Of Monuments and Ruins

by Travis Scholl

I was recently reminded that the word nostalgia has Greek roots: nostos for home and algia (from algos) for pain, longing, loss. But the Greek roots are not ancient. The word was invented by a Swiss medical student named Johannes Hofer in the dissertation he completed in 1688. Thus, nostalgia is distinctively modern in a way that is meant to feel, ironically enough, nostalgically ancient. In her landmark study The Future of Nostalgia, the late literary scholar Svetlana Boym distinguished between what she called “restorative” and “reflective” nostalgia. In her own words:

Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. . . . Restorative nostalgia manifests itself in total reconstructions of monuments of the past, while reflective nostalgia lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.[1]

Restorative nostalgia erects monuments to a repristinated past; reflective nostalgia sits among the left-behind ruins. One glorifies while the other laments. Versions of history, memory, truth, and hope are all involved in either process.

I mention it because, as I write this, we just marked the one-year anniversary of COVID-19 designated as a global pandemic. We were saturated again with the images our minds have made of what March 2020 was like, the residues of what happened when the word zoom became both verb and noun. Each of us contains within ourselves a version of history, memory, truth, and hope of a year that makes a carousel of images circling our mind’s eye, the beam of light cast through translucent slides to project still lives against the blank wall.

I suspect whoever it was who wrote Don Draper’s pitch for the final episode of the first season of Mad Men had to have been reading The Future of Nostalgia. The florescent lights in the conference room go dark. Don Draper flips the switch on the Kodak slide projector. The beam of pure light. Click. A photograph of his own children—Sally and Bobby—projects on the blank screen. “Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound…” Click. A photo of Don himself eating a hot dog with his blonde goddess wife Betty. “…the twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Click. This is the moment I was hooked on Mad Men as perhaps the best episodic narrative I have ever watched on television. Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the way it tapped into my own nostalgia, my earliest childhood memories occurring in the decade after the decade it portrays.  

It is unmistakable that, in Dr. Boym’s view, one version of nostalgia is bad and the other good. Who wouldn’t see it that way? Restorative nostalgia fabricates granite and bronze into shrines of a lost cause called the Confederacy. A century later, reflective nostalgia tears them down.

But I wonder if it is always that simple. Or easy. The one-year anniversary just marked is only a prelude to an anniversary we will mark in a few months, twenty years after its fact. That bright late-summer, early-fall Tuesday morning in September. The slide projector is now cell phone video, an endless repetition of images. Fire in the sky. Shafts of air made solid by a billowing tide of smoke and ash.

Remember how every TV channel became a 24-hour news network for weeks after September 11, 2001? I can’t shake the framed headshot in my mind of Tom Brokaw narrating whatever happened at Ground Zero ten minutes prior to the words he was then speaking. Somebody was typing and typing and typing the words, minute by minute, that went into the teleprompter before the camera went live and he began to read the lines out loud.

Nostos means home. Algia means pain, longing, loss. The compound we’ve made of it is the twinge in your heart, an old wound. The way we say it out loud, it can be hard to tell if you put emphasis on the nostos or the algia.

I remember sitting in my cubicle that morning, talking on the phone to my fiancé—now my wife—and the only thing I remember her saying is why aren’t they letting you go home?

It was only a few years ago that we finally were able to walk through what has been made of Ground Zero in downtown New York City. The spire of a tower taller than the twins it replaced. Two large squares cut into a void of the concrete earth, the walls of water on each side running down to their basement floors. All the proper names etched in dark stone.

Only now do I think to ask: Is what I saw restorative or reflective? Monument or ruin? 

I’ll be evasive and say it depends. It depends on where you were in 2001. Or 2020. Or 2021. It depends on who you’ve lost. It depends on how much pain still salts the old wound.

I have to confess that when I was recently reminded of the nostalgic roots of the word nostalgia it made me think of the words I write. The words I read too. Every memoir is, in its own way, a work of nostalgia. Every essay too. Is it restorative or reflective? Monument or ruin?

I suspect which is which depends on what the writer was thinking or feeling or doing at the moment of the writing. Likewise, the reader at the moment of reading. The essay I make of the essay I read is something different from the lines printed on the pages of the book I just closed.

The monument can become the ruin. And vice versa.

There is an old church that still stands in the western heart of the city of Berlin, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. It was raided by Allied bombs in 1943. All that was left was a damaged belfry and a section of the narthex. The church was built at the end of the nineteenth century by Kaiser Wilhelm II to honor his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I. It was built in a traditionalist, Romanesque Revival style, a monument to its medieval predecessor. I admit, though, something of what is left of its sawed-off, green-bronze spire suggests to me a hint of the Gothic. It was carved out of yellowish-blonde tuff stone, volcanic ash pressurized into rock. The gilded metal hands of the clock above the archway keep a still moment in time.

In the years after World War II, rather than rebuild the church, what was left of the monument was memorialized as a ruin. When you walk under the archway, you feel the dissonance of it, the formerly enclosed neo-medieval space exposed to open air. Your eyes are drawn upward through the half-spire, into the vision of blue sky dotted with clouds.

Right next to it in the plaza, the architect Egon Eiermann designed a new sanctuary, a modernist masterpiece, a honeycomb of concrete and blue-stained glass. The glass was inspired by the famously high Gothic of Chartres Cathedral in France. But the building is more horizontal than vertical, angled in the shape of a flat-roofed octagon, a nod to the eight-sided baptismal font. Or what the church has historically called “the waters of rebirth.” Inside, the space is enclosed but likewise open, every shaft of light tinted to a blue as deep as van Gogh’s midnight. Standing within the new sanctuary beside the old, it would seem the only sound it might allow is whispers.

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. Photo courtesy of the author.

During the two days of my life I have spent in Berlin, I walked through both, awestruck at the dawn of a new millennium, almost a year exactly to the date before the Twin Towers fell. Only now, in the blue-stained lines of Boym’s book, do I begin to understand what I felt of awe. Only now do I understand how a monument became a ruin, glory to lament, the blinding sheen dulled to the flat patina time always makes of what we make. There is a rebirth there, the wash of water, the rain we let fall in the open-air belfry. The patter you hear of the drops—either below you on the stone floor or above you against the flat roof—taps the rhythm of a dream.

The plaza where sits a ruin next to monument. Vice versa. Restorative and reflective nostalgia in the same place at the same time.

Berlin. New York City. Saint Louis, Missouri: this painted-brick house almost a hundred years old, a honeycomb within which I have thought or felt or done nearly everything I have thought or felt or done for a year and counting, including the typing and typing and typing of these words, in rhythm like rain, none of which are said out loud. The word nostos compounded with the word algia. Which is which?

Ruin or monument? These very lines you now read, the patina of a lost home, the dream of another place and another time.

Travis Scholl’s current work-in-progress, a hybrid essay collection, was recently named a finalist for the Gournay Prize in the 21st Century Essays series. His most recent essays and poems have appeared in Essay DailyFourth Genre, and Saint Katherine Review. He teaches at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, where he edits the Concordia Journal.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, New York: Basic Books, 2001, 41.

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