Sunday, 13 April 2014


Off to Herculaneum, which is essentially Pompeii for hipsters. It's conceptually similar but less famous and thus more fashionable. Which is why I went there, instead of Pompeii. Fewer tourists; fewer me.

Herculaneum was buried in 79AD by the same eruption that engulfed Pompeii. Back in the superbad seventies the Roman Empire reigned supreme; Emperor Titus came to power, and he finished up the Colosseum, which I remember from this MST3K skit:

Writing in 1884, W Cope Devereux mentions the place only in passing. Literally so - he bypasses it on the way to Pompeii, because there wasn't much to see. The buried town had been rediscovered in the 1700s and had been excavated sporadically until 1875, but in Devereux's time it was overshadowed by Pompeii. Herculaneum was harder to excavate, which will become apparent six paragraphs from now, after I have finished writing about Spider-Man and the limits of human knowledge.

Work at Herculaneum restarted in 1927. The dig was one of Mussolini's prestige projects, and was intended to make Italy great again. The excavations have continued at a measured pace ever since.

I think it's a reference to SSC Napoli, which was founded in August 1926.

The ancient Romans weren't particularly fussed about resettling Herculaneum. The new town that slowly emerged was called Resina, but just like Spider-Man's black suit the name failed to catch on, and so in 1969 the residents voted to revert back to Herculaneum. Which is Ercolano in Italian.

Vesuvius is still an active volcano, which raises the possibility that the modern Herculaneum might one day be buried in ash. Archaeologists of the future will no doubt think that we all drove Fiats, and that our favourite film was "Banco di Credito Popolare".

Wonky education, or a fiendishly clever code? You decide.

If you think about it, the black costume makes sense, because spiders are black, aren't they? They're black and covered in fur. Why shouldn't Spider-Man be black... and covered in fur?

The black suit was introduced in the mid-1980s, as part of a general wave of "darker and edgier" makeovers that were fashionable at the time. It's often assumed that Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns (1986) was the spark that lit the fire - it had the word dark in the title - but although Knight was very influential it was really the culmination of a general trend rather than its genesis. Miller's story postdated Alan Moore's dystopian V for Vendetta, and Moore's work on Swamp Thing and Captain Britain, for example. The brutally unsentimental Punisher dated from the 1970s, at which point it reflected the generally downbeat, anti-heroic tone of films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish (in the UK, Judge Dredd had been directly inspired by the Eastwood film).

Batman himself had adopted a more gothic tone in the 1970s, and the big multi-comic Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity reboot was published while Miller was still working on his epic. Nowadays The Dark Knight is almost universally praised, but the "darker and edgier" trend it amplified is not remembered fondly. In the cinema dark-and-edgy became hip in the late 1980s but fizzled out in the 1990s; modern superhero blockbusters generally take place in a world where there are a few good men, if only a few.

Does this mean that modern superhero films and thus modern society in general have become trivialised and incapable of critical thought? My impression is that the dark tone of 1970s Hollywood grew naturally from the themes and stories that contemporary filmmakers wanted to explore, whereas the cynicism of (say) Predator 2 or Last Action Hero was essentially an affectation, an optional component akin to the cosmetic spoilers on a car. But it is impossible to write about films without considering the society that produces them. During the years in which R-rated action films were replaced with PG-rated action films there were several bloody wars; and when I think of the supposedly pussified modern world I think of fat Toronto Mayor Rob Ford sitting on the face of a prostitute, farting into her mouth, while she is being filmed for sex tape that will be leaked to the press in order to publicise her reality TV show, for which she will be paid seventeen million dollars. I think of that all the time. Rob Ford is us; we are Rob Ford.

Ultimately I believe that it is not possible to draw a picture of society from its media; that once you dig far enough, there's nothing there; and that instead of actual history, we remember a construction. The traditional view of history as a set of dates and names is oftentimes mocked for its simplicity, but what is the alternative? Human society is an enormously complicated system that moves through time, and we are unable to view it objectively because we are part of it, and a static slice would be as dead and cold as a slice of a human brain. By the time we have passed through history the details are forgotten, and there were so many things we reacted to unconsciously that even a mass of research - as in David Kynaston's Austerity Britain, for example - cannot fill the gaps. Over time, humanity has learned that there is more to the universe than can fit into a single human mind. How can we advance human knowledge in a universe that exhausts the limits of human understanding? Not just the understanding of one intelligent human being, but that of the entire collective intelligence of the human race. Before we can solve the problem of total understanding we need to build a machine which will surpass ourselves... and at this point have I just spewed out the plot of Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Adams' book is a mass of clever wordplay, but at its core is a profound philosophical concept; how can we understand a concept that simply cannot be translated into a form small enough for the human mind to grasp?

This was the last that roll of Fuji Acros; I put in some colour film and shot the image a few paragraphs up a few seconds later.

At its worst darker-and-edgier was cowardly, easy. Nihilism requires no effort or critical thought. Reading through it again, it strikes me that Dark Knight Returns is remarkably nuanced; it isn't a bludgeoning overdose of brutal violence and defeatism, it has a human core and ends on a hopeful note. The (spoilers) deaths of the chief villains are treated as a tragic waste and an empty hollow void respectively. The world of Dark Knight is bleak but capable of goodness, and its society's major deficit is a lack of empathy. The problem with "darker and edgier" is that, once it is escalated to a point where all of society and all the people and everybody and everything is darkly cynical, what next? There can be no tragedy in a world of tragedy. With no contrast, the backdrop simply becomes a bland wash. Real life is complex, evil is almost always undramatic, and quite often it exists only in the eye of the beholder.

But Herculaneum, eh? It's on the regional line from Naples, a short walk downhill from the train station. There's a taxi firm just outside the station that will take you up to Vesuvius, which was cloudy when I went, so I didn't go. I would have ended up with a lot of photographs of mist and rocks.

Herculaneum was originally by the sea; the eruption moved the coast, and in the following image you can see how deeply it was buried:

In theory you could walk quickly around the location in half an hour or so, and it's possible to do a whistle-stop tour of Pompeii and Herculaneum if you rush, although you'd find it difficult to squeeze Vesuvius into the itinerary. One of the advantages of living in Britain is that Continental Europe is only a short, cheap plane ride away, rather than eight hours and eight hundred dollars. But the ruins have survived for almost two thousand years, they will be there next year and the year after that.