Disasters fascinate. The Titanic still garners interest after 100-plus years. Though I suspect some of that has to do with the lost ship and its treasures. The other side of Titanic fetish comes from the high number of casualties, that mass grave in the North Atlantic, arguably an example of what’s been called ‘dark tourism.’
My disaster fascination is with Pompeii, where some 2,000 people died when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. I first caught Pompeii fever as a child when an exhibit about Pompeii toured America and came to the Art Institute of Chicago. I was mesmerized by the plaster casts made from the ashen moulds of bodies frozen in time at the moment of horrific death. My recollection of this includes seeing people screaming. But that’s an unfaithful childhood memory. The reality wasn’t so detailed or morbidly vivid. Most of the figures are covering their heads, crouched or lying down. My adult self looks at these casts and imagines people being in a state of meditative acceptance of their mortality I visited the remains of Pompeii on two occasions, once in the 80s and sometime around 2005-06. The disaster is still fascinating, but more so for what it has left behind – the artifacts and structures that reveal how the inhabitants of the ancient town lived.
More recently, I had the pleasure of hearing the historian and classicist Mary Beard talk about her book and television series on Pompeii. Beard has changed my way of thinking about these people, for instance, pointing out that it would be wrong to call them Romans. The graffiti and inscribed objects indicate a diverse population, with speakers of Latin, Oscan, Greek and Hebrew.
This point is also picked up in Robert Harris’s brilliant novel Pompeii, a true page-turner set in the days before and during the eruption, with well-drawn characters and an attention to detail praised by historians. Harris digs into the minds of the people of that time who regarded such disasters as vengeance from the gods and the warnings that they had that went unceded. His protagonist, the region’s aquarius responsible for the aqueducts feeding into the towns, makes this observation: ‘Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails – and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?’ This underlying environmental message also makes this worth a read.
There’s another type of dark tourism that I’ve been thinking about lately. The phrase is also used for visiting places like the concentration camp at Auschwitz, the Rwandan genocide towns (Kigali, Nyamata and Ntarma) and the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, where apparently the rubble and twisted metal from the immediate aftermath of the bomb remain in situ. I’d argue that these sites, though they might hold a morbid fascination for some, are more about education, pointing the finger at human destruction and the mistakes of those who turned a blind eye. Watching, reading and hearing the news day in and day out, I wonder if Bucha and Mariupol will become sites for dark tourism.