In praise of decrepitude

September 26, 2019

Seeing this right in front of our eyes makes it easier to understand what were doing to the planet

I was reading a travel narrative, and the writer used a word that struck me in an epiphanal way. Theroux was describing his coastal tour of Britain (The Kingdom by the Sea) as “long coastal stretches of decrepitude.”

That I wanted Carol and I to see what he was writing about on our own upcoming trip (“…what had been villages well served by railway lines had become curiously anorexic-looking and tumble down, somehow deserving the epitaph from ‘Ozymandias.'”) struck me as very odd: I wanted to sightsee. As I read on (“defunct viaducts, abandoned cuttings, former railway stations, ruined railway bridges) it occurred to me Theroux was describing what 1500 years from now would be the ancient ruins of a then former world empire. The funny thing is the current existing sites of 1500 year-old ruins hold no interest for me. In fact little is more boring than a well-preserved and properly docented or audiophoned historic pile of slave-constructed rocks, except for maybe the section of medieval religious paintings in a typical European art museum.

I’ve realized my eye is naturally drawn to the sullied and sorry

Yet I long to see these contemporary skeletal remains representing the final gasps of the British Empire. Part of it is the cautionary tale of our own impending Decline and Fall of which America appears in its incipient stages. Part is also the schadenfreude of seeing it occurring to our former lords and masters. A final part – for me, anyway – is the visual commentary on an economic system that ultimately functions to reward greed and concentrate wealth. In other words, it serves as pre-apocalyptic vision of the world, all to be enjoyed with popcorn, fish and chips and a pint o’ bitters.

Naples seemed ground zero for the post apocalypse

I’m not being a Negative Nancy here. All empires eventually fail. Certainly the Roman ruins we so revere today attest to that. When I started to think about it, I realized that decrepitude is more visually interesting to me than almost any modern architecture. In this country as well as Europe, trains pulling out of their stations initially parallel rusted and abandoned warehouses. I pour over them in detail, noting the broken windows, the hulking ghostlike emptiness within and I think about all the hope and expectation for prosperity that went into erecting that colossus of glass and steel. And then I think about the desolation and despair that permeated the place the day the pink slips were distributed. I realize this is why I travel: to experience the full range of the divine comedy of human economic existence.

All these pics were my idea too!

It’s not all Sturm and Drang. Big architecture still impresses me greatly, especially when you can see it on a distant horizon. (I’m thinking here of France’s Mont St. Michel, stately visible from 20 miles away.) But I also am stimulated by the weedy, overgrown failed farms with their dilapidated barns and crumbling farm houses that roll by on a long train ride. Reminders of how nothing lasts forever and prosperity is not guaranteed are valuable life lessons that getting out and seeing those parts of the world that represent utter failure and decomposition can be so life affirming.

Happily, it falls to Carol to take most of the pictures, so none of you will be subject to any of my cheery, post apocalyptic visions.

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