The Elegance of Decay

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
T. S. Eliot

The falling apart. The breaking down. The return to elements. Out of the realm of recognition to simply matter. And then, to not matter at all.

Everywhere, there is a slow constancy of decay. Decay is what happens when time throws itself in full gale against matter. Against nature.1

elegance of decay
The breaking down of London. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

We exist in time and space. What we lack in space we try to regain in time. Stretching our body’s elasticity. Death happens when matter fails to keep pace with time.2

But stretch as we try, even our time dimension is minuscule compared to tortoises’. To trees’. To oceans’. To stars’.

Notwithstanding tortoises, in the end, all of these—all of us—entangle with decay. And we lose.

That impulse to withstand decay is—at its extreme—one of the creepiest aspects of humanity. It’s the impulse to embalm Lenin. Literally. Vladimir Lenin has avoided decay since his death in 1924. An embalming process that renders the former leader a waxen figure with the appearance of one who has been honey-glazed. I saw him fifteen years ago. Lenin is still lying in Moscow, honey-glazed, and I’ve most certainly begun to decay. Is there comfort in Lenin still being Lenin? (Is Lenin still Lenin?)

Decay is so horrible. We revel in its absence and revile its presence.

elegance of decay
The signs of decay are everywhere. Visible to any curious eye. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

There is a curiosity in Guanajuato, Mexico, where the bodies buried after a 1833 cholera outbreak have been oddly preserved by wrappings and clay soil. Now, they are oddly preserved in a museum. I saw them twenty years ago. They are still there, having changed less than I have. Is there comfort in their consistency?

Not unlike the peoples of Pompeii who were covered instantly with ash and entombed in 79 AD. I saw these remnants maybe ten years ago at the Boston Museum of Science with my mother.

Neither of us were sure if we were supposed to be proud, transgressed, empathetic, or merely in awe of science. Both of us have changed immensely since then. I fear her decay outpaces my own. At a certain age, it happens. I suspect the Pompeiians have not changed.

We think we avoid decay. But there is no such thing. We’ve just pushed it out of our lifespan. (And beyond for those who opt for cremation.)

As I write this, it is the hottest day ever recorded in the United Kingdom, and we have a new Prime Minister. Things are breaking down. The air is cloyingly thick and fecund with rampant atoms and elements. Things returning from whence they came. Time is ravaging everything. Will Nature surrender?

Almost a century ago, American-born British poet T.S. Eliot witnessed and lamented a similar feeling:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Eliot wrote this most famous poem, “The Waste Land,” in the hollowed aftermath of his failed first marriage and the First World War. In this mindset, he held “fear in a handful of dust.” What would he have written today?

elegance of decay
As things decay, the materials rebound in vibrant new colors and patterns. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Although the heat of today is novel, the decay is not. Not in Britain. The disintegration of the once-great British Empire has been a headline feature of the 20th century. A political-scientist friend confessed recently, all this country has going for it is nostalgia.3

George Mikes’s humorous, truthful, and timeless guide, How To Be a Brit, has an interesting chapter on the British penchant for decline.

The greatest days of Rome were its days of decline: The most splendid period of the Bourbon monarchy was the period before the Revolution. It is more elegant wise and stylish to decay than to flourish; better to decline than to pant, rush around, sweat and get hoarse in vulgar bargaining.

Mikes was a Hungarian immigrant to Britain who, like all of us immigrants, adapted to the country best he could and then supposed it would be appropriate to reflect on the British using their own humor against them. Mikes achieved this better than most, which is why this 1946 book is still in print. That being said, except for the quality of writing, it is almost imperceptible from modern accounts.

I agree with the British about this; I too prefer constructive decay to futile progress. But one has to know how to decay; one must learn how to be decadent. You must desire to decay, yet your inborn excellence, your splendid human qualities, your shining character may keep you on the top. Or else, you might overdo it and decay a shade too speedily.

Look carefully: Britain shows us how to decay. Keep calm and carry on (decaying). Elegance.

(Well, it did before Brexit.)

The world, the universe, every single thing we know and don’t know would not work without decay. Its agents (worms and bacteria), its byproducts (cheese and dirt), its sufferers (the entire human race), our beloved pets, empires, old oak timbers, and, with an exceedingly enormous allowance of time, our ever-constant stars.

As Nature tries her best to specialize, to make trees, stars, coral, a human brain (and then those specializations aggregate to make other specializations—we make forests, empires, reefs), Time shakes its head. “I will allow you, Nature, some coral and human brain but only for so long. This is not the state of things.” “What about the stars?” responds Nature. “In the stars you have put your very soul,” answers Time. “They can last longer.”

Sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, known for his great (permanent) wall, cairn, and arch installations, also makes up to two “ephemeral works” a day.

These works are made for a particular place and may last anything from a few minutes to a few days. They are an exploration of the land, often made without knowing what the result will be. They are intuitive responses to light, material, time, weather. They need to make mistakes, and sometimes to produce bad works is part of the process. I have far more failures than successes.

Wetting leaves on river stones, threading grass through branches, standing ice sheets on end—all ephemeral works. The sharpened teeth of decay waiting in the wings to tear apart this human invention. But its brief existence meant something. Goldsworthy simply makes more, better.

Nature does the same. More complexity, more ingenuity each time, fed with the decay of the old. She has learned how to use decay as part of the process.

elegance of decay
If you look beyond the context of decay, beyond the utility of form, beyond what the item was, you can see the intrinsic value of the materials. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Albeit tyrannical, decay isn’t greedy. It isn’t deceitful. Nothing is present that isn’t needed, and nothing is needed that isn’t present. It is the most tidy of henchmen. It is elegant. To push against it is inelegant.

It is, moreover, its own reward. A beauteous simplicity, suggests philosopher Hannah Arendt:

Although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.

Our contemplation of decay is complex because it is a contemplation of mortality. As I’ve written elsewhere, you cannot always exist. But you will always have existed.

I would hitch up these fragments against my ruins, hold them fast. I would find myself in a forest, under an oak, pressed into coal. Waiting for that drill bit. My atoms released into fires and furnaces, then somehow cleaned, into the air and part of all things.

If you change your notion of being, you will always be. Decay is elegance. There is comfort in that. Much more so than a glazed, petrified Lenin.