The last couple weeks have been a real struggle for me personally and professionally. I’ve been sort of drifting through my days in a post-COVID fog and have found it incredibly difficult to focus enough to write anything longer than a few sentences. This is particularly intense in the afternoons when I start to fatigue. I remain optimistic that this will pass eventually, but it has led me to shift some of my limited attention from longer and more concentration intensive work like revising book chapters to shorter work. In an effort to make a virtue out of a necessity, I prepared this short response to a pair of poems published in Shawn Graham’s Epoiesen last year. I wrote a rough draft of it last week, but after some reflection on Mark Bould’s recent book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (Verso 2021) and an assist from Sarah Bond on Twitter, I was able to expand my short post into something a bit more substantive. Shawn has graciously accepted my response and I look forward to it appearing over at Epoiesen later this year.
Here’s what I have to say:
Pompeii has an enduring place in our modern cultural imagination. Excavations at the site, and their often grisly discoveries, have come to stand in for any number of modern situations from the intimate pain of personal heartbreak to horrors of the Shoah, industrialization, and the looming climate catastrophe. I’d like to propose Mary K. Lindberg’s poems on Pompeii continue in this tradition.
The release of Cate Le Bon’s latest album titled Pompeii coincided with my reading of Lindberg’s poems and spurred my reflection. Le Bon’s album while refined, cohesive, and thoughtful, is not a concept album, and it doesn’t seem to connect with the site beyond including a song of the same title. In this song, however, Le Bon evokes a longstanding trope associated with Pompeii through a swirl of reverberating synths:
You’re a mess
You’re a sight Did you dream about Pompeii?
Your eyes always give it away
Cities built on monumental rage
Getting lost in the seminar…
The idea of dreaming about Pompeii invokes Sigmund Freud’s well-known treatise, Delusion and Dream: an Interpretation in the Light of Psychoanalysis of Gravida (1907) which interrogates Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gravida (1903) through the lens of psychoanalysis. The main character in Jensen’s novel, Harold, an archaeologists, fell in love with an ancient relief carving which he calls Gravida. After a dream about the destruction of Pompeii and Gravida’s demise, he traveled to the site and while there, he saw a woman who looks like Gravida, but was alive and well. The woman was, in fact, Zoë Bertgang, a former neighbor of Harold’s on whom he had a childhood crush. Freud in his treatise, Delusion and Dream, excavated Harold’s dream of Gravida and argued that it was, in fact, a manifestation of his sublimated love for his former neighbor who he just happened to encounter in Pompeii. Thus, Harold’s passion for the Gravida relief and archaeology as a discipline was an expression of his repressed passion for this woman. Zoë understood this and cured Harold by at times imitating Gravida and at other times gently directing Harold’s attention from his fantasy to reality. Freud’s work both revealed his longstanding interest in excavation as a metaphor for bringing the complex working of the unconscious mind to light and demonstrated the utility of his psychoanalytical methods for considering works of literature.
It is hard to escape this long Freudian shadow when reading Mary K. Lindberg’s first poem, “Book Lover.” The narrator in the poem is a freedman, Aristo, who survives the first shocks of Vesuvius’s eruption, but dies in the pyroclastic flow the next day. He was a librarian whose love for books surpassed that for even his family(or perhaps the family of his former master who also perished in the eruption. He was found by excavators still clutching his keys to the library. In another poem, “The House of the Deer,” a wealthy Roman family hoped to escape Vesuvius’s eruption by seeking shelter in the boathouses by the sea. As they fled they grabbed jewelry and coins, but in the end, even with their worldly goods, they died among the fishy nets of boats. Like Harold’s desire for the sculpted Gravida, the characters in Lindberg’s poems appear to displace their desire for family, safety, and home onto material things even as Pompeii crumbled around them. In both poems, Lindberg includes figures rushing about with pillows tied to their heads as if begging the reader to reflect on our dreamtime displacements. These desperate figures seem to embody our own pillow-headed efforts to capture our dreams as they flee the probing fingers of our conscious mind and solidifies the dream-like quality of the poems which capture individuals at the moment of crisis.
Reading these poems and listening to Cate Le Bon’s oneiric voice ask “Did you dream about Pompeii?” begged me to consider how “cities built on monumental rage” had became “lost in the seminar.” Primo Levi’s haunting poem “The Girl-Child of Pompeii” (1978 [1984 in Italian and 1992 in English]) offered a depressing clue. The poem juxtaposes the plaster cast of a child who died in the eruption of Vesuvius while clutching her mother with Anne Frank and the famous Hiroshima blast shadow of the girl jumping rope. This poem was brought to my attention by Joanna Paul’s chapter in Pompeii in the Public Imagination ((2011) edited by Paul and Shelley Halles). Pompeii’s monumental rage has made it a timeless vessel for the past horrors of the Holocaust and the looming anxiety of the nuclear age: “Since everyone’s anguish is our own | We live ours over again…” Cities built on rage reverberate across the centuries suffusing the seminar with displaced anxieties.
The anguished dreams of Le Bon, Lindberg, and Levi jarred me. I’ve never been to Pompeii, but I nevertheless feel like the city looms over our contemporary world in a million cautionary tales. Perhaps Malcolm Lowry’s short story, “Present Estate of Pompeii,” published in the Partisan Review in 1959 offers a perspective on Pompeii’s appropriate to our present time. In the story, Roderick MacGregor Fairhaven and his wife travel to Pompeii by train where she insistently takes her husband on a tour of the site. Roderick is distracted and finds the site’s “tragic because almost successful — effort at permenance.” And, in keeping with the Pompeii’s status as a place of displaced dreams, Roderick noted that “it looked sometimes as though the Romans here had made all their dreams come true in terms of convenience, wicked and good alike.” Pompeii was an ancient city reshaped by modern priorities.
The dream transported Roderick back to his home in British Columbia where his cabin stood across the bay from an oil refinery. As the Italian tour guide escorted him and his wife around Pompeii, Roderick recalled the violent explosion of oil tanker Salinas as it unloaded its cargo at the refinery. Mark Bould in his new book, The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture (2021) argues that most contemporary fiction manifests our displaced anxieties about climate change. Lowry’s story appears to anticipate this. The ancient and ruined convenience of Pompeii collided with the mechanism of convenience in the contemporary age as the flames from the burning ship subsided and the ship itself slipped away sparing the refinery an even greater calamity. The dead sun of Lindberg’s Pompeii and Lowry’s sun “as the fiery hub to a gigantic black-disked wheel tired by a rainbow” of spilled oil traced the calamity’s global proportions. The ruins of Pompeii were the ruins of the refinery and the ruins of convenience, wealth, and arrogance. Pompeii, whatever else it was, can, or could be reminded Roderick that “Man had become a raven staring at a ruined heronry. Well, let him deduce his own ravenhood from it if he could.”
As the specter of the global climate change looms over contemporary society, the site of Pompeii takes on new meaning for contemporary writers and readers. It is impossible to escape the tragic futility of convenience, wealth, and “the countless words of thinkers who tried to understand human nature” in the face of horrible power of nature. The best we can do is displace it onto powerless, if not uncooperative sites like Pompeii. Restoring Pompeii reveals a city saturated with Levi’s recurrent anguish, Le Bon’s rage, Lowry’s ravens at the heronry, and Lindberg’s imperceptible move from the end of life to the beginning of death. Pompeii always reminds us of the final and inescapable end.
As Lowry’s Roderick departed the city he abruptly asked the question that perhaps haunts anyone who thinks about Pompeii for more than a moment: “What it amounted to was a feeling that there was not going to be time. Did you want to harrow yourself looking at what had been only temporarily spared, at what was finally doomed? And Roderick could not help but wonder whether man too was not beginning to stand, in some profound inexplicable scene, fundamentally in some such imperfect or dislocated relation to his environment as he.”