Serendipity: An Eye-Witness to Vesuvius AD 79

The Vesuvius Eruption as Imagined by an Artist

I have just finished reading the complete letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113). They were interesting on three counts. First of all, I was impressed by Pliny’s honesty and sense of civic responsibility. Secondly, toward the end of his life, he was governor of Bithynia and Pontus, where he died in AD 113. Finally he writes as a first hand witness of the eruption o Vesuvius in AD 79. He and his uncle Pliny the Elder were across the bay as it happened. The uncle crossed the bay to investigate, and died in the process. Here is his nephew’s account in a letter he wrote to the historian Cornelius Taci

Your request that I would send you an account of my uncle’s death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgments; for, if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I am well assured, will be rendered forever illustrious. And notwithstanding he perished by a misfortune, which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded, the mentioning of him in your immortal writings, will greatly contribute to render his name immortal. Happy I esteem those to be to whom by provision of the gods has been granted the ability either to do such actions as are worthy of being related or to relate them in a manner worthy of being read; but peculiarly happy are they who are blessed with both these uncommon talents: in the number of which my uncle, as his own writings and your history will evidently prove, may justly be ranked. It is with extreme willingness, therefore, that I execute your commands; and should indeed have claimed the task if you had not enjoined it. He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the afternoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun and, after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterwards to come from Mount Vesuvius), was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, according as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened, he had himself given me something to write out. As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carries out in a noble and generous spirit. He ordered the galleys to be put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones, and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain, and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, “Fortune,” said he, “favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is.” Pomponianus was then at Stabiae, separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead in-shore, should go down. It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to supper with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it. Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of the night contributed to render still brighter and clearer. But my uncle, in order to soothe the apprehensions of his friend, assured him it was only the burning of the villages, which the country people had abandoned to the flames: after this he retired to rest, and it is most certain he was so little disquieted as to fall into a sound sleep: for his breathing, which, on account of his corpulence, was rather heavy and sonorous, was heard by the attendants outside. The court which led to his apartment being now almost filled with stones and ashes, if he had continued there any time longer, it would have been impossible for him to have made his way out. So he was awoke and got up, and went to Pomponianus and the rest of his company, who were feeling too anxious to think of going to bed. They consulted together whether it would be most prudent to trust to the houses, which now rocked from side to side with frequent and violent concussions as though shaken from their very foundations; or fly to the open fields, where the calcined stones and cinders, though light indeed, yet fell in large showers, and threatened destruction. In this choice of dangers they resolved for the fields: a resolution which, while the rest of the company were hurried into by their fears, my uncle embraced upon cool and deliberate consideration. They went out then, having pillows tied upon their heads with napkins; and this was their whole defence against the storm of stones that fell round them. It was now day everywhere else, but there a deeper darkness prevailed than in the thickest night; which however was in some degree alleviated by torches and other lights of various kinds. They thought proper to go farther down upon the shore to see if they might safely put out to sea, but found the waves still running extremely high, and boisterous. There my uncle, laying himself down upon a sail cloth, which was spread for him, called twice for some cold water, which he drank, when immediately the flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the rest of the party, and obliged him to rise. He raised himself up with the assistance of two of his servants, and instantly fell down dead; suffocated, as I conjecture, by some gross and noxious vapour, having always had a weak throat, which was often inflamed. As soon as it was light again, which was not till the third day after this melancholy accident, his body was found entire, and without any marks of violence upon it, in the dress in which he fell, and looking more like a man asleep than dead. During all this time my mother and I, who were at Misenum—but this has no connection with your history, and you did not desire any particulars besides those of my uncle’s death; so I will end here, only adding that I have faithfully related to you what I was either an eye-witness of myself or received immediately after the accident happened, and before there was time to vary the truth. You will pick out of this narrative whatever is most important: for a letter is one thing, a history another; it is one thing writing to a friend, another thing writing to the public.

Serendipity: Daguerrotypes

A Daguerrotype Portrait

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were not known as photographers, yet I was greatly interested by Stephens’s description of offering to create daguerrotype portraits of some of the female inhabitants of the City of Mérida in Yucatán on their second trip to Mexico around 1840. The following excerpt is from Volume I of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

The ceremonies of the reception over, we made immediate preparations to begin. Much form and circumstance were necessary in settling preliminaries; and as we were in no hurry to get rid of our subjects, we had more formalities than usual to go through with.

Our first subject was the lady of the poetical name. It was necessary to hold a consultation upon her costume, whether the colours were pretty and such as would be brought out well or not; whether a scarf around the neck was advisable; whether the hair was well arranged, the rose becoming, and in the best position; then to change it, and consider the effect of the change, and to say and do many other things which may suggest themselves to the reader’s imagination, and all which gave rise to many profound remarks in regard to artistical effect, and occupied much time.

The lady being arrayed to the best advantage, it was necessary to seat her with reference to a right adjustment of light and shade; to examine carefully the falling of the light upon her face; then to consult whether it was better to take a front or a side view; to look at the face carefully in both positions; and, finally, it was necessary to secure the head in the right position; that it should be neither too high nor too low; too much on one side nor on the other; and as this required great nicety, it was sometimes actually indispensable to turn the beautiful little head with our own hands, which, however, was a very innocent way of turning a young lady’s head.

Next it was necessary to get the young lady into focus—that is, to get her into the box, which, in short; means, to get a reflection of her face on the glass in the camera obscura at that one particular point of view which presented it better than any other; and when this was obtained, the miniatured likeness of the object was so faithfully reflected, that, as artists carried away by enthusiasm, we were obliged to call in the papas and mammas, who pronounced it beautiful—to which dictum we were in courtesy obliged to respond.

The plate was now cleaned, put into the box, and the light shut off. Now came a trying time for the young lady. She must neither open her lips nor roll her eyes for one minute and thirty seconds by the watch. This eternity at length ended, and the plate was taken out.

So far our course had been before the wind. Every new formality had but increased our importance in the eyes of our fair visiters [sic] and their respectable companions. Mr. Catherwood retired to the adjoining room to put the plate in the mercury bath, while we, not knowing what the result might be, a little fearful, and neither wishing to rob another of the honour he might be justly entitled to, not to be dragged down by another’s failure, thought best to have it distinctly understood that Mr. Catherwood was the maestro, and that we were merely amateurs. At the same time, on Mr. Catherwood’s account, I took occasion to suggest that the process was so complicated, and its success depended upon such a variety of minute circumstances, it seemed really wonderful that it ever turned out well. The plate might not be good, or not well cleaned; or the chemicals might not be of the best; or the plate might be left too long in the iodine box, or taken out too soon; or left too long in the bromine box, or taken out too soon; or a ray of light might strike it on putting it into the camera or in taking it out; or it might be left too long in the camera or taken out too soon; or too long in the mercury bath or taken out too soon; and even though all these processes were right and regular, there might be some other fault of omission or commission which we were not aware of; besides which, climate and atmosphere had great influence, and might render all of no avail. These little suggestions we considered necessary to prevent too great a disappointment in case of failure; and perhaps our fair visiters were somewhat surprised at our audacity in undertaking at all such a doubtful experiment, and using them as instruments. The result, however, was enough to induce us never again to adopt prudential measures, for the young lady’s image was stamped upon the plate, and made a picture which enchanted her and satisfied the critical judgment of her friends and admirers.

Our experiments upon the other ladies were equally successful, and the morning glided away in this pleasant occupation.

Serendipity: Dante’s Inferno Circa 2015

Gustave Doré Engraving from Dante’s Inferno

The following paragraph comes from John Banville’s excellent novel The Blue Guitar (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). It expresses perfectly the vision of Dante translated into the godless world of the 21st Century.

When I consider the possibility—or perhaps I should say the prospect—of eternal damnation, I envisage my suffering soul not plunged in a burning lake or sunk to the oxters in a limitless plain of permafrost. No, my inferno will be a blamelessly commonplace affair, fitted out with the commonplace accoutrements of life: streets, houses, people going about their usual doings, birds swooping, dogs barking, mice gnawing the wainscot. Despite the quotidian look of everything, however, there is a great mystery here, one that only I am aware of, and that involves me alone. For although my presence goes unremarked, and I seem to be known to all who encounter me, I know no one, recognize nothing, have no knowledge of nwhere I am or how I came to be here. It’s not that I have lost my memory, or that I am undergoing some trauma of displacement and alienation. I’m as ordinary as everyone and everything else, and it’s precisely for this reason that it’s incumbent on me to maintain a blandly untroubled aspect and seem to fit smoothly in. But I do not fit in, not at all. I’m a stranger in this place where I’m trapped, always will be a stranger, although perfectly familiar to everyone, everyone, that is, except myself. And this is how it is to be for eternity: a living, if I can call it living, hell.

 

Serendipity: Cabot Yerxa and Rattlesnakes

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

This is an entire article that Cabot Yerxa wrote for The Desert Sun on May 8, 1952 about his encounters with rattlesnakes. I myself have encountered rattlers several times during my hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains. Perhaps I will tell you later about my scariest encounter, which occurred in Point Mugu State Park about twenty years ago.

I have had many close calls with rattlesnakes. Then one night came a new one. It was quite dark, I was walking gingerly through a patch of cholla cactus, slowly making my way so as not to contact the vicious spiny stalks which I could barely distinguish in the gloom. Twice the noise of my feet crunching on rocks had disturbed snakes and I heard the buzzing, so I knew this was snake country.

Perhaps I was giving most of my attention to the cactus. Anyway, all of a sudden, without warning, I stepped right in the middle of a large coiled diamondback rattlesnake! He was asleep or would have rattled. Or perhaps his mama did not teach him to rattle. But this rude awakening made him mad, and he buzzed angrily. I could feel the strong coils twist and squirm under my feet, even now, and its head thrashing about my legs. You can be assured that I made two or three big steps. Fortunately my boots were heavy, because I still had five miles to walk in the dark.

On one occasion Bob Carr and I were walking from the railroad to the mountains on this side of the desert in snake season and after dark. We both had on just ordinary city shoes of rather thin leather, with no protection for our legs. First one man would lead and the other follow until it was embarrassing, then he would take the lead for a while and the other fairly thankfully follow along. We several times heard buzzing near us, but reached home safely. In those times it was rather silly to be out at night without some protection.

On moonlit nights, rattlesnakes cast a narrow shadow, and if watching closely it is quite easy to see them. In fact I have on occasion gone out on moonlit nights to find rattlers for my snake pit. At the old ranch house I kept 15 or 20 snakes and chuckwallas for pets. They were in a pit five feet deep and 13 feet square. Many people came to look at these, which brought in some revenue.

 

Serendipity: Nabokov’s Mademoiselle

Vladimir Nabokov (L) with Brothers and Sisters

I am in the process of reading one of the greatest biographies ever written: Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1967). It ranks in my estimation with James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and the Journals of Sir Walter Scott. For many years in his childhood, he had had a French-speaking Swiss nurse called, in his autobiography, simply Mademoiselle. Here, years after she had retired, he describes seeing her in her old age:

Before leaving for Basle and Berlin, I happened to be walking along the lake in the cold, misty night. At one spot a lone light dimly diluted the darkness and transformed the mist into a visible drizzle. “Il pleut toujours en Suisse” [“It always rains in Switzerland”] was one of those casual comments which, formerly, had made Mademoiselle weep. Below, a wide ripple, almost a wave, and something vaguely white attracted my eye. As I came quite close to the lapping water, I saw what it was—an aged swan, a large, uncouth, dodo-like creature, making ridiculous efforts to hoist himself into a moored boat. He could not do it. The heavy, impotent flapping of his wings, their slippery sound against the rocking and plashing boat, the gluey glistening of the dark swell where it caught the light—all seemed for a moment laden with that strange significance which sometimes in dreams is attached to a finger pressed to mute lips and then pointed at something the dreamer has no time to distinguish before waking with a start. But although I soon forgot that dismal light, it was, oddly enough, that night, that compound image—shudder and swan and swell—which first came to my mind when a couple of years later I learned that Mademoiselle had died.

She had spent all her life in feeling miserable: this misery was her native element: its fluctuations, its varying depths, alone gave her the impression of moving and living. What bothers me is that a sense of misery, and nothing else, is not enough to make a permanent soul. My enormous and morose Mademoiselle is all right on earth but impossible in eternity. Have I really salvaged her from fiction? Just before the rhythm I hear falters and fades, I catch myself wondering whether, during the years I knew her, I had not kept utterly missing something in her that was far more she than her chins or her ways or even her French—something perhaps akin to that last glimpse of her, to the radiant deceit she had used in order to have me depart pleased with my own kindness,* or to that swan whose agony was so much closer to artistic truth than a drooping dancer’s pale arms; something, in short, that I could appreciate only after the things and beings that I had most loved in the security of my childhood had been turned to ashes or shot through the heart.

* Nabokov had bought her deaf old nurse a hearing aid which she said made it possible to hear her former charge’s voice perfectly, except that Nabokov had not said anything.

 

Serendipity: Exile on Exile

Writer W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

If there is a poster boy for exiles, it is W. G. Sebald, who was born in Germany, but spent most of his life in self-exile. In his collection of essays, Campo Santo, he is curiously unable to come to life talking about the ruins of the Second World War. The farther his subject is from Germany, the better his essays are. One of the very best is “Dream Textures: A Brief Note on Nabokov.” Himself an exile from Red Russia, Nabokov became one of the leading lights of American literature. It is from this essay that these selections are taken:

At any rate, the most brilliant passages in his prose often give the impression that our worldly doings are being observed by some other species, not yet known to any system of taxonomy, whose emissaries sometimes assume a guest role in the plays performed by the living. Just as they appear to us, Nabokov conjectures, so we appear to them: fleeting, transparent beings of uncertain provenance and purpose. They are most commonly encountered in dreams, “in surroundings they never visited during their earthly existence,” and are “silent, bothered, strangely depressed,” obviously suffering from their exclusion from society, and for that reason, says Nabokov, “they sit apart, staring at the floor, as if death were a dark taint, a shameful family secret.”

Vladimir Nabokov With His Butterflies

.   .   .   .   .   .

In the fifth chapter of Pnin he speaks at length and in different voices of the price you must pay on going into exile: not least, besides the material goods of life, the certainty of your own reality…. Unexpectedly finding themselves on the wrong side of the frontier, [Nabokov’s young emigrant heroes] are airy beings living a quasi-extraterritorial, somehow unlawful afterlife in rented rooms and boardinghouses, just as their author lived at one remove from the reality of Berlin in the twenties.

 

Serendipity: Philip Larkin’s Deafness

British Poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Considering how much I like him, I wonder why I haven’t written about Philip Larkin before. Today, I read a piece in the Times Literary Supplement by his literary executor, Graeme Richardson, that contained some wonderful anecdotes, among which was the following.

Once Larkin was unable to have me to dinner in college, so we met for lunch instead, in a pub almost opposite Magdalen College called The Aldgate. A degree ceremony was taking place elsewhere in the city, and the bar where we had our beer and ham sandwiches was full of gownwearing graduates and their proud parents. One of these recent graduates (a “sweet girl graduate,” in fact), recognized Larkin and brought across her napkin for him to sign. Despite his reputation as a semi-recluse, and her obvious fear that he might growl and tell her to go away, he graciously did as she asked. As she withdrew clutching her trophy, I said something about her being pretty. “I know,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe what a disadvantage my deafness has been to me all my life. I shudder to think how many women have come up to me and said, ‘Take me, lover,’ only to have me reply, ‘Yes it is rather warm for the time of year, isn’t it.’”