The Cryptic Meaning of Decay

I came upon this old eyesore while rambling on the backroads last week.  It struck me as an emblem of the Church generally—untended, collapsing, and cruelly stripped of the echo of past glory that lends charm to a sublime ruin. Tax records list the owner as the Mission de Christo Jesus, an outfit that seems to have gone under, but my theme in this post is the cryptic meaning of such decay.

Mission de Christo Jesus, Old Port Sullivan, Texas

* * * * *

There are two paths of decay, one leading to ruins that are shabby, the other to ruins sublime. This is because some materials decay beautifully, and other materials do not.  Stone is perhaps the outstanding example of materials of the first sort.  A beautiful mountain is nothing but stone in decay.  And it is generally the case that weathered stone is more beautiful than stone freshly exposed, as can be seen by comparing a natural scarp or old quarry with the gash of a fresh excavation.

We see much the same thing in the decay of wood.  A rotting log is often beautiful (although this can less often be said about rotting boards and beams).  Weathered wood is also very often beautiful, as every collector of driftwood and barn board knows.  But there are to my knowledge no collectors of old plywood, because plywood follows the other path and grows shabby with age and decay.

Plywood is, to be sure, a very practical modern building material, but it grows ugly as it grows old.  Plastic is the same, as is fiberglass, as is concrete, as are the cinderblocks of which the Mission de Christo Jesus is so largely constructed.  Bricks can go either way, with old bricks mellowing in a way that modern (and structurally superior) bricks do not.

As a rule, modern materials make good and cheap buildings, but shabby ruins.  And in this there is a cryptic meaning

* * * * *

A “shab” was once a low and contemptable man, and more particularly a man who had fallen into reduced circumstances while retaining the decayed trappings of his former finery.  Shabby clothing was not peasant garb, but rather down-at-heels and threadbare finery.  Shabby manners were not uncouth manners, but rather gracious manners employed by designing knaves.  Here is how Jonathan Swift described the descent into shabbiness in Directions to Servants, a satire he published in 1745.  He is warning a footman against squandering his wages on cheap finery in the hope of appearing a gentleman.

“Be not proud in prosperity: you have heard that Fortune turns on a wheel; if you have a good place [i.e. position], you are at the top of the wheel.  Remember [however] how often you have been stripped, and kicked out of doors, your wages all taken up beforehand, and spent in translated [i.e. used] red-heeled shoes, second-hand toupees, and repaired lace ruffles . . . . Remember how soon you grew shabby, thread-bare, and out of heels.”

* * * * *

Many authors have tried to define the word sublime, and most seem to agree that it denotes a sense of being in the presence of greatness.  Not the brummagem greatness of a footman decked out in a gentleman’s castoff finery, but a greatness that actually exceeds appearances.

The Roman writer Longinius said that “sublimity is an echo from greatness of mind,” which I would simplify to the proposition that sublimity is an echo from greatness.  In the case of a sublime ruin, it is an echo of past greatness that evokes a sweet sadness—sad due to the sense of loss, sweet due to the sense of partial recovery.  As Byron put it in Don Juan, a sublime ruin takes us halfway back to the days when it was new.

“A grey wall, a green ruin, rusty pike,
Make my soul pass the equinoctial line
Between the present and past worlds, and hover
Upon their airy confine, half-seas over.”

* * * * *

Here is the window of another abandoned church I saw on last week’s backroad ramble.  You may disagree, but this makes my soul pass over the equinoctial line and hover on the airy confine of past and present.  It is, at least for me, sublime in a way that the ruin of the Mission de Christo Jesus not.

St. Paul Methodist Church, Calvert, Texas

The reason is the difference in their material and design.  A lancet window suggests exalted doings within, whereas the windows of the Mission de Christo Jesus are just rectangular holes.  Indeed, if you (or a stiff wind) removed its cockeyed steeple, the old Mission de Christo Jesus might be mistaken for a barracks or a barn.  But decayed modern materials are the real cause of the shabbiness of the Mission de Christo Jesus, and this is the cryptic meaning of the ruin.  It was, no doubt, efficient to build a house of worship out of cinder blocks, plywood, glazed brick and sheet metal.  The standardized aluminum windows were no doubt cheap and easy to install.

But like so many products of the modern world these modern materials aged badly and now give a bad name to everything old.  They persuade the unwary that old always means shabby, never sublime.   They prevent our souls from crossing that equinoctial line between the present and past worlds, from hovering half-seas over.

“I think of a white road crossing a hill,
And a ruined church where no man passes,
And a tombstone lying hushed and still
And a north wind whispering thro’ the grasses.”

John Cowper Powys, “The Grave” (1917)

Mud Creek Valley, Robertson County, Texas

11 thoughts on “The Cryptic Meaning of Decay

  1. JM, what is your appraisal of the following definition of “sublime,” which I read long ago as being a summary of the most common 19th-Century view?
    The “sublime” is that which is terrifyingly formidable, viewed from a safe distance. Definitive examples being the glaciers of Antarctica and the surface of the Moon.
    I don’t recall the author or the work, but he wrote that in the 19th Century every writer who aspired to seriousness wrote an essay on the Beautiful versus the Sublime.

    • That sounds a lot like Edmund Burke, who as you say wrote a book on the B&S. My sense is that beauty had to be restful and harmonious, whereas the sublime was always somewhat frightening. I recall one writer saying something like it was the “awful” (not the modern awful, but rather causing awe) viewed from a position of safety. It clearly has a lot in common with what theologians call “holy terror,” and almost always carried a religious connotation. It’s what most people feel when they stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon or look into a bottomless starry sky–a heady combination of wonder and fear.

  2. Pingback: The Cryptic Meaning of Decay | Reaction Times

  3. You’ve really tapped an elegiac tone this past week, which I have found quite soothing. Recent events really press me to remind myself that nostalgia is fine, but rehashing regrets is ultimately without benefit. Moving forward in a time of shadows demands a fortitude born of calm acceptance; and I am grateful for everyone and everything that adds so much as a pebble to that wall.

  4. “Cristo” without an “H”.

    “Christo” for spanish-speaking people sounds like if you write “Jhon” instead of “John” or “Petr” instead of “Peter”.

    Take care.


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