Ruins in Motion: My Essay for the 2017-2018 Seagull Books Catalogue

Every year Naveen Kishore and the talented staff at Seagull Books craft and publish a catalogue filled with original pieces of literature, art and translations from around the world.  This year they have truly outdone themselves.  Each of the 1500 catalogues has an different and individual cover.  I have included some photos of my copy, Naveen’s provocation for this publication and my response which is included in the catalogue.

Naveen’s Provocation:

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.

A twilight turned yellow.

My Response:

Ruins. From the Latin noun Ruina—meaning a forward, uncontrollable movement, a headlong rush; a headlong fall, a downward plunge; a collapse. Derived from the Latin verb ruo—to move swiftly, to hurry on. Ruins are in motion, moving forward, taking on new shapes and forms. The story of Dido and Aeneas in Vergil’s Aeneid comes to mind as I think about ruins in motion.

Dido and Aeneas are both refugees—Latin profugus, to have a forward flight, also a word in motion— attempting to escape the ruins of their respective cities and their former lives. My favorite character in Vergil’s Aeneid, even going as far back as my first attempt at translation of this epic in high school, has always been Dido. The love of her life, her husband Sychaeus, was murdered by her brother Pygmalion in order to steal Sychaeus’s fortune. Pygmalion’s greed and violence forces Dido to flee Tyre and abandon her former, happy life. Similar to the boatloads of homeless Syrians we see today also escaping the Levant, Dido travels across the Mediterranean to the shores of North Africa where she attempts to build a new home, a new kingdom in Carthage.

In the midst of trying to put her life and her city back together Aeneas, a refuge himself from Troy, lands on her shores after his fleet encounters a violent storm at sea. Interestingly, Vergil describes this storm as caeli ruina, “the ruin of the sky.” The poet’s first mention of ruina comes at the very moment when fate drives Aeneas towards Dido and the Carthaginian shores. But we know that as soon as the curtain opens on this epic, that the fate of Dido is not a happy one; her encounter with Aeneas, though at first passionate and mutual, will be the source of her final and tragic ruin. Vergil poignantly, repeatedly and sympathetically calls Dido infelix, “unlucky.”

At first, Dido’s story shows us that ruins can be a good thing, an excuse or an impetus for a new start. When Aeneas arrives on the shores of Carthage he witnesses a new city being built under the careful guidance of Dido. Vergil is a master at juxtaposing` the old and the new, destruction and rebuilding, ruins and rebirth. Aeneas eagerly surveys the building of Dido’s new city—the harbor, walls, a theater and a temple are all works in progress that draw the Trojan’s amazement and wonder. Vergil compares the workers, the builders of this city to a hive of bees, filling the cells of their hives with honey and getting the necessary materials for their work. Fervent opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella. “Their work glows; the fragrant honey is scented with thyme.” This is Dido’s second chance, her spring, her twilight. Or is it?

Amidst the construction of her new city, Vergil inserts an opposing image of ruins in the form of a fresco in the temple at Carthage. As Aeneas tours this temple he views some of the most horrific scenes from the fall of Troy: the allotment of the Trojan women, the body of dead Hector being dragged around the walls by Achilles and the murder of Priam in the midst of his own palace. Aeneas weeps openly at the sight of these reminders of his ruined city.

Dido, the very symbol of these opposing themes—ruins and rebuilding– is standing at the center of this temple and it is significant that this is the first place where she encounters Aeneas. The frescoes of Troy become not only a reminder of the ruins Aeneas has fled, but they also serve as a foreshadowing of the destruction that Dido will inevitably suffer as a result of her encounter with Aeneas. Ruins in the Aeneid are always in motion.

In her kindness, compassion and empathy Dido opens up her home as a place of solace. She and Aeneas share the miserable fate of refugees escaping ruins and searching for a better place to put back together their lives: Non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco. (Not ignorant myself of misfortune, I know how to help those who are also miserable.) Dido runs to help Aeneas—the verb succurrere in Latin literally translates as “running to help”— thereby setting her ruin in motion; her expeditious offer of succor is paid for with her destruction. Aeneas and Dido engage in a physical relationship and settle into a “marriage” of sorts that is fittingly blessed by the goddess of marriage, Juno, and the goddess of love, Venus.

Jupiter, however, the Paterfamilias of the universe and the god who represents fate sends an urgent reminder to Aeneas of his mission to found and build a new Troy. And so Aeneas readies his men and his fleet to leave Carthange and set sail for Italy which act of utter abandonment has a devastating effect on Dido. Vergil’s description of Aeneas flight from Troy is striking; he hurries the preparations for his journey like a man on fire: Idem omnes simul ardor habet; rapiuntque ruuntque: /Litora deseruere; latet sub classibus aequor. (The same fervor grabbed hold of all the men at the same time; they rushed and they carried themselves away, and they deserted the shores; the sea lie hidden under so many ships setting sail.)As Aeneas is rushing away (ruunt, verb form of ruina) from Carthage, Dido sits atop her own funeral pyre, plunging herself headlong into Aeneas’s sword and into her final destruction.

As early as Book I, Vergil alludes to the difficulty of founding a new city in the wake of the utter destruction of Troy: tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem (It was such a monumental task to found Roman.) Molis here is another building word in Latin also meaning “rocks, a pile of materials.” Troy had to fall, many hardships had to be suffered and Dido had to be left behind and abandoned in order for Rome to be built; the ruins of Troy rise again in the form of the greatness and splendor of Rome.

Vergil’s message not only applies to the ruins from which the grandeur of Rome came about, but also to the circumstances under which human life and fate operate. Something bigger and grander and stronger have the potential to emerge out of the ruins that befall us in life; and Vergil reminds us that, yes, there have to be sacrifices, ruina (ruins) like the death of Dido, that are strewn along the roads that lead to something better.

Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed has also written a beautiful and profound response:

A Contribution to Seagull Books’s Annual Catalogue

Joe from Roughghosts has written a deeply personal and poetic response:

The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

12 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction, Seagull Books

12 responses to “Ruins in Motion: My Essay for the 2017-2018 Seagull Books Catalogue

  1. Your piece is wonderful Melissa. I love how you are able to draw from your love of classical Greek and Latin literature and pull it into contemporary, personal interpretations. I might have stayed longer in Classics with this type of inspiration many long years ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A beautiful essay on Dido and Aeneas and the theme of ruin. I loved reading the Latin you included so meaningfully. The atmosphere of that story is unmistakable and you evoke it, layer upon layer. I highly recommend the performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas opera, starring Maria Ewing and Karl Raymond. It’s available on DVD and CD. It’s in English but the music and acting are great.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really enjoyed your piece. The way you delve into etymology reminds me of how useful (and interesting) I’ve found my knowledge of Latin all my life, and especially as an English teacher – all of that is now no longer available to most students here… And the Vergil quotations I enjoyed too: thanks for reminding me I haven’t forgotten everything from over 40 years ago!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful – I love the way you draw on your classical training and knowledge. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve just seen Tony Messenger’s post about this and I was clueless.
    Now I see yours and I understand that I don’t understand what a provocation is. At least not in this context.
    Can you help me?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Carpe Librum! or, in which I fear for the foundations… | Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

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