Friday, June 3, 2011

The Eruption Room

I write today to tell you about the Eruption Room, but I should start off by saying that our being there in the first place was a kind of a fluke born of the fact that Joan and I had matinee tickets for Wednesday afternoon at Lincoln Center and plans to have dinner in the city later on once our younger son got out of work. That left us with about two and a half hours to kill in midtown and somehow Joan (who is even worse than I am at wasting time unproductively) conceived of the idea of heading to Times Square to see the Pompeii exhibit at the Discovery Times Square Exposition space. I had only barely been aware the whole thing existed—the exhibition space itself only opened up in 2009 in the basement of the old New York Times building—and I suppose I imagined that non-museum exhibitions spaces in Times Square would be the kind of cheesy wax museums that cater solely to tourists wandering around the neighborhood between Broadway shows and the meals that precede or follow them with nothing to do and money to burn. And there is a bit of that here too—the space also houses at present an exhibit of Harry Potter memorabilia—but there we were nonetheless ! And in we went to see what was new, or rather what was once new, in old Pompeii.

The basic story, everybody knows. On the morning of August 24 in the year 79 CE, not even a decade after the sack of Jerusalem, Mount Vesuvius erupted totally unexpectedly, spewing enough mud, ash, and poison gas into the sky to create a twelve-mile-wide black cloud over the several adjacent towns that lined the Bay of Naples in those days of which Pompeii was by far the most famous and probably the oldest, having been inhabited at that point already for over seven hundred years. (Herculaneum is the other town people have heard of, but there were other villages, smaller ones, as well.) Amazingly, the site was eventually forgotten and remained unknown and unrecalled until it was chanced across by some local farmers in 1749. Excavations began almost immediately and an entire ancient city eventually emerged from the calcified dust, revealing antiquity at a level of detail that had been known only from literary works prior to that point and never actually seen by any living person at all since ancient times. Here, at last, was Roman life not as it was recorded in books by later authors but as it was actually lived by the people on the ground. There were wine bars and shoe stores, fruit stands and bath houses, bordellos (forty-one of them, to be exact) and public and private gardens, temples to the gods of Rome and huge, luxurious villas for the super-wealthy. It was, in short, a real place inhabited by real people. And they met their end almost instantly, some escaping but most remaining anchored to their homes and their wealth by some combination of inability to believe that life as they knew it could end on a dime (or, rather, on a denarius), unwillingness to abandon their homes and their wealth, and unfounded security that destruction on the scale that was almost upon them simply could not actually happen in real life. If you want to learn more, the best place to start would be with Robert Harris’s very exciting novel, Pompeii, published by Random House in 2005, which tells the story of the last days of Pompeii in a way I found terrifically engaging.

And that brings me to the Eruption Room. Like I said, Discovery Times Square is part museum, part gallery, and part amusement park. The artifacts on exhibit are mostly real, but some are reproductions. (To their credit, the items on display are clearly marked in that regard so there is no difficulty knowing which is which.) As you enter, you feel yourself drawn into a world like and unlike our own. There are pieces of gold jewelry and gorgeous wall frescoes to admire, and all sorts of kitchen artifacts and mosaic floors to compare to their counterparts in our world. And then—this is the theme park part—you are eventually escorted into the Eruption Room where a kind of multi-media movie is shown that depicts the eruption of Vesuvius and the ensuing destruction of Pompeii on an hour-by-hour basis. The floor shakes. The surround-sound speakers rumble. The computer-generated images on the screen move you forward hour by hour through the day Pompeii was destroyed, not too subtly challenging you to wonder if you yourself would have seized the gravity of the situation before it was too late to flee or only long after any viable avenue of escape remained open. And then the movie ends and the screen rises to ceiling height, revealing a door where you hadn’t noticed one previously. The room stops shaking. The door, actually a double-door, opens. You have been told that you may not revisit the parts of the exhibit already seen once you pass through the Eruption Room. Beckoned forward by some combination of circumstance, logic, and curiosity—and having in any event no other obvious option to choose—you walk through the door into the next part of the experience.

This is the part that I want to write about specifically. You are now in the truly creepy part of the exhibition, the one featuring the plaster casts. It turns out that the people and animals who died at Pompeii, or at least some of them, died so quickly that they were simply encased in white-hot volcanic ash. As the centuries passed, their bodies disintegrated, leaving empty spaces within the ash that corresponded exactly to their dimensions. It was first in the 1860s that an Italian archeologist, a man named Giuseppe Fiorelli, had the idea of injecting plaster into these spaces, then breaking down the surrounding ash to reveal a perfect likeness of the person or beast that a millennium and a half earlier had died in that specific place. The results were somewhere between breathtaking and indescribably eerie. Men and women, even dogs, emerged from the ash so perfectly preserved that even their facial features were visible. You can see the design on a dog’s collar, the earrings a woman was wearing, the chains around a slave’s wrists that prevented him from fleeing. Some are mere outlines, of course. But you get the idea: a girl grabbing for her mother, a man with his knees drawn up into his chest awaiting his imminent end, a man trying to shlep himself up a flight of stairs. The forms are depicting writing, groping, reaching out towards something that turned to dust millennia ago. In case that might not be enough, there is also a tableau from Herculaneum on display featuring thirty-two skeletal remains huddled together in some sort of vain hope for safety in numbers. Of the thirty-two individuals whose bones are there on display, a grim sign informs the viewer than nine belonged to children under the age of twelve. You get the idea. The skeletons are beyond horrific, but it is the plaster casts that are the more evocative. Here are people who ended up, as will we all eventually, gone and not gone, absent yet present, real yet unreal. They aren’t there, of course, but are represented by the space they briefly occupied. Is it a metaphor? I think that it is!

And that is why I wanted to write to you today about the Eruption Room and the magic doors that lead you from the contemplation of almost unimaginable destruction to an other-worldly walk amidst the absent/present dead. That did it for me. I had enough. It was my birthday last Wednesday, so I was already feeling more than mortal enough. We passed up the overpriced knick-knacks in the gift shop and headed up to street level. I wasn’t at all hungry, but for some reason I couldn’t wait to get to dinner.

What the whole experience left me with was a question that has been with me every since. If this happened to me…if suddenly, out of the blue, unexpectedly and without the slightest warning, the world as we know it were to come to an almost instant end, what exactly would we—or let me say it more bluntly, what exactly would I—leave behind for people two millennia in the future, say in the year 4011, to contemplate? What would archeologists unearthing the remains of my life, of my home, of my office, of our synagogue, what would they make of us? How would they reconstruct our values based on what occupies the places of the most prominence in our private and public spaces? What would some tourist from the forty-first century make of a plaster reconstruction of the space I personally occupy in the twenty-first? Would they get an accurate picture merely from inspecting the home I live in or the office I work in or the study I write in or the car I drive around in? Does my space, does the specific way I have constructed, designed, and decorated that space, reflect the man I truly am or is it far more suggestive of the man I wish I was or, even more gallingly, the man I feel I ought to be. What would an exhibit of this place we live in together look like to tourists wandering around Times Square in an almost unimaginably distant future not really any further from us than we are from the residents of Pompeii? Other than noting the presence of a lot of books and a lot of neckties, what would an archeologist make of the space I would leave behind in the volcanic dust once the real me was gone from the world and only that space once occupied remained?

These are sobering thoughts bordering on the dour. Yet they are also provocative ones. I came away from my visit to Times Square feeling challenging to wonder what it is I am leaving behind, what it is I am actually doing with my life, what I am making of it, what the substance of my things would say to a disinterested party thousands of years in the future who, lacking my running narrative and self-serving explanations and justifications, would only have the goods to inspect before coming to a conclusion about me and my place in the world. These are slightly upsetting questions to pose and, worse so, to try to answer. But the kind of ruthless introspection to which their contemplation leads is salutary, I think, and useful. If you have a chance to visit the Eruption Room, you won’t be sorry! But the thoughts it will engender once the movie ends and unseen hands open a door that leads directly into the kingdom of the dead—that is the thing of real value you get for the price of admission.

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