Quamquam animus meminisse horret, incipiam. “Although my mind is horrified to remember, let me begin.” Aeneas speaks these words to Dido, at the beginning of Book II of the Aeneid, after she asks him to recount the story of the fall of Troy. Pliny the Younger quotes Vergil at the opening of his letter to Tacitus, when the historian requested an account of Pliny’s personal experience during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
I’ve taught this line to Latin students who are studying epic poetry and to those who are studying history by way of Pliny’s Letters, and I think of the endless cycles of victims of war and natural disaster who courageously record their personal experiences for others, in one medium or another. We live in a time now when a person like Pliny who had witnessed a cataclysmic event would find it quite natural to tell his or her story. We largely accept the principle that knowledge and a thorough understanding of events can be best obtained and transmitted by a wide range of sources from different points of view. The more vantage points, the greater the diversity of media for preservation, the better. Historiography was trending in that direction, and the Internet has provided a yet undigested quantum leap forward.
In January 1998, three months after a series of earthquakes and aftershocks had killed several people and seriously damaged the upper church of the Basilica of Saint Francis, my husband and I visited Assisi. Looking back, I wonder what made us follow through with our plans to visit a town, clearly in crisis. Maybe lethargy, reluctance to change our plans. More likely, a lack of good information. To all our questions about the safety, lodging, transportation, we had received positive answers. “Yes, it is fine to continue with your plans,” said travel personnel. “No problem.”
I was unprepared for the unearthly quiet of the town, as we walked to its medieval center. ‘Courage, courage, you have courage,’ were the first words we heard in Assisi…
What a shock when we did arrive. I was unprepared for the unearthly quiet of the town, as we walked to its medieval center. “Courage, courage, you have courage,” were the first words we heard in Assisi, spoken by a friar on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, formerly a Roman temple to Minerva. He chopped the air with his hand to indicate how narrow was the space normally allotted to each visitor, concluding “Now, for three months, no one.”
I am many things, but decidedly not courageous. Nor am I one who wants to be in the center of a story, a firsthand witness. I had looked forward to this week for spiritual refreshment, artistic immersion, and fine food. It did turn out to be a rich week, but not in the ways I had envisioned. The Upper Basilica was closed; its ceiling and part of the walls had collapsed during the second terremoto. The priceless frescoes depicting the life of Francis, attributed to Giotto, lay in some 50,000 pieces on the floor waiting for restoration workers to reassemble.
We couldn’t put the destruction out of our mind even for a moment in the midst of all the scaffolding, the enormous tarps covering gaping holes in the homes and buildings, blockaded entrances, piles of rubble and the restaurants we would soon share with restoration experts and relief workers. In a journal I kept during our visit, I wrote “It is as if the whole city were keening, rocking back and forth in anguish. ‘Why here? Why here, of all places?’ Our shining city seemed to sound in the very air.”
I can now watch the quake that destroyed part of the Basilica on YouTube. Fascinating, if unnerving. I never see it without experiencing the shock and grief that the eyewitnesses must have experienced in the moment. If that grief ever lessens, if it turns to the curiosity of an onlooker, I hope I would not watch it any longer. This is the underside of our intense exposure to tragedies of all manner. Do we risk habituation to suffering?
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