The Delightfully Out-of-Control Sentences of a Writer in Love With Ruins


Morgan Meis in The New Yorker:

A few pages into Robert Harbison’s “Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery,” I had to stop, catch my breath, and laugh. Harbison opens the book by reflecting on a chunk of the Pergamon frieze, which was part of a second-century B.C. altar and which depicts, among other things, the mythical battle between the Greek gods and giants. The chunk somehow ended up in the “decayed industrial town” of Worksop, in Nottinghamshire, England. Meditations on the frieze lead Harbison to Peter Weiss’s “immense historico-political novel ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance,’ ” a book composed of “unwieldy blocks” of prose, not unlike the unwieldy fragments of stone that the Pergamon frieze has become over time. From Weiss we move on to Bernardino de Sahagún and Guaman Poma, “two preservers of the native cultures of Mexico and Peru.” Sahagún’s “General History of the Artifacts of New Spain” (1575-7) interests Harbison primarily because it was suppressed in Spain and “disappeared for two centuries until the hand-coloured original was discovered in the national library of Florence in the eighteenth century.” A paragraph or two about Poma and Sahagún and Harbison is off to a garbage dump in “the vanished Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus,” where fragments of lost plays by Aeschylus have been discovered. We are eight pages into the book.

Robert Harbison is a hard figure to pin down. He’s an expert on architecture—at least, he lectures about architecture here and there, though he doesn’t hold a position at any institution. He wrote a book called “Eccentric Spaces,” which was first published in 1977, and in 2000 was reissued by M.I.T. Press. On its website, M.I.T. Press explains that the book concerns “the mysterious interplay between the imagination and the spaces it has made for itself to live in.” Richard Todd, in a review of the book for the Atlantic Monthly, wrote that “Eccentric Spaces” “awakens the reader to the space around him” and described the book as “a reminder of how much we want from the world.” Reading these descriptions and others, one gets the sense that many smart people like Robert Harbison’s writing and aren’t entirely sure what it’s about.

More here.