Lights among the ruins

The New York Times reports today on what it calls the "Pompeii of World War II," an abandoned village in Italy now "overtaken by vines and lime trees."
That village is San Pietro, an "11th-century cobblestone mountain village nestled among wild figs and cactus," as well as the scene of months of horrific fighting between Allied and German troops.

[Image: The reconstructed abbey atop Monte Cassino, as photographed by Stephanie Kuykendal for The New York Times].

Nearby, atop Monte Cassino, was "one of the holiest sites in Christendom," a monastery "founded by St. Benedict in the sixth century, a shrine of Western civilization" – indeed, "a center of art and culture dating back nearly to the Roman Empire" – which the Allies bombed into rubble, suspecting (or not suspecting, but caught up nonetheless in the machinations of bad intelligence and unquestioned orders) that German troops had taken refuge there.
"After the battle ended," we read, the entire chain of small mountain valleys in which San Pietro once stood "would be left uninhabitable for years, demolished by Allied bombs, beset by malaria."
So this may be a bit rambling, and otherwise unrelated, but while working on The BLDGBLOG Book tonight (due out Spring 2009! from Chronicle Books! buy loads!), I was re-reading W.G. Sebald's extraordinary On the Natural History of Destruction.
At one point in the book Sebald describes the literally shell-locked life of people who had managed to stay on in the destroyed cities of northern Germany during WWII. He describes "the unappetizing meals they concocted from dirty, wrinkled vegetables and dubious scraps of meat, the cold and hunger that reigned in those underground caverns, the evil fumes, the water that always stood on the cellar floors, the coughing children and their battered and sodden shoes."
Battling grotesquely bloated rats and enormous green flies, these "cave dwellers," as Sebald calls them, lived with the "multiplication of species that are usually suppressed in every possible way," amidst the gravel and shattered windowframes of their now "ravaged city."
Based on an eyewitness account written by an Allied Air Commander, Sebald then refers to "the terrible and deeply disturbing sight of the apparently aimless wanderings of millions of homeless people amidst the monstrous destruction, [which] makes it clear how close to extinction many of them really were in the ruined cities at the end of the war."
For some reason the next line just haunts me:
    No one knew where the homeless stayed, although lights among the ruins after dark showed where they had moved in.
Which leads me to ask myself whether it's simply a factor of my age – I'm not exactly getting younger here – though I do drink a lot of orange juice – or if it's something more closely related to the weirdly militarized political climate in which we now live, but I've started to react to things like this with a kind of concentrated studiousness, as if reading – absurdly – for advice on how to survive my own generation's coming, perhaps even more calamitous, future.
What "monstrous destruction" of world war and oil shortages and global terror and climate change might we, too, have to face someday?
In twenty years' time will I be out holding up some pathetic light among the ruins of a destroyed city, wondering where my wife is, dying of thirst, deaf in one ear, covered in radiation burns?
Or is that just a peculiarly American form of pessimist survivalism? Or do I just read too much Sebald?

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Anonymous mrs. deane said...

Nah, I don't think it's only peculiar American to think this way. Read my reflections on Andrew Moore's photography
here
. Moore may be American, but I'm firmly rooted in Europe. But then again, there are so many people for who this is already reality...

September 30, 2007 4:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those people caught up in WWII... Did *they* think they'd end up living in a crater?

I think it's a good idea to get your friends together to teach each other how to make biodiesel. Attend a Rainbow gathering. Learn some skillz, d00d.

September 30, 2007 6:00 AM  
Blogger alan said...

you're articulating something shared, important, and moving here. I sense the basis of the book intro...?

September 30, 2007 2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In twenty years' time will I be out holding up some pathetic light among the ruins of a destroyed city, wondering where my wife is, dying of thirst, deaf in one ear, covered in radiation burns? "

yes, if you make it that long

September 30, 2007 5:38 PM  
Anonymous candice said...

There are people now living in ruined houses down in parts of new orleans... like some of the people squatting in flooded-out ruins because they have nowhere else to go. Some of the immigrant workers are doing that as well.

(And from my personal experience, if you make it past the apocalypse, it looks like a zombie movie. Think London in 28 weeks later. Movie gave me flashbacks.)

September 30, 2007 10:21 PM  
Blogger Brendan said...

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom."

--Soren Kierkegaard


I used to agree with this quote...but lately, not so much.

October 01, 2007 1:05 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

You have spoken on your endless fascination with the end of the world before.

Aside from real world wars or imagined nuclear wars, (and of course the natural disasters) maybe you should check out a few places like St. Louis (MO/IL) or Detroit, where the apocalypse has already happened, not for a hand-of-god catastrophe, but just due to economic factors. Last time I stayed with some friends in a nice part of st. louis and one in three of the buildings were abandoned.


This is distressing now only because of it's absence; in the seventies and eighties any big town like NYC or LA had its end-of-the-world section. Now the apocalypse enthusiast has to go much further out.

October 01, 2007 1:08 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Curiously, another blog I frequent has just used that same Sebald quote: http://laughingbone.blogspot.com/

October 01, 2007 4:09 AM  
Blogger Will said...

At the beginning of 1940, Europe was still broadly intact, with only a little damage here and there. At the beginning of 1945 it was in ruins. And by 1950 civilisation was up and running again, recovering strongly. The shared European memory of all that is, yes, catastrophe can come quickly - but it's by no means the end.

October 01, 2007 7:58 AM  
Blogger Yanurama said...

As another poster noted, we are resilent enough to somehow survive and later thrive, this is cold comfort, but think of recent Europe and Japan. Not bad, eh?
Now, the game has changed and a globalized world means that if we fall there's nobody else strong enough to help but be suffered.
So, endings might not be final, but long and unbereable.

October 01, 2007 9:43 AM  
Blogger D said...

Is your book available for pre-order anywhere?

October 01, 2007 11:20 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

D, the book will probably be available for pre-order by... November 2008? December? At least a year from now. It's a very, very long process, unfortunately - but stick around, and it'll be worth it.

Michael wrote: Curiously, another blog I frequent has just used that same Sebald quote – but you'll notice that they link to BLDGBLOG at the end of it.

And my point with this post was less to pull my hair out with worry and say that the world is coming to an end, than to suggest that it feels increasingly possible that I, and my generation, are not moving toward peaceful retirement on endless well-maintained southern golf courses of the future, but that we are heading toward catastrophes of starvation, violence, and urban electricitylessness, fighting disease and so on, experiencing something that we are almost undoubtedly insufficiently prepared for.

And so when I read accounts of postwar urban ruin and so on, a strange part of me feels like I am reading for hints of what's to come. And I attribute this either to a distinctly American post-9/11 paranoia or to a genuine, if badly articulated, sense of what today's antagonistic state of things will eventually lead us all to.

October 01, 2007 1:28 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

Which leads me to ask myself whether it's simply a factor of my age – I'm not exactly getting younger here – though I do drink a lot of orange juice – or if it's something more closely related to the weirdly militarized political climate in which we now live, but I've started to react to things like this with a kind of concentrated studiousness, as if reading – absurdly – for advice on how to survive my own generation's coming, perhaps even more calamitous, future.


I suspect I'm a bit older than you (41), but this pretty well describes my attitude to reading about warfare and disaster ever since I was a little kid.

It does seem increasingly prevalent these days, though. I have a number of idle theories about why that is, which don't bear going into here. But it does strike me that the literature you're talking about here could almost be a secular martyrology, with some of the same normative and preparatory functions as traditional ones. (Which I suppose raises the question of which beliefs we'd refuse to renounce, no matter what punishments we invite.)

Oddly enough, I used to know a girl who taught herself to write with her left hand after reading an account of Medieval punishments, just in case her right one ever got chopped off. It pays to think ahead!

October 01, 2007 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's more frightening is that this is essentially the way most of the world lives already. Have you noticed that almost half of Africa is underwater right now? This worse-case-scenario is happening, so I'd stop worrying about whether or not it will come to you.

October 01, 2007 7:28 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Davis said...

I share your fascination with Sebald and the horrors of end-of-war Germany.

I assembled some links to additional reading on this grim and upsetting subject:

Remembering Dresden

The Mongol Devestations

Remembering Dresden Again

October 01, 2007 7:51 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I'm glad that you brought up the NY Times reference to the "Pompeii of WWII." That comparison seems to turn the effects of the Allied air war into a natural disaster - something that requires no explanation or justification.

I guess I should be able to fit this in to the Sebald (especially considering he's talking about a "natural history"), but it's been a while since I've read it.

October 02, 2007 10:19 AM  
Blogger pilgrim said...

First thing: you can't read too much Sebald. There isn't "too much" of his stuff to be read, sadly.

AS for the end of the world, I really don't know. No-one does. But of the exciting range of future possibilities, good and bad, I suspect the good ones are becoming more and more remote and implausible.

I concur with the commenter who advised the acquisition of mad skillz.

October 02, 2007 1:29 PM  

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