Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)
Joanna Paul: Vesuvian Apocalypse
From the mid nineteenth century, and possibly early, the dead cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum had a powerful hold over Victorian imagination. Bulwer-Lytton’s (1834) Last Days of Pompeii was one of the most popular books of the nineteenth-century and its influence was felt not just in literary depictions of Pompeii but in history paintings derived from the novel. The scandalous society of Roman luxury was depicted in a strongly Christian moral schema and the eventual destruction of Pompeii became a moral/divine retribution in keeping with Biblical destructions of sinful communities. Leaping forward a century, the depiction of life under the Volcano loses some of its moralising strength. In Malcolm Lowry’s Pompeii, the city comes to stand for a sort of moral vacuum. The Classical paradigm is reduced by comparison with North-Western suburb life and the tour of Pompeii becomes a cultural pretence. Real life is lived away from the city in a rural (Canadian) arcadia. The city of culture is seen to be of little value. With Primo Levi, the volcano comes to be seen as a hostile environmental force that might sweep away not just civilization but the lives of children. The fragility of the environment becomes a comment on human atrocities, and perhaps also on the vanity of human endeavours, in a world of such possibilities of natural destruction. There is thus a shift from moral turpitude threatening the city to environmental crisis.