Review Arts History

Such Beautiful Debris

About: Alain Schnapp, Une histoire universelle des ruines. Des origines aux Lumières, Seuil

by Géraldine Sfez , 16 February 2023
translated by Susannah Dale
with the support of

In his monumental history of ruins, Alain Schnapp gives an account of the multiple ways to resist oblivion, both material and immaterial. Ruins are not so much objects as processes implemented by societies in order to contemplate their place in history.

“The secret appeal of ruins”

In this book of striking dimensions and beautiful iconography, Alain Schnapp, archaeologist and historian, founder and former director of the French National Institute for the History of Art (INHA), attempts to trace a history of the concept of ruins. “Not a history of all ruins in all societies, but an attempt to stratigraphically explore the concept of ruins across diverse cultures that have left us traces of their interest in or aversion to the past” (p. 10). From the outset, Alain Schnapp applies a deliberately broad understanding of ruins in order to take into account, beyond their material remains, the multiple ways in which societies conceive their relationship to the past. From the very first pages, drawing on Chateaubriand’s reflections in Génie du Christianisme, the author widens the scope of the notion and introduces the idea of a universal concept of ruins that is not limited to monuments but also includes traces and immaterial constructions. Following the example of the author of Mémoires d’outre-tombe, for whom the fascination of ruins lies in “a secret conformity between these destroyed monuments and the rapidity of our existence” [1], Schnapp detects in all humans:

Paestum, planche V, 1778

the secret appeal of ruins, even for those who do not use the term. I am not suggesting that the notion of a ruin is consubstantial to all societies, but that its potential absence, or even rejection, is a cultural trait that merits examination. I therefore take ’a universal history of ruins’ to mean a questioning of differences, not a graduated scale of values from ’ruinist’ societies to societies without ruins. (p. 36)

In order to deploy this “universal history” and free ourselves from an overly modern and European-centered conception of ruins — imposed during the Enlightenment — Schnapp proposes to shift our perception of the notion by dissociating ruin from monument. He clarifies that a monument is neither necessary nor sufficient for there to be a ruin: the traces, poems, landscapes and collective rites are evidence, as much as the material constructions, of a close link to the past. “To understand the rest of the world, we must replace the term ’monument’ with that of ’trace’ and consider the simple imprint of human action on the ground and the landscape just as much as the most intentional architectures.” (p. 35-36). This consideration of what could be called “an expanded field of ruins” makes the reflection both exciting and rich.

Combinations of memory

For Schnapp, ruins are ultimately not so much objects as processes implemented by societies in order to contemplate their place in history. To trace a “universal history” of ruins is therefore to explore the diversity and complexity of those processes, while being particularly attentive to the multiple tensions that run through them. As the author notes, the interpretation of ruins always oscillates between several polarities: nature and culture, memory and oblivion, materiality and immateriality. Each society has its own unique relationship with the past, and a kind of combination of memories takes shape.

Some societies are built on an almost unwavering commitment to collective memory, such as ancient China, and have developed specific instruments to protect their heritage, both immaterial and material. Others have considered the ruins to be nothing more than piles of stones or bricks to be disposed of profitably. Still others have, themselves, organized the cyclical destruction of their light wood and thatch structures in order to better rebuild them. The notion of a ruin should not be limited to stone architecture: it appears in other forms, just as visible in the Chinese world as in certain African or Oceanic societies. It can take a vague form which combines orality and materiality. (pp. 14-15)

From the most immaterial to the most concrete; from the story passed down through the generations to the pyramids designed to capture the imagination, Schnapp undertakes a meticulous and erudite exploration of the logics of memory. He lists the countless ways of resisting oblivion, of which we will only be able to give a few examples here. Among the objects of memory mentioned, the Aboriginal tjurunga stands out: traditional oval-shaped objects, carved in stone or wood and engraved with symbolic signs, which are a material representation of the ancestor’s reincarnation. It is also worth mentioning the Buddhist monks of medieval Tibet who buried theological treatises in the ground of their temples, thus leaving to chance and time the discovery of the “hidden teachings” and thus of what they considered to be the most sacred.

This gesture is reminiscent of the Mesopotamians who, in the foundations of their buildings, concealed tablets covered with inscriptions, which served as instructions for their descendants. Schnapp analyzes this practice at length in a chapter devoted to the memorial strategies of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. While the former conceived their relationship to the past as a necessarily living link, hidden in the “foundation bricks”, and which must be reactivated by the generations to come, the latter related to it in a much more imposing and ostentatious way. In this respect, Schnapp notes that the Egyptians’ cult for monuments bordered on obsession. Each pharaoh, competing with his predecessors and successors, strived to build “monuments of eternity”.

Churinga d’un homme Aranda (Australie)
dans Levi-Strauss, La Pensée sauvage

In contrast to the Egyptians’ posturing as great builders, we find ephemeral constructions that involve relentlessly repeating a task in order to reactivate memory processes. In Japan, for example, “In the shrine of the imperial family in Ise, a ritual takes place every 20 years in which a new wooden, thatched temple is built next to the old temple. When the new construction is completed, the previous temple is dismantled: this ritual has been meticulously repeated since the 8th century,” (p. 40). From a different perspective, but also based on a form of dematerialization of memory, there is the Jewish tradition which, after the fall of the Second Temple, favored oral and written transmission, literally making the Talmud a “textual monument” that replaced the destroyed Temple. Orality and the ephemeral nature of materials and constructions can thus, like monuments, embody forms of resistance to oblivion.

Ruins in the collective imagination

Cyprien Gaillard

The dialectic between stones and words is central to the book. Although Schnapp’s study is based on numerous historical, archaeological and anthropological sources, it also draws repeatedly on multiple literary texts. These forays into literature — from Chateaubriand to Ismaïl Kadaré, Jorge Luis Borgès and Francis Ponge and his prose poem “Notes for a Shell” — show the extent and power of ruins in the collective imagination.

The author weaves a link between his research and these texts which, since the matrix narratives of the Tower of Babel and the fall of Troy, testify to an awareness and a poetry of ruins. In doing so, he highlights the need to make a detour through fiction in order to fully grasp an object, thus echoing the remarks of the British anthropologist Tim Ingold, for whom: “Scholarship and poetry, as well as science and faith, have been aligned on either side of a division between reality and imagination. This division has caused considerable harm and should be erased.” [2] Poetry, myths, and novels are essential elements in this history of ruins.

Schnapp returns several times to the fascination that the Great Wall of China exerted over Kafka, Borgès and Kadaré, each of whom dedicated a short story to it [3]. Although the three writers approach the monument differently, the historian notes that their fables come together in the same unambiguous conclusion: “the rulers’ concern with memory embodied in a megalomaniacal construction is somewhat trivial, totalitarian and vain” (p. 654). According to him, these tales teach a fundamental lesson on the use and the collective function of monuments. This is particularly true of Kafka’s short story, which focus on the loss of meaning suffered by those walls that were built in a piecemeal fashion and without knowing why, but which continue to haunt the landscape. Schnapp, extending the writer’s point, explains that although nothing guarantees the survival of the message of grandeur of monumental undertakings,

It is certain that they alter the landscape and, therefore, influence the consciousness that successive generations may have of the past. From these installations an aura emerges that no one can escape: these monuments are semiophores whose meaning is lost, but which continue to emit a signal that each generation receives and can interpret as it wishes (p. 27).

“And there will be a tumbling wreck of the whole world” [4]

Temple ta Som
Angkor, Cambodge

The cover image of this comprehensive book depicts the Angkor Wat temple overgrown with roots and vegetation, a perfect symbiosis between nature and culture, past and present. The book continually opens up and redeploys the concept of ’ruin’. The complexity of that idea, and the need to not adhere to an overly reductive definition that enhances ruins as monuments, forms the book’s central theme. Throughout his study, Alain Schnapp thus endeavors to alter and broaden the notion, albeit at the risk of sometimes disorienting the reader with these multiple pathways.

Finally, this reflection on the past unfolds into a broader reflection on time. Ruins take us back to a bygone era, but, in their own way, they also project us into the future, as seen in the genre of the “anticipated ruins” that is found throughout history, from the writings of Thucydides to Benjamin Péret’s essay, “Ruins. Ruin of ruins”, in which the surrealist poet imagined archaeologists in the distant future discovering “the gigantic fossil of that unique animal, the Eiffel Tower...”. [5] This is still echoed today in contemporary art, for example in Cyprien Gaillard’s series of etchings entitled “Belief in the Age of Disbelief” (2005). This series blends views of high-rise buildings with antique prints and, like Piranesi’s etchings, highlights the impermanence of things but also the strange beauty of ruins.

Alain Schnapp, Une histoire universelle des ruines. Des origines aux Lumières, Paris, Seuil, « La Librairie du XXIe siècle », 2020, 744 p., 49 €.

Dossier's Articles

by Géraldine Sfez, 16 February 2023

Further reading

• Egaña Miguel et Schefer Olivier (sous la dir.), Esthétique des ruines. Poïétique de la destruction, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015.
• Riegl Aloïs, Le Culte moderne des monuments. Son essence et sa genèse, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2013.
• Schnapp Alain, Ruines. Essai de perspective comparée, Dijon, Les Presses du réel, 2015.
• Scott Diane, Ruine. Invention d’un objet critique, Paris, Les Prairies ordinaires, 2019.
Josef Koudelka. Ruines, BNF.
• France Culture, « La Grande Table », Olivia Gesbert, avec Alain Schnapp, 18 novembre 2020
• Cyprien Gaillard, série d’eaux fortes « Croyance en une époque d’incrédulité », 2005 (Collection MAC/VAL).

To quote this article :

Géraldine Sfez, « Such Beautiful Debris », Books and Ideas , 16 February 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at We will get back to you as soon as possible.


[1Chateaubriand, Génie du Christianisme, Gallimard, “La Pléiade”, 1976, vol. I, p. 250 (quoted p. 10).

[2Tim Ingold, Walking with Dragons, Points, Sensitive Areas, 2013, p. 15.

[3Franz Kafka, La Muraille de Chine, Gallimard, “Folio”, 2018; Jorge Luis Borges, La Muraille et les livres dans Œuvres complètes, Gallimard, “La Pléiade”, vol. I, 1993; Ismaïl Kadaré, “La grande muraille” in Le Firman aveugle followed by Autres récits, Stock, 1997.

[4Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, VI, verse 607.

[5Benjamin Péret, “Ruines. Ruine des ruines”. Minotaure, 12-13, 1939 (quoted in A. Schnapp, p. 19): “One day, when the memories […] have disappeared from the minds of men, perhaps one might find the gigantic fossil of that unique animal, the Eiffel Tower...”.

Our partners

© - Any replication forbidden without the explicit consent of the editors. - Mentions légales - webdesign : Abel Poucet