history


Last winter, in the frozen aftermath of not-a-great-Christmas, I took a bus out to the eastern shore of England’s coastline, where to stand at the edge of a country and to look out across slate-grey sea is to stare at nothing but elemental blankness all the way to Scandinavia. Here, at the very limits of the land, huddled towns and villages can be sought out, and seek I did, venturing north and east out to Whitby. I wanted to see the sea, and I couldn’t recall ever having been on that stretch of the Yorkshire’s coastline in the depths of midwinter; why not brave the cold, have a sea-side jolly? Feel worse to feel better (or vice versa?).

Whitby and its seashore are distinctly separated, geologically speaking, from the hills and vales of the rest of Yorkshire by a broad swathe of upland moor, land unsuitable for much in the way of habitation or arable agriculture. Scattered sheep apart, the relative featurelessness of the January moorland made even more startlingly prominent a large military installation at Fylingdales, a complex of buildings established at the height of The Cold War as a listening, tracking, early-warning station, checking on the progress of those always-just-about-to-arrive intercontinental warheads. When I was younger, the shape this took on the landscape was a short neat line of bright white geodesic domes, each shielding some mechanical whirligig from Yorkshire’s elements; today these have been replaced by a vastly silent pyramoid slab of (what appears to be) plastic, inside of which I imagine sit rows of ear-muffed screen-lit sentinels frantically scanning the soundscape for the tell-tale aural contrails of doom. But the bus-propelled travellers pay the spooks no mind, and we bustle down the hill to the sea.

There’s much good-natured rib-poking cultural banter about British coastal resorts out-of-season: chuckle-chuckle, could there be a more depressing sight than some near-abandoned rain-lashed place like Mablethorpe or Yarmouth or Margate in November or January or March, this is what being dead must be like, eh? Well, Whitby’s not at all like that. Mock me at your peril, it says, as soon as you’re off the bus. I may look good in summer, oh yes, but winter’s really where I’m at. This freezing wind, furrowing lines into your face from off the North Sea, this ceaseless mizzle, this remorseless cold, we were made for each other. Because Whitby’s not just the seaside, it’s the past.

Whitby goes way back. The Romans, as the security of their island province faltered, built a chain of look-out stations along this stretch of coast, sheltering the soldiers that scanned the sea’s horizon for the smudge of a sail perhaps bearing raiders. The first permanent settlement came in the mid seventh century when an Abbey was founded on the clifftop, presided over by St Hilda and sitting with the sea to one side and the deep valley of the River Esk to another. This lasted two centuries until it was razed by Danes, and the buildings lay in ruins for two hundred more years after that, until they were refounded by Normans in the eleventh century. For the next half a millennium Whitby bumped along pretty well as a small-scale fishing village, scratching its living from the sea, with the monks up top on the cliff-edge taking care of the post-living business: symbiosis. Then, in the sixteenth century, things began to change for Whitby. Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of all monastic houses after his break from the Catholic church, and above the village the Abbey relapsed to ruin; in the ground below it, valuable deposits of alum (a kind of potassic mineral used, among other things, as a fixative in the dyeing process) were found in the surrounding region. Thereafter, Whitby gradually moved away from medieval subsistence ways, and ever closer to the commercial, industrial, and the global. Its port, though never large, saw coal shipped in, alum shipped out, and whaling fleets embark for the Artic from its expanded harbour. Its geology, riddled with fossils, also disgorged jet, the mineralised remains of a forest of Jurassic monkey-puzzle trees, which was burnished and tooled into thousands of sets of Victorian mourning jewellery. And in the dying hours of the nineteenth century, in the mind of Bram Stoker, Whitby also saw the arrival of the doomed Russian schooner Demeter, embarked from Varna but adrift in a terrible storm with all hands seemingly lost and the Captain’s corpse lashed to the wheel. Goths flock to Whitby, famously, at Hallowe’en for their annual festival, thanks to Dracula’s fictive emergence from the Demeter’s hold; in the sparsely-touristed darkening autumn months, in fact, they’re the lifeblood of the place.

Climbing the immense flight of stone steps to the clifftop, on which sits not only the ruins of the Abbey but the still-very-much-alive parish church of St. Mary’s, Whitby feels not only high but deep. Its pasts go way down, but they also intercut, teaching anyone with an eye for their strata and their settlements (not to mention their cultural geography) that whilst patterns can repeat or rhyme across centuries, on other occasions the unpredictable can greet you out of the soil, spinning historical trajectories in unexpected directions. But in the churchyard of St. Mary’s there’s something else besides, because standing at the cliff-edge looking down into the deep cut of the river valley to the town below and across to the line of pale grey where the sky and sea meet, one is surrounded not by memory and its remembered pasts, but by its absence and all the pasts it forgot. Blackly silent gravestones cluster round, some curt and stolid like the cliff in which they’re planted, others licked by scallops and curlicues; close up, inevitably, high on earth’s exposed edge with the sea and the sand and the salt battering and grinding into their pores, most are mute, blind, dead. Some have had the skin of their inscription peeled clean away by the elements; others are puckered, leaving patterns of tactile knurls and whorls where the epitaphs once were cut. And then, ambling toward the church’s squat tower and awed by the banality of oblivion, there comes the realisation that what one took for the entirety of the churchyard is but a corner of a much larger field of the dead, as the stones file around a corner and away, around the church and beyond. The traces we leave behind, and how they inevitably fall away, are pretty much the trading stock in which Whitby deals. The classic existential day-trip to the sea-side.

Looking back on the last thirty years of cumulative scholarly endeavour made by those who – in the broadest way imaginable – study something of the past (no small task, that), broad trends can be discerned; fashions, movements, consensuses even, crossing disciplinary boundaries and cohering in pockets of theory. One of these has been an interest in memory (the memorious turn?): the avowal of its importance in the past, a resurgence of interest the work of the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in particular (who died in Buchenwald), and a commitment to take seriously how and why social groups collectively remember their pasts. More recently, some scholars and thinkers forged forwards with the concept of trauma, rather than simply memory, as a more suitable metaphor for examining the past’s relationship to the present: memory’s revenants, scars unhealed, horrors returning in our shared lucid dreams. Wider society has not escaped memory’s touch either: the last two decades has seen an extraordinary flowering of museological memory sites, many of them centred upon sites of unimaginable horror and cruelty (their nature and impacts admirably surveyed in Memorial museums: the global rush to commemorate atrocities, a monograph by Paul Williams). These “atrocity museums” (in Susan Sontag’s phrase) are inevitable reactions to our collective recoil as we survey the appalling human wreckage of modernity, especially in the last century: a litany of genocide, war, repression, starvation, shattered lives curtailed in pain and fear. To consign them to loss for their always would seem to bind us, complicit, to their ending. Rescued by memory, we reach back and in doing so attempt to affirm survival and transmission, ours and theirs. Memory at its most humane demands of us that we consensually avow in our souls that whilst looking back, though we see so many lost and fallen, we will strive to force those losses to render significance, tell a story, bestow meaning on our present. Memorials bid us do this, hoping to presume upon the present that somehow we onlookers will ensure that the echoes of loss are never silent, never stilled, and always supply truths, whatever they may be. Yet we, staring into the past’s staggering red void and reaching back gamely for those echoes, allow our eyes to be averted from the matching void ahead. When we are as dead as they are now, who will reach out to us?

The broken memorial, that Ozymandian punchline, is culturally familiar to us in the contemporary world. It has a certain ubiquity, even, as a metonym for the futility of seeking permanence beyond the bonds of life. Yet this ought not to desensitize us from its truth, especially when we seem to find ourselves gripped by a cultural fervour not only to memorialise everything, but also to make everything memory. Ought, in the face of this current memorial urge, the balance be restored and voices be raised to speak instead on the part of oblivion? Yet it is hard indeed to countenance the idea that oblivion might need someone to speak up for it, especially when it will all-too-inevitably silence the growing murmuration for remembrance with eventual ease, winning, as it does, every time: in the long run, everything is forgotten. Maybe there ought to be room within our proliferating memorial schemes for the inevitability of echoes silenced, traces erased? Standing in the freezing churchyard, then, one wonders how memorials can articulate their own transience. Can we mark true and irrevocable loss through something other than the lacunae in which the once-present-now-absent stood? In memory’s contemporary articulations, certainly not. We will not ever be reminded to forget, or be told that we will: the strutting bombast would wish us think that impossible, and remembrance’s claim to triumph endorsed. My feet wet and cold, I begin the walk back down the hillside, realising that memorials really don’t go in much for self-reflexivity. More to the point, perhaps, they don’t really ever need to.

Whitby, of course, is so prodigiously cavalier with its carelessly strewn metaphors of memory’s demise that they collectively slide towards cliché: a crumbling clifftop fertile with fossils washed away into the sea, vampires hoping for dissolute immortality but destined for dust, even a ruined abbey for heaven’s sake. The banality of so many, so many weathered markers, stacks up; a teetering pile so high and deep and wide to blot out any attempt we might make to enact loss. To speak of memory is to speak of forgetting because to speak at all speaks of loss. In A Short History of Decay, Emil Cioran (himself a Transylvanian, and born there only a decade or so after his compatriot, taking the form of a large black dog, washed up beside a Whitby breakwater) writes “Everything that deals with eternity inevitably turns into a commonplace…The notion of universal futility – more dangerous than any scourge – has been debased into the obvious: everyone acknowledges it, and no-one behaves accordingly”. We only have to see one fallen monument, one faded, stippled, obliterated epitaph, to see them all.

A rather splendid collection of thoughts and images on architectural fantasies recently put me back in mind of Monsù Desiderio and his  array of startling paintings, some of which simply defy description. Desiderio is a non-person, a fusion through error or convenience of two separate painters, a riddle of mistaken nomenclature and pseudonymity that still continues to deflect our total comprehension. It seems that two artists from Metz, Didier Barra and François de Nomé, travelled and worked together, first maybe in Rome and later in Naples during the first quarter of the seventeenth century; together, they created a corpus of pictures that now bears the ‘Desiderio’ attribution. These paintings are usually described as fantastic vedute or nightmarish capricci, but they — at least within my limited knowledge — have absolutely no parallel in the western history of art. Desiderio’s images are, generally speaking, landscapes that are populated by monstrous half-ruined structures that seem to belong to a dream-time, and which dwarf into insignificance occasional scattered human figures who seem to pained, dazzled, or mute.

martyrdom-in-ruined-landscapeIt seems impossible to understand the buildings as ever in use, nor do adjacent buildings seem to belong to the same age or the same urban language; maybe they were never even finished. Similarly, the people who inhabit these blighted scenes of fantasy do not appear to belong inside them: they seem engulfed not only by an architectural landscape that is unheimlich and atemporal, but they are also adrift and isolated from each other. This sense of uchronia in the static and miniaturised stances these people adopt is heightened by the fact that they frequently seem to be enacting scenes from Biblical narrative: moments from which specificity and uniqueness has been drained to be replaced by the omnitemporal suffocation of somatic allegories being rehearsed eternally.  Desiderio achieves, to me at least, some kind of unparalleled aching malevolence in his articulation of the built landscape and its relationship to those who have become entrapped by it, and yet somehow, despite this, there remains some kind of exuberance in the depiction of these landscapes. The structures grow, tower, reach, spiral, collide, escape; in their forecourts we sleepwalk, trapped in dreams.

daniel-in-the-lions-den

The visual depiction of ruined landscapes becomes increasingly common during the three centuries or so between the Hypnerotomachia and Joseph Gandy, but throughout this period and its visual lexicon of architectural decay and dismemberment, there’s very little that’s quite as astonishing and arresting as Desiderio’s paintings of structures captured at the precise moment of their demolition. These stones don’t just fall; they fly apart, atoms fleeing from order, entropy exploding and rampant.

asa-of-judah

I have been fascinated by Desiderio since I first saw his work (and, inevitably, I am not alone); the kind of dreamed architecture found on his canvases, especially when it is captured at the instant of its dissolution, always seems endlessly haunting. A couple of years ago I spent two weeks in Malta, and despite a memorably enjoyable cavalcade of sun, rum, and underground chambers, the high point came when walking around the otherwise deserted Museum of Fine Arts in Valetta I saw from across the room two small Desiderio paintings (which seem to have  made their way to the Gallery from the Palazzo):  an utterly unexpected joy.

Desiderio painted two pictures with the theme of Augustine’s vision of the Trinity on the seashore, and to me at least they represent some his most striking juxtapositions of a monumental and fantastic architectural backdrop overshadowing the miniaturised rehearsal of allegory. This particular visionary encounter is a cautionary tale, popular in later medieval iconography, concerning the futility of human rational endeavour when attempting to comprehend that which is mystical and ineffable. Augustine of Hippo, it is said, walked by the shoreline one day and there came upon a child absorbed in activity at the water’s edge. Upon being asked by the bishop what he was doing, the child replied that he was attempting to transfer the entirety of the sea into a small hole he had scraped into the sand, spoonful by spoonful. Upon remarking on the pointless impossibility of such a task, Augustine received the stinging response from the child that he was as likely to empty the sea into a small pothole one spoon at a time as Augustine was to comprehend the mystery of trinitarian theology with his imperfect human rationality. The child, inevitably (as this is a vision and an anecdote at the same time), is an angel, and the medieval version of Augustine is doubtless forced to retreat back to library and anachronistically starting leafing through the Pseudo-Dionysius.

augustine-shore

The story is relatively well-known and well-used in modern religious culture; almost certainly, it has a strong appeal to the more traditional or evangelical strains of contemporary Christianity that position themselves as anti-science. If it is attributed at all, it is most usually connected to The Golden Legend, and yet it is completely absent from Voragine’s original text. In fact it makes its way into English vernacular religion through an addition of William Caxton himself, who notes at the very end of his 1483 English translation of the Legend that this particular ‘miracle’ has been ‘omitted’ from his exemplars, and his knowledge of it stems from the fact that he had seen it “painted on an altar of St. Austin at the black friars at Antwerp…”. An altarpiece roughly contemporary to Caxton’s visit to Antwerp, although in this case from Bruges, has been fragmentarily preserved, and features Augustine’s encounter with the child in the top right corner; its attribution is problematic. The story itself seems to date back to the mid-13th century, and seems to initially surface in the writings of Caesarius of Heisterbach, although the figure encountering the angel and being warned of the futility of rationalising too closely the mysteries of the divine, is anonymous and only later does the tradition settle on the figure of Augustine. The earliest extant depictions of the story seem to be either a predella of Fra Lippi, now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (which Ruda has argued could be as early as the 1430s), or left-hand side of a scene expounding the Trinity by Benozzo Gozzoli at San Gimigniano.

augstine-desiderioWhy Augustine? For historians of medieval religion, there are lots of good reasons concerning the varying approaches to the relationship between religion and learning taken by the different monastic and mendicant orders from the mid-13th century onwards. Augustine, then, is a suitable candidate to be the figure in a cautionary tale concerning the inability of the human mind to comprehend the divine. I would, however, like to connect it with something slightly different; the medieval tale has always been for me a very faint echo of another encounter Augustine had with the incomprehensible by the sea, this time a moment of unimpeachable canonicity in his life, on the shore at Utica. In City of God XV.9, Augustine relates that as he walked along the waterline (now long since silted over), he and others came across a molar tooth of such size that it was easily a hundred times bigger than a comparable human specimen. To Augustine, it was proof that those who walked the earth in centuries past were of great size and stature; to us, of course, he was looking at the tooth of a mastodon or a similar relic of a prehistoric landscape he would scarcely even begin to believe. The encounters of the ancients with fragments of an unimaginable prehistory (collected in an amazing book by Adrienne Mayor) might just remind us that landscapes of wonder don’t always have to be dreamed.