T he fact that situations as apparently different as shipwreck and the destruction of Pompeii can share a common structure in part explains how artists and writers could use them as equivalents for each other. Obviously, many artists, such as Turner, Martin, Coleman, and Miller, who found themselves attracted to a particular kind of crisis-subject painted others as well. Thus, James Hamilton, who painted The Last Days of Pompeii, also created a powerful image of the imperiled ship in Old Ironsides (1863, Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts), and similarly, Johann (or Jens) Christian Dahl, a Norwegian landscapist, painted both the powerful Shipwreck on the Coast of Norway (1832, National Gallery, Oslo, Pl. 4) and Eruption of Vesuvius (c. 1823, National Gallery, Oslo), as well as numerous other first-hand studies of the volcano. Turner, a great master of scenes of shipwreck and other natural disasters, also painted a Vesuvius in Eruption (1817, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven). Of course, the fact that a man who painted shipwrecks also painted other instances of natural disaster does not necessarily signify anything more than that he was attracted to exciting subjects. But as the example of Turner's avalanche picture and the various representations of Pompeii suggest, artists often use what are in essence visual puns to convey the effect of natural forces surrounding the personages who populate their images of disaster. Comparing Turner's many shipwreck pictures with his paintings of snowstorms and avalanches in the Alps, or Martin's The Destruction of Tyre, which is a seapiece, with The Great Day of His Wrath, one perceives that these artists rely upon many of the same visual forms. Moreover, flowing lava, falling snow, and volcanic ash are often treated as if they were equivalents to the waters that submerge an ocean vessel — as in part they are. The degree to which artists intentionally treat these elements as if they were water is of course difficult to demonstrate to a healthy skepticism.

Fortunately, the fact of such transformation or equivalence is much clearer in literature. For example, when Victor Hugo describes God's punishment of guilty humanity in "Le Deluge," he imports non-biblical material about earthquakes and lightning that seems more literally appropriate to depictions of Pompeii or the Last Judgment:

Un sourd gemissement sorti du sein des mers
D"un horrible fracas remplit soudain les airs;
De la terre au s sitot les abim es s'entr' ouvrent,
Des enfers etonnes les plaines se decouvrent,
Et du fond de ce gouffre un tourbillon affreux
Repand et la fumee et la flamme en tous lieux
L'Air parant s'embraser.

[A dull groan issuing from the bosom of the sea
Fills the air with a horrible din;
The abysses of the earth at once gape open,
The plains of astonished hell are exposed,
And from the depth of this pit pours out a
Frightful whirlwind, and smoke and fire everywhere,
The air seems to catch on fire.]

Similarly, Bulwer-Lytton, who relates that the volcanic ash and smoke poured from Vesuvius "like a torrent" (bk 5, ch. 4), uses this water analogy when he describes 'steams of burning dust" (bk 5, ch. 8) in the wind and the lava moving in either "rivers" or "fiery cataracts" (bk 5, ch. 8). Since one almost inevitably describes the flow of lava in terms of a river or stream, such a description as that employed by the novelist does not tell us very much about any possible transference of terms derived from one situation to another. The description of the smoke pouring from the crater towards the city and the dust moving through the air, however, does suggest more clearly that Bulwer-Lytton was employing implicit analogies to shipwreck and sea disaster. The novelist's drawing upon an analogy to this other form of natural crisis and disaster also appears in an unexpected form in the scene when the volcano first sends forth fire and smoke. Immediately before Vesuvius erupts, the mob in the amphitheatre surges towards the evil Arbaces, and Bulwer-Lytton describes him as about to perish beneath "the waves of the human sea" (bk 5, ch. 4). The sudden appearance of smoke and flame pouring forth from the crater temporarily spares him by distracting the mob so he can escape, but in the end he is killed by a bolt of volcanic lightning which overturns an imperial statue that in turn crushes him to death. Bulwer-Lytton's use of the commonplace analogy of mob and ocean, which appears in so many nineteenth-century novels, thus permits him to make an infuriated mass of people appear in the guise of a natural force and hence like the volcano itself. By likening both the mob and Vesuvius to a third term — a sea or mass of water he makes them appear as comparable agents of divine justice.

Images of Crisis as Cultural Code

ecognizing that various apparently different situations, such as the destruction of Pompeii and the shipwrecked mariner, share a common structure has much to offer the student of cultural history, ideas, the arts, and the relations among them. For example, when one perceives that literary and artistic presentations of shipwreck, invasion, avalanche, the Deluge, and the last days of Pompeii contain the same basic pattern or structure, they appear as equivalents or transformations of one another. Such a recognition, which makes it possible to identify the culturally important elements in each structure, also permits one to identify both the unifying themes of an age and the relation between various culturally dominant themes, ideas, and metaphors.

Artists and audiences dearly took such situations of extreme crisis to be relevant because they could see them as analogous to their own situations in some way. Thus, Turner's imagined avalanche in the Alps and Bulwer-Lytton's imagined history of Pompeii's last hours were understood to exist not solely as either works of art or recreations of fact. Rather, they were perceived as referring beyond themselves, for they were interpreted as paradigms, synecdoches, analogies, and metaphors — as representative images or codes that conveyed something of importance to artist and audience alike. Such transformations of a literal thing (or event), or something within a work of art that purports to be such, permitted the situations of avalanche, shipwreck, and Pompeii to serve as cultural codes. They permitted, in other words, members of a particular society to communicate something of interest to one another. Obviously, one can learn much about a society, nation, or age both by examining the situations and structures its members adopt as codes or figurations and by observing how they manipulate, qualify, and adapt them.

By thus perceiving that certain basic structures function as cultural codes that communicate culturally relevant information, one can begin to construct an archeology of imagination capable of at least partially re-creating the way artists and audience experienced the paintings, novels, poems, political speeches, and sermons of an age. Such a proposed archeology of imagination would proceed by showing how apparently opposed or disparate images or situations might be seen as unified, and at the same time it would permit the modern student of an earlier culture — or of his or her own — to differentiate more precisely than otherwise possible apparently similar applications of such structures. Although such an approach would permit us to enter the imaginations of another age by making us sensitive to its voices, codes, and inflexions, it would not fall prey to essentially unsupported and unsupportable generalizations about the mind of an age or its Zeitgeist.

Furthermore, treating such structures as codes that can be manipulated and qualified permits us to study the interesting problems of tradition and innovation. Such an approach permits one, for instance, to inquire how avalanches, Pompeii, and shipwrecks became so popular, how they relate to earlier cultural codes, and how they function within individual paintings and literary works. In fact, the structure of crisis that lies at the heart of so many popular nineteenth- and twentieth-century metaphors, situations, and images turns out to be a transformation of a previously dominant cultural paradigm. As Borges has suggested in his essay on Pascal, perhaps universal history is the history of the diverse intonation of a few metaphors."1 The journey of life is one of those few metaphors whose variations should command the attention of the student of Western culture. The notion that life is a journey has provided one of the most ervasive commonplaces of Western thought for two and a half millennia, and it is easy to see why.3 The figures of voyage, progress, or pilgrimage all enable us to spatialize and hence visualize — our existence. (I had almost written that they enable us to spatialize our movement through time, or our existence in it, so difficult is it to escape using the forms of space to express those of time, quality, and abstract idea.)3


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Last modified 16 July 2007