rediscovering disasters (en)

Rediscovering Disasters: Pliny's Letters about the Destruction of Pompei and its Legacy in Modern Culture

Paper held at the «Legacies» Conference, University of Zürich, English Department, 28.09.2007

In his famous letter 6, XVI, 1 C., Pliny the Younger describes the destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum on 24 August 79 AD. This letter, rediscovered in the 16th century, not only presented the only reliable historical source about this terrifying event, but from the late 18th century onwards it also became one of the most influential and productive cultural texts. Images, rhetorical formulas and metaphors taken from Pliny's letter can be found in a large number of literary, artistic and pop-cultural texts dealing with volcanic eruptions in general and with the destruction of Pompei in particular (Arria Marcella by Theophile Gautier, John Martin's painting The Destruction of Herculaneum and Pompei, Karl Brullov's painting The last day of Pompei, Mick Jackson's Volcano (1997), Ronald Donaldson's Dante's Peak (1997).

A close reading of Pliny's letter along with some important works of European aesthetics (J.J. Winkelmann's Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works; Letter About the Herculanean Discoveries), psychoanalysis (S. Freud's Delusion and Dream in Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva) and literary studies (U. Eco's Limits of Interpretation) will reveal that Pliny's short text actually raises a number of essential cultural concepts of history, memory and destruction. Moreover, it can be read as a reflection on the nature of writing and the question of the relationship between human and textual bodies as well as the destruction and/or preservation of those bodies by nature or through culture. These issues raise a wide range of other important questions, such as the possibility and limits of the textual representation of disasters, the role of the imagination in the act of reconstruction of disastrous events, the issue of political power and its natural limits, and finally the connection between family history and people's history. As such, Pliny's letter about the destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum functions not only as historical narrative but it seems to be one of the «primal scenes» of modern European culture.

P.: A. Kauffmann: Pliny the Younger and his Mother in Misenum (1785)

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