Paradise is a garden of ruins

First, a childhood memory:

I take part in a class outing to the local archaeological park. We spend a rainy morning wandering the ruins of an ancient Gallo-Roman thermae complex. There's no guide. No signs or "teaching aids". The teachers are a bit overwhelmed. We're off again pretty quickly. This notion of wandering in the rain amidst excavated stone walls has stuck with me for good.

Growing up in the midst of ruins - in other words, in contact with impermanence itself – is an excellent lesson.

*

Second: I like lo-fi photos: they're pixelated and unreliable like my memories.

They are my memories: I remember my life only through the photos that attest to my existence. 

The ones that trouble me most are the ones from my twenties; the first digital photos, pixelated, blurred, poorly lit, ridiculously undersized today, so that when you zoom in, what you see seems to be a screenshot from a bad video filmed through the thickness of centuries by scientists who had finally succeeded in inventing time travel.

*

Daguerreotypes. Sepia, then black-and-white photos. Polaroids. Poor-quality digital photos – nothing better measures the passage of time, the distance in time, than the outdated, inadequate nature of the old techniques for capturing the world.

The reign of HD marks the end of the passage of time, the entry into the perpetual present – that Hell.

*

I like lo-fi photos. I like ruins. And what is an old, badly scanned or pixelated photo but a ruin of a memory? 

*

The faded colors of a silver photo, the pixelation of an undersized digital image, just like the hissing of an old cassette or the creaking of a deteriorating vinyl, all point to the fragility of any document or testimony – memories included.

The memories of my youth are also fragmentary ruins: laconic photos, diary entries, e-mails and paper letters; tangible but unreliable memories, elliptical, mysterious, as elusive as those of a stranger.

*

My memory is a garden of ruins in the middle of which I wander, trying to identify the fragments and debris on which my gaze rests. Self-archaeology. Interpretation, exegesis of my own existence. Theories. Unverifiable hypotheses. Intimate esotericism: seeking synthesis, information, hidden knowledge, about oneself, in the fragments of one's own life.

*

My twenties were saturated with esotericism and ruins, both real and imagined: those surrounding my small town, which I'll talk about in detail later; those of the abandoned houses my friends and I visited as teenagers; those of the fortified castles I visited with my family during our summer vacations or excursions.

The mysterious ruins, full of danger and treasure, that role-playing games brought to life.

The Sumerian remains sung by bands like Fields of the Nephilim or Garden of Delight.

I used to hang out with "people in black", as we called ourselves, and our mental universe was made up of witchy countryside, overgrown cemeteries, Victorian interiors and rubble of all kinds: ancient, medieval or industrial ruins, bunkers, abandoned prisons.

We tamed our terror of death by frequenting it assiduously, giving it tokens.

We visited, anxious and ecstatic, 19th-century fortifications, half-abandoned villages, castles of which only a few sections of wall remained.

We haunted forests in search of old towers and cemeteries.

We'd come home to drink absinthe and lose ourselves a little longer in the contemplation of Simon Marsden's photographs or Jean-Marc Dauvergne's paintings.

*

Even at night I dream of ruins.

I'm with other people, girls and boys on an island, in the ruins of some rather well-preserved red-brick buildings – it's reminiscent of a garden of industrial ruins. I take some photos and, as if by magic, when I open the camera, the film is developed; they look like slides. We look at them together, sitting on the green grass.

[...]

With P. and my parents. We travel in gigantic buses, packed with tourists. We visit well-kept castle ruins in rolling countryside.

[...]

Near Hombourg-Haut... A hilly area, dead trees, a main road. The sky is gray, desolate forests in the distance. I'm standing on a kind of structure made of bridges and squares, above the water, in large stones, like an ancient ruin. Other people are walking around, like tourists. On one of these platforms, you can see down into a large cavity, closed by bars, with skulls behind.

[...]

I'm visiting some ruins with a man with whom I was supposed to be working on a building site. We arrive at the site and I point out the few old, abandoned shacks, telling him that it drives me crazy to see these dwellings, once inhabited by the first citizens of this place, now in this state. As we move on, there are nothing but ruins, more and more gigantic – ancient domes, multi-storey walls, or, conversely, we see below us underground floors now uncovered, almost abyssal – remains of swimming pools, assemblies, gardens. It's breathtaking and dizzying.

*

These real and dreamlike ruins are the primitive landscapes of my childhood; my own Eden, my own garden of delights.

I grew up in a region saturated with archaeological sites.

A region of forests and valleys, rain and gray skies, at the crossroads of France and Germany, but above all at the crossroads of all the centuries.

Leaving my hometown, on this winding road between river and forest, you go back in time in the space of a few kilometers, from ruin to ruin: the red-brick industrial buildings of the earthenware industry, of which only sections of the walls and a few chimneys remain; then, in the next village, the remains of a fortified castle, adjoined by an abandoned Jewish cemetery; continuing in the same direction, you go back in time again, kilometer after kilometer, to a Gallo-Roman site where excavated thermal baths end with the tomb of a Celtic princess.

An impression of eternity hangs over the whole valley. You feel far from the stakes of time, far from your own life, at the crossroads of all times; and of all collapses, all endings, all ruins.

*

Twenty or so years ago, one of my friends and I returned to the garden of industrial ruins that marks the exit from my hometown. Former earthenware factories, by the river and deep in the forest, now peaceful and silent.

During our visit, little girls ran giggling through the overgrown remains. Playing in the ruins is not playing on a playground. It's being alive, and the future of the world – not a farmed human.

A hundred years ago, the sky was black, in the middle of the day, from the fumes given off by the multiple production and baking sites all over the city. I have a quasi-infernal image of it, not helped by the few books I've read on the subject, about the harshness of work in those days, including child labor. But everything comes to an end.

Today, this place of exploitation and misfortune, then of wandering and meditation, is no more; it has been replaced by its parody, its carbon copy – above all in line with tourist and cultural needs. Explanatory panels, audio guides and educational videos every two meters.

*

And yet we love ruins that present themselves as a pure, bygone past, almost entirely destroyed, and not as something that still lives on through tradition or skilfully cultivated memory; still less as a perpetual present – this Hell in which we live.

The relics, equipped with interactive touch screens, audioguides and explanatory panels, represent the transformation of the world into an amusement park, and the undivided reign of the present. But that's not enough to soothe our devastated hearts' need for ruins.

We want ruins that look like ruins and nothing else.

Ruins – be they Roman, medieval, industrial – that are peaceful and comforting, because they show that they are the ruins of a past oppression, of a closed chapter in the history of the unlivable world in which humans were born.

Places of misfortune, symbols of oppression and injustice, which we can see are now out of harm's way. That their evil power is gone. That they can no longer inspire fear or respect.

We would walk among them as if among the skeletons of immense animals, monstrous, terrifying, finally dead.