Professor discusses significance of ruins

On Tuesday evening at the Whitney Humanities Center, Princeton professor Susan Stewart emphasized the interdisciplinary significance of ruins.

The broad span of Stewart’s talk, entitled “The Ruins Lesson,” reflected her multifaceted academic background. Stewart, a professor of English who also teaches in Princeton’s Art and Archaeology Department, is the director of Princeton’s Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. In front of a crowd of roughly 40, Stewart drew from literature, such as Shakespearian sonnets and excerpts from old English prose, as well as from Italian prints and paintings to discuss the importance of ruins in the field of history. Stewart also linked humankind’s fascination with ruins to topics such as sexuality and nature and highlighted the role ruins have played in Western art and literature beyond their architectural value.

“The thematic of ruins has been explored far more than their aesthetic consequences,” Stewart said. “As we respond to ruins, we translate material into ideas.”

To support the connection between ruins and nature, Stewart showed various images from European history featuring nature emerging in conjunction with ruins. Stewart explained that the presence of ruins in art has enabled artists and observers to view the interplay between nature and human products.

Stewart remarked on the philosophical value of ruins — examining ruins enables people to change the way they think about the world, she said.

Stewart’s talk relates to her current research, which focuses on the way ruins were regarded during transitional points in history. Investigation into the historical significance of ruins is a worthwhile task for any academic in the humanities because it has broad consequences for a variety of fields, she noted, as it raises questions of form and meaning.

Gary Tomlinson, director of the Whitney Humanities Center, said that he considers Stewart “a philosopher of poetic and artistic creativity.”

Eve Houghton ’17, who attended the lecture, said she enjoyed Stewart’s ability to connect ruins to art. English professor Ben Glaser, who delivered the introductory remarks, said that reading Stewart’s perspectives reminds him of the way poets envision the world.

“I thought it was a fascinating tracing of the idea of ruins in poetry,” Houghton said.

Stewart’s most recent book, “The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making,” was published by University of Chicago Press in 2011.

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