On Ruined Time and Space

Ricky Varghese

What can be said about the ruin that hasn’t already been said, that won’t in itself be a repetition, in that classical psychoanalytic sense of the word ‘repetition,’ of the very essence of the said and/or the unsaid be it in the scene of philosophical contemplation or aesthetic practice? Straddling the line between these two—the distillation of the ruin through thought and thinking vis-à-vis old school philosophical contemplation and the assiduous precipitation of cultural objects inspired by the ruin and, dare I say, subsequently manufactured (to be viewed, admired, fetishized, commemorated and obsessed over vis-à-vis thought and thinking) under the heading of aesthetic practice, perhaps it might be most wise in the time and space allocated to me here to think the ruin more or less anecdotally.

An experience culled from childhood memory has always already been rather instructive toward my interest and desire to situate the study of the ruin somewhere within and between theoretical explorations regarding memory and history. As a child, my first experience in understanding the figural nature of the ruin did not come in the form of an interest in ‘merely’ observing architectural loss and material decay, looking at moss and rust—though, to be sure, those were also fascinations, profound obsessions, for me—rather, my earliest memory of confronting the ruin came to me from within an experience of attempting to learn my mother tongue, Malayalam, and the temporalities of the past, present and future as they were explained to me always already implicit in its linguistic discourse. Here, my first encounter with the ruin was not spatial; rather, it was temporal, linguistic, perhaps even pedagogical.

Malayalam was always a difficult language for me. Malayalam, my mother tongue, is the language of those who hail from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala; Kerala made, in a manner of speaking, globally famous in equal measures by Arundhati Roy’s evocative 1997 novel The God of Small Things and also by its longstanding history of being one of the only places on earth that has consistently, as in the manner of on-and-off love affair since its inception as a state in 1956, democratically elected a communist party into the position of power yielding the possibility for state governance; ‘there was always a Kerala there, that thin, tiny strip of green and melancholy earth, watery, moist, murky, suffocated by the Arabian Sea to one side, speckled with rivers, streams, estuaries, backwaters, swamps, rice fields, and green marshes, long before Roy’s beautiful novel,’ I could be heard saying to my friends and colleagues in the global north and west. But, I digress here—I waste time, ruin time, kill it, by the stalling tactic I employ, guaranteed to me by the stagnancy of nostalgia, of being nostalgic.

Moving on.

In such a scene, Malayalam was difficult for me, precisely for what appeared, at least at first glance, to be the watery fluidity—a fluidity opposed to linearity, as I’ll explain shortly—with which it dealt with time, temporality, memory, and historicity. Learning Malayalam as I did, as a child, from my mother and my maternal grandfather—perhaps my most precious inheritance—was weighed down by an uncanny, again in the Freudian sense of the term, realization; a coming to, an arrival at, a realization of something, some ‘thing’—an experience of time itself, perhaps—implicit within the language itself about time and how temporality is (or can be) traumatically experienced and can always already be in a state of ruin, a state of being able to both distill and precipitate the annulment of any sense of linearity or a linear historicity. Let me get into the nitty-gritty heart of the matter at hand here.

The Malayalam word for yesterday is ‘ennale,’ while the word for today is ‘ennu,’ and for tomorrow ‘naaley.’ Separated, broken up, re-inscribed by and through the replacement of a mere letter or two in the original Malayalam script and, as well, in its transliteration into English, these words that signal the past, the present, and the future-to-come appear to stage linguistically a struggle, a struggle with and against temporality, not quite unlike that of the Angel of History, as described by Walter Benjamin in Thesis IX of his Theses on the Philosophy of History:
My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.

-Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from Angelus”

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[1]
As such, the ‘ennale’ of yesterday appears to anticipate both the today it has given itself over to and the tomorrow as yet to arrive, that might never truly arrive except be merely—‘merely’—called, always already, by its proper name, not quite unlike a parent calling a child by its name and suddenly realizing the child is no longer merely a child, but an adult, having become inheritor of all of the parent's pathos. Similarly the ‘naaley’ of tomorrow remembers the yesterday already now long gone and the today that will be in the throes of its own dying, imminently, too soon, only to attempt to rise phoenix-like, to become the future, l'avenir, always anticipated, always deferred as ‘naaley,’ existing as both persistence and insistence—‘I'll remember; there will always be more to remember—to be remembered—tomorrow and every other tomorrow that will come hereafter.’

Time in this/such a scene is not linear at all despite appearances. Appearances can be profoundly deceptive when speaking of memory and historical time. As Kaja Silverman elsewhere suggests, in her powerful study of Marguerite Duras’s and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour, remembering becomes an exercise in learning to see, or rather, realizing the ‘failure to see.’[2] Similarly, poet Anne Michaels, in a dialogue with John Berger, published under the heading Raitracks, said, ‘at ten, I was an old hand at the task of looking to remember. That is certainly how I thought of it even then, looking in order to remember.’[3] Look closely at the rupture—that was the lesson I learned from learning my mother tongue, from inheriting it. Let not appearance be deceptive, let not appearance tell you that time is (or can always be presumed to be) linear, that time cannot be broken, like a space or an architectural entity.

Here time, or rather temporality, as such, exists precisely in the rupture in language itself, the rupture that language itself signifies—by a tentative syllable or a plaintive letter. In this rupture, or ruin, which is also a still life, a stilling of life, in a manner of speaking, as such, lives and dies both all desire and all trauma (the acquisition of what you most feared you desired), both catastrophe (Benjamin's ‘missing of the opportunity’[4]) and redemption, both mourning and melancholia (mourning time, while simultaneously holding on to it with a near-pathological fervor, Freud's melancholia). Linear time becomes annulled, as is the case in the silences that inform and puncture the landscape of a psychoanalytic session, silences that break apart notions of linear sensibilities around which speech, narrativization, and personal historicity appear to be organized. In speech itself for me, within Malayalam, all time became a remembrance of the time that has long passed us by, while also a remembrance of/for a future that will never truly arrive, but we keep hoping, kept hoping, kept repeating hope, pathologically (Kafka's ghost looms over us having already suggested the emptiness of this hope: ‘hope, an infinite amount, but none for us’[5]). All time, in this linguistic scene, became a ruin as well, and a ruining of hope, but also a redemption of hope in being able to see what remains in the aftermath of lost time; an aftermath in which both living and dying, simultaneously, take place in the same instance, surreptitiously.

The resonance of this with what Benjamin has suggested regarding the ruin should not be missed: ‘[in] the ruin, history has physically merged into the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay’.[6] The ruin only becomes as such when both time and space become metonymically conjoined in the effort to rethink the past and to think futurity, both in the face and time of present life and living. It was with some of these thoughts in mind that I initially proposed this issue of Drain on the topic of the ‘ruin’; to invite projects that considered both the time and the space of the ruin, both in theory and practice, in discourse and its continued deferral. And so, I return to my inaugurating question, what can be said about the ruin that hasn’t already been said, that won’t in itself be a repetition? My hope for this issue, which I feel has been achieved through the various projects that have been invited to participate here, is that it has been nothing but repetition, a retrieval, a revival, and a form of remembrance, and simultaneously a necessary and still consequential rupture in that gesture of remembrance—a remembrance, a rupture, and a repetition of both remembrance and its rupture that one can hear in the utterance of those words that signify time, both its life and death: ennale, ennu, and naaley.

[1] Benjamin, Walter. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ in Hannah Arendt (ed.) Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257.
[2] Silverman, Kaja. ‘The Cure by Love.’ Public. No. 32, 2005, 32.
[3] Berger, John and Michaels, Anne. Railtracks (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012), 48.
[4] Benjamin, Walter. ‘Convolute N: On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress,’ in Rolf Tiedmann (ed.) and Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (trans.) The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999), 474.
[5] Kafka, Franz. “The Coming of the Messiah.’ The Basic Kafka (New York: Pocket Books, 1984), 182.
[6] Benjamin, Walter. ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel,’ in John Osborne (trans.) The Origin of the German Tragic Drama (London: Verso, 2009), 177-178.

Ricky Varghese received his PhD through the Department of Social Justice Education (formerly known as the Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education) at OISE/University of Toronto. He, as well, holds an MA from the same department, and a BSW from York University and an MSW from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Social Work. He works as a psychotherapist in private practice in downtown Toronto. His research interests extend across the fields of psychoanalytic theory, aesthetics, art criticism and film theory. In the space of art writing, he has written about Gerhard Richter, Vincent Chevalier, Francisco-Fernando Granados, and, more recently, Henning Rogge. He is presently at work on a book project that addresses the temporalities of sex, specifically of barebacking and the time of the future anterior, and the role of AIDS in the history of sexuality as depicted in queer male pornography and in the work of Canadian artist Vincent Chevalier. utoronto.academia.edu/RickyVarghese