Re-Understanding Pompeii: A History of our Interpretation of the Lost City
The ancient site is described as an evocative setting of past passions, taking precedence over lived human experience in the mind of the protagonist. The story interweaves fantasy with reality, dreaming with waking, and ultimately represents the need to repress desires in order to become part of society at large. Jensen similarly explores the connection between subconscious urges that emerge when one is confronted with artefacts from the past, and the means by which they are stifled.43
Here the Pompeian woman Gradiva remains preserved through her likeness in a stone relief but is simultaneously inaccessible, much like Norbert’s desires and the past of Pompeii itself. The main difference between the two stories is the fact that Norbert, Jensen’s hero, encounters symptoms of his repressed sexual desires and is ultimately able to resolve them by uncovering their actual meaning embodied within the artefacts of the past.
Freud placed these social and moral anxieties within a theoretic framework using his psychoanalytical technique. In Freudian theory, archaeology serves as a metaphor for the layers of the mind, the juxtaposition of what is above and beneath the surface, what is consciously knows and what must be recovered through the process of excavation.44
Pompeii hereby gains a new meaning as a locus for the concealment of traumatic events. In his eyes, the excavation of the site of Pompeii was a metaphor for the exploration of these anxieties, and thus by extension, the self.45 The conflation of the worlds of imagination and reality into a single image can be seen as a ‘stylization of desire and form of repression’.46 When connected with the concept of a cognitive landscape, Pompeii becomes a metaphor for the psyche, the layers of rubble burying the past through the process of repression.
In Freud’s analysis of the novel Gradiva we can distinguish three ways to view Pompeii’s function as a repository for human experience.47 One of these is the physical ruin, the main source of our information. Another is the deceased population of Pompeii, in continual communication with the living, occupying the same space as the modern visitor. Finally there is the ephemeral impression that history leaves behind in its passing, a mere footprint, like that of Gradiva.48
This method of transference is the basis for the psychoanalytical treatment. We entomb an embodiment of unresolved events into images through time. This simultaneously preserves the memory and renders it inaccessible. In order for the trauma to be laid to rest the experience must first be uncovered in its repressed form. Only then can it be dislodged and brought to the surface.49 By making Norbert’s fantasy both beguile and cure him, Freud shows how external physical representations can reflect deeper psychic processes, but also serve as means to control them.50
Pompeii is often seen as a moment frozen in time.51 It is presented to the public through exhibits and artworks as a site that has remained unchanged since its original burial. However, the continual adaptation of the site in modern discourse shows the inaccuracy of this premise. Not only did Pompeii have a long history before the eruption but perceptions of the site also carried on changing after its burial by Mount Vesuvius.
Pompeii is what we would term a cognitive landscape, a site of remembrance that simultaneously shapes and is shaped by our own experiences. Images of Pompeii have become invested with the discourses that define our own world views, ever changing within the circumstances through which they are interpreted. They become framed within a long history of philosophical development, not evident in the time in which the entities themselves originated.
These entities then present coherent images to the viewer, unquestioning of their hidden preconceptions. Trypanis writes that historic sites are appropriated by the living so that they can ‘sleep the life that went before’.52 This expresses the imaginative potential the site has as a juncture between our own time and that of the ancients, and the ease with which we become absorbed in the dream it has come to represent.
Whether manifested in works of art, literature or scientific theories, our views of Pompeii show a dialectic relationship between historical truth and interpretation according to the psychological needs of the individual or community. In this sense the historical consciousness in the Pompeian anthology is constituted by what the senses perceive but also by what the imaginations and emotions create.
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