Grief and loss impact a life as a projectile. Often it is the impact which we notice the most; jarring, often spectacular, and difficult to look away from. More difficult to perceive is how our trajectories have been affected. Upon rebalancing our daily lives, more or less retaining a sense of equilibrium, we may never come to grasp how significant the change to our wider orbit.
The movement of celestial bodies, we often forget, occur in a complex three dimensional space. It is easier to imagine rings of movement occuring upon a plane of existence. Human lives also travel more complex paths than we are able to envision. For me, the impact of my father’s untimely death, ahead of a time of my life that was already poised as a pivotal transition, served to deflect the wide plane of my life’s orbit. Instead of traversing amongst others in what I imagined to be the normalized circumfrence of life, I found myself slipping below the plane of normalcy.
This perspective, traced out over my lengthening arc, has been forever tinted by our truncated relationship. His words and our time together continue to stand for me as ruins and echoes littered throughout the landscape. Within the dimensionality of our circuits I am beginning to see that traditional perspectives of “above” and “below” are interchangeable. Ruins may spark longing for the golden ages of times past, but they also, as incomplete potentialities, speak to a developing future. In this way they act as mile markers staked out upon the road ahead, shining in the dark, tiny lighthouses beckoning from the misty unknown future.
These thoughts intertwine with my current studies of art history. I am researching ruins and fragments as they appear in Romantic era visual arts. The example here, by Caspar David Friedrich, echoes on more than one level.
His work, however else it might have developed out of his natural inclinations for art making, would be forever sloughed off course by the death of his brother. An event on a frozen lake in which he also nearly drowned, but was saved, while his brother was not.
Many of Friedrich’s pieces relate what appears to be a struggle between structures and institutions which have been created by man, and a relentless overgrowth of wild nature. The struggle, really, isn’t depicted as it takes place. Rather, it is always depicted after the fact, once nature has reclaimed its spaces. Human structures in ruin provide support for the overgrowth, their former architectural duties having been long neglected.
Lives coexist in a shared space along divergent trajectories. In one view the human lives unfold presently, quietly, small figures unobtrusively going about their existences both comfortable within and oblivious to both the wild nature and the encompassing ruins which tower around them. The existence one leads in the current moment of perception, myopic to past and future, necessarily concerned with the previous and forthcoming footfall.
In another version of reality the past looms ever present, indeed framing, the happenings of the now. These figures, though blithe to the fragmented walls and broken arches, nevertheless exist within this windbreak. The moment unfolds according to a constructed history that beckons ever backwards. Shadows of what once were linger over each moment of the present.
My father was a man who knew how to listen. He appreciated a good story and would make himself open to receiving one when it presented itself. His words did not go before him, but always seemed to come after. His imagination slumbered with one eye open, waiting patiently for nourishment to arrive, ever ready.
His story was not kept behind locked doors, but he waited for an invitation in order to begin telling it. Without the right question he was not inclined to explain himself. About stories, however, he was often eager to share. To hear him offer up a bit of plot was to uncover a thread of excitement. It was by gathering these threads that I came to an understanding of who he was.
In the manner of detecting exotic particles, unable to observe the phenomenon itself, I learned what I could by watching how he interacted with stories.
The crumbling ruins of my past portray him seated in his recliner, book in hand, absorbed in ideas of the novel and fantastic. Fragments of him lay embedded in the soil around me, of a look or gesture, a secondary clue as to what his mind was engaged with. In many ways, while those elements remain as ruins of ruins in my landscape today, they were already ruins. I learned how to read these ruins even as they were being created, rubbing the patterns and documenting the dimensions of his life in order to build a model of the man even while he lived.
Returning to Friedrich’s depiction of ruins we see a third layer of existence beyond the realm of man. Each part of the image, man at present and man of history, are engulfed in the wild living and entangled reality of untamed growth. Nature itself writes and flows in a quantum state of superposition. Observe any detail of the work, a branch or leaf, and it can be made out in detail, static, unchanging. To focus here, however, is to lose focus there. Any point in the image which we are not currently paying attention to grows unchecked, flows, writhes, pushes its boundaries and moves towards its own realization.
The plants are everywhere and eternal. This growth exists equally in all times. To cut down the trees and raze the fields is not to eliminate them. It is merely an ebb in the tides of existence. Now the plants are dominant, now subdued, now expanding now cut back. The taproot, the eternal seed, exists outside of time, connecting our separate realities to an unchanging axis.
In the excavation I was doing on my father’s character I covered more territory than I understood. It wasn’t the content of his words that caught my memory. Indeed, though it rolls heavily off of my tongue to say it, I do not recall him in specifics. I recall him as a framework, perhaps, or a model, a flowchart. Place the input at one end and track the process by which one arrives at a result. To know him in this way was to understand something about what provided him meaning.
Crucially he demonstrated to me that there was meaning between us. My words, my thoughts, my imagination matter to him. The machine churned and the pistons fired and I had a sense of knowing beyond the face value of human communication. I could see the mechanism deriving fuel from content I had created, and it felt like touching the sun. Like something real.
I have always hung some significant portion of myself upon the hooks provided by others. My father has unconsciously left hooks for me upon his ruins. Rather than mourn the structures that once existed, I am coming to realize that they are still able to serve a purpose in my noon-time journey. Whether that be shelter from the barren landscape, or sun-dial markers upon which to orient myself, these ruins maintain their presence.
For romantic painters, writers, musicians and thinkers of the time period, ruins could no only exist in the past and the present. Melancholy crucially combines longing for the past with a desire for the future. To see something that once was is a stark depiction of change. Layered history necessarily leaves open an undefined future state.
To restore a ruin is not to resurrect it. Each stone may sit where it used to reside in relation to all of the others, but that does not mean that they retain a similar relationship to us. A building is only as meaningful as our collective understanding. Place the disparate branches and leaves of a fallen tree back in relation to one another and there will not suddenly be a return to form. No animating faculty continues as it once did, not in the same pattern.
A study in ruins as symbols of greatness reveals the relationships that we once had with place and space. To understand the function of a ruin as it was, and how it came to be what it is now, is to understand the continuity of activity which provides it with unique energy. Like the wild growth all around, which follows an internal unfolding, so may we place the fragments which surround is in relation to the future.
I hear stories now as my father heard them. I too slumber with one eye open for the things which my curiosity seeks to entrap. My father’s model overlays like augmented reality across my vision.
Above and below the nominal plane of existence I see these fragments and ruins intersecting our space. They carry me forward from within, and stake safe passage on the path ahead of me. I triangulate my position by looking simultaneously backwards and forwards from these points to map out a narrative which encompasses the life he lived and the paths he may have taken if given the chance. His loss bound me to these ruins, perhaps less like a projectile and more like a hewing together of sympathetic trajectories. Had he continued to live it would have been simple to draw a distinction between the path he charted and my own. Since that is not the case, to chart his future journeys and separate them from the paths that I walk will always be impossible. I do know that without these milestones and lights in the fog, my path forward would not have been possible in the same what that is has been.