What Has "Pompeii" to Do with Us?

It would seem that something about the tragic fate of the first-century AD Roman villa Pompeii has struck the imagination of the artistic world, considering the hype surrounding the film Pompeii slated for release this year and the popularity of the song "Pompeii" written by British alternative rock band Bastille for their album Bad Blood (2013). Unlike the film, which, from what I can tell, is some sort of tragic love story set in the shadow of an erupting Mount Vesuvius and borrowing a penchant for violence reminiscent of such films as 300 (2006), Clash of the Titans (2010), and Immortals (2011), Bastille's "Pompeii" uses the reference to the destroyed city as an allegory for our modern world which seems to thrive on revolutions, uprisings, factions, and protests, but fails to effect any real change in society as a whole. In some sense, the fate of Pompeii is the looming fate of us all who are too complacent or listless to possibly bring about the true change needed to keep ourselves from imminent destruction.

The poet brings out two senses of both revolution and languor. The first refers to the physical effects of violent revolution, the marches and protests, the revolts and civil wars, the process of tearing down an old regime in order to build up a new one. The poet himself is caught up in a pessimistic listlessness concerning the desire for change in "the city that we love". He says that, when "left to his own devices", he is unable to accomplish anything concrete or to effect any sort of change in his own life. Meanwhile, the revolution is happening around him, "the walls kept tumbling down" and "great clouds roll over the hills". The poet locates his passivity throughout all of this urgent destruction in his own inability to be optimistic about any sort of new regime solving any of society's problems. Despite the optimistic intentions of the revolutionaries, the new structures feel exactly the same as the old. New figures may be in charge, but the inherent problems have not been solved. There are new faces, but the same old game. The poet laments: "But if you close your eyes,/ Does it almost feel like / Nothing changed at all?" The desire for revolution is undermined because the things that truly need to be changed are not being addressed. It is not the superstructures that are the problem, but the underlying attitudes that erected them in the first place. Revolution needs to come from within before it can be effective without.

The poet brings out the second sense of revolution and languor in the second and third stanzas. Rather than focusing on an exterior need for revolution, the poet looks to the interior of the human person and focuses on those aspects of life that cause us the most damage: our sins. The poet says that, even as the dust of violent revolution settles, "we were caught up and lost in all of our vices". Humanity continues to make the same interior mistakes regardless of the change in social structures. The human soul is still hopelessly caught in its own torpidity, its reluctance to face its own destructive behaviors and tear them down. It's easier to look outside oneself and blame the establishment for all of the problems we experience; it's easy to protest and get angry and attack a faceless structure that is detached from our personal reality. It's an entirely different thing to honestly face the horrors of one's own corrupt soul and protest against it, get angry at it, and attack those things in our lives, in our hearts and minds, that bring us to such suffering and unrest. In the third stanza, the poet asks, "O, where do we begin, / The rubble or our sins?" Where do we make a start to bring about social change? Do we start with the broken bricks of a broken society? Do we start sifting through the rubble of our superstructures looking for new ways to build up the human community? Or do we look squarely at our sins, out faults, our failings, and choose to reject them, uproot them, and never allow space for them to grow again? For the poet, the revolution must start inside with the honest and purposeful eradication of those things in us that keep us from contributing to the building up of a true human community of peace, love, and joy. Without that inner commitment to not be "part of the problem", as it were, there is no hope for societal change on any level.

Seeing with the clear eyes of the moral artist, the poet asks, "How am I going to be an optimist about this?" He has seen the uselessness of material revolution, the repetition of corrupt establishments and superstructures, no matter how good the intentions of the revolutionaries themselves. He has experienced his own languor, his own unwillingness to work for change and true revolution in his own heart. If this is the case, how can we be optimistic? How can we have any hope for true change in our broken society? Honestly, optimism may not be possible. We are a species of flawed and fallen creatures who will probably never be able to completely overcome all of the different aspects of suffering that we bring upon ourselves. An optimistic attitude that sees humanity on some sort of eternally positive trajectory, that sees us only improving as time goes on, is bound to disappoint. It is not real. It is not happening. In this case, we'd be better off embracing a realistic perspective that recognizes that we repeat the same mistakes today that we have since the dawn of time, just in new forms with new types of rhetoric to justify them. A thousand years from now, we'll most likely be doing just the same. However, being realistic does not preclude the ability to hope. We can be eternally hopeful about humanity on a personal level in that we are all innately capable of becoming the best people we can be. We all have that opportunity, as "Pompeii" expresses, to face our own sins and work to overcome them. We may not be able to revolutionize the world and solve all its problems in any realistic way, but we can always work to revolutionize ourselves, to improve ourselves a little bit each day, to perfect ourselves in whatever ways we can. If each and every person in the world would honestly work toward that level of individual revolutionizing, we would be much more likely to see positive changes in the world around us.

The people of Pompeii were suffocated in the ash and pumice spouted from Mount Vesuvius; archeological evidence suggests that they didn't even make a move to escape their fate. Bastille's song encourages us to avoid making the same mistake. We need to recognize the danger of suffocation in the rubble of false revolution and personal slothfulness, and make the move to escape our fate and truly live.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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