature, the avenger, here may be
seen as either Good or Evil (or as Nietzsche would have it, as beyond such…).
The return of the Good, as overturning the rule of the False; or the irruption
of the Evil that the religion would have held in check, but finally failed. On
this reading the religion proved to be a false one, a false friend, a source of
unreliable father figures, gurus who bluffed us all in their claims to absolute
knowledge, offering absolute truths that were but the latest round of
illusions, the last word in fashion – to be dispelled by the arrival of one of
Nature’s catastrophes (acting as kind of ‘reality principle’). Good from the
point of view of a cleansing of the culture in question (a sort of
Nature no longer the Nature Tamed, or The Garden, or our agricultural modifications as exemplified by the fantasy (Myth) of Pastoral. Nature ‘red in tooth and claw’; Absolute Other to our puny efforts at civilization building.
Evil may have returned to take apart the attempts of the Good to build a culture; as entropy returns to eat away at order… and in the end we lack the energy (or the will) to replace the work of the destroyer, our rituals of celebration and continuance or renewal, no longer sufficient to counter the sandpaper that with the wind wears away the hardest granite, or the acid that with the water eats away at our structures physical and social, institutional and mental - the tiny roots that will crack open the stones of our foundations… Evil as the effect of time as chaos on our putative order… Time as not on our side. Time as evil. The oldest enemy.
Nature as Absolute Other… An absolute Otherness also found residing within us. And now it is Matter that is radically evil, refiguring, and denied by our language and culture, home of our consciousness, but supported, fatally by matter, by our nature - by a Nature over which we have no final control. Supported by a matter that finally fails them or overwhelms them, or just moves on, obeying its own laws; as the sign itself is made from matter which then turns against itself, turns against the self as painted onto it, fashioned from it, but not essentially of it - dispensable. Nature as Evil, as Human Nature is evil; ourselves as always already irrevocably lost, beyond and without any possibility of redemption.
Matter to whom we do not matter: insofar as ‘we’ are not matter, so we matter not. Materialism as the frightened response or partial awareness of this fact (‘Idealism’ as the denial of this fact). A worship of what frightens us. Devil worship. Requiring sacrifice, palliative, recognizing its inimicality, and offering a part in place of the whole, in the hope that the whole would be left alone, for a while at least… till the next time…
And what fools we would be to think that we could take this side, mimetic last hope, ‘identification with the aggressor’ – could ride the Tiger.
Whence the historical prevalence of ritual, whose repetition is our bulwark against entropy, physical and social, of identity and community, which itself resorts too easily to destruction, to sacrifice, in its bid to appease tbe destroyer.
(And so we take a last look… found an Other reading). Last glimpse of ourselves before we vanish, last things indeed, although it is the Thing that remains, is the remains, the matter that remains and which we call ruins – blaming the culture before, or human nature from the point of view of God/gods, who are on our side. We may choose to be on their side, and so be ‘saved’. But who may not be conscious of us, be incapable of being conscious of us. For if it were, it would be a consciousness of, a consciousness full of, sardonic irony. In the understanding of these matters (of Matter) we are left in the act of attempting understanding, for understanding is human, and we are talking of what is beyond…or before, what is human. We are left, thrown back on our meager resources, with personification (genius loci, the spirit of the place, or prosopopoiea, the trope of the evocation or the lost, absent, abstract or dead) or … projecting ourselves onto that which is prior to ourselves… Desperate remedy. Poverty of means indeed. The universe conceived as a child’s mirror. The face which we find everywhere. Our face. The Mask in the Mirror. For risk that we might glimpse what lies concealed behind the mask, the Face of the Other. What lies behind. The true face of Nature, of Matter, of…Things.
…‘things-in-themselves’ indeed (Kant, looking out, immediately looks back in).
(That which we glimpse in ruins, in the rock faces of sacred sites, mountains and their ‘face’ - and in the use of stone in the garden, Nature tamed… putatively glimpsed in the formless un-mimetic, resistance of stones to mimetic re-appropriation, such stones as collected and placed in gardens like a talisman, or a ritual inoculation, tamed by their surroundings, but still uncanny in their resistance to resemblance, always suggesting … something else… pointing… somewhere else).
Something, before, or prior…
(Third, or inward, look, or gaze… a step beyond dominant and reactive… and also beyond the projection outwards of the demons of the Self onto the Other).
And so perhaps last things are but the shadows of first things… marking the place where… Do not point up (or out)... but (‘down’) and in… So it is that the effect, the evil, points back to something deeper, the cause, something apparently… primary. Primeval. Came first. Take priority. And we note immediately that this position, this reading (this claim to priority), is itself a rhetorical trope, or the return to origins as source of Truth, and of this Truth (only provided that it maintains its capital ‘T’, its claim to eternity) as good, even if at first sight ‘evil’, now become good, in an inversion of values as first good, of the ‘prior’ reading, of the first time as ‘authentic’, ‘un-alienated’, etc… as explaining ‘everything’. And so as the Good, from which we have fallen, the root (sic) of the myth of the Fall (…or conversely, the Evil from which we have been rescued by our pantheons of gods, gurus and immortals).
As with the onion game, layer after layer of ‘false’ or ‘inessential’ matter is removed to get to the kernel or ‘essence’, where ‘Truth’ awaits… Primeval. Good or Evil. Or beyond both. Or if absence only, the ultimate step, beyond: Nirvana (this step had already been anticipated and founds a sect in Buddhism, Chan/Zen, as it does in Western philosophy, often described as European Nihilism). Yet what does remain, if we eschew the invitation to metaphysics, the return of religion under any guise that is offered here (whether of the worship of Good, or of other’s good, the Other Good, of Evil)? If pragmatists accept the given (order and religion) as the illusion that is first amongst many, the empiricist refuses all only to let in the universals of science and a quantitative (universal) measure or ground of exchange. Yet is there another thing that we may learn, from our descent into the historical maelstrom of destruction that the roots of Ankor Wat suggest to us as they wrap themselves around our minds and imaginations, as they first wrapped, then engulfed the stones of Ankor Wat? The ruins of Ankor Wat. Do we allow them too to ruin our beliefs, and is this not, is this evil not… a good - a liberation from illusion?
Or might we find that in the force we feel when faced with their aspect, in this vision of an ancient conflict, the conflict of destruction and preservation, ceaseless, all-encompassing (itself re-figured in the carvings on the stones of Ankor Wat, in the images of Shiva, Hindu god or avatar of destruction, of the many armed, dancing Natraj, the dance of destruction, as the walls of medieval cathedrals in the West show the dance of the great leveler, the Dance of Death). Does not this continuance not suggest to us that these feelings, this omni-present rhetoric, has a source deeper even than the forces we see… than what we can see… for they are not external, but internal; and they have accompanied us in our ascent from out of the forest although at times (oft-times if sometimes seems) we lurch back, when ‘desperation takes hold’, and the rationalist goods and their casting as universals (gods) no longer can assuage the wounds of economic or other (existential) pain and suffering. What is there beneath religion? ‘Religion without religion’, the desire that religions built upon, the desire for religion? Religious desire (lets keep this term for the moment) underpins the variety of cultural manifestations we witness. Or we may suggest a religious organ (part nature, part nurture like our recognition organ of identity and community evolved from our interaction with others, from mOther on, psychological, so real… because part of our hardware). The desire for religion, for that which functions as such, must be prior to religion, supporting it, forming it, so providing the fertile ground for its flowering. A flowering that includes much of the very best of human culture.
The symbolism of the roots and trunks that engulf the temple stones (as their leaves blot out the stars) directs us no longer upwards (the proliferation of branches and leaves have taken care of that option) but down to our very selves. So the desire for externals, all outsides, the Outside, Eternity, universals, all manner of permanances, mysterious, because unreal; because unreal so mysterious, always making us a little… superstitious (even logic, like all second order languages, all claims to universality, ‘deep structures’, of lasting meanings ‘beyond history’, ‘above particularity’ etc., all that claims to be above temporal restriction, so failing at the gate of reality, unconditionally particular). In this light science and reason can also function as religions (needless to say ideologies, pretending scientificity, have always done so). Once we subtract the functionalist’s (good) explanation of religion as representing society in its cohesive aspect, the (fictive, but effective) glue that sutures its participants and ensures the survival of the group, its reproduction … is there not a propensity that prefigured this adaptation (as it then prefigured later imperial, feudal adaptations)? And even if we posit this explanation as originary, nevertheless, the effect, the formation, the propensity, is left, washed up in the high tide as the water of necessity subsides (and given the time scales involved, psychological adaptation could well have become generic… Lamarkianism need not be implied by a genetic, evolutionary aspect, as with the evolution of the brain through social cooperation and a high level of attrition, so the cohesion provided by religion may have tilted the odds to survival). Or perhaps it was always there, as a foundation awaits the structure that arises upon it, in our animal reaction to Nature’s Sublime, to the experience of terror, to the manumission of fear (so evolved from our reaction to incomprehensible or terrifying facts or truths…). As repeated in our vision of the ruins of Ankor Wat. Undecidable. Ever present.
(And here I would like to note the use of the brain scanner, of neurology, or a psychology based upon such, as the science that is the proper field for the search for the ‘organ of religious desire’ type questions, its ‘ontology’; our concern is with our experience of this desire and its persistence.)
After religion remains, the desire for religion, or something like it… For the certainties we have just mentioned, as for the magic that may redeem reality and the value of things that are so hard to find in many modern ideologies, not least modern Rationalisms, have pushed many an unbeliever into New Ageism or to other syncretic religious movements - popular superstition systematized, globalised. Of course the return to a vicious sectarian fundamentalism in all religions has its call in this crisis of disbelief and the desire for something (as opposed to ‘Nothing’… only Buddhist and Hindu philosophers, or the mystics of other religions -usually regarded and often burnt as heretics- can do this, perhaps existentialist philosophers too). But for most the positive draws – almost regardless of its content. Only requiring an Enemy, Other, and a sacrificial politics, sacrificial of self and of other, together with all the usual paraphernalia of first and last things (so giving the ‘true believer’ the ease of having the last word) super-added onto a feudal or tribal atavism regarding traditional roles, restrictions and hierarchies.
(As those fearing violence must adopt or copy the ways of those who are violent, who they fear… yet who they become…)
So the taming, or appropriating of the desire for religion (where rationalist beliefs have failed) is something we need: both as a self-defense against its appropriation by would be Leaders and Followers, the Good Sheppards of mass murder or mass suicide, and their Sheep. And as the glad reception of a gift we all have, a disposition to make sacred, to value, to dispose of values (and which we, since the Romantics, ground in the Cult of Art or, more recently, and perhaps more urgently, in the culmination of a long history of genius loci, ground in the Cult of the Environment). If the commodity (the mass market) has gone part of the way, together with mass entertainment to cool this desire, to assuage its enthusiasms, neutralising it for most intents and purposes – yet today’s other identity props, nationalism and other forms of communitarianism, still return with economic and political (legitimation) crisis. This latter ‘crisis of Postmodernity’ perhaps approximating to the cause of the ‘return to religion’ of our recent decades (not that the putative substitutes were not ‘religions’ - otherwise how would they have attracted the religious…). Economic crisis, to which our system is endemically prone, undoes the work of the commodity (always incomplete) in defusing and deflecting the desires that feed into other more dangerous forms of identity assertion and maintenance. We might think well on how we would, otherwise, ground them. Or (to change metaphors) re-direct their flow, as we channel the flow of rivers that threaten to overflow their banks… to avoid another Flood.
So it is perhaps the ‘desire for religion’ that offers us our gift of value giving, as well as of our compromise with the Other; our frightened mimetic reaction to our fear of the Other, at once imitating and placing upon a pedestal. So resolved in part by our creative decoration of it, the bestowal of a veneer of sacrality - the sense of the Sublime. In life as in Art, a making Beautiful of that which is also frightening, inimical and in excess of our scale of things… (as the Sublime is never simply overawing or exponential, breathtaking or mysterious, supernatural or frightening, but also includes a moment of pleasure and even of positive admiration – indeed it is important to note that the negatives alone do not constitute a sense of the Sublime - this is not pain, it is pleasure, even if, at times it would seem, a little masochistic). Creativity, our human uniqueness which constantly reinvents our culture (a uniqueness even over-and-above language, which we now know animals too share) even if a ‘buzz’ word to be sure, may of course, also be creative of evil… Recreating Order may be Beautiful (we recognize ourselves as worthy servants of the gods): creating the Sublime makes us feel as if gods (so intoxicated by power to incite Chaos we forget the return to Order than accompanies, or better, follows, all Sublime moments…).
Deliberately taking as sacred the best of manners and the civilised values necessary for a decent urban life (the values we would once have designated ‘universal’, but now would not dare, knowing that this act of ‘putting outside’ is done at the behest of a belief system which rests on, rather than founds the very place of support, may however be consciously, even rationally, pragmatically chosen - and so valued to provide a similar effect). The deployment of creative value-giving as exemplified in re-creating livable urban and rural landscapes and ‘saving the environment’, including the beautifying of cities, the designing of attractive architecture. Re-invigourating the challenge to build Heaven on Earth: as opposed to the endlessly deferred Utopia of the social ideologies with their concomitant programs of extermination, their tell-tale use of the purge (the ‘witch-hunt’) and continuation of the pogrom (the nomination of the ’scapegoat’) as means of ‘purification’ and ‘re-birth’ – in actuality a desperate diversion of the desires of ‘the masses’ for the Good Life on to destructive paths where fear forbids resistance.
Offering instead the compromise of tamed Nature here and now… The Garden which configures our love of parks and gardens, allotments and patios, and including even the potted plant on the window sill. Once again to make the World into a Garden. A garden or park in which there lies a ruin…
The Ruins of Ankor Wat
(The ruins that anchor what?)
The roots of Ankor Wat…
Peter Nesteruk, 2014