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Ruins, or, The Ethical Logic of Traumatic Capitalism, with Special Reference to Peter Ackroyd

Les ruines, le traumatisme du capitalisme, et l’éthique : à propos de Peter Ackroyd
Jean-Michel Ganteau
p. 139-152


Même si Peter Ackroyd retourne vers les topoi de la vision romantique de l’anglicité en examinant les ruines selon les principes du sublime, la poétique des ruines qu’il met en œuvre acquiert une fonction éthique plus qu’esthétique. L’image des ruines chez Ackroyd semble avoir évolué vers l’expression d’une éthique de l’altérité, mais il est également possible de lire ses romans à travers le prisme d’une éthique du care. Comme il est possible de le constater dans la conclusion de The House of Dr Dee où triomphent les valeurs de la générosité et de l’attention à l’autre, ou encore dans Chatterton et dans nombre de ses romans, l’éthique de l’attention portée à l’autre dans son invisibilité est au centre des préoccupations de l’auteur. Ces autres frappés d’invisibilité sont les individus socialement défavorisés, comme on peut le constater dans The Great Fire of London ou dans English Music, mais Ackroyd s’intéresse également à l’autre du temps et de la culture dominante. Au cœur des années 80 et 90, dominées par l’ultra-libéralisme, Ackroyd recourt à une poétique des ruines pour inviter le lecteur à prendre en compte les plus vulnérables et traumatisés qui sont partie intégrante d’une culture anglaise que son œuvre n’a jamais cessé de proposer une définition.

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1Ruins are ubiquitous in Peter Ackroyd’s production, whether in his tentacular biography of London, where patterns of continuity are ceaselessly evoked, or in his book-length essay on Englishness, Albion, where ruins, authentic and artificial, are called forth. One should also remember that he is the author of several biographies, two of them devoted to William Blake and T. S. Eliot. Now, Blake’s Jerusalem is considered a landmark in the aesthetic of ruins in that it turned its back on rural ruins to privilege an observation of their urban counterparts (Janowitz 2), while Eliot’s The Wasteland has come to be regarded as emblematic of the twentieth-century sense of ruination (Janowitz 8). We may also remember that one of Ackroyd’s recent novels, The Fall of Troy, thematises the obsession for vestiges and ruins that seized hold of archaeologists throughout the nineteenth century and stages the protagonist’s quest for the mythical, founding city of Troy whose ruins he thinks he has unearthed. From this point of view, The Fall of Troy might be considered a ruin novel, but perhaps less so than most of his production, belonging to the sub-genre of the London novel, devoted as it is to urban architecture and its remains. This is most obviously the case of his first book, The Great Fire of London, which notoriously revisits Dickens’ Little Dorrit, with episodes taking place in some decayed, disaffected parts of the Marshalsea prison, and which ends up in the ruination through fire of a film set especially built up for the shooting of the adaptation of Dickens’ classic (Ackroyd 1982, 161–65). Ruins are ubiquitous in Ackroyd’s production, and they are almost exclusively urban ruins, making his work emblematic of (post-)modernity in more ways than one (Hell and Schönle 1–3).

2Hawksmoor, Ackroyd’s third novel, devoted to the eighteenth-century architect and his building of churches on unhallowed ruins, seems to be an apt candidate for a study of the poetics and ethics of ruins; and so does The House of Doctor Dee, his seventh novel, whose protagonist inherits the eponymous house whose heterogeneous, vestigial nature informs the plot. The choice of Chatterton, the triple-layered, fictional biography of the pre-romantic hero, may not seem so obvious, but I would argue that the fictional presentation of ruins that it allows for refracts the ethical and political preoccupations of the plot in no peripheral way. In the following pages, I shall rely on the three novels to show how Ackroyd resorts to a poetics of the fragment to dramatise a sense of the illimited, to give a fictional presentation of the symptoms of cultural trauma and to build up on the ethical and political reverberations of vulnerability.

3Literary historians and art historians tell us that at the heart of the modern poetry of ruins lies the fragment, which became stabilised as a topos in the romantic period, most notably in Graveyard Poetry and the Gothic novel. It will come as no surprise that in Hawksmoor (which revisits the ground of pre-romantic England), the architectural obsession should be so prominent and the fragment should be given pride of place. At one point, the protagonist and some other architects and scholars go to Stonehenge, that emblem of original Englishness according to Ackroyd (Ackroyd 2002, 130–35). But more generally, the metropolis becomes the site of ruination and fragmentation, both in the eighteenth-century part of the plot and in its contemporary version. The novel opens on a lesson in architectural drawing that Nicholas Dyer—Nicholas Hawksmoor’s fictional equivalent—gives to his apprentice, Walter Pyne. Now, even though both characters evoke the building of a ‘Structure’ and ‘Fabrick’, Dyer recurrently refers to the ‘Shaddowes’ and ‘Darknesse’ that assume structural control over the image, as if the edifice were from the beginning conceived of as being full of holes, as if its dilapidated condition were already present, in other words, as if it were made of fragments (Ackroyd 1993a, 5). As made clear by the master, the artefact, should elicit a feeling of ‘Terrour’, Dyer’s principle being to ‘build what is most Sollemn and Awefull’ (7). From the outset, the reader cannot but recognise the sublime phraseology that will become a staple of the century’s aesthetics. Granted, some passages provide a vision of the ruin as emblem of stability and continuity, as is the case with the lines devoted to the foundations of one of the new churches, which is said to have been built on the vestiges of a previous shrine (55, 133), but most often edifices are shown to be dominated by mutability, submitted as they are to an ongoing, programmatic process of ruination. The opening scene and countless others, as already mentioned, contribute to this overwhelming feeling, as do passages from the contemporary plot where the churches and some other buildings seem to be gnawed at. This is apparent when a piece of dirt or decay from a steeple falls onto a tourist guide at the beginning of Chapter 2 (26), and when the reader is made to share the impressions of the child who is going to meet his death on the grounds of the Spitalfields church, in the selfsame chapter: ‘But as Thomas approached it now it ceased to be one large building and became a number of separate places—some warm, some cold or damp, and some in perpetual shadow. He knew every aspect of its exterior, each decaying buttress and each mossy corner, since it was here that on most days he came to sit’ (28). Ruin gazing has become an activity practiced by some visionary characters in the contemporary segment of the plot, which allows for the evocation of some the topoi of the poetics of ruins, i.e.: the mixture of the mineral and vegetal, the falling and the incomplete, and the melancholy feelings that such a contemplation triggers off. Such a ruinous, crepuscular orientation is buttressed by the multiplication of references to dirt, dust and decay that saturate the metonymic webbing of the narrative and is instrumental in building up the general impression of ruination or becoming ruin dominating the novel, as if in Derrida’s terms ruins were always already there, were the origin (1990, 72).

4As surmised from the above evocations, what is being staged in Hawksmoor is what Rose Macaulay described as ‘ruin drama’, building up on her previous observation that ‘[r]uin is always over-stated’ (Macaulay 100). Indeed, Ackroyd’s novel overstates ruin to what may be considered unprecedented extent, resorting to thematic and tropic saturation that makes it read at times like a book-length parody of sublime and Gothic purple patches. Through such intensification, the ruinous becomes inescapable, as if the poetics of ruins were not only thematised but also performed by the narrative, so much so that the separation between observer and object is at times very much challenged, in accordance with the principles of romantic ruin poetry (Janovitz 9), the architectural becoming a trope of the psychological. The text mimics the ubiquity of ruins and their persistence, and even while it stages what may be considered lines of stability and permanence, it foregrounds the image of the fragment as element of incompletion that paradoxically mediates transition and continuity.

5The fragment, both autonomous and evocative of its lost context, operates in a powerful way: through the logic of metonymic overkill it asserts its own presence, as indicated above, even while it summons its other, i.e.: the void that it is the remains and negative of, and that it evokes in praesentia. In other words, the ruinous fragment is used the better to tap its traditional romantic power as figure of incompletion and of the illimited. As such, it partakes of the powers of the sublime by figuring the presence of an absence and by presenting that there is something unpresentable (Lyotard 138). In so doing, ruins become the index of perpetual movement and point towards an illimitation that the imagination fails to apprehend, according to the rules of the Kantian sublime. They partake of an ethical impulse that reminds us of the existence of radical otherness and the refusal of totalisation, in Levinasian terms. They become the figure of openness to some impossible totality past, present and future. One step further, they solicit paroxystic affects of the spasmodic sublime kind and the type of adhesive reading that goes along with this. In conformity with the romantic and modern value of ruins, Hawksmoor’s poetics of the fragment is intent on tapping the subterranean dynamics of passions (Makarius 89), the ruin becoming the trigger of an interior experience. The delight of ruin gazing as diegetically present in the novel and as shared with the reader is indexed on temporal and spatial illimitation that solicits the imagination, as seen above, and also memory—or the lack thereof—, as may appear in Hawksmoor and perhaps more clearly so in The House of Doctor Dee.

6All of Ackroyd’s novels are about haunting and trans-generational or trans-historical recurrences. Such an orientation appears most obviously in his narratives staging double or triple plots like Hawksmoor and Chatterton. The same structural device is at work in The House of Doctor Dee, which relies on the alternation of chapters devoted to life in present-day London, and more especially in the haunted house that the protagonist, Daniel, has inherited from his father and which used to be John Dee’s residence. The Elizabethan magus, who was the disciple of Paracelsus and at one point Queen Elizabeth’s physician, vies with Daniel in terms of narrative salience, as the other strand of the plot is devoted to his own life in Renaissance Europe and London. Of course, the two plot lines and periods are separated the better to be connected, since the novel’s purpose is to multiply uncanny moments of narrative short circuit. The Gothic topos of the haunted house comes in handy to stage such a narrative conceit, and it dramatises and over-states—to takes up Macaulay’s words—the ruin’s dramatisation of anachronism and trans-historical haunting. Time is out of joint every time a ghost shows up. The original description of the house undermines its wholeness even as it insists on its functional integrity, as suggested in a long paragraph ending with the following observation: ‘A much larger house must once have existed here, of which the ground floor and the basement were the only visible remnants; later additions were on a more modest scale, so that now the central section rose up like some broad tower from its rambling origins.’ (Ackroyd 1993c, 3) The autonomous house is also presented as a fragment, an element of visibility that is also possibly an operator of invisibility, and even if various periods are inscribed in its structure and on its surface, it is also a space in which temporal distinctions are seen to be abolished.

  • 1 Makarius even goes so far as to claim that in the post World War Two era, ruins no longer refer to (...)

7The temporality of ruins is a much debated point. While the fragment is generally meant to refer to the past and to extinguished civilisations, in the case of the ruins of antiquity that were so prominent in the creation of the figure in pre-modern times (Makarius 14–15), its predictive dimension is also established, as it is regularly used as memento mori (Goldstein 7), and of course in both instances past and future foreground the critical dimension of a present of ruin gazing and apprehension. Furthermore, as indicated by art historians, ruins have come to evince their relevance to the present, have become a metaphor of contemporary societies and are as much witnesses of the past as of the present. Said differently, ‘in its very advent the present shows itself as ruin, as catastrophe has become the paradigm of the event’ (Makarius 9; translation mine).1 If the modern vision of ruins has tended to emphasise both their ubiquity and their presentness, the fragment nevertheless remains an operator of temporal heterogeneity (Hell and Schönle 9) or rather of temporal linking, as if the temporality of ruins were always indexed on kairos and, in some way, defeated chronos.

8As indicated above, this is what Ackroyd’s œuvre and perhaps most specifically The House of Doctor Dee seems to provide a fictional image of, as the uncanny locus of the haunted house is obviously a pretext for the multiplication of correspondences and echoes and warrants the fleshing out and acting out of a compulsion to repeat. This is what Ackroyd’s novel manages to perform through its specific narrative apparatus, building up on the contemporary protagonist’s own sexual trauma to play out a much wider and collective cultural trauma. The analogy between individual and collective trauma is based on the premise that a violent fragment of the past remains inassimilable and fails to be narrativised, so much so that, according to the most basic rule of trauma theory famously defined by Freud, the past cannot be remembered but is repeated in the present (Freud 18). This is precisely what is seen to be at work in the novel, in the various scenes in which the Elizabethan past manifests itself in its untimely, disruptive force. Most clearly, the time of The House of Doctor Dee is out of joint, and I would argue that in more canonical Gothic narratives than Ackroyd’s novels, the evocation of similar crises owes much to the temporality of the fragment and to the poetics of ruins at work in the texts. As summarised by Anne Janowitz in England’s Ruins. Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape, the ruin ‘challenges the structure of the present and threatens to eradicate temporal difference, swallowing up the present into an unforeseeable yet inevitable repetition of the past’ (Janowitz 10).

9This is what the diegetic and structural function of the ruin is precisely about in Ackroyd’s works, where fragmentary urban architecture is used consistently as a means of suspending chronology and, in novels like Hawksmoor and The House of Doctor Dee, of signalling the resurgence of an anti-materialist, visionary culture that the materialist, ultra-liberal contemporary period (one should remember that the three novels analysed here were written during or immediately after the Thatcher premierships) fails to assimilate. What the reader is presented with is ‘the profoundly unresolved nature of the past’ that has been seen as a hallmark of trauma fiction (Whitehead 13). In a more radical proposition formulated by Robert Ginsberg, the confrontation with the ruins makes us realise that ‘[t]ime has forgotten us. The bricks and their walls dwell outside time’ (7). Interestingly, the very same words are used by Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière in History beyond Trauma, when they evoke the being outside time of the traumatised victims of historical catastrophes, the way in which traumatised victims of historical catastrophes live outside time (Davoine and Gaudillière 115). I would argue then that the poetics of ruins is naturally suited to the evocation of traumatic time, i.e. a time whose flow has been suspended (Davoine and Gaudillière 28), a disjointed, hole-ridden chronology in which the violent loss of the anti-materialist, visionary tradition cannot be assimilated and keeps repeating itself in a present that fails to move on. Even though ruins remain in a fairly stable way, even while the traces of trauma appear only intermittently, I would argue that both signs fundamentally work in the same way.

10Such suspension of time (Davoine and Gaudillière refer to the ‘frozen time’ of trauma [167]) brings along a suspension or failure of causality and the ascendance of the incongruous or the illogical, as when heterogeneous temporal spheres are seen to enter into contact or when the actions of the Elizabethan character are shown to bear direct consequences on those of the contemporary characters. In many instances then, moving from the uncanny to the outright fantastic or supernatural, the text performs its refusal of causality and the impossibility to account for the past clearly. The ruin then, which formulates the presence of an absence without direct imitation of the missing fragments and the absent whole, seems in many respects intent on signalling that there is something amiss while being incapable of figuring the missing parts, as is it were an over-stated figure of traumatic fragmentation. For in fact, in the original clinical model, and in extreme cases of trauma such as those envisaged by Freud or Ferenczi, or more recently described by Jacques Press for instance, the individual is affected by the presence of an ‘internal foreign body’ or ‘empty zone’ (Press 69, my translation) that has become inaccessible, on account of its inassimilability, as a result of a process of traumatic fragmentation (Ferenczi 21, 56).

11The ruin model seems to exacerbate this characteristic through a reversal of salience, the ruinous fragment calling forth the missing whole in a hyperbolic image of the empty zone. In The House of Doctor Dee and most of Ackroyd’s novels, the representation of real of fictional ruin is reminiscent of the traumatised subject’s inability to think and represent trauma directly (Press 52). The ruinous fragment becomes a naturally apt way to stage the impossibility to represent trauma. In the ‘collapse of understanding’ arises the ‘force of experience’ (Caruth 6) inherent in traumatic states and their literary evocations. Ruins have come to represent more the traumatic present than some lost past and in the contemporary period ruin gazing seems to be indexed less on aesthetic contemplation than on the voicing and reporting of human suffering (Makarius 177). In Ackroyd’s production, their aesthetic function seems to have been largely complemented, and even overtaken, by an ethical function that taps their non-totalising powers and makes them the trope of the failure of understanding and memory in a post-traumatic age that seems to be haunted by figures of vulnerability.

12Ackroyd’s characters are predominantly male but never conform to the modernist model of ‘muscular masculinity’ (Ross). He is well-known for his toying with gender bending, as made obvious with the protagonists of Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem most clearly, or with some of the secondary characters in The House of Doctor Dee and Chatterton. In this multilayered narrative, which once again spans several periods in English (literary) history, the male protagonists in each one of the narrative strands (the contemporary, the Victorian and the pre-Romantic) go through various crises (whether physical, psychological or existential) and are to be seen in various states of disarray. This is clearly the case of Charles Wychwood, the aspiring poet whose quest for the mythical figure of Chatterton accompanies his progress towards his premature death. A daydreaming, swooning figure of paternity in the contemporary plot, he himself largely relies on the maternal figure of his wife, in this way joining hands with Chatterton, the ‘wonderful boy’ who never grew beyond his teens. The figure of Meredith, who inhabits the intermediary, Victorian plot, casts a similarly pale light as forlorn, spurned husband. In other words, the protagonists of Chatterton are primarily determined by their frailty and by their privileging values like meekness and openness to the other that favour non violent, ethical relations with alterity, which Sandra Laugier associates with the feminine (Gaille and Laugier 39).

  • 2 For more details on this fragment, see Ganteau 86–96.

13Now, contrary to what happens in the other two narratives, the architectural element is not given pride of place in Chatterton. The reader is presented with old monuments, in both Bristol and London, but the urban landscape is generally intact and its functions do not seem to be impaired. However, at the beginning of the penultimate chapter, the reader is presented with what looks like an independent episode when Chatterton, walking along a London street, witnesses an incident involving an old house which partly collapses under his eyes, exemplifying ruination in the making.2 The passage is narrated in the present tense, and as the dust is still hovering, making perception problematical, Chatterton spots a headless wooden doll on the ground, which he soon realises belongs to an abandoned, idiotic child standing in the darkness, under the precarious shelter of the derelict house. The child is the picture of vulnerability, ‘wearing a moulding shirt and breeches that are no more than rags’ (Ackroyd 1993b, 209), and his wailing ‘sounds like the call of an animal that has lost its young’ (209), in a pathetic reversal of the situation of abandonment. The scene then goes on to unfold as both characters enter some form of exchange, Chatterton picking up the wooden doll and giving it to the anonymous child who gives it back in turn. The passage ends up with Chatterton’s leaving the place on an urgent errand, haunted by the idea of the other’s vulnerability (‘Better to give him arsenic, Chatterton thinks, than to leave him undefended against this harsh world . . . but there is no time now.’ [210; ellipsis in the original]), and promising that he will be back on the following day even while re-enacting the original forsaking.

14The passage clearly promotes the idea of care; it chooses to picture vulnerability and takes the risk of falling into mawkishness the better to favour such positive values as responsibility for the other and the recognition of the interdependence among citizens, one of the most basic tenets of the ethics of care (Gaille and Laugier 11). Once again, as with the previous development about trauma, I would tend to see the use of the poetics of the ruin as naturally suited to the evocation of states of vulnerability, as if the fragment, itself an emblem and reminder of the frailty of all edifices, were always already iconic of human and social forms of frailty. More specifically, I would argue that the ruinous fragment rather directly figures the ability not to win or rise but rather to fall and fail. Turning his back on the cult of performance that dominates contemporary global culture, and concentrating on the meek and downtrodden of yesteryear and their contemporary inheritors, Ackroyd seems to be intent on making the invisible visible. This is achieved fairly literally in the passage under study, as what is considered as social refuse in the guise of the outcast, forsaken boy, cowering in invisibility in the darkness of the invisible house is made to stand in the light of day through the collapse of the building and Chatterton’s intervention. The vulnerable form of the building appears as an image of human and social vulnerability. This is strikingly expressed in a passage that, as mentioned above, takes the risk of mawkishness and thus exposes itself to easy criticism. Said differently, the novel resorts to what may be considered vulnerable narrative form to stage an effect of maximum diegetic vulnerability. The ethics of the ruin, or rather the ethics of ruin representation, are seen to triumph once again. This may be what Robert Ginsberg captures in one of his commentaries on the ruin as incongruity: ‘In making the original invisible, the ruin makes visible what is not meant to be seen. The hidden becomes evident, while what ordinarily is present is absent’ (Ginsberg 51). I would ultimately argue that such a shift in visibility calls for a new vision based on the imperative of attention to the vulnerable in particular and to the other more generally. The hole of the ruin addresses that of the traumatised, vulnerable subject, and vice versa, so much so that what the literary representation of the ruin in Ackroyd’s text effects is a mutual opening.

15Far from using modalities of the assertive, imperative type, the passage under study favours the expression of excuses and reparations, at least under the guise of promises: ‘I will come to you again. Tomorrow. I will come here tomorrow. He makes a movement with his hands to suggest the next day. Tomorrow. I will be here. Your friend. Tom comes here’ (210–11). The expression of tonal vulnerability through pathos, the expression of narrative vulnerability through excrescence, and the expression of modal vulnerability through the resort to the apologetic converge to build up a vulnerable form, some urn of language (Derrida 1987, 37) built out of the tattered fabric of a poetics of ruins. Through this medium are promoted the values of attention to the vulnerable other and of vulnerability to the other, in which interdependency is envisaged in terms of listening to each other’s traumata (Caruth 1996, 8) and needs.

16Even if Ackroyd revisits some topoi of the romantic vision of Englishness by apprehending ruins in sublime terms in a novel that returns to the period that saw the emergence of the sublime, it seems fairly obvious that his use of a poetics of ruins is less concerned with a moral or aesthetic function (Morlier 26) than with an ethical function. The fictional representation of ruins, whether real or imaginary, is very much akin in its impulse to the eighteenth-century practice of the creation of ruins, even as it shifts to the literary and the linguistic medium. Yet, I would argue that what characterises his attention to ruins is their aptness to be iconic of individual and cultural trauma. The ruins image seems to have evolved from the domain of the predominantly aesthetic, when with the romantic turn they were used to summon the powers of the imagination—together with its limits in the case of the sublime—to that of ethics, by which I mean the ethics of alterity inspired by Levinas’s writings, but also the branch of ethics that is very much concerned with care. As may be seen in the conclusion of The House of Doctor Dee where the values of generosity are seen to triumph or in Chatterton, but also in many of Ackroyd’s novels, the ethics of attention to the invisible other are promoted. This invisible other may be that of the socially underprivileged, as made clear in The Great Fire of London or in English Music, but also the other of time and of dominant culture. At the heart of the ultra liberal 1980s et 1990s, by resorting to a poetics of ruins, Ackroyd issues less a warning than an invitation to take into account the vulnerable, traumatised side of an English culture that he has tried to define throughout his œuvre.

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1 Makarius even goes so far as to claim that in the post World War Two era, ruins no longer refer to the past but to the present (208). Walter Benjamin famously insisted on the anti-totalising, allegorical power of the ruin, which he opposed to the totalising power of the romantic symbol. In Benjamin’s conception, the allegory is given pride of place, on account of its demythifying aspect, and ruins are seen as process, an apprehension that is germane with that of ruins as allegories of trauma (see Benjamin 166).

2 For more details on this fragment, see Ganteau 86–96.

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Jean-Michel Ganteau

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3—EMMA.
Jean-Michel Ganteau is Professor of Contemporary British Literature at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 (France), where he chaired the Department of English Studies for four years and co-chaired the CERVEC research team between 2004 and 2010. He is at the moment in charge of the postgraduate programmes and is the Director of the Doctoral School (ED 58). He is the editor of the journal Études britanniques contemporaines. He is the author of two monographs: David Lodge: le choix de l’éloquence (Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2001) and Peter Ackroyd et la musique du passé (Michel Houdiard, 2008). He is also the editor, with Christine Reynier, of four volumes of essays Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Literature (Publications Montpellier 3, 2005), Impersonality and Emotion in Twentieth-Century British Arts (Presses universitaires de la Méditerrannée, 2007), Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Literature (PULM, 2010), Autonomy and Commitment in Twentieth-Century British Arts (PULM, 2012). He has also edited three volumes of essays in collaboration with Susana Onega, The Ethical Component in Experimental British Fiction since the 1960s (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007), Trauma and Ethics in Contemporary British Literature (Rodopi, 2011), and Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature (Routledge, 2012). He has edited special issues of various journals (Études anglaises, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens). He has published on contemporary British fiction, with a special interest in the ethics of affects (as manifest in such aesthetic resurgences and concretions as the baroque, kitsch, camp, melodrama, romance), in France and abroad (other European countries, the USA) as chapters in edited volumes or in such journals as Miscelánea, Anglia, Symbolism, The Cambridge Quarterly, etc.

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