Jarry said that “if we haven’t destroyed the ruins, we haven’t destroyed anything,” earning some kind of status as the forefather of dada or even punk, with a Wildean punch. The phrase also crystalizes a new meaning for his absurdist play Ubu Roi, by suggesting that traces of the past, cherished with an archeological precision by our official “cultures” and authoritative “histories”, are not as likely as we would hope to bless us with a sense of continuity and rootedness. Just as often, they are positioned there to recreate the future, in the mold of a present ideology always on the verge of extinction. The ruins are not “from the past” except in the narrowest sense. The first task of a revolutionary is to destroy the reinvented altars of a mythic old order, free them from their appointed significance.
For example: do you believe in cowboys? You are aware, of course, that no one in the 19th century actually did the things that Gene Autry did in the 20th. Just as clearly, no one in the 19th-century longed for tradition in precisely that beautiful way; Autry got more stars on Hollywood Boulevard than anyone, but what they don’t tell you is that he was among the first people to resemble what we now know to be a “cowboy”.
Shouldn’t we likewise suspect that no one was ever connected personally or passionately to “nature”, or “the harvest”, or even to religion, until modernity taught us to feel alienated from those mythical, fictional things? Go into the country and see for yourself. For the sake of argument, go there in 1910. See there, a boy on an onion farm with a horse and a wood stove. He may or may not say that he does not care for modern things, and may say that he spends hours before dawn at a fishing hole, thinking that his love for the fishing hole is a love from across the ages, not a modern invention. That much is to be expected. But his romance for the eternal past is a powerfully modern reason to live, and we have little evidence that such a thing was felt very much before our time.
Think of cowboys now in their heyday: the American 1930s and 1940s. We always knew, even when cowboys were at their most exciting, that it was the cavalry, not the hired help at ranches, who fought the Indians. It’s not clear that stetson hats were often worn. Or whether six-guns were even a common sight … how could they be? They were so expensive, so hard to care for, so prone to misfires. But at a certain time long after the rise of automobiles, you went to a ranch, and you saw that cowboys DO exist, because they had finally arrived. Rodeos were like musical reviews, with ponies… television clarified everything for us in costume, riding technique, and marksmanship … but the cowboys arrived for more than just performances, more than just the symbols of American exceptionalism and rugged individualism, that we always make them out to be. They arrived then to BE that new individual, that new American, in which we could aspire to stand, and from which we could stand magically apart.