Sunday, January 06, 2008
Ghosts of Vesuvius
Our book today is Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino, perhaps the most remarkable - and certainly the finest - book to emerge from the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th.
Pellegrino is one of the world's true polymaths - a game expert in entomology, paleontology, forensic physics, marine archeology, and half a dozen other things. He epitomizes Leonardo daVinci's belief that specialization is a harbor for shallow minds rather than what it's viewed today, as the province of experts. Like Leonardo, Pellegrino acquires entire disciplines the way most men acquire facts, and he writes a delightful prose.
For the purposes of Ghosts of Vesuvius, Pellegrino isn't precisely entomologist or paleontologist or archeologist but rather something broader and darker - a cataclysmologist, if you will, studying the physics of disaster.
His organizing focus is on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a.d. 79, the disaster which consumed - and entombed -the thriving cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. On the second-by-second reconstruction of the events of those days, there has never been a better book than Ghosts of Vesuvius, and although work continues apace on the excavation of those buried towns, a better book is unlikely to follow, by virtue of Pellegrino's vivid writing. His exhaustive grasp of detail is perfectly wed to a very personal understanding:
As others in the Herculaneum boathouses attempted to shelter themselves against the back walls or hide their faces from the approaching surge cloud, a fourteen-year-old slave girl cradled another woman's child under her chin. The posture of her bones suggests an attempt to soothe - until, all in two-tenths of a second, their soft tissues were converted to incandescent gas and their skulls were exploded from the inside, by the pressure of vaporizing brain tissue and boiling blood.
Like all true polymaths, Pellegrino is perfectly at ease admitting the limits of his own knowledge, although he's obviously frustrated with the limits of everybody's knowledge. One of these little mysteries is something called a 'shock coccoon'- a weird product of apocalyptic physics wherein certain items will be preserved in perfect tranquility even while everything around them is being ripped apart.
Pellegrino studies anomalies like shock coccoons in three horrible places where they can be found in abundance: the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the wreckage of the Titanic (the result of her thunderous impact on the sea floor), and, inevitably, Manhattan's Ground Zero.
Shock coccoons seem to work on his imagination, perhaps because they seem to taunt survivors and investigators by a vision of serenity in the midst of depredation - almost like there was a way for everything to survive its own destruction:
No one knows for certain how shock coccoons occur. In a neighborhood where houses were blasted out to sea in pieces, no one in Herculaneum would have believed, in the predawn hours of August 25, a.d. 79, that a container of walnuts would be so perfectly coccooned that the nut meats (albeit just barely) would still be edible more than 1,900 years later.
Pellegrino is at his most touching when his expertise is enlisted not to examine relics from danger zones safely dead but to probe something much closer to home. In addition to all the other weighty things it was, the fall of the Twin Towers was an epicenter for cataclysm physics.
What he finds at Ground Zero is eerily similar to everything he'd seen in Herculaneum and or the Grand Banks, but infinitely more heart-breaking, because these are people he might have known, people who might still be alive if their own personal Vesuvius hadn't overtaken them.
In a weird and touching way - in a way that suggests so much it doesn't have the heart to say - the similarities abound. At Ground Zero he finds all the things he'd found in those older disaster grounds, including shock coccoons which left chunks of law libraries intact - and in alphabetical order - on the fire escape outside a bar far from their place of origin high up in the stricken towers.
Thankfully, he finds at Ground Zero other echoes, no less profound. True, there's equal destruction and tragedy, but there's also a heroism equal to that poor slave girl protecting somebody else's child:
One of the last groups of firefighter and police officers to evacuate alive, down the stairwells of the North Tower, met two civilians running up, the 'civvies' were carrying flashlights and walkie-talkies. They identified themselves as building security and announced that they had made contact with people trapped in an office on the sixty-second floor. The security guards acknowledged a warning that the building would soon collapse, but they refused to leave. The last time anyone saw them, they were climbing toward Floor 62. No one knows their names, and no one ever will. The North Tower's security guards suffered 100 percent mortality.