On the (un)natural history of destruction

For the past few years, the old postal building next to the central library in Amsterdam has been slowly dismantled. Literally piece by piece. In the couple of years leading up to its destruction it was the temporary site for Amsterdam’s museum for contemporary art, and when the building was finally shut down and they started to slowly take it apart, you could see the walls painted with the directions to and information for the last exhibit held there, bared to the elements in a sad sort of display of, well, temporality.

The idea that nothing endures is harder to trust in Europe, steeped in history, than say, in Canada, whose history is literally taken over by its landscape on a regular basis. Though I was in Berlin last week, not for the first time, and what struck me most was the deliberate merging of the historical and the contemporary. Out of necessity. Twice in the span of 45 years.

In the Berlin of today there is hardly any trace of destruction. I did not see anything there that resembled the rubble of the former postal building in Amsterdam, but quite the opposite. It was as though Berlin was complete, and Amsterdam is ironically the city that seems to be forever reinventing itself; I cannot go for even the shortest bike ride without being diverted because of construction. The ever-increasing piles of rebar and debris stacked in front of the gradually thinning postal building reminded me of a passage of Sebald’s I’d read a few years ago, from On The Natural History of Destruction, imagining the postwar landscape of Germany:

“Let us therefore imagine ‘the charred ruins of the city, a dark and jagged silhouette far away beyond the allotments, towering above the railway embankment,’ and in front of them a landscape of low mounds of rubble the colour of cement, with great clouds of dry, red-brick dust drifting over the lifeless surroundings, a single human figure poking about in the detritus, a tram stop in the middle of nowhere, people emerging suddenly and… apparently out of nowhere, as if they had sprung from the gray scree, invisibly, inaudibly… out of this void… ghosts whose path and whose goal could not be perceived: figures burdened with parcels and sacks, crates and cartons.’ Let us go back with them to the city where they live, down the streets where moraines of rubble reach up to the second floors of the burnt-out facades. We see people who have lit small fires in the open… and are cooking their food or boiling up their laundry on those fires. We see stovepipes emerging from the remains of walls, smoke slowly dispersing, an old woman in a head scarf with a coal shovel in her hand. The Fatherland must have looked something like that in 1945. Stig Dagerman describes the lives of the cave dwellers in a city in the Ruhr: the unappetizing meals they concocted from dirty, wrinkled vegetables and dubious scraps of meat, the cold and hunger that reigned in those underground caverns, the evil fumes, the water that always stood on the cellar floors, the coughing children and their battered and sodden shoes. Dagerman describes schoolrooms in which the broken windowpanes were replaced by school slates, and where it was so dark that the children could not read the textbooks in front of them.” (pp. 36-7)

This is the horror that my parents grew up in, a horror not as great as the other, but still legitimate. It’s up to my generation and later ones to bridge the gap. Distance makes the connections. Distance can look at the rubble and not retreat, become, even obsessed with it.