Pompeii Dreams

Bill Caraher |

I don’t think very often about Pompeii, mostly because there are other folks who think a good bit and more carefully about it, but every now and then something happens that makes me aware of how ubiquitous Pompeii is in our popular culture.

For example, this week, I’ve been enjoying Cate Le Bon’s latest album titled Pompeii and while it doesn’t appear to be a concept album (and the album itself doesn’t appear related in any real way to the ancient Roman town), it does include a song of the same title where Le Bon sings 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…

Of course, the idea of dreaming about Pompeii leads one directly to Freud’s famous Delusion and Dream: an Interpretation in the Light of Psychoanalysis of Gradiva (1907) which interrogates Wilhelm Jensen’s novel Gravida (1903) through the lens of psychoanalysis. In the novel, the main character, Harold, an archaeologists, falls in love with an ancient relief carving which he calls Gravida. After a dream about the destruction of Pompeii and Gravida’s demise, he travels to the site and while there, he sees a woman who looks like Gravida, but is alive and well. The woman is, in fact, Zoë Bertgang, a former neighbor of Harold’s on whom he had a childhood crush. Freud excavates Harold’s dream of Gravida and reveals that it is, in fact, a manifestation of his sublimated love for his former neighbor who he just happens to encounter in Pompeii. Harold’s passion for the Gravida relief and archaeology as a discipline is merely repressed passion for this woman. Zoë understands this and by at times imitating Gravida and at times gently directing Harold’s attention from his fantasy to reality.

Last weekend, I enjoyed two poems published by Mary K. Lindberg over at the journal Epoiesen: A Journal for Creative Engagement in History and Archaeology. One in particular, “Book Lover” caught my attention. 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, like, Aristo, died in the eruption. 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, they died among the fishy nets of boats. Like Harold’s desire for the sculpted Gravida, the characters in Lindberg’s poems appear, dream like, to displace their desire onto material things even as Pompeii itself crumbles around them. This displacement is not only so central to how we understand our dreams, but also contributes to the poems dream-like qualities.

When Cate Le Bon asks “Did you dream about Pompeii?” amid the oneiric swirls of synths and “cities built on monumental rage” becomes “lost in the seminar,” it is hard to avoid thinking of Primo Levi’s haunting poem “The Girl-Child of Pompeii” which juxtaposes the plaster cast of a child who died in the eruption of Vesuvius with Anne Frank and the famous blast shadow of the girl jumping rope in Hiroshima. (This poem was brought to my attention by Joanna Paul’s relatively recent essay in the book Pompeii in the Public Imagination (2011) edited by Paul and Shelley Halles.)

It’s clear that our fascination with Pompeii represents all sorts of modern anxieties from the devastating potential of nuclear war, the murderous capacities of the militarized state, and our displaced desire for ancient and modern things in an era where human connections feel especially precious and strained.


Bill Caraher is the editor of NDQ and a field archaeologist.

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