“The struggle of man against power,” said the Czech writer Milan Kundera, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” But the drive for power springs from man’s inability to accept impermanence. This is part of “the propaganda of the self.” We construct tombstones, cairns, pyramids to defy time, knowing full well that they are doomed to crumble. All monuments collapse under the weight of futility. All regimes deny this fact. The results are inevitably laughable.
Nowhere is this truer than Rome, my second home. Cat ladies feed strays amid the Forum’s broken columns. A hag operates a beauty parlor inside the Arch of Gallienus. Prostitutes fellate clients beneath Nero’s Aqueduct. Sponsors project ads on the Coliseum. Antiquity is powerless against the cunning of appetite. Foragers pick capers on the Aurelian Wall between Porta San Lorenzo and the Ministry of Aeronautics. Beside the Colossus of Constantine, vendors sell supplì: fried rice balls stuffed with mincemeat, tomato sauce, and mozzarella. Customers raise a single finger and imitate the emperor’s shattered hand.
Left alone, fragments can be beautiful. Giovanni Piranesi, the eighteenth-century artist, celebrated Rome’s ruins in a series of breathtaking etchings. He wed decay and design, chaos and order, transience and endurance. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalists wanted more. Revolutionaries such as Giuseppe Mazzini and poets such as Giosuè Carducci were convinced that they could rescue the shards of the past from the bulldozer of foreign oppression and the pile-driver of the Industrial Revolution. Like Amphion, they would sing the stones into place and form an Eternal City of the imagination. Benito Mussolini exploited this cult of antiquity. Palazzo Braschi, home of the Museo di Roma, would become the Fascist Party’s headquarters.
All dictatorships rely on ambitious restoration and preservation projects. While planning the 1936 Summer Olympics, Albert Speer designed a building that would leave behind aesthetically pleasing ruins, if it eventually collapsed. These ruins, he claimed, would last far longer than the original structure, without any subsequent maintenance. Speer called his concept Ruinenwert (Ruin Value), but the idea actually dates back to Goethe’s Italian Journey. German Romanticism valued classical ruins. Nazism ruined classical values. Posing as a Master Builder, Hitler reduced Europe to rubble. After götterdämmerung, a Berlin cabaret comic joked: “Even the ruins have been ruined.”
The catastrophe of World War Two birthed the postmodern world, a post-apocalyptic culture in which all memory fragments and all words fail. Nothing remains but the shimmering play of colored lights on a vista of shattered glass. Collectively suffering from posttraumatic stress condition, we seem incapable of rebuilding our world, caught between frenetic denial and paralyzing despair. How can we value the ruins of our civilization when we continue to ruin its values?
Americans respond to this crisis by turning the past into a theme park and by investing their energy in the post-human future. They imagine building a chain of Holiday Inns on Mars or downloading their brains onto a computer. Determined to preserve a mythical innocence at all cost, they turn their back on an appalling record of slavery, genocide, war, and economic and ecological carnage. By necessity, therefore, they denigrate and bulldoze their ruins, calling this destruction “urban renewal.”
Europeans, both victims and perpetrators of centuries of bloodshed, know this strategy is self-defeating. They know that they will never recover from history unless they acknowledge and atone for past atrocities. But they also have learned, at an appalling cost, that fixating on guilt and horror turns life into a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Fortunately, their genius for ironic endurance best expresses itself through surreal humor.