Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Good things at the TLS

(Four for four, exceptionally high interestingness rate this week--or perhaps I am just procrastinating...)

Richard Dawkins on Christopher Hitchens:
God Is Not Great is a coolly angry book, but there are good laughs too; for example, Hitchens’s hilarious account of how Malcolm Muggeridge launched “the ‘Mother Teresa’ brand upon the world” with his story that, while the BBC struggled to film her under low-light conditions, she spontaneously glowed. The cameraman later told Hitchens the true explanation of the “miracle” – the ultra-sensitivity of a new type of film from Kodak – but Muggeridge fatuously wrote: “I myself am absolutely convinced that the technically unaccountable light is, in fact, the Kindly Light that Cardinal Newman refers to in his well-known exquisite hymn”.

Bettina Bildhauer on a cultural history of flagellation (good topic; the book itself doesn't sound that great, though...).

Michael Caines on Joseph Roach's book It (Caines seems of two minds about this book, but I've heard a few pieces of it as talks and found them utterly magical, I've got to get this one...)

And best of all, Mary Beard on the history of Pompeii sightseeing:
The entrance to the city via the Street of Tombs, which continued to be the recommended route until the 1870s, underlined the fact that for most nineteenth-century tourists a visit to Pompeii was a visit to the city of the dead. It was a funerary as much as an archaeological site, prompting reflections on the tragedy of the destruction and the fragility of the human condition at the same time as it, paradoxically, seemed to bring the ancient world to “life”. Skeletons had always been high on the visitor’s agenda. But the pathos of the Pompeii experience was even further intensified by the technique of making casts of the bodies of the victims, developed in the 1860s by Giuseppe Fiorelli (the erstwhile radical politician, who became one of the most influential directors in the history of the Pompeian excavations). Plaster poured into the cavities left by the decomposing flesh and clothing of the dead produced startling images of their physical features and the contortions of their last moments.

These casts are the subject of a fascinating chapter by Eugene Dwyer in Antiquity Recovered, a sumptuously illustrated collection of essays on the modern history of Pompeii and Herculaneum, edited by Victoria C. Gardner Coates and Jon L. Seydl. Dwyer explains how the heavy clothing visible on the casts, the trousers apparently worn by both sexes and the scarved heads of the women – “all’uso degli orientali”, as one archaeologist put it – dispelled the popular image of Roman dress as scanty, if not lasciviously revealing. (Others have since wondered if what people decide to wear in the middle of a volcanic eruption can really be taken as typical everyday clothing: maybe the headscarves were not so much “oriental” as a practical device to keep ash out of the hair.) He also follows the history of several casts that became particularly famous symbols of the city and its destruction. These included one of the first group to be made by Fiorelli: a woman fallen on her back, straining upwards to breathe, her skirt gathered around her hips giving the probably misleading impression that she was pregnant. Some Victorian scholars took her to be a prostitute (she was carrying a small statuette of Cupid and a silver mirror); others saw her as a dutiful housewife (on the basis of a large iron key she was also carrying). Either way, this “pregnant woman”, as she was usually known, took a starring role in discussions of the site in the 1860s and early 1870s and is recorded in early photographs – until she was upstaged by yet more evocative images of suffering, and her cast was mysteriously lost.

These dying figures continue to haunt the modern imagination. As Jennie Hirsh discusses in another essay in Antiquity Recovered, two such casts, clinging to each other even in death, take a cameo role in Rossellini’s 1953 film, Voyage to Italy – serving as a sharp and upsetting reminder to two modern tourists to the site (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) of just how distant and empty their own marriage has become. And even the most stony-hearted or austerely academic visitor finds it hard not to be a little moved by the few casts still displayed in glass cases on the site – their death agonies, uncomfortably, on show for all to see.

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