The Apocalyptic Sublime

Karl Brullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii (credit: Wikipedia)
(Originally published March 14, 2018) 

Yesterday, a friend posted a wonderful article (“What Happens After the Worst Happens?” by Adelheid Fischer, that centres on photographs of Mt. St. Helens taken immediately after the eruption and those taken in subsequent years, particularly a set taken last year. The long article had a number of strong points, but what caught my eye was this:
A more precise description for Mount St. Helens’s blend of terror and exhilaration might be the apocalyptic sublime, a term used by art historian Morton D. Paley to describe a genre of 18th-century artworks that feature cataclysmic scenes from the Old Testament and Book of Revelation. Photographers like David Maisel have since picked up the concept and applied it to landscapes strafed by industrial-scale exploitation, such as open-pit mines.”

This is the first time I had seen that particular term, “apocalpytic sublime.” I immediately thought of a painting I’d seen in a Time-Life book about volcanoes, called “The Last Day of Pompeii.” It’s the photo at the top. (Side note: The artist is Karl Brullov, and it’s considered one of the first significant pieces of Russian art in a Western style. I’d just read about it in a book about St. Petersburg, which I was reading because of Leningrad…) This book, and specifically the section on Pompeii, was what sparked my interest in volcanoes. I remember staring at this painting, some of the photos of the ruins, and in particular the very evocative plaster casts of a man and a dog “in their death throes.” This is also the first time I had encountered ruins. I was in elementary school, probably around the fourth or fifth grade, and it has left an impression that has lasted my entire life. I am drawn, almost obsessively, to disaster and its aftermath–to ruins, whether they are physical, psychological, or both. Photographer Frank Gohlke, whose photographs of Mt. St. Helens immediately after the eruption are part of the article, put it this way: “I am most touched by those places where damage and grace are inextricably entangled.”

It should be implicit in my earlier statement is that for me, what makes a ruined thing evocative is not so much the raw forces of nature. It’s the human reaction–what the disaster and its aftermath evokes for a human participant or onlooker–the response to what once existed, thrived at some point in the past, but at this point in time, exists in this different form. When I see a ruin, I supply in my imagination what once was, drawing on the shadows and ghosts that still populate a place. When I see Mt. St. Helens, I think of Harry Truman, the lodge owner on Spirit Lake who would not leave, even as it became ever more clear that disaster was imminent. In that shattered landscape, men and women, along with innumerable animals, plants, and other forms of life, once made their home, and will again. In a natural ruin like the area around a shattered volcano, this is inevitable. Pioneer plants and animals that survived the blast were recolonizing the “moonscape” around St. Helens as soon as the ash settled and the pyroclastic flows cooled. The land is slowly recovering. But we humans often want to take it farther–to put it back “the way it was” before the disaster, rather than to allow something new to evolve. At St. Helens, there have been heated arguments between those who would allow the moonscapes to recover naturally, as opposed to those who would reseed conifers and rebuild resorts. The slopes of Vesuvius are now once again dotted with the vineyards that covered it in antiquity.

And that is the dilemma of any ruined place: To allow the ruin to stand, as testament to what was, or to rebuild or restore? A place that has passed through a phase of ruin can be made to resemble what once was, but it cannot be that place. It will be something different. It may be a phoenix rising from the ashes, taking on new life, or it can be a pale echo of what once was. Or, it can can choose to commemorate the past while forging a new path. It will not evoke the same emotions as it did in its ruined state; in fact, those emotions may fade with time and be forgotten altogether.

Nineteen years ago, I discovered the ruins of Detroit, first in the photography of Camilo Jose Vergara in his book American Ruins, and then in the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit website ( ). As with many of my passions, my obsession with what we’d now call “urban ruin porn” was sparked by a memory of a visit to Detroit in 1985, specifically driving down Woodward Avenue and seeing the shuttered storefronts, the empty skyscrapers, and what I now know was the Brush Park residential area. These ruins were familiar to me, and I remembered how they had made me feel–a sense of loss for what once was. These shattered and empty buildings had once been so full of life, and now lay abandoned. Two decades on? The empty skyscrapers are being restored and reclaimed; the Brush Park mansions that managed to hang on long enough are being restored. Detroit itself, like its paladin Joe Louis, has taken many punches, even been counted out, and still seems to stand up and answer the bell, reinventing itself. But for me, the joy is not unmitigated. The ruins were a testament to a particular era, and there is a danger that revitalization may erase part of that history and not benefit those who managed to weather the darker days. The ruins had a story to tell, and in their visual testimony to the past, provided a narrative that is now being lost.

Another approach has been taken in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. There was never a chance that that site would not be rebuilt–it was nearly a moral imperative to do so. When the Towers fell, I once again recalled 1985; I had visited New York during spring break that year and visited the observation deck at the top of the south tower. When I saw the images on TV, I had that feeling that one can only have when someone has physically visited a place she now sees in ruins–placing myself in the midst of the falling towers, remembering standing in places now obliterated, looking up to see the looming masses above me, the feel of how the two buildings were placed within their plaza, the rhythm of the site now destroyed. For me, the buildings still stood–still stand– in my memories. In the days that followed, I saved as many photographs of the ruins as I could, knowing that they were ephemeral. Each jagged piece of concrete, each accidental sculpture of twisted girders sang a requiem to those who had perished, and to an era we did not know was ending until it was abruptly over. I remember discussions as to whether the two towers should be rebuilt as they were–but that those were quickly discarded; there was no going back to what once was. In the end, the new World Trade Center is a very different building–a single tower rather than two. And the decision was made to build a memorial to the destroyed towers by constructing sunken reflecting pools and waterfalls on the footprints of the two buildings, surrounding them with trees. The only “ruins” that remain are the voids left by the buildings–but the only thing that now occupies that physical space is the memories of the towers that once rose and fell there.

But sometimes the desire to restore is inexorable. The Germans intentionally destroyed both the Catherine Palace and Peterhof in St. Petersburg, leaving each little more than an empty shell. There was briefly a movement to keep Peterhof as a ruin to help document what had happened to Leningrad during the Siege, but that was abandoned in the conscious movement post WWII to minimize and even destroy the stories of the suffering of the city. If you were to visit either today, you would see little evidence that they had ever been ruins. Even the famed Amber Room in the Catherine Palace has been recreated from photographs. This is a good thing if what you wish to see are beautiful buildings, but some part of me cries out that the Amber Room would be more evocative in its absence, as an empty room with photographs of what once was, than as the meticulous verisimilitude you see there today–but that’s probably just me. I’m also the girl who mourns the loss of Old St. Paul’s in London to the Great Fire–an old, decrepit cathedral with a missing spire that had become infested with shady characters by the time of its demise.

In Mt. St. Helens, we have the rare chance to honour the apocalyptic sublime by allowing it to exist as it is today. Nature will do as it has each time such a cataclysm occurred. Nature does not recreate. Any ruined place–indeed, any place at all–exists in past, present, and future forms. What remains of the past forms a foundation for the future. The ruins persist, but the phoenix rises, and the ruins become a part of what is and what will be.



I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley