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Life in Ruins

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Abstract

After ‘the destruction of Nineveh’, warns the Book of Zephaniah, ‘the desert owl and the screech owl shall lodge on its capitals, the raven croak on its thresholds’. For millennia, writers and artists have been fascinated by ruins, and in particular by the return of nature following human abandonment. This lecture explores the cultural history of ‘ruinism’, and the counterfactual visions in modern art and literature of how nature might thrive in a world without us – of life in ruins. Moving from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s figure of the ‘New Zealander’, who sits surveying an enjungled London, through to Cormac McCarthy’s recent post-apocalypse novel The Road, and travelling by way of Japanese anime films, the Cold War, copper sulphate crystals, Max Ernst, concrete, and the writing of the naturalist-poet Edward Thomas (1878–1917), I want to investigate a persistent paradox of apocalyptic art, which is that in order to abolish the world imaginatively it is necessary simultaneously to summon it into being. The lecture will start with a thought-experiment that involves the entire audience.

Biography

Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of English. He is the author of Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (Granta: 2003), The Wild Places (Granta: 2007), Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature (OUP: 2007), and The Old Ways (forthcoming from Penguin, June 2012). His books have won numerous national and international awards, and two of them have been filmed by the BBC . He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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