Sunday, June 14, 2009

Responses to Places

Our reading group met yesterday to talk about Mary Beard's "The Fires of Vesuvius."  Opinion was divided between those who thought the people of ancient Pompeii were like us and those who thought they were notably different.  I think they were essentially different and agreed with A. who said, 'This is a world before Christianity.' There was no shame for the body.  What were they ashamed of? I wondered.  Lack of civic virtue and loyalty to Rome, the failure to present a bella figura?

Beard writes that there were more statues in Pompeii than people.  'Did they ignore these statues, the way we ignore ours?' A. asked.  How could they?  They sacrificed to gods represented by these statues.  Certainly it would be difficult to ignore larger than life-size statues like this one of Apollon in front of a temple.  L. compared the great quality of statues to our great number of cars.  But we don't sacrifice to cars.  We don't have bare-chested slaves slit the throat of a magnificent bull, put the animal's flesh and bones on the fire, and watch the smoke rise to the heavens in tribute.  

P. thought Beard was very good about the paintings of Pompeii but wanted her to react more passionately to the ruined city.  An unfair comparison, but I thought of Ruskin's response to Venice:

"The long range of columned palaces . . . each with its image cast down, beneath its feet, upon that green pavement which every breeze broke into new fantasies of rich tesselation . . . It was no marvel that the mind should be so deeply entranced by the visionary charm of a scene so beautiful and so strange, as to forget the darker truths of its history . . . . Well might it seem that such a city had owed her existence rather to the the rod of the enchanter, than the fear of the fugitive . . . and that all which in nature was wild or merciless--Time and Decay, as well as the waves and tempests--had been won to adorn her instead of to destroy, and might still spare, for ages to come, that beauty which seemed to have fixed for its throne the sands of the hour-glass as well as of the sea (quoted in Mark Doty's "Seeing Venice").

Here's more Ruskin on Venice: "The beginning of everything was in seeing the gondola-beak come actually inside the door at Danieli's, when the tide was up, and the water two feet deep at the foot of the stairs; and then, all along the canal sides, actual marble walls rising out of the salt sea, with hosts of little brown crabs on them, and Titians inside" (Praeterita, Works, 35.295).  In one sentence he gets the strange improbable character of the place: gondola-beak! Art so close to the natural sea as to seem a part of it, but not quite.

The long passage Doty quotes is remarkably rich, the sentences taking us out to a horizon, as if they were a fleet of boats.

I'm thinking now of another response to place, in which the eye travels out, the one Dickens gives to Pip in "Great Expectations":

"Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.  My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening.  At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried . . . and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip."

Do you know of other writing about place similar to these flights?  Please let us know.


  1. The paragraph you quote reminded me of the vivid landscape of the marshes and the starkness that David Lean created in the early scenes of his film, 'Great Expectations." They are some of the most potent that I remember from a life time of movie going and contain all the clues of how the drama will be played out. Pip confronts at an early and disadvantaged age a challenge to his humanity and reveals a sensitivity and moral core that will be rewarded unexpectedly in the remote future. It starts in this elemental, "savage lair" onto which, blown from the sea, comes the miserable -- yet powerful -- prisoner and benefactor.

  2. A wonderful comment, Bluedog! I hadn't made the connection between the escaped convict whom Pip helps and the passage I quoted--the "savage lair." The David Lean film is one of the best films based on a novel.

  3. I am away from my books, so cannot quote, but as an enduring personal favorite of an evocation of place, I recommend the set of two pieces by MFK Fisher, called Two Towns in Provence, about Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles. Beautifully written.

  4. A friend just back from Aix-en-Provence talked about Fisher, having read her for the first time. Now a message from you, Susan, a day later. I'll read her again.