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Pompeii’s ruins reveal our morbid obsession with death

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“What had formerly been the city of Pompeii assumed an entirely changed appearance, but not a living one; it now appeared rather become completely petrified in dead immobility. Yet out of it stirred a feeling that death was beginning to talk.”

Wilhelm Jensen, Gradiva

Bound to sit by his chimney until he died, Herman Melville’s narrator in his short story “I and My Chimney” was, in a very real sense, buried alive — a condition intensified by the similarity of the chimney itself to an Egyptian pyramid.

Here Melville was rehearsing a familiar trope of the uncanny, one that nicely intersected with the archaeological interests of the nineteenth century, and whose literary exploration followed, almost chronologically, the successive “rediscoveries” and excavations of antique sites — Egypt, Pompeii, Troy.

As Freud was later to note in “The Uncanny,” the uncovering of what had been long buried not only offered a ready analogy to the procedures of psychoanalysis but exactly paralleled the movements of the uncanny itself: “To some people, the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all.”

Of all sites, that of Pompeii seemed to many writers to exhibit the conditions of unhomeliness to the most extreme degree. This was a result of its literal “burial alive” and almost complete state of preservation, but also of its peculiarly distinct character as a “domestic” city of houses and shops.

Pompeii: “Living antiquity”

The circumstances of its burial had allowed the traces of everyday life to survive with startling immediacy. The pleasures of Pompeii, in comparison to those of Rome, were, all visitors agreed, dependent on its homely nature. Its streets, shops, and houses seemed to the traveler from the north at once intimate and private.

Chateaubriand, who passed through in 1802, was struck by the contrast between “the public monuments, built at great cost in granite and marble,” typical of Rome, and the “domestic dwellings,” built with “the resources of simple individuals,” of Pompeii: “Rome is only a vast museum; Pompeii is living antiquity.

He even dreamed of a new form of a non-monumental museum, which would leave in place the tools, furniture, statues, and manuscripts found among the ruins (and normally displaced to the museum at Portici), with the roofs and walls of the houses rebuilt as a mise-en-scène of everyday life in ancient Rome.

“One would learn more about the domestic history of the Roman people, the state of Roman civilization in a few restored promenades of Pompeii, than by the reading of all the works of antiquity,” he observed, proposing in this way anticipation of the folk museums of the 20th century:

“It would only need a little brick, tile, plaster, stone, wood, carpentry, and joinery … a talented architect would follow the local style for the restorations, models for which he would find in the landscapes painted on the very walls of the houses of Pompeii.”

Thus, at little cost, “the most marvelous museum in the world” might be created, “a Roman town conserved in its entirety as if its inhabitants had just left a quarter of an hour before.”

Other writers, from Winckelmann to Le Corbusier, have attested to this humble, workaday quality of the ruins: The so-called Villa of Diomedes, the House of the Faun, the House of Championnet, the House of the Baker were only a few of those dwellings painstakingly described and “restored” by generations of architectural students.

The sense of having intruded on a domestic scene not long abandoned was increased by the plethora of household goods uncovered by the excavations, some of which were carefully left in place for the benefit of visitors, but also by the intimate glimpses into the customs, mores, and even sexual life afforded by the wall paintings.

What had been shrouded for reasons of prudery in museums was displayed as part of a complete panorama, a veritable ethnographic study, on the walls. Pierre-Adrien Paris carefully copied the priapic bas-relief on the wall of a small shop, while the young Flaubert found it the only memorable ornament of the town.

Despite the evident domesticity of the ruins, they were not by any account homely.

And yet, despite the evident domesticity of the ruins, they were not by any account homely. For behind the quotidian semblance there lurked a horror, equally present to view: Skeletons abounded.

In the soldiers’ quarter, as Creuze de Lesser noted, “the judges perished with the accused,” and the remains of the prisoners were still chained to the walls. As opposed to the death of Herculaneum, which according to popular mythology was slow — “the lava-filled up Herculaneum, as the molten lead fills up the cavities of a mold,” wrote Chateaubriand — that of Pompeii was sudden.

Gerard de Nerval recreated the terrifying vision of the fiery rain of ashes, suffocating and burning those in flight; hidden until the mid-18th century, this hideous destruction was revealed side by side with its less disturbing and apparently more normal context.

The archaeological gaze was pitiless: “in the middle of the last century, the scholars began to excavate this enormous ruin. Oh! incredible surprise; they found a city in the volcano, houses under the ash, skeletons in the houses, furniture, and pictures next to the skeletons.”

The town was evidently no common archaeological site, its ruins bleached by the sun and exorcised of social memories: History here seem to be suspended in the gruesome juxtaposition of these grisly remains and their apparently homely surroundings. Chateaubriand’s folksy museum was, in fact, still inhabited.

History suspended

This dramatic confrontation of the homely and the unhomely made Pompeii a locus of the literary and artistic uncanny for much of the 19th century, whether in the mystical formulations of Nerval, the popular melodramas of Bulwer Lytton, the full-blown romanticism of Theophile Gautier, or the dream narratives of Wilhelm Jensen.

L’etrange, l’inquietant, das Unheimliche, all found their natural place in stories that centered on the idea of history suspended, the dream come to life, the past restored in the present.

Pompeii, in contrast to the conventional settings of haunting and horror, possessed a level of archaeological verisimilitude matched by the historical drama that made of it the perfect vehicle, in a century obsessed by the fugitive relations between past and future, for what Gautier variously called “l’idéal rétrospectif,” “la chimére rétrospectif,” “le désir rétrospectif,” or, in relation to Pompeii, “l’amour rétrospectif.”

The special characteristic of this retrospective vision was its unsettling merging of past and present, its insistence on the rights of the unburied dead, its pervasive force over the fates of its subjects. In Pompeii, it seemed, history, that solid realm of explanation and material fact, was taking a kind of revenge on its inventors.

In these terms, Pompeii evidently qualified as a textbook example of the uncanny on every level, from the implicit horror of the domestic to the revelations of mysteries, religious and otherwise, that, in Schelling’s view, might better have remained unrevealed.

Gautier’s tale “Arria Marcella” insistently contrasted the banal and the extraordinary, the trivial and the momentous, the sublime and the grotesque aspects of the town: the brilliance of the light and the transparency of the air were opposed to the somber tint of the black volcanic sand, the clouds of black dust underfoot, and the omnipresent ashes.

Vesuvius itself was depicted as benign as Montmartre, an old fellow like Melville’s chimney owner, quietly “smoking his pipe” in defiance of his terrifying reputation. The juxtaposition of the modern railway station and antique city; the happiness of the tourists in the street of tombs; the “banal phrases” of the guide as he recited the terrible deaths of the citizens in front of their remains: all testified to the power of the place to reproduce, quite systematically, the structures of the uncanny.

On a purely aesthetic level, too, Pompeii seemed to reflect precisely the struggle identified by Schelling between the dark mysteries of the first religions and the sublime transparency of the Homeric hymns, but in reverse, as if reenacting the battle in order to retrieve the uncanny. For what the first excavations of Pompeii had revealed was a version of antiquity entirely at odds with the sublime vision of Winckelmann and his followers.

The paintings, sculptures, and religious artifacts in this city of Greek foundation were far from the Neoplatonic forms of neoclassical imagination. Fauns, cupids, satyrs, priapi, centaurs, and prostitutes of every sex replaced the Apollonian grace and Laocoonian strength of Winckelmann’s aesthetics. The mysteries of Isis and a host of Egyptian cults took the place of high philosophy and acropolitan rituals.

The “dark side” of classicism

Archaeology, by revealing what should have remained invisible, had irredeemably confirmed the existence of a “dark side” of classicism, thus betraying not only the high sublime but a slowly and carefully constructed world of modern mythology. Schelling, with Goethe and Schiller a true believer in the “congealed music” of classical architecture, had already noted this undermining archaeology in his ambiguous assessment of the temple sculptures of Aegina, “perfected” as much as possible by Thorvaldsen but betraying all the distortions characteristic of a presublime art. Their mask-like features, he proposed, embodied a “certain character of the uncanny,” the product of an older mysterious religion showing through.

The juxtaposition of the modern railway station and antique city; the happiness of the tourists in the street of tombs; the “banal phrases” of the guide as he recited the terrible deaths of the citizens in front of their remains: all testified to the power of the place to reproduce, quite systematically, the structures of the uncanny.

Perhaps the least forgivable aspect of this archaeological treason was its blatant display of classical eroticism, a world hitherto circumlocuted and circumscribed but now open to the view of tourists and the interpretation of historians. Not only did such a scandalous un­ masking support literature of dubious quality, from d’Hancarville to de Sade, but it also, as the next generation of romantics demon­ started, dangerously unsettled the apparatus of classical aesthetics. For of all the disturbing fragments found in the city, it was the erotic traces that most exercised the imaginations of those who, from Cha­teaubriand to Gautier, were themselves concerned to undermine the high sublime.

One of the more fascinating remains of Pompeii, described in detail by many early visitors, and with relish by every guide, was a fragment of scorched earth found beneath a portico of the House of Diomedes and kept in the museum at Portici. Chateaubriand noted:

The portico that surrounds the garden of this house is made up of square pillars, grouped in threes. Under this first portico, there is a second: there it was that the young woman whose breast is impressed in the piece of earth I saw at Portici was suffocated.

This simple but lugubrious “impression” became the focus of a series of meditations, each a reflection on its predecessor, the burden of which was the strange way in which nature in its own death throes had, so to speak, become its own artist: “Death, like a sculptor, has molded his victim.”

Fiction becomes reality

The coincidence with the story of Pygmalion and Galatea was too close to avoid, and it was somehow satisfying, if depressing, to find the classical theory of imitation thus trumped by fate. The sculptor whose creation was so lifelike that she seemed to blush at his embrace, who fell in love with and “married” his ivory statuette, was now replaced by nature, or even better, history, which had molded its own work of art from the life, turning, in a reversal that caught the romantic imagination, living beauty into a dead trace.

And, following the hardly subdued erotic subtext of the buried city, this trace was not simply a mummified body or skeleton but the ghost of a breast, a fragment that, in an age preoccupied with the restoration and completion of broken statues, demanded to be reconstituted, in imagination at least.

As a fragment, this negative petrified sign of nature morte easily took its place among other similar fragments in literature and art that at once signaled an irretrievable past and evoked an unbearable desire for future plenitude: the Belvedere Torso, the Elgin Marbles, the Venus de Milo.

But unlike these, the Pompeiian terre cuite in its isolated anatomical specificity represented a far more brutal cutting of the body, and thus imposed a greater interpretative effort. Its status was more that of the lost arm of the Venus de Milo than of the statue itself. Its archaeological equivalent would perhaps be the posthole of a hut or the pattern of woven cloth retained in dried mud.

The cutting of the body into significant parts, each representative of the perfect beauty of the whole, was of course a commonplace of classical aesthetics. Zeuxis after all had assembled the type of beauty by the selection and combination of the best parts of his models. It was precisely against this kind of mechanical imitation that Winckelmann and his students had fought, proposing in its stead a kind of preromantic Neoplatonism, an enthusiastic idealism.

But the roman­ tics themselves, while agreeing with Winckelmann’s dislike of the copy, nevertheless invested the fragment with more than fragmentary significance. Forced to reconcile the material existence of fragments — the increasing quantity of bits and pieces from the past piled up in the basements of the new museums — with their organicist metaphysics, they preferred to take the fragment as it was and cul­tivate it as an object of meditation.

In Schlegel’s celebrated formulation, the fragment, “like a small work of art, should be totally detached from the surrounding world and closed in on itself like a hedgehog.”

This closure, turning the fragment in on itself like an aphorism, on one level monumentalized it and allowed it to be framed and stabilized in the context of its historical origins. On another level, however, it released a kind of metahistorical potentiality by virtue of its incompletion, forming part of imaginary dialogue, “a chain or a crown of fragments.”

In this way, the fragment might become a “project,” the “subjective germ of an object in becoming,” a “fragment of the future.” As Schlegel concluded, “numerous works of the Ancients have become fragments. Numerous works by Moderns are fragments from their birth.”

If the status of Chateaubriand’s “piece of earth” was enhanced in these terms, it was even more so by its role as an object of impossible love, a theme gave full play in Gautier’s “Arria Marcella.” In this story of the buried city as uncanny habitat, the “hero,” Octavien, loses himself in a “profound contemplation”:

“What he looked at with so much attention was a piece of coagulated black ash bearing a hollowed imprint: one might have said that it was a fragment of a mold for a statue, broken in the casting; the trained eye of the artist had easily recognized the curve of a beautiful breast and a thigh as pure in style as that of a Greek statue. It was well known, and the least of guidebooks pointed it out, that this lava, cooled around the body of a woman, had retained its charming contour.”

Out of such contemplation was engendered the uncanny dream of Arria Marcella’s feast, where Octavien, long an admirer of statues, who had been known to cry out to the Venus de Milo, soliciting an embrace from “her marble breast,” was finally brought face to face with the original of the molded copy.

She, true to his desires, “sur­rounded his body with her beautiful statuelike arms, cold, hard, and rigid as marble.” The reversal is clear and pointed directly by Gautier: the living body, impressed in its mold of earth, when revived took on the attributes of the artistic imitation. Classical aesthetics was thereby rendered dead, in favor of the life of “natural” fragments, themselves destined to be completed only by the powerless form of dreamed desire.

Pompeii’s “strange restoration”

According to this analogy, we might also interpret the dreamlike “restoration” of the fragmented buildings of Pompeii that, in Gautier’s tale, preceded Octavien’s meeting with his Galatea. In this already strange night, a “nocturnal day” where the bright moonlight seemed to disguise the fragmentation of the buildings, repairing “the fossil city for some representation of a fantasy life,” Octavien noted a “strange restoration” that must have been undertaken since the afternoon at great speed by an unknown architect:

“This strange restoration, made between the afternoon and the evening by an unknown architect, was very troubling to Octavien, certain of having seen the house on the same day in a sorry state of ruin. The mysterious reconstructor had worked quickly enough, because the neighboring dwellings had the same recent and new aspect.”

Such a dream of the past restored, like some exact copy of an architectural student’s restitution for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, acted, like the vision of Arria Marcella, to return history not to life but to death: “All the historians had been tricked; the eruption had not taken place.”

Archaeology with its precise materialism had overcome temporality at least for a moment. It would be tempting to read into Gautier’s narrative an implicit attack on restorers, Beaux-Arts and medievalists alike, as they searched desperately to make contemporary historical monuments out of the remains of the past.

But where, in the too-complete visions of a literal architect, whether restorer or conservator, the aesthetic effect verged on a touristic sublime, all too often a response to something that through endless representation and reproduction had become a copy of itself — Carcassonne, the Acropolis, and of course Pompeii itself would be examples — the effect of the uncanny in Gautier’s treatment was less predictable.

Kant’s sublime in Pompeii

The sublime, as defined by Kant, stemmed primarily from a feeling of inadequacy in the face of superior powers; the mental state of the uncanny, tied to the death or frustration of desire, remained both sublime and a threat to its banalization.

In the version described by Gautier, it was a harbinger of living death in the face of which the historical fate of Pompeii’s inhabitants seemed almost preferable. Thus Octavien, returning to the site of his dream, finding the remains of Arria, “resting obstinately in the dust,” despaired and was suspended in the same state of coldness, distance, banality as the statue he desired.

In the same manner, d’Aspremont, in another tale by Gautier, “Jettatura,” having courted death in a duel only to slay his opponent in the ruins of Pompeii, leaves the city like “a walking statue,” finally to die by his own hand, his body never to be found. Those who courted the remains of the buried alive evidently risked sharing the same fate.

Visitors’ reactions

In an apparently strange reversal, however, the tombs in Pompeii, the city of the dead, were, unlike the catacombs of Naples and Rome, rarely the subjects of necropolitan meditations. To Octavien’s companions, indeed, they were positively pleasant: “This road lined with sepulchers which, according to our modern feelings, would be a lugubrious avenue in a town … inspired none of that cold repulsion, none of those fantastic terrors that our own lugubrious tombs make us feel.”

Rather the visitors experienced “a light curiosity and a joyous fullness in existence” in this pagan cemetery. Like shepherds in Arcadia, they frolicked, conscious of the fact that in these tombs “in place of a horrible cadaver” were only ashes, “the abstract idea of death” and not the object itself.

Such pleasure in the face of a ritualized death contrasted with the terror felt at the untimely death of the inhabitants under the eruption; it seemed to exorcise, in some way, the uncanny effect of the guide’s recital of the death of Arria Marcella:

“‘It was here,’ said the Cicerone in his nonchalant voice, the tone of which hardly matched the sense of his words ‘that they found, among seventeen skeletons, that of the woman whose imprint can be seen in the Museum at Naples.’”

The fear stimulated by l’amour rétrospectif was countered by the security, almost heimlich, to be found in tombs “embellished by art,” as Goethe had it. Ritually placed ashes were part of a human plan; naturally created, they were a terrifying catastrophe.

Freud on morbid anxiety

Freud commented on this fear of being buried alive, which he linked to other uncanny tropes common in 19th-century literature such as the forces of animism, witchcraft, magic, the evil eye, and especially the “Gettatore, that uncanny figure of Roman superstition,” that had, 50 years before, also inspired Gautier.

His long analysis of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale “The Sandman” persuaded him that on one level Schelling had been correct in ascribing the feeling of the uncanny to the return of “a hidden familiar thing that has undergone repression and emerged from it.”

In this way, the fragment — “dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist” — might be related to the castration complex, and superstition itself might be traced to the return of primitive fear, long-buried but always ready to be awakened in the psyche.

In this sense, Freud reinterpreted Schelling’s definition in terms of a recurrence of the repressed, the uncanny as a class of morbid anxiety that comes from something “repressed which recurs.” Thus the phenomenon of haunting:

“Many people experience the feeling [of the uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts…. There is scarcely any other matter … upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as of our relation to death.”

Freud, himself an amateur archaeologist, was well aware of the uncanny effects of Pompeii: he had devoted a long essay to the analysis of Wilhelm Jensen’s fantasy “Gradiva,” in which a young archaeologist found the original of his model-a bas-relief of a young girl “splendid in walking” — amidst the ruins of the city. Jensen’s Pompeiian fantasy was indeed a reworking of Gautier, with the addition of the archaeologist’s dream content.

But Freud, in this analysis, strangely refused any direct reference to the uncanny, or even to the buried discoveries of archaeology, preferring to enunciate the principles of the interpretation of dreams as represented in fiction.

Perhaps this, in turn, was his own repression, for in The Interpretation of Dreams itself he had fully explored the question of the unheimlich with reference to one of his own dreams, one that incorporated both the fear of being buried alive and the desire for fully restorative archaeology. It was also, as he noted, “strangely enough,” an account of a dream that “related to a dissection of the lower part of his own body,” a kind of self-fragmentation.

Freud, himself an amateur archaeologist, was well aware of the uncanny effects of Pompeii.

In this dream, which he attributed to the reading of a popular melodramatic novel by Rider Haggard, She, Freud found himself, following the self-dissection scene, driving in a cab through the entrance of his own apartment house, thence to make his way over an Alpine landscape, and finally to arrive at a primitive “wooden house” within which were men lying on benches along the walls.

His interpretation, refusing the more obvious reference to She as a dramatization of the return of the repressed, a figure of woman triumphant over history on the model of Arria Marcella, turned instead to his archaeological fantasies:

“The wooden house was also, no doubt, a coffin, that is to say, the grave. . . . I had already been in a grave once but it was an excavated Etruscan grave near Orvieto, a narrow chamber with two stone benches along its walls, on which the skeletons of two grown men were lying. . . . The dream seems to be saying: ‘If you must rest in a grave let it be an Etruscan one.’ And, by making this replacement, it transformed the gloomiest of expectations into one that was highly desirable.”

Much later, in The Future of an Illusion, Freud was more explicit on this desire for archaeological fulfillment:

“The sleeper may be seized with a presentiment of death which threatens to place him in the grave. But the dream-work knows how to select a condition that will turn even that dreaded event into a wish-fulfillment: the dreamer sees himself in an ancient Etruscan grave which he has climbed down into, happy to find his archeological interests satisfied.”

If the uncanny stems, as Freud argues, from the recurrence of a previously repressed emotional affect, transformed by repression into anxiety, then fear of live burial would constitute a primary example of “this class of frightening things.”

“To some people the idea of being buried alive by mistake is the most uncanny thing of all, and yet psychoanalysis has taught us that this terrifying fantasy is only a transformation of another fantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all, but was qualified by a certain lasciviousness — the fantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence.”

Here the desire to return to the womb, displaced into the fear of being buried alive, would exemplify Freud’s uncanny, as “in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.”

In turn, the impossible desire to return to the womb, the ultimate goal represented by nostalgia, would constitute a true “homesickness”:

“It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel that there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where each one of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning. . . . In this case too, then, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, familiar; the prefix un is the token of repression.”

Perhaps it was out of homage to the power of archaeology that refused to hide what it had laid bare that Freud hung on the walls of his consulting room, just above the famous couch, a large photograph of the rock temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, and this beside a bas-relief in plaster copied from the Museo Chiaramonti in the Vatican portraying one of the Horae, goddesses of vegetation, otherwise known as the “Gradiva” relief that inspired Jensen.

This article was originally published on The MIT Press Reader by Anthony Vidler at the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union. Read the original article here.



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