Considering the Corinthia

This summer, I’ve enjoyed working with David Pettegrew on an article surveying the archaeology of the Late Antique Corinthia for some or another edited volume. The piece is getting pretty close to being done and I plant to work on it for a four or five hours this morning. I’m particularly happy with the introduction, which to be fair, was largely written by David Pettegrew (and I generally like how he writes and thinks about Late Antiquity). 

Here’s the current draft of it: 

Around the middle of the last century, American classicist and archaeologist Oscar Broneer sat down to describe the dire archaeological situation of the later history of the Roman city of Corinth. The excavations of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens had exposed extensive portions of the city in intermittent excavations over the previous half century. Time and again the work of clearing the city revealed evidence for destruction events dating to the final quarter of the fourth century. Summing up a city in decline, Broneer minced no words. The city fell into a state of “overwhelming disaster and material decay, reflecting a general exhaustion and deterioration of the creative ability of the people…The invading Goths under Alaric delivered the coup de grace to this unhappy period of twilight of Classical Corinth…In the Early Christian period and during the first centuries of the Byzantine Empire, many of the classical buildings continued to be used, but the ruins of that era bear the marks of material dilapidation, artistic decline and civic helplessness.”

Paradoxically, it was exactly at that moment when Dimitrios Pallas, one of Greece’s foremost archaeologists of the Early Christian period, first began exposing and publishing a series of large and lavish monumental churches in Corinthian territory. He proposed that the churches dated to the fifth and sixth centuries—the age of “material dilapidation” and “civic helplessness”—but suggested enormous (even imperial) investments of resources and capital. The behemoth Lechaion Basilica, for example, was about as long as Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the monuments incorporated elements of specialized imported marble. Moreover, at that moment, Oscar Broneer himself was beginning to undertake excavations ten kilometers east of Corinth at the Sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia, the site of biennial athletic contests in the Greek and Roman period. Those explorations would bring to light the same demolition phases of the late fourth century but also expose a massive imperial late antique project to fortify the Isthmus in the early fifth century.

Scholars today rarely describe the late antique Corinthia as a period of dilapidation, decline, and twilight (pace Brown 2018). A wealth of archaeological study in recent decades has introduced new perspectives that point to a flourishing and vibrant population even to the late sixth or seventh century, and scholars underscore the continuing relevance of the region within broader geopolitical and religious spheres. It is now apparent that private citizens expended great resources on private and public buildings. That they did so while many of the primary monuments of old Corinth fell down points to a complex local situation. One cannot deny the evidence of investment any more than one can deny the tremendous transformations of religious, settlements, and built environments that redefined fundamental aspects of Corinthian landscapes. Our aim in this paper is to reconsider the discrepant histories of the Late Antique Corinthia in light of recent archaeological and historical study of its landscapes.

Writing about Pompeii in the Age of Catastrophe

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:

Get dressed
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.”

Smashing Statues

As readers of this blog know, I’m a sucker for an alliterative title and Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: the Rise and Fall of Americas Public Monuments (2022) is spectacular and as Joe Tessitor is known to say “wildly entertaining.”  

Thompson’s book explores the stories associated with erecting of statues honoring US Presidents, Confederate generals and soldiers, and Christopher Columbus  in the early 20th century and trying to have similar statues removed in the 21st century. The goal of the book was to tell new stories about many of the statues, their construction, and the movements associated with their removal and by changing the context, encourage us to reconsider what these statues represent. Thompson is a brilliant story-teller and this alone makes the book worth reading. Her ability to weave compelling counter narratives around such well known monuments as Georgia’ Stone Mountain and to humanize the removal of St. Paul’s Columbus statue and the political and legal wrangling associated with efforts to remove Birmingham’s Confederate memorial push the reader to expand how they understand these monuments and their place in our society. This is good and important work, even if, in some cases, it is preaching to the choir.

Stone Mountain was a complex pyramid scheme designed to support the lavish lifestyle of its spendthrift sculpture and various grifters associated with the revival of the Klan. The statues of Confederate soldiers at parade rest sought to enforce obedience among working class whites at the moment they were finding common cause with working class southern Blacks. Sowing racial division benefited the early-20th century Southern elite who profited from low wages by undermining efforts to unionize Black and white workers. As always in the US, race and class (as well as gender, which remained relatively unexplored, but not ignored, in Thompson’s book) requires intersectional analysis to reveal the complex histories that inform (and undercut) contemporary racial attitudes.  

Of particular note is Thompson’s discussion of the legal challenges associated with the removal of statues. She argues that part of the reason protestors have turned to unsanctioned methods for removing statues is the lack of clear legal or administrative routes to request, demand, or compelling their removal. Even in communities where the popular will clearly rejects monuments, such as Birmingham where a majority Black city has long felt monuments to the Confederacy painful and unwelcome, sustained state-level legislative and legal actions made it nearly impossible for the community to request their removal.

Thompson’s work likewise engages the somewhat facile argument that by removing statues we’ll be erasing history. She acknowledged that the past clings to statues in ways that is exceedingly difficult to remove and that monuments and statues have the capacity to move people in ways that texts, stories, and interpretative markers do not. That said, Thompson’s book is testimony to her faith that new stories about these monuments can transform out attitudes toward them. Removing the statues or even just debates about removing these statues force us to confront not only their power and legacy, but the situations that led to their construction and protection. In the end, these stories preserved in books, taught in schools, and commemorated in landscapes where monuments are preserved, reinterpreted and made conspicuous by their absence is the history that will remain. 

The only thing that I would add to the superficial pseudo-review was that I was particularly intrigued by the periodic windows into the monument’s urban settings. Birmingham, for example, is a majority Black city. This is a feature that it shares with Richmond, Virginia, another site of highly visible contested monuments. Last year, as I tried to finish my book on archaeology of the contemporary American experience, I speculated on how the changing demographics of American cities transformed perspectives on the urban landscape. Monuments originally set up to mark out priorities held by white elite urban dwellers who sought to occupy the ceremonial space of cities now stand amid very different communities with very different priorities, ethnic make ups, and histories. Despite this change, as Thompson argues well, it is exceedingly difficult to transform the monumental space of cities. Not only are new public works hard to finance, difficult to negotiate, and politically fraught, but it is also almost impossible to remove existing monuments In effect, the monumental core of certain cities has become ossified. The departure of many of the communities who set up these monuments into the suburbs not only emphasizes the intrusive nature of these features in the urban landscape, but also encourages a view of the city itself into museums of their past residents alienating the contemporary community who are consigned to live amid its ghosts.

More troubling still is that fact that white elites and middle class residents, when they decamped to the suburbs, rarely troubled with putting up new monuments in these new spaces. It’s almost as if the now-departed city took on the memorial function for these communities as well as the expenses of maintaining these monuments, preserving them, and dealing with the consequences of their presence. I also wonder whether this allowed for a certain amount of moral distancing as well. This distant, urban, and, by definition, “past” stands at safe remove from the daily activities of suburban and exurban denizens who nevertheless rarely support the removal of these monuments while confining their own commemorative landscape to parking lots, shopping centers, and green spaces.

The stories Thompson tells about these monuments are important and not only have to bridge the racial, social, and economic gap between white and Black and rich and poor, but also spatial gap between the perceptions of the city held by urban and non-urban dwellers. 

Informal Urbanism in the Post-COVID World

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve thought a bit here and there about urbanism. Some of this was motivated by my time thinking about and working in the boom towns of Western North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. More recently, however, doing some research on the mid-century development of Grand Forks has likewise stimulated my interest in contemporary urbanism.

These interests prompted me to submit an application to serve on our town planning and zoning committee. We’ll see if my application is accepted.

It also got me thinking a bi about how the post-COVID world will shape urbanism. It seems to me that most of mid-century (and even earlier) urbanism sought to encourage clear delineations between spaces of work and domestic space with the post-war suburb representing a set of values that equated middle class lives with clear division between family life and work life. This distinguished the post-war company man from the kind of labor regimes defined by the company town, the farm, or the apartment above the shop.

The middle class suburban fantasy, of course, has broken down in multiple ways. In some cases, the dream of owning a home in a leafy suburbs is simply not economically possible for middle class Americans who have found themselves priced out of major housing markets. 

At the same time, the notion of discrete places for work and domestic life has become complicated by the rise of the gig economy. The workers we met and talked to in the Bakken, for example, often earned middle class incomes for their work, but their need to work long shifts, often on or near the work site, broke down the tidy divisions between domestic and work spaces. Moreover, their participation in an increasing national or even global version of the gig economy required a mobile life style that disrupted the notion of the fixed suburban abode.

The gig economy also blurs the work home divide even for individuals who live in conventional suburbs. The home office is now a standard feature in the suburban home and it often represents a good bit more than the “den” where household finances, for example, were managed or the occasional work project completed away from the office. The COVID pandemic will likely accelerate the trend toward working at home and make the home office all the more important part of domestic architecture. 

Of course, working at home especially in the gig economy has parallels with long standing practices associated with informal urbanism. In our town, there are a couple perpetual yard sales and I suspect, if one knew where to look, more than a few businesses run out of homes. Food trucks offer another example of informal urban practices that create more fluid urban environments. Parking lots at rapidly declining shopping centers have become spaces for occasional festivals and seasonal sales of produce and Christmas trees, and manifestations of latent potential for parking, but also for forms of reuse.   

If the future of work dissolves some of the fundamental expectations that created the post-war suburb, it is interesting to think about what forms of urbanism will replace it. To my mind, informal urbanism opens a grey area between the well-ordered expectation of the post-war years and the future urban forms that embrace changing economic and social realities of 21st labor. I can’t help imagine the leafy suburb developing into a more dynamic patchwork of business, home offices, housing, and gathering places that defy post-war standards. The question is how do we support these changes in a way that encourage more dynamic spaces throughout our communities while at the same time recognizing that these are not viable solutions to systemic problems in our economy that render more and more people reliant on ad hoc approaches to maintain a vestige of post-war middle class life.