Et in Arcadia ars: Thoughts on Volcanism and Urbanism in Southern Italy, Part One

In Homer’s Odyssey (9.443), Polyphemus cries out “Nohbdy, Nohbdy’s tricked me, Nohbdy’s ruined me” after Odysseus, his captive and prospective meal, blinds him and eventually flees from his lair. The clever Ithacan bamboozled his captor by identifying himself as “Nohbdy,” so that Polyphemus’ fellow Cyclopes, artisans or smiths according to many Greek sources (though not Homer), would not come to his aid, believing his affliction to have no cause when he called out the name of his afflicter. “Nobody’s ruined me,” he would be heard to say, leaving them to believe that his pain must have been self-inflicted or, as it actually happens, caused supernaturally by the gods. Artists and writers often use this name, Οὖτις in Greek, which literally means “nobody,” as a pseudonym to conceal their identity and mask their work-making agency, hiding the causal relationship between them and what they have done. Artful Odysseus, a canny and regular trickster, here supplies a means for other creative people to mask their creativity so as to retain their creations, freedom in his case, more precisely escape from peril and the opportunity to continue seeking after Ithaca, his home city.

Nohbdy is the name of a pure artfulness that intervenes between humans and non-humans to transform things without necessarily revealing its agential source. It can be, as it is for Odysseus, a cover for the city-dweller seeking refuge from the dangers of life outside the protective cover of the urban form. Civilization, whether Odysseus’ prehistoric Greek one or today’s, is coextensive with the use of and reliance upon this urban form, and his desire to return to a city (or, more properly, a city-state) is part of what has made him an emblematically human character in world literature. The city, large or small, and its related forms, which span from conurbation to hamlet, is our home, our destination, and the seemingly irreplaceable endpoint of our living as civilized beings. It is where our dependence on one another makes itself palpable, felt, betrayed, and so forth. The city as such (if not cities themselves, of course) is what does not change as we change in the course of living our lives together. If Polyphemus comes across as a crude brute, willing to munch on people in plain sight of others and otherwise behaving in an uncivilized way, perhaps that is because he does not live in a city.

Polyphemus’ home, the site of Odysseus’ brief imprisonment, is reputed to be Mount Etna (Homer himself does not specify a location), an active volcano on the eastern side of Sicily that is also the reputed location of Hephaestus’ forge (the Cyclopes being perhaps his assistants), the smithy belonging to the Greek god of artisans. It is, then, a site where danger and creation mix, which is a fitting reputation for a volcano. As it has for almost three thousand years, Etna looms over the city of Catania, occasionally running its lava through the city’s streets, themselves made of volcanic stone brought down from the volcano’s slopes, killing people and ruining what they build. This relationship between volcano and city is found elsewhere in Italy, namely in the pairing of Mount Vesuvius and Naples nearby on the Italian peninsula. (The other active volcano in Italy, Stromboli, is one of the Aeolean islands and home to only a few hundred people.) Like the relationship between Polyphemus and Odysseus, it is one of high risk, tremendous cleverness, and an occasional trick. In other words, it is a relationship in which the human capacity for artistry, which yokes together theoretical insight and practical wisdom (or absences thereof), is on display in rather sharp relief, providing clear insight into how humans live in concert, often disharmonious, with the rest of nature through their urbanity.

However, as is so often the case with creativity, a twist quickly makes itself visible. The relationship of volcanism and urbanism reveals something of considerable importance about how human artistry has given shape to humanity’s presence within nature: the transfer of human and other-than-human capacities and powers across an imagined barrier between humanity and the rest of nature (represented by the arbitrary city wall, perhaps) arises as a point of concern. We are not necessarily clever Odysseus. We might be Polyphemus. Humans have in recent decades or centuries — accounts vary — become geological agents, planet-shapers, a task typically thought to dwell in volcanic zones, and the creativity through which we perform our planet-shaping relies upon the urban form, its dense organization, and the powers that emerge within and issue from the consolidation of so many people in a relatively small place. A city, something humans make to be a site for their making, is a high-pressure locus of concentrated potentiality that often passes over into actuality, much like a volcano, and, also much like a volcano, the tendencies it exhibits when it does are, simultaneously, both enormously destructive and highly generative: governance, finance, industry, and so on call into being all manner of productions by consuming untold resources and spoiling others in so doing. Nohbdy does this. Nohbdy is responsible. It seems that Nohbdy is a two-faced figure, entirely befitting of a trickster. It can also be the name for a planet’s nameless power to impact upon human beings.

Still, this twist soon reveals that its twistedness is itself twisted: nearly all matter comprising this planet, its lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere is or was volcanic matter at one time or another, making human artistry literally as well as figuratively a volcanic product. As odd as it seems, we, like what we do, are the result of and an extension of lava cooling. Our artistry, which gives shape to this doing, seems to be conditioned by its volcanic origins to itself behave volcanically, mimicking its source. This is to say that our agency, which is now geological in consequence, has geological origins in the inanimate animations of the planet’s volcanism, and these origins continue to mark, perhaps even to destine, it. The cause of our agency is, in another word, Nohbdy’s, and it is playing us for the fool. Indeed, the words tectonic and τέχνη, words that speak to very different geological and human concerns, share the proto-Indo-European root “*teks–” meaning “to weave, to fabricate,” which probably has associations with the wattle and daub houses that formed the first cities. It inheres in a range of English words that concern what human beings are, do, use, and make within nature: architect, text, technology, tissue, toil. There seems to be an ironic reversal that, from time to time, makes us function more like ejected lava than like urbanites. It is as if φύσις (physis) and ποίησις (poiesis) had a single, indistinguishable essence.

. . . continued next week

[All photographs taken by the author.]

2 thoughts on “Et in Arcadia ars: Thoughts on Volcanism and Urbanism in Southern Italy, Part One

  1. Thank you for this post, which caused me to think of the Campi Flegrei caldera, near Naples. A caldera, in contrast to a stratovolcano like Stromboli, is a large depression (think “cauldron”) formed by enormous eruptions of magmatic material —including very hot ash (termed pyroclastic flows— like those that entombed the victims of Pompeii). They are the stuff of super volcanoes— quite enormous eruptions, with the “cauldron” formed owing to the evacuation of the lava chamber during the eruption. The Campi Flegrei volcano is active, witnessed by ground “swelling” of >3.5 meters in the last 15 years, causing definite concern; an earlier episode of such ground motion in the 1980s caused evacuation and associated political discussion. For this reason, a research drilling program was launched to conduct deep drilling into the caldera, to better understand its formation, and associated hazards. A pilot hole to ~500 m was completed successfully and did indeed provide new insight to the hazards. Interestingly, however, the proposed drilling (to greater depths) stirred controversy, that halted progress owing to concerns that drilling might trigger something… earthquakes, or even an eruption. The drilling proponents argue that drilling affords insight to assess (and better understand) the hazard, and have pointed out that the risk (of a triggering event) is quite minuscule. It is an interesting case study in balancing the human push for information that could aid hazard assessment, with the human possibility of unintended (and anthropogenic) consequences.
    [De Natale, G., et al., 2016, The Campi Flegrei Deep Drilling Project (CFDDP): New insight on caldera structure, evolution and hazard implications for the Naples area (Southern Italy): Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, v. 17, p. 4836-4847, doi: 10.1002/2015GC006183]

    • Many thanks for this link. The idea that better understanding the anthropocene entails prolonging it, even intensifying certain of its more unhappy qualities, is a disturbing idea — but a good one for scholars in the sciences and humanities to discuss together.

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