Volcanic Eruptions and Environmental Disasters in Literature and History

Cataclysmic events, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which happened on this day, have fascinated people for thousands of years. Individuals have attempted to express this captivation in various ways from Pliny the Younger, who survived the Vesuvius eruption and subsequently wrote in detail about his experience, to the leaders of the French Revolution, who invoked the powerful symbolism of a natural, unstoppable force that volcanoes represent. Writing about natural disasters helps people move on, but not forget, these catastrophes. As these experiences are immortalized over time, they come to symbolize hope, survival, power and destruction. Poetics Today and French Historical Studies delve further into these instances of expression and demonstrate the link between why people write about natural disasters such as Mount Vesuvius’ eruption and how that calamity empowers and embodies events long after.

Ddpt_33_3-4In Francoise Lavocat’s “Narratives of Catastrophe in the Early Modern Period: Awareness of Historicity and the Emergence of Interpretative Viewpoints,” he discusses the reasons and ways people write about natural disasters:

Braccini’s narrative of the Naples volcanic eruption illustrates the narrator-witness’s need to explain his personal, intellectual, and even emotional perception of a given event. The 1631 eruption of Mount Vesuvius gave rise to many narratives that emphasized the contrast between “the curiosity” of the witness-narrator and the credulity of Neapolitans nurtured by legends. This contrast was inspired by Pliny the Younger’s attitude toward the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It is also by reference to Pliny that the taste for observation, even close to the eruption site, is asserted and staged, as can be seen in Braccini’s writing. Another priest, Angelo Eugenii da Perugia, compares his “experience” of the “natural effects” of the eruption to the “extravagant exaggerations” of his contemporaries, who interpret the phenomenon as the beginning of the Apocalypse. No one denies the existence of divine causes, but nor does this prevent the consideration of secondary causes. Braccini goes to a library in Naples and does a public reading of Pliny’s letter about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, declaring to his fellow citizens: “Here is a description,58 1550 years old, that corresponds exactly to what you have before your eyes today”. In the case of the eruption of Vesuvius, the repetition of this catastrophe and the comparison it invites between AD 79 and 1629 beg for demystification: at least, the repetition suggests that this eruption, similar to a previous one in antiquity, is not the last and so very unlikely to be the Apocalypse. Braccini’s rational point of view thus partly secularizes the interpretation. The historical dimension is fundamental to this new approach to catastrophe, expressed several times around 1630, regarding the eruption of Vesuvius and the plague in northern Italy. Most narratives include an appendix that lists previous catastrophes in chronological order,60 focusing on disasters that occurred in the recent past (especially the sixteenth century) while ignoring biblical and mythical accounts. Catastrophes are no longer prophetic of other catastrophes.

Read more from “Narratives of Catastrophe” here.

DdFHS_32_4_Final-1In “Mountain, Become a Volcano: The Image of the Volcano in the Rhetoric of the French Revolution,” Mary Ashburn Miller establishes a relationship between the language of natural history and the political rhetoric of the French Revolution by tracing the iconography of the volcano throughout the revolutionary period:

Le jugement dernier des rois, a play written by Sylvain Maréchal, opened to enthusiastic reviews at the Theater of the Republic in Vendémiaire of Year II. Maréchal subtitled his play ‘a prophecy in one act.’ The journalist Prudhomme also embraced the future foreseen by the playwright and hoped for by the supportive Committee of Public Safety. ‘The theatrical fiction will soon become historical fact,’ he wrote. The overthrow of Europe’s kings, their return to an ‘uncivilized’ state, and their ultimate destruction by natural forces was fiction presented to, and patronized by, a broad French public, playing in Beauvais, Compiègne, Grenoble, Le Mans, Lille, Metz, and Rouen. And the volcano, symbol of revolutionary fervor and destruction, became the ultimate demonstration of nature’s justice, annihilating the monarchs in a single, terrifying, and glorious moment described in the play’s liner notes: ‘The explosion takes place: the fire attacks the kings from all sides; they fall, consumed in the innards of the opened earth.’ The quite literal fall of the monarchs, although enabled by the French Revolution itself, was portrayed as the work of natural forces.

Read more from “Mountain, Become a Volcano” here.

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