share


Standing at the Ruins

1. SAND AND SNOW

 

He is a warrior prince. He hunts in the deserts of central Arabia. He drinks and carouses with his companions, and pursues scandalous love affairs. When his father banishes him for his bad behaviour, he becomes even more reckless, an outlaw. At the news of his father’s death, he shrugs, he goes on playing backgammon. Afterwards, however, he gets riotously drunk and embarks on a campaign of vengeance that will absorb the remainder of his short life. He is the greatest poet of his age. According to legend, he is slain by a treacherous gift from the Emperor Justinian: a poisoned robe.

 

He is Imru al-Qays, the Man of Misfortune, the Wandering King. He composes a stunning poem, known as his Muallaqa, or ‘Hanging Ode’, one of a handful of pre-Islamic poems so precious they were said to have been inscribed in gold and hung on the walls of the Kaaba. Luminous language, imperishable lines. The poem’s opening phrase, Qifa nabki – ‘Stop, let us weep’ – signals a traditional scene, in which the poet surveys the ruins of his beloved’s campsite. This trope was already conventional in the poet’s time, produced by a nomadic Bedouin culture: the common experience of coming across the traces of an abandoned camp became, for poets, an occasion for mourning the loss of a real or imagined woman. With Imru al-Qays, the old theme finds its most powerful and lasting expression, so that his Muallaqa becomes its exemplar. Qifa nabki. Stop, let us weep. A call to pause, to dismount, to come down to earth, to face the signs of destruction and loss, and to weep in torrents. In Arabic poetics, this classical motif is known as al-waqf ala al-atlal: ‘standing at the ruins’.

 

Stop, let us weep for the memory of a lover and a home, at the edge of the twisting sands between al-Dakhul and Hawmal, between Tudih and al-Miqrat. The traces have not yet been erased by the weaving of the north and south winds.

 

In the courtyards and enclosures you can see the dung of gazelles scattered like peppercorns.

 

On the day of separation – the day her people departed – I wept among the acacias as if cutting bitter apples. My friends stopped their camels near me, saying, ‘Don’t die of grief! Control yourself!’ But my only cure is a rush of tears.

 

To stand at the ruins is to succumb to memory. It is to be pierced, undone. The poet calls on his friends to stop and weep with him, for the sight of the deserted campsite reminds him of the original separation, when his beloved rode away with her people. The traces in the sand evoke trauma, which is a form of time travel. The past cuts into the present. Back then, when he was first abandoned, the poet’s friends urged him toward restraint, using the word tajammal, which suggests courtesy, propriety and wholeness: a strengthening of the barrier between self and world. But the poet rejects such borders. His tears are muhraqa, poured out, from a root that yields words for spilling (harq), sacrifice (ihraq), and the ocean (muhraqan). He is wide open, both to ruined space and to lost time: as helpless in his weeping now as he was then.

 

The Muallaqa of Imru al-Qays is part of our oldest poetic inheritance, transmitted orally for two centuries before it was written down. In English, too, certain poems have come down to us from an oral tradition, such as those recorded, long after their composition, in the tenth-century Exeter Book. Most of these poems are anonymous. Several are elegies that, like Imru al-Qays’s ode, call on their listeners to contemplate ruins. All over the world, laments the friendless exile in the poem known as The Wanderer, wine-halls crumble, buildings are swept by snow, walls crushed by frost. Like Imru al-Qays, this speaker mourns the loss of human worlds, though he speaks the language of frozen seacoasts rather than deserts, the sand replaced by snow. Alone in his boat, he rows the rime-cold sea with his bare hands. He has lost his lord, his companions. He hoards his sorrows, binding them in his heart. Sometimes he dreams of the past, and it seems to him that he is with his lord again; but he wakes to see only the fallow waves about him. Sea-birds bathe, fanning their feathers. Ice and snow fall, mingled with hail.

 

Now all that remains of that beloved company is a wall, wondrously high, carved with serpents. The power of ashen spears has seized the warriors, weapons greedy for slaughter, a well-known fate, and storms batter these stony cliffs, snowstorms bind the earth, the whirl of winter, when dark comes, night-shadows deepen, and hailstorms rage from the north…

 

Placing these poems together, juxtaposing these different landscapes, gives me a sense of planetary mourning. Their elegiac power has intensified over time, for the world they assume will never change is no longer here today. That world provided their language. The speaker in The Wanderer is wintercearig: winter-careworn, winter-weary, desolate as winter. His inner life depends for its utterance on outward things: the sea, the furious storms, the driving hail, the snow. And Imru al-Qays is in love with a woman as pale as an ostrich egg. She has an antelope’s neck. She looks at him with the glance of a gazelle. Her hair hangs rich and dark, like clusters of dates. He begins his ode with an access of weeping, and concludes it in pouring rain.

 

Rooted in the material world, these are poems of extreme weather. They come from some of the most delicate places on earth: regions where life has always been difficult for human beings, and where increased heat and rising sea levels may soon render it impossible. The poets are far from us, in that they grieve in the language of nonhuman things they believe will last forever. They are far in that they belong to lost worlds, to bioregions and lifeways now irrevocably altered. They are close to us in that they know world-loss. They offer ways to stand at ruins.

 

2. NEITHER HOT NOR COLD

 

How do we stand at ruins? In places of relative wealth, standing is rare; people are more likely to brush past quickly, their eyes averted. Researching a small town in Norway at the turn of the twenty-first century, Kari Marie Norgaard found that even those most affected by climate change can be gripped by a strange silence. In the town she studied, residents who had seen their winters grow warmer and drier, who had witnessed the decline of their beloved ski culture and crucial tourism revenue, were averse to speaking about their shifting climate in any but the most casual ways. Norgaard concludes that this was due not to the absence of feeling, but to its management. ‘To ignore something,’ she writes, ‘is essentially to manage emotion.’1 It is to fetter the heart, to maintain control. A man should never reveal the grief in his breast too quickly, says the Wanderer, unless he already knows the remedy.

 

And if there is no remedy? Let others seek consolation, says Imru al-Qays. My heart will never be consoled.

 

These lines stand at the centre of the poem. In his study of ring composition in Arabic verse, Raymond Farrin shows how they form a fulcrum on which the poet’s whole vision turns.2 On one side of this pivot, the poet weeps, then recalls former triumphs in love; on the other side, he extols the triumphs of his favourite horse, then witnesses a violent storm. The deluge reflects his anguish. Lightning flashes like outstretched hands. In the howling force of the gale, the trees bow down to their chins. The ibex are swept from their ledges, the palms uprooted. If the poem begins with a lament over the traces of human presence, it ends with the ruin of plant and animal life. These ruins, it’s true, possess a regenerative power: after the rains, the birds sing for joy as if drunk on spiced wine, and the desert blooms so that it looks as though a merchant has unpacked his wares and spread his lavish carpets on the sand. The poem concludes, however, with an image of devastation, an echo of the poet’s refusal to be consoled. The bodies of wild animals, drowned overnight in the storm, float in the watercourses like bulbs of wild onion.

 

This flood is at once an allegory of emotion and an expression of lived experience in the desert, where sudden rains transform the landscape. Such rains, necessary to sustain life, cause mass destruction. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where Imru al-Qays once watched the lightning, rains have increased in force and frequency since the 1960s, with the coastal city of Jeddah suffering particularly brutal storms since 2009. Along with rising temperatures and sea levels, flooding now represents a serious threat to life in the peninsula. And yet, as in Norway, a curious calm seems to prevail. In a 2019 YouGov survey, the countries where people were least likely to hold human activity responsible for climate change were Norway and Saudi Arabia.3 These regions – Scandinavia and the Gulf States – also reported the lowest level of belief that humans, either individuals or nations, can do anything more to address the issue. A sense of helplessness accompanies the neutral gaze, feeds it, necessitates it, creates it.

 

Drawing on Robert J. Lifton’s work on life in the nuclear age, Norgaard describes this phenomenon as ‘psychic numbing’.4 The awareness of possible extinction causes paralysis. At the beginning of this century, Frederick Buell wrote that despite the ideological campaign to deny environmental crisis, knowledge of ecological ruin had seeped into American culture, becoming part of a social context defined by uncertainty and dread.5 Yet Buell observed, like Norgaard, that knowledge of this particular crisis doesn’t stimulate action. Instead, there’s withdrawal, the eyes glazing over. In seeing, one becomes stalled, inert. To look squarely at the state of our world, writes Buell, is to face the Gorgon. It is to risk being turned to stone.

 

Let others seek consolation! My heart will never be consoled. Imru al-Qays refuses the counsel of his friends – those who represent the norms of a hypermasculine warrior culture, seated nearby on their camels, embarrassed for him as he breaks down among the acacias. His defiant response, placed at the centre of the cyclical ode, uses repeated sounds to make a tight, concentrated circle within the larger ring, so that the poem revolves around the poet’s rejection of tasallat, consolation, and of becoming munsali, consoled. Tasallat means to make someone forget. It means to comfort, cheer up, distract, divert, amuse, and entertain. It means to manage emotion. The common root of tasallat and munsali means to forget, to get rid of memory, to think no more.

 

Never, he says. The repetition of sounds in this central line is a rhetorical figure known as radd al-ajuz ala al-sadr: the return of the last to the first. Sadr, ‘the first’, also means chest, bosom, heart. At the ruins, the poet returns to his heart.

 

But for many of us, to stand at the ruins means deadlock. We maintain our equilibrium. We stay lukewarm, as if a tepid response might magically steady the seasons. Having lost control of the increasingly unstable climate we’ve created, we strive at least to command our inner weather.

 

3. FIRE AND ICE

 

A question of control. It’s not only helplessness, a sense of being out of control, that makes people avoid their ruins, but a parallel sense of being, to a greater or lesser extent, in control: responsible, implicated, complicit. It is, writes Norgaard, a particular entanglement of helplessness and guilt.6 One feels guilt for participating in a culture that depends on the burning of fossil fuels, helpless to change or escape that culture, guilty for not knowing how to change or escape it, guilty for being helpless, helpless before one’s guilt. This is not a general phenomenon. It’s a complex of feelings that belongs to those who enjoy the comforts of powerful, environmentally destructive countries like mine, the United States, and oil-rich, oil-dependent countries like Norway and Saudi Arabia. Often, it’s not that we think we can’t do anything more to slow the ruin. We think we won’t. We think we mustn’t: we shouldn’t dare to speak, let alone act, unless we know the remedy, and can live, right now, without plastics, heating, cooling, travel. A simple way to make someone shut up about climate change is to set this emotional complex in motion: ‘But you drove a car here today!’ Short circuit.

 

A spark ignites the great modern novel of ruins. In the midst of a thunderstorm over the Jura, it strikes a beautiful old oak tree, which bursts into flames, while the young Victor Frankenstein watches in fascination. ‘[S]o soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump.’7 This lightning-flash is a warning – one the young scientist will not heed. He will go on seeking to infuse dead matter with ‘a spark of being’.8 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin – later Mary Shelley – writes this story a thousand years after an Anglo-Saxon poet composed The Wanderer. She, too, is a wanderer from England. She begins her story in Switzerland, during the famous Year Without a Summer, when, she recalls in the novel’s introduction, ‘incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. She watches the massive thunderstorms advance across Lake Geneva.9 One night the entire lake is lit up, the pines on the Jura illuminated, the light followed instantly by a pitchy blackness in which thunder bursts with terrifying force above her head. She doesn’t know it, but she writes in the midst of a global climate disaster. In the previous year, 1815, Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia, propelling volcanic gases into the stratosphere and depressing global temperatures enough to cause years of crop failure and famine. The malnourished peasants Mary and her companions have seen on their European tour, the ‘crooked’ and ‘diseased’ children described in their letters, are victims of a climate crisis that has devastated the most vulnerable, who were already weakened and impoverished by the Napoleonic Wars.10 In his book on the Tambora disaster, Gillen d’Arcy Wood speculates that Frankenstein’s creature, with its grotesque, misshapen body, may have been inspired in part by the ‘deformed’ bodies and ‘enlarged throats’ of Switzerland’s starving rural poor.11

 

She doesn’t know. She writes. It is a dreary night in November. The rain patters dismally against the panes, and Victor Frankenstein’s candle is nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, he sees the dull yellow eye of the creature open. It breathes. A convulsive motion twists its limbs. It’s appalling to look at – so horrible the young scientist rushes from the chamber. Composed of parts collected from morgues, dissecting rooms and slaughterhouses, the creature is an animated ruin.

 

Victor Frankenstein does not stand at these ruins. He turns away. He flees. He is ‘frozen in his abjection reaction’, Timothy Morton writes, gripped by an aversion so strong he can’t look at his creation, let alone care for it.12 Through most of the novel, he tries to keep its existence secret.

 

It is the era of the spark: of coal, of heat, of steam. It’s the time of dependence on fossil fuels: that is, the beginning of our own era. A time, as Michel Serres has shown, of intense interest in heat and cold, in fire and ice, in the transformation of matter. For Serres, the painter J. M. W. Turner expresses this new sensibility. In 1817, the year after Mary Shelley begins her novel, a year of continuing climate disruption in the wake of Tambora, Turner paints his Eruption of Vesuvius. A painting of red and blue: the colours that represent Turner’s two essential sources, the heat and cold that produce steam. A painting of explosion, of swirling gas, in which all geometric edges dissolve. For Serres, Turner is not a pre-Impressionist. He’s a realist: ‘the first true genius in thermodynamics’.13 In Turner’s work, the world is a giant boiler. The erupting volcano is Vulcan’s forge, ‘the foundry of the world’.14 Gone are the neatly drawn lines and networks of a mechanistic worldview. ‘Matter,’ writes Serres,

 

is no longer left in the prison of diagram. Fire dissolves it, makes it vibrate, tremble, oscillate, makes it explode into clouds… No one can draw the edge of a cloud, the borderline of the aleatory where particles waver and meet, at least to our eyes. There a new time is being fired in the oven. On these totally new edges, which geometry and the art of drawing have abandoned, a new world will soon discover dissolution, atomic and molecular dissemination.15

 

The new world of thermodynamics, the new matter as revealed by Turner, is characterised by randomness. Causality in nature gives way to probability. The world-as-furnace is unpredictable. No one can draw the edges of a cloud. ‘His limbs were in proportion,’ Victor Frankenstein says of his creature, ‘and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! – Great God!… the beauty of the dream had vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.’16 In the volatile new world of the Industrial Revolution, wonder can turn to terror in an instant, miracle to ruin. This process is irreversible. Time, writes Serres, becomes ‘an unforeseen state, hazardous, suspended, drowned, melted in duration, dissolved. Never will it come back again.’17

 

Perhaps these characteristics – an apprehension of a world run by explosive forces, imperfectly controlled, and a sense of the irreversibility of time – help explain the vogue for volcanoes in early nineteenth-century Europe. In 1819, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy visit Pompeii. It’s the year after the publication of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus – a title that signals, with the name of the mythic fire thief, a drama of the spark. It’s also the year after Percy published his sonnet ‘Ozymandias’, a poem that contemplates the fall of kings. These tourists have a relationship to ruins that differs significantly from that of Imru al-Qays weeping over the abandoned campsite. They are hopeful, anxious political radicals. To them, ruins signify the decline of empires. They are obsessed with ancient Greece and Rome. They walk through the silent theatres, across the rich mosaics of the floors. Here the greatest human achievements burned out in an instant. ‘The day was radiant and warm,’ Percy writes afterwards in a letter. ‘Every now and then we heard the subterranean thunder of Vesuvius; its distant deep peals seemed to shake the very air and light of day, which interpenetrated our frames, with the sullen and tremendous sound.’18

 

Frankenstein’s creature learns to speak through ruins. Holed up in a shed in a Swiss forest, he peers through a chink in the wall, where he can see, in the adjoining cottage, a young man teaching language to a young woman. The man is named Felix; the lady is Safie, whom Felix calls his ‘sweet Arabian’.19 Felix teaches the beautiful Arab lady to speak his language, and to read it as well, using as a textbook the enormously popular The Ruins; or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires by the Comte de Volney. This book portrays human history as a story of decline. Empires crumble. Many of them belong, like Safie and Ozymandias, to the East. From The Ruins, Frankenstein’s creature acquires both language and a sweeping knowledge of human culture in decay. He is now a walking ruin who speaks the language of ruin. This education hurts him. ‘Of what strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when once it has seized on it, like lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling.’20

 

Felix chose The Ruins because ‘its declamatory style was framed in imitation of the Eastern authors’.21 Somehow, although written in French, the book has an Arabic flavour that makes it suitable for teaching Arab girls to read. The flavour, that is, of fallen nations, cracked palaces, lost things, weakened societies that must now be supplanted by other, more vigorous peoples, a sad, sweet flavour that betrays an intense imperial nervousness – for how can one tell if one’s own empire is destined to survive? A conqueror might appear out of nowhere; Vesuvius might erupt. Thomas Jefferson, a friend and admirer of Volney’s, captures this tone in his English translation of the opening ‘Invocation’, written at Monticello, some forty miles from where I now live.

 

Hail, solitary ruins, holy sepulchers and silent walls! you I invoke; to you I address my prayer. While your aspect averts, with secret terror, the vulgar regard, it excites in my heart the charm of delicious sentiments – sublime contemplations. What useful lessons, what affecting and profound reflections you suggest to him who knows how to consult you!22

 

The speaker in Volney’s text stands at the ruins, neither in tears like Imru al-Qays, nor, like Victor Frankenstein, with secret terror, but in a pensive reverie, moved by the passing of the past and eager for enlightenment. This is ruin as textbook. Jefferson likes The Ruins so much, he translates most of it. He invites Volney to Monticello in 1796. The house is a wreck: the war, followed by Jefferson’s absence in France, has reduced it, Jefferson warns his friend, to ‘almost total decay’.23 Volney will have to imagine himself in ‘an Arabian tent’, Jefferson jokes, although he will also receive what Arabia can’t provide: the poplar groves and pure air of Virginia.24 Jefferson and Volney are both passionately interested in climate: a pair of weather junkies. Volney is in the United States researching his next book, View of the Climate and Soil of the United States of America; Jefferson, who has kept a weather diary for twenty years, extolled his local climate in his 1781 book Notes on the State of Virginia. Climate occupies their correspondence. In one of his letters to Volney, Jefferson copies a weather table from his diary, and reports that the ink is freezing in his pen. After reading Volney’s book about the American climate, he responds with his own ideas on temperature, wind, and contagious disease. Although he concedes that climate is judged primarily by habit – ‘The Canadian glows with delight in his sleigh and snow, the very idea of which gives me the shivers’ – he maintains that his own is especially favourable to health and happiness.25 ‘It is our cloudless sky which has eradicated from our constitutions all disposition to hang ourselves, which we might otherwise have inherited from our English ancestors.’26 Jefferson’s skies are clear. He is a climate optimist. Agricultural science and good urban planning can make a paradise. These dreams of geoengineering spring up when the metamorphosis is already happening, generating the climate of today. Seated at Monticello, Jefferson sits at the confluence of several terms that have been proposed to describe the epoch of human influence on the planet. Anthropocene: the impact of human activity. Capitalocene: the impact of the pursuit of endless economic growth. Plantationocene: the impact of forced labour and the reduction of biodiversity, as exemplified by the plantation.

 

In Jefferson’s lifetime, writes Gillen d’Arcy Wood, ‘a massive global experiment in climate engineering was just underway’.27 It’s the ongoing experiment in the burning of fossil fuels, through which our world is becoming less recognisable. But Jefferson perceives ruins as distant. They are elsewhere. They inspire reflections on liberty and secular government. Volney’s The Ruins, then, is a node connecting two attitudes toward ruins during the Industrial Revolution. Ruins can be located elsewhere, in another place and time: in the exotic deserts of Arabia and Syria, or at Pompeii. In this case, one stands before them. Hail, solitary ruins! But ruins can also cling, becoming inextricable from the earth on which one stands. This is the case with Frankenstein’s creature, that living ruin who learns to speak through ruins, who pursues his maker as far as the Orkney Islands, destroying Victor Frankenstein’s world, demanding a new world, a home, a wife, a future. This kind of ruin cannot be faced. In fact, the two attitudes toward ruins are quite similar. Both are ways of managing emotion, and both work to disavow connection and complicity. Either ruins must be placed at a distance (far in the future, or in some remote place like the Arctic Circle) or they must not be seen.

 

‘Look!’ cries Imru al-Qays. ‘Do you see the lightning?’

 

Michel Serres: ‘Man has created a thing-nature.’28 It is the world-furnace: a thing-nature of extreme temperatures and erratic operation, whose force exceeds its form. Frankenstein’s thing-nature haunts him, appearing to him in a howling storm in the mountains, in the dazzling flashes of lightning. The creature scales the snowy peaks. A being of fire and ice, he is inured to radical changes in the weather. He is, perhaps, a creature of the future, one who can survive the world to come. But he will die, he proclaims, in fire and ice. He will seek the most northern extremity of the globe. There he will collect his funeral pyre, and consume his miserable frame to ashes.

 

The young author doesn’t know that in two hundred years, people will read her book as a fable of the Anthropocene. But she gives us, in Victor Frankenstein, an antihero who, though he cannot come to terms with his creature, does at least break his silence. He tells his story to a young climate optimist: an explorer navigating the Arctic seas in search of a wonderful, clement land he expects to discover at the pole. In that country of eternal light, the young explorer believes, snow and frost will give way to a calm, warm sea. Today, this vision of melting ice seems menacing: it’s too real. It’s our world, reflected in Frankenstein as in a distorting mirror, complete with an eager captain, enchanted by visions of new territory to possess, to represent the desire for resource extraction. In the same way, the Tambora disaster, which surrounds and infuses the novel, gives us a snapshot of global climate change, but as if in a photographic negative: a world made a few degrees cooler, instead of a few degrees warmer. What a difference those few degrees can make to our notions of control. In 1819, the year Mary and Percy Shelley visit the ruins of Pompeii, the effects of Mount Tambora’s eruption have caused violent shifts in the global grain and cotton markets, and the United States, dependent on the exploitative plantation economy, spirals into its first financial panic. For Jefferson, already burdened by debt, this is the beginning of the end of Monticello. His empire will crumble; his grandchildren will not inherit the estate. Years later, he recognises 1819 as the year that ruined him, that gave him ‘the coup de grâce’.29

 

4. OIL AND WATER

 

Confession is key. Frankenstein must admit that the creature who haunts him is his own. He doesn’t manage this until the end of his life. Throughout most of the novel, the sight of that ‘ghastly and distorted shape’ leaves him aghast: paralysed, speechless, stuck.30 When he thinks of how, through his creature, he has murdered his own family, a film covers his eyes. He freezes: ‘the motion of every muscle and fibre was suspended’.31 He repeatedly loses consciousness. He lies for months in a brain fever. He is ‘overcome by the sensation of helplessness’, ‘rooted to the spot’.32

 

Confession is the only alternative to silence. This is what finally produces the novel in our hands. Frankenstein’s tale of ruin is very different from the ode of Imru al-Qays, in which the poet is guiltless, scarred by a neutral fate. The Anglo-Saxon elegy The Wanderer, however, can be viewed as a lonely and frostbitten confession. James M. Palmer reads this poem through the doctrine of compunction, an ‘anxiety of the soul’ provoked by guilt.33 Expressed in the language of winter, in an elemental speech of hail and snow, the poem is deeply concerned with inner experience. It contains nineteen references to the psyche: terms that may be translated as heart, mind, or spirit. Some of these I recognise in words we use today: mod (mood), heorte (heart), breost (breast). Others feel alien: ferðloca, sefa, hyge. When he uses these terms, the Wanderer often speaks of closing or binding. He struggles hard against confession, lecturing himself on what a man should be. A man shouldn’t talk about his grief; he should keep his dreary thoughts to himself. It’s a prescription for the management of emotion, the emphasis less on being than on not being, on moderation, on never going too far in any direction: neither too hasty nor too fearful nor too cheerful nor too eager. This insistence on stability and self-control is explicitly related to the unpredictability of the world. It’s because he can’t know the future that a man must be so self-contained: look how everywhere the halls decay! But the contemplation of the ruined wall, the deserted city, breaks his heart. And this heart, which has been so tightly bound, as the earth is chained by frost, releases lamentation like a sea, the waves swelling one after the other in a cataract of sobs.

 

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?

Where the giver of treasure?

Where are the seats at the feast?

Alas the bright cup!

Alas the mailed warrior!

Alas the pride of princes!

How that time has passed away,

dark beneath the night-helm, as if it had never been!

 

Two hundred years before Imru al-Qays composed his ode, which, like The Wanderer, uses ruins to catalyse emotion, a poet and theologian known as Ephraim of Syria lived at Edessa, now Şanlıurfa, near the Turko-Syrian border. It’s about three hundred miles from Palmyra, where the Comte de Volney hailed the solitary ruins, and six hundred miles from Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, where Mary Shelley’s imaginary Safie was born to a Turkish father and an Arab mother. Here Ephraim of Syria wrote of tears. ‘Tears before God always give courage; where tears abound, there evil thoughts do not approach.’ A number of his writings were translated into Latin in the eighth-century Liber Scintillarum, or ‘Book of Sparks’. Through this text, Ephraim of Syria’s idea of compunction reached Anglo-Saxon England. Originally a medical term describing acute physical pain, compunction evolves in Ephraim’s writing into ‘the soul’s health’, a form of intense yet healing melancholy.34 It is ‘the soul’s enlightenment’, accompanied by tears.35 For Palmer, the Wanderer’s tears are expressed metaphorically, in the saltwater of the sea. ‘Not only is he lamenting, seeing his companions in his mind as they drift away like waves, but he is sending forth his sorrow via a gathering of his own tears.’36

 

In lamenting, the Wanderer rejects the code he has outlined with such care, with its prohibition against the expression of feeling. And the lament itself, which Palmer calls ‘a type of “confession”’, condemns the culture of violence responsible for that code.37 For the ongoing catastrophe that devastates the cities of this middle-earth is war. The power of ashen spears has seized the warriors. The whole troop has fallen, proud by the wall. Some died in battle there; others were left to be torn by beasts of prey. A bird carried one across the deep sea. The grey wolf shared one with death. One was hidden in a grave by a man with a sad face. Perhaps this sad man is the Wanderer himself, burying his lord: victim and perpetrator of the wave of destruction.

 

How terrifying it will be when the wealth of the world lies waste! And we will do it ourselves, says the Wanderer. We are doing it even now. Like Victor Frankenstein, the Wanderer breaks his silence to accuse himself, but also his entire culture, his way of being. In both cases, a heroic ideal – the scientist’s desire to dominate the elements, the warrior’s lust for glory – reveals itself as a deadly enemy.

 

These lethal hungers are not far apart. In the Frankenstein of the twenty-first century, Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, a ghastly wreck of a creature stalks the smoking streets of a city smashed to pieces by sectarian violence and the thirst for oil. Impossible to separate war from the craving to own, extract, and burn. Impossible, too, to separate perpetrators from victims. Saadawi’s creature is composed of fragments of bodies destroyed by explosives. He’s called the Whatsitsname: the shesmeh, a contraction of the Iraqi dialect words shinu (what) and ismu (his/its name). A junk dealer puts him together in the depths of a derelict building known locally as ‘the Jewish ruin’.38 This is in the Bataween district of Baghdad, some four hundred miles from the place where Ephraim of Syria developed his theology of tears, and five hundred miles from the ruins of Palmyra. The Jewish ruin is not described with the word atlal, used in the classical trope of ‘standing at the ruins’, but with the word kharaba. Atlal means traces, remnants, tracks left behind by the departed. Kharaba means that something has been destroyed. Atlal is abandonment; kharaba is violence. Victor Frankenstein assembles his creature from discarded bodies, but the Whatsitsname is composed of those shattered by war. His home is a city of everyday collapse. American Hummers patrol the streets, their weapons trained on the cars behind them. A vehicle goes up in a ball of fire. A man and his horse explode in an instant, their flesh inextricably entangled. It’s the dailiness of it the junk dealer can’t bear: all this ordinary death, parts of blasted corpses lying in the street. ‘I made it complete,’ he says of his creature, ‘so it wouldn’t be treated as trash, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.’39 But the Whatsitsname can’t die. He roams the streets, seeking revenge, wanting someone to answer for every death in his body. As that body decomposes, he replaces its parts with scraps of still more bodies, until his vengeance faces ‘an open-ended list of targets’.40 Worse, he realises that the killers he seeks to bring to justice are themselves victims. The insight strikes him in the middle of the street. ‘There are no innocents who are completely innocent or criminals who are completely criminal.’41 He stares up at the sky, transfixed, awaiting his dissolution.

 

Some people find it annoying that the name ‘Frankenstein’ is used in popular culture to mean the creature, not the creator. I don’t; I think it’s an instance of marvellous collective intuition. Frankenstein is his creature, and we know it: it’s impossible to separate the scientist from the elements, the perpetrator from the victim. In Frankenstein in Baghdad, the junk dealer lies in a hospital, badly injured by a bomb meant to destroy his creature. One night he gets up to go to the bathroom and sees his burned face in the mirror for the first time. It’s the face of the Whatsitsname.

 

He screams and screams. He slips, hits his head, and loses consciousness. There’s nothing comforting about this realisation. And yet, as terrible as it is to look upon the Whatsitsname, the creature has a certain utopian quality. He is demolished, but he is also together. Born in the Jewish ruin, where an old menorah is discovered behind a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, he is inhabited by diverse dead. The junk dealer who forms him is Muslim; the Christian woman downstairs calls the creature her lost son. For at least one character in the novel – an idealistic ‘young madman’ – the Whatsitsname represents a social unity never achieved before. He is the corpse of something that never lived, the ghost of unrealised potential: ‘the first true Iraqi citizen’.42

 

To confess is to give up the protection of distance. It means you are part of something: embedded, entangled, involved. The Wanderer plunges his hands in the cold sea. To be part of a process of ruination is to belong to something too big, beyond one’s control. In the final lines of the elegy, the poet turns to God, the Faeder on heofonum, for heaven is the only faestnung: the only place of permanence and stability for the warrior, whose life on earth is scarred by his own violence. ‘[There] is no worldly alternative to religious devotion,’ writes P. S. Langeslag in a study of the poem, ‘as the heroic code leads to misery both physical and emotional, while none of the achievements it offers is lasting.’43 This reading accords with Palmer’s work on the doctrine of compunction, which leads the sufferer through tears to grace. And yet what fiercely earthbound, worldly poetry this is! The Wanderer, plunging his hands in the erratic, freezing sea, is launched among the seabirds in the whirl of winter, whipped by wind and snow. He travels, winter-careworn, through the waþema gebind: the binding waves, the binding of the waves, the frigid, frozen waves, the wintry seas, the waves covered with ice in some translations, in others the gathering sea, the densely woven water. As Eileen Joy writes in her call for a depressive and creative ‘blue ecology’, the Wanderer ‘is not moving in impersonal fashion over the waves (and thus, the world), but rather is always immersed in and part of the waves’ waving, their weathering: in this sense, he is not just a boater, but a swimmer.’ 44 Bound to the waves, to physical space, he sings a poetry of things. The quick turn heavenward at the end of the poem does not undo the overwhelming sense of heartbreak over losses here on earth, nor does the Wanderer, in confessing and decrying the desolation of war, cease to mourn the heroic world he implicitly condemns. Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure? Where are the seats at the feast? ‘Far from suggesting that their subjects are worthless,’ writes Rosemary Woolf, these questions ‘confer a deep nostalgic value upon them, and the very fleetingness which the questions call to mind enhances rather than diminishes their preciousness.’45 Thus The Wanderer performs, all at once, an elegy for a lost world, a confession of complicity in its destruction, a critique of the culture that caused its ruin, and an outpouring of grief and longing for the objects of that very culture. This poet doesn’t stand at the ruins; he swims. He’s steeped in a world of waste, shot through by anguish, open to the elements, like the shellfish that, according to Ephraim of Syria, swims from the depths of the sea to the surface, where it is struck by lightning to produce a pearl.

 

5. HALT, FRIENDS BOTH

 

The story that Imru al-Qays died when he put on a poisoned robe,
a gift from the Emperor Justinian, is a myth. What we know is that he was in Byzantium – which would become Safie’s city, Constantinople – during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 542. He died that year. In addition to the honorific titles, Imru al-Qays, ‘The Man of Misfortune’, and al-Malik al-Dillil, ‘The Wandering King’, he is also known as Dhu al-Quruh, ‘The Ulcerous One’, for the swellings that tormented him at the end. The pandemic known as the Plague of Justinian ravaged the Roman-Byzantine and Persian Empires. ‘It seemed to move by fixed arrangement,’ wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, ‘and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world.’46 By 544, it had travelled as far north as the British Isles. It killed an estimated 25 per cent of the Roman-Byzantine population. Now it’s 2020. I’ve been working from home for six weeks. It’s the most beautiful spring: fresh, translucent, quiet. I take long walks around the city, waving to people in masks. A weird snow threatens the tulips, but they rally and survive, perhaps a little paler than normal, a little bent, but living. The sky is clear of airplanes. Monticello is closed.

 

I went to the poetry of the past, and to poets of different landscapes, because I need everything to face the future. I need all the facets of my experience, even those that seem distant or irrelevant. I need all the languages I know. In The Wanderer, I see an extraordinarily complex and nuanced picture of how to mourn what’s lost, condemn its ruin, and yet still confess an attachment to what destroyed it: an emotional achievement with much to offer me now, when, like so many others, I am both wrenched by remorse and seduced by the high life of carbon capitalism. In the Muallaqa of Imru al-Qays, I see an invitation to communal mourning. The famous imperative of its opening words, Qifa nabki – ‘Stop, let us weep’ – is addressed to two listeners. In addition to singular and plural verb forms, classical Arabic has a dual: a way to invoke exactly two people. It’s impossible to convey in English with the same concision. In my translation, I didn’t try, but simply used ‘Stop’: the poet might be addressing one person or a hundred. Raymond Farrin says ‘Halt, my two friends.’47 A. J. Arberry, in his 1957 translation, goes with‘Halt, friends both.’48 This is not a great English translation, but I have an affection for Arberry’s version, the work of a precise philologist bent on the hopeless task of putting the right idea in the right amount of space. Halt, friends both! Let us weep, recalling a love and a lodging by the rim of the twisted sands. There’s an instant perception of a speaker with two listeners: neither a lone voice nor a private meeting, but a community. Three’s a crowd.

 

The work of researchers like Kari Marie Norgaard does not suggest that nobody cares about climate change. It suggests that we care deeply, sometimes so deeply we feel rooted to the spot. Lacking a socially valid way of expressing what we feel, we remain silent. Often, we don’t even know what we’re feeling. It’s something without a name, amorphous, nascent, too frightening to contemplate. In the Muallaqa of Imru al-Qays, standing at the ruins awakens this type of vast, unruly feeling. It’s here, where the marks of the old enclosures are still visible, that his suffering finds a voice. As he sings, we see him generate a new cultural context. It begins with three people at an abandoned campsite. Stop, says one. Halt, friends both. At the edge of the twisting sands. Stop and weep with me. I don’t want to cry alone.

 

I went to the poetry of the past because I wanted to see how the world looked to poets who didn’t make the weather. They had no climate optimism, no schemes for conquering the elements, no illusions of control. What they had was a relationship, maintained through and in spite of grief, to irretrievable things. They knew how to lose. How the Muallaqa of Imru al-Qays flickers with rapid feeling, reflecting a mutable world, the voice a part of the ever-shifting landscape. It’s a voice that weeps, then laughs, brags, exults, and weeps again. Shadows flit through the poet, phantoms of past loves. He remembers them all, the one like a burnished mirror, the one who shone on a dark evening like a lamp in an anchorite’s cell. He remembers the scent of cloves and musk, and the hour of departure, when he cried so hard his tears ran down his chest and soaked his sword-belt. In a flash he turns, and grief burns out in the memory of desire. It’s night, the Pleiades picked out in the sky like gems in a brocade sash. He sneaks into her tent. She’s wearing only her thin shift. Then they’re out in the dunes. She draws her skirt behind them, erasing their footprints. She scolds him, she adores him, she never wants to see him again. He doesn’t know what to do. It’s like being shot full of arrows. But an instant later he’s riding out while the birds are still asleep, on his marvellous chestnut horse, galloping into the next phase of the ode, the traditional journey section, in which he recounts his exploits astride a beast so restive and fierce, it’s like being seated on top of a boiling cauldron. His horse has the flanks of a graceful Saudi gazelle, now extinct. It has the legs of the Arabian ostrich, now extinct. To read this poetry is to feel the words disappearing from your mouth, the dissolution of a way of being. Reading Imru al-Qays today means standing at the ruins, the poem itself a fragment of our broken world. How to stand it? I watch him hunting a herd of wild cows – probably oryx, extinct in the wild by the time I was born. Oryx were reintroduced from zoos in the 1980s; they still live mostly in captivity, a vulnerable species. They wheel around to look at him, black and white, like onyx beads evenly spaced around a pallid neck. And he is flying toward them with his swift, mercurial, oscillating heart. At its centre, like a pearl, a perfect wound. Reading this poem, I think I don’t need a name for what I feel. No single emotion can encompass the shock of ecological ruin. Perhaps, rather than finding the right attitude, I should expect an affective cycle, something like ring composition.

 

I think of the scholar and activist Joanna Macy, who proposes a spiral sequence for transforming psychic numbness into collaborative action: beginning with gratitude, this coil of feelings proceeds through ‘honouring our pain’ and ‘seeing with new eyes’ to the pragmatic stage of ‘going forth’.49 Significantly, a person can trace this circle many times. I’m drawn to this concept, although I want space for more feelings than the ones Macy names. Imru al-Qays helps me imagine a capacious, crackling spiral, flexible enough to survive being bent out of any recognisable shape, veering from earnestness to sarcasm, from lyric praise to salacious stories, from the faintness of mourning to the fever of the hunt. His Muallaqa, in which all of these feelings crash up against one another with no sense of judgment, suggests an openness towards unexpected emotions. This kind of receptivity might provide space not only for the sensibilities common in environmentalist discourse, such as reverence and despair, but for less conventional ones, such as those Nicole Seymour writes of in Bad Environmentalism: ambivalence, awkwardness, perversity, frivolity, glee.50 I don’t want to propose a particular cycle of emotions, but to take instability as a given, to have no stance. I need all the passions I know, and no doubt some I haven’t felt yet. Better to be like Imru al-Qays, a creature of extremes, than stand aghast.

 

Most interpretations of the Muallaqa assume that the poet is speaking to two friends. However, it’s possible that the two listeners are the traditional companions of the lone desert traveller: his horse and his sword. In that case, the poet would be, like the Wanderer, a solitary rover, launched on the binding of the waves of sand. This reading feels appropriate in some ways, as the poem represents a movement farther and farther from humankind. Look! the poet cries to his horse. Do you see the lightning? It flares up in the storm cloud, like a lamp when oil is poured on the twisted wick. In the classical formula, an ode ends with a passage of boasting, satire, or praise, but Imru al-Qays finishes with a storm. It’s as if, having wept over human traces, then raced across the sands, at one with his horse, he’s ready to lose himself completely in the landscape. He offers no tribute to king or clan, no taunt or witty argument, only a lambent poetry of things. And the Wanderer starts up from sleep, from dreams of his lost lord, and thinks for a moment that he sees his companions. He greets them joyfully, but they swim away from him, speaking no familiar language: they are seabirds. This mysterious episode, in which the Wanderer’s companions appear, only to turn into birds and fade away, has given rise to strikingly different translations into modern English. It’s as if these lines of the poem are a haunted place, from which travellers bring back conflicting stories. In the sea-spray and the snow, it’s hard to tell where anything is. Inside and outside interlace, becoming indistinguishable: maybe the Wanderer’s mind is calling up his ghostly kinsmen, or maybe it’s better to say that the memory of his kinsmen permeates his mind. And those secga geseldan, those ‘companions of men’: are they men or birds? Are they spirits? Are they swimming away on the water, or melting into air? Some translators cut the Gordian knot by rejecting both birds and phantoms, proposing that the ‘companions of men’ are simply sailors on a passing ship. But as Marijane Osborn writes, this part of the poem calls on us to absorb a double signal, ‘to keep the concepts of human companions and seabirds present simultaneously in the mind’.51 We must see the winged ones and the vanished ones, the animals and the dead, those who can’t speak or no longer speak our language. These are the companions of men. But when we cry out to them, they do not halt. They flee away from us, like the seabirds frightened by mortar fire, which, the folklorist Edward Armstrong recounts, were taken by soldiers in the First World War for spirits of the dead.52 Exposed to the full horror of the era of the spark, those distraught men, luckier than their companions in surviving the blasts, recognised the souls of the departed in the white birds wheeling over the scene of the disaster. These winged souls resemble the dead in the Hades of Homer, which, Thomas Browne reminds us, cannot speak, ‘except they drink blood, wherein is the life of man. And therefore the souls of Penelope’s paramours, conducted by Mercury, chirped like bats, and those which followed Hercules, made a noise but like a flock of birds.’53 So we are tied to that which flees us, bound to what is lost. Imru al-Qays rushes past, pursuing the herd of oryx. Maybe they’re oryx; I’m not sure. They might be addax, also called white antelopes, extinct in the Arabian desert today, or maybe again they’re sand gazelles, vulnerable like the oryx, vanished from the wild except for a few isolated herds, a creature known in Arabic as reem and in Hebrew as re’em, acclaimed for its beauty, its power, and the spectral whiteness of its hide, appearing in the Psalms where its horn is exalted, and in the Book of Job, which asks, ‘Canst thou bind the unicorn?’

 

Notes

 

1. Kari Marie Norgaard, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (The MIT Press, 2011), p.197

2. Raymond Farrin, Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry (Syracuse University Press, 2011), p.6

3. Matthew Smith, ‘Most People Expect to Feel the Effects of Climate Change, and Many Think It Will Make Us Extinct’, YouGov, 16 September 2019

4. Norgaard, p.4

5. Frederick Buell, From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century (Routledge, 2003), p.xiv

6. Norgaard, p.195

7. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; Penguin, 1992), p.42

8. Ibid, p.56

9. Ibid, pp.6-7

10. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, History of a
Six Weeks’ Tour Through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: With Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva, and of the Glaciers of Chamouni (1817; Project Gutenberg), loc. 110

11. Gillen d’Arcy Wood, Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World (Princeton University Press, 2015), p.65

12. Timothy Morton, ‘Frankenstein and Eco-Criticism’ in Andrew Smith (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein (Cambridge University Press, 2016), p.156

13. Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), p.57

14. Ibid, p.60

15. Ibid, p.58

16. Shelley, Frankenstein, p.58

17. Serres, p.62

18. Richard Garnett (ed.), Select Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (D. Appleton and Company, 1883), p.260

19. Shelley, Frankenstein, p.120

20. Ibid, p.123

21. Ibid, p.122

22. C. F. Volney, The Ruins; or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires (1791; Project Gutenberg)

23. Thomas Jefferson, ‘From Thomas Jefferson to Volney, 10 April 1796’, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/ documents/Jefferson/01-29-02-0040. Accessed 1 June 2020

24. Idem.

25. Jefferson, ‘To C. F. de C. Volney, February 8, 1805’, American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. www.let.rug.nl/usa/presidents/thomas-jefferson/letters-of-thomas-jefferson/jefl168.php. Accessed 1 June 2020

26. Idem.

27. Wood, p.226

28. Serres, p.60

29. Joseph J Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (Vintage, 1998), p.327

30. Shelley, Frankenstein, p.260

31. Ibid, p.199

32. Ibid, p.172

33. James M. Palmer, ‘Compunctio and the Heart in the Old English Poem The Wanderer’, Neophilologus vol. 88 (2004), pp.447-60, p.448

34. Ibid, p.450

35. Idem

36. Ibid, p.454

37. Ibid, p.453

38. Ahmed Saadawi, tr. Jonathan Wright, Frankenstein in Baghdad (Penguin, 2018), p.32

39. Ibid, p.38

40. Ibid, p.189

41. Ibid, p.265

42. Ibid, p.181

43. P. S. Langeslag, Seasons in the Literatures of the Medieval North (Boydell and Brewer, 2015), p.78

44. Eileen A. Joy, ‘Blue’, in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (ed.), Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p.224

45. Rosemary Woolf, Art and Doctrine: Essays on Medieval Literature (Bloomsbury Academic, 1986), p.201

46. Procopius, ‘The Plague, 542’, in Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/542procopi- us-plague.asp. Accessed 1 June 2020

47. Farrin, p.4

48. A. J. Arberry, The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature (Macmillan, 1957), p.61

49. Joanna Macy, Joanna Macy and Her Work, www.joannamacy.net. Accessed 31 January 2021

50. Nicole Seymour, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), p.4

51. Marijane Osborn, ‘The Vanishing Seabirds in “The Wanderer”’, Folklore vol. 85, no. 2 (1974), p.124

52. Edward Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin and Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions (Houghton Mifflin, 1959), pp.211-12

53. Thomas Browne, ‘Hydriotaphia: Urn Burial; Or, a Discourse of
the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk’, in Simon Wilkin (ed.), The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, Volume III (George Bell and Sons,
1893), p.38


share


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is the author of four books, most recently Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her fiction has received several honours, including the World Fantasy Award. Her first work of non-fiction, the memoir The White Mosque, is forthcoming from Catapult Books.

READ NEXT

poetry

June 2016

from GERMINAL

Chloe Stopa-Hunt

poetry

June 2016

  1. Waste-Gold   These songs are waste-gold a matter of passing time together as we wait for night...

fiction

September 2011

In the Aisles

Clemens Meyer

fiction

September 2011

Before I became a shelf-stacker and spent my evenings and nights in the aisles of the cash and carry...

poetry

May 2013

Ad Tertiam

Saskia Hamilton

poetry

May 2013

Rows of pines, planted years ago – so many, were you to count them on your fingers, you would...

 

Get our newsletter

 

* indicates required