Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Rediscovering Atlantis

It was very appropriate, and most likely unknowingly so, that Disney set 2001's Atlantis: The Lost Empire, in 1914. Indeed, in many ways it could not truly have been otherwise: the middle Victorian era saw the beginning of an explosion of interest in the lost continent that would not subside beneath the waves again until the 1960's. In the decade spanning 1895 to 1905, there were no less than 16 fiction novels, standing alongside countless ostensibly non-fiction pseudoscientific and spiritualist explorations, which solidified the Atlantis we know today: not as a holdover of ancient myth, but as an artifact of Victorian cultural anxieties.

Trailer for Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Prior to the Victorian era, the legend of Atlantis had been essentially relegated to the dustbin of history as the invention of Plato. First written about in the Platonic dialogues Timaeus and Critias, circa 360 BCE, Atlantis served as the foil for an equally mythic ancient Athens, acting as a thought experiment in the workings of Plato's ideal republic. Athens, a weak but patriotic city-state with high moral fibre, was set upon by the powerful but decadent Atlantis and through Platonic virtues emerged victorious. Shortly thereafter, both Atlantis and Athens were conveniently destroyed in the famous cataclysm.

First, Plato's description of the ancient Athenians from Critias, as translated by Benjamin Jowett:
Let me begin by observing first of all, that nine thousand was the sum of years which had elapsed since the war which was said to have taken place between those who dwelt outside the Pillars of Heracles and all who dwelt within them; this war I am going to describe. Of the combatants on the one side, the city of Athens was reported to have been the leader and to have fought out the war; the combatants on the other side were commanded by the kings of Atlantis, which, as was saying, was an island greater in extent than Libya and Asia, and when afterwards sunk by an earthquake, became an impassable barrier of mud to voyagers sailing from hence to any part of the ocean. The progress of the history will unfold the various nations of barbarians and families of Hellenes which then existed, as they successively appear on the scene; but I must describe first of all Athenians of that day, and their enemies who fought with them, and then the respective powers and governments of the two kingdoms. Let us give the precedence to Athens. 
In the days of old the gods had the whole earth distributed among them by allotment. There was no quarrelling; for you cannot rightly suppose that the gods did not know what was proper for each of them to have, or, knowing this, that they would seek to procure for themselves by contention that which more properly belonged to others. They all of them by just apportionment obtained what they wanted, and peopled their own districts; and when they had peopled them they tended us, their nurselings and possessions, as shepherds tend their flocks, excepting only that they did not use blows or bodily force, as shepherds do, but governed us like pilots from the stern of the vessel, which is an easy way of guiding animals, holding our souls by the rudder of persuasion according to their own pleasure;-thus did they guide all mortal creatures...
Now the country was inhabited in those days by various classes of citizens;-there were artisans, and there were husbandmen, and there was also a warrior class originally set apart by divine men. The latter dwelt by themselves, and had all things suitable for nurture and education; neither had any of them anything of their own, but they regarded all that they had as common property; nor did they claim to receive of the other citizens anything more than their necessary food. And they practised all the pursuits which we yesterday described as those of our imaginary guardians...
Such was the natural state of the country, which was cultivated, as we may well believe, by true husbandmen, who made husbandry their business, and were lovers of honour, and of a noble nature, and had a soil the best in the world, and abundance of water, and in the heaven above an excellently attempered climate. Now the city in those days was arranged on this wise... Outside the Acropolis and under the sides of the hill there dwelt artisans, and such of the husbandmen as were tilling the ground near; the warrior class dwelt by themselves around the temples of Athene and Hephaestus at the summit, which moreover they had enclosed with a single fence like the garden of a single house. On the north side they had dwellings in common and had erected halls for dining in winter, and had all the buildings which they needed for their common life, besides temples, but there was no adorning of them with gold and silver, for they made no use of these for any purpose; they took a middle course between meanness and ostentation, and built modest houses in which they and their children's children grew old, and they handed them down to others who were like themselves, always the same. But in summer-time they left their gardens and gymnasia and dining halls, and then the southern side of the hill was made use of by them for the same purpose. Where the Acropolis now is there was a fountain, which was choked by the earthquake, and has left only the few small streams which still exist in the vicinity, but in those days the fountain gave an abundant supply of water for all and of suitable temperature in summer and in winter. This is how they dwelt, being the guardians of their own citizens and the leaders of the Hellenes, who were their willing followers. And they took care to preserve the same number of men and women through all time, being so many as were required for warlike purposes, then as now-that is to say, about twenty thousand. Such were the ancient Athenians, and after this manner they righteously administered their own land and the rest of Hellas; they were renowned all over Europe and Asia for the beauty of their persons and for the many virtues of their souls, and of all men who lived in those days they were the most illustrious. And next, if I have not forgotten what I heard when I was a child, I will impart to you the character and origin of their adversaries...
After some lengthy passages in which Plato describes the fabulous wealth of Atlantis and its ten kings, descended from Poseidon himself:
Such was the vast power which the god settled in the lost island of Atlantis; and this he afterwards directed against our land for the following reasons, as tradition tells: For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, they were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were; for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them. By such reflections and by the continuance in them of a divine nature, the qualities which we have described grew and increased among them; but when the divine portion began to fade away, and became diluted too often and too much with the mortal admixture, and the human nature got the upper hand, they then, being unable to bear their fortune, behaved unseemly, and to him who had an eye to see grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power. Zeus, the god of gods, who rules according to law, and is able to see into such things, perceiving that an honourable race was in a woeful plight, and wanting to inflict punishment on them, that they might be chastened and improve, collected all the gods into their most holy habitation, which, being placed in the centre of the world, beholds all created things.  
Unfortunately, Plato's Critias was left unfinished. We must turn to Timaeus for the rest. Once again translated by Benjamin Jowett:
Many great and wonderful deeds are recorded of your state in our histories. But one of them exceeds all the rest in greatness and valour. For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars. But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island. 
Essentially forgotten because of its static symbolic structure, Atlantis would not surface again until the Age of Exploration. Even Aristotle, Plato's most highly regarded student, said of the kingdom "He who invented it also destroyed it."

New life was breathed into Atlantis with the discovery of the New World, and even began to appear on oceanic maps in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds. The view of Atlantis in this age was tied intimately, as it would be in the Victorian Era, to the aspirations and identity of the age. In this particular case, Atlantis was seen as an El Dorado, a great mystery promising wealth and colonial expansion. As we shall see again later, the discovery of new antiquities lent credence to a search for the greatest lost antiquity of all.

A map of the Atlantic, and Atlantis, from
Athanasius Kircher's 1665 textbook Mundus Subterraneus.
On this map, south is up, north is down.

To understand the ferociousness of the Victorians' interest in Atlantis, one first has to look at two antecedent cultural and aesthetic preoccupations: ruins and aquariums. Both of these signified the tribulations of an era in transition, and both would come together into the single package of Atlantis, satisfying Victorian anxieties by its promise and by that promise's elusiveness.

The 19th century interest in ruins and aquariums came about as a consequence of modernity and industrialization. The pace and way of life changed for so many people - speeding it up to meet the demands of commercial production, operating by the cycles of the clock rather than the sun and seasons, and moving people from the rural areas to the factory cities - there came to be an increasing sense of disconnection from the past and from nature. The world was becoming more and more mechanized, and the demands of economic growth kept everyone facing forward, living in a present that was perpetually dedicated to the future.

The ruin stood both as a connection to the past and as a symbol of its loss. They reminded people of the traditions and the way of life that was quickly disappearing, both as a representative of that era by being a cultural relic and as evidence of its passing by its dilapidated condition. These monuments also stood as an indictment of modernity, standing defiantly for a seeming eternity and speaking volumes of transcendence, thus condemning the novelty and transience of industrialism's constant movement.

The aquarium fad of the mid-1800's, which was hot on the heels of a fern fad, came as a direct consequence of this modern disconnection from nature. They were an effort in regaining what was being lost in our relationship with the organic world by recreating it in the parlor. Unfortunately, the manner in which this was done only served to further reinforce the value systems of the day: the aquarium began as an attempt to bring nature into the home, but soon transformed into a projection of human consciousness onto nature. The obsession with natural history classification and organization was the first step, imposing a human hierarchy and conceptualization where it doesn't really exist (as modern biological science is slowly beginning to figure out), and this was followed by the development of these glass-enclosed cases as a private wonderland filled with artificial ruins. Ruins became commodified, and in the process of creating the commodity of aquariums, the ocean itself became a commodity.

As the final frontier of the Victorian era, the ocean depths were a particularly fertile ground for imaginings which inevitably put a human face on the blue-black depths. The world beneath the waves became a fantasy garden filled with every sort of creature one could conceive. In 1860, telegraph cables pulled up from the sea floor were found to be encrusted with marine life, adding a dimension of colour to what was previously thought to be, by all authorities, a lifeless desert. Knowing this, anything was possible, including the early 20th century cinematic visions of Georges Méliès.

This is the world that Jules Verne's Captain Nemo (himself a fascinating picture of Victorian anxieties and contradictions) came into when he introduced Atlantis to Victorian audiences in 1870's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea:
There indeed under my eyes, ruined, destroyed, lay a town, its roofs open to the sky, its temples fallen, its arches dislocated, its columns lying on the ground, from which one could still recognize the massive character of Tuscan architecture. Further on, some remains of a gigantic aqueduct; here the high base of an acropolis, with the floating outline of a Parthenon; there, traces of a quay, as if an ancient port had formerly abutted on the borders of the ocean, and disappeared with its merchant vessels and its war galleys. Further on again, long lines of sunken walls and broad, deserted streets - a perfect Pompeii escaped beneath the waters.

Illustration from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

The appeal of an honest to life underwater city lying in ruins, a connection to a grand past and a portend of modern society's eventual destruction, was simply too good to pass up.

Though often blamed for the persistence of Atlantis mythology, Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly's 1882 book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World was truthfully more of a response to Victorian fixation on Atlantis. An extremely popular book, it would set the tenor and provide most of the arguments for all later Atlantean pseudoarchaeology. It would also serve the purpose of doing to Atlantis what had happened to the ruin and to the ocean: catalogue, categorize, label and otherwise "prove" Atlantis. Though the interest in Atlantis was intuitive, the Victorians only knew of one way to express this interest, being commodification. It was also during this time that Atlantis was first hypothesized as going beyond dead ruins on a sea floor and being instead a thriving (or semi-thriving) undersea civilization encased - like a reverse aquarium, a curiosity cabinet, snowglobe or fern case - in a dome of glass, further accenting commodity and scientific examination.

Donnelly's map of the Atlantean Empire.
As the 20th century would drag on, Atlantis' mystique of loss would slowly wane and come to be replaced by a new cultural anxiety. The greatest thing that happened to the Victorians in this whole affair is that they didn't find Atlantis. Though the pseudoscientific arguments and discoveries of other ancient civilizations like Pompeii in 1748, Troy in 1870, the Maya in the 1840's, and Minoan Crete in 1900 lent credence to Atlantis' tangible existence, the lost continent would remain ever elusive and therefore ever powerful. It would stand for as long as their culture stood as the powerful, uncommodifed memory of loss they needed it to be.

In the 20th century, Atlantis would move from a memory of loss to a utopian model society. Not heeding Plato's original intent, spiritualism would make great claims to the knowledge and power of Atlantis, promising it to our society, whether it be the relics of an extinct society predicted by 1940's would-be psychic Edgar Cayce or the limitless energies of a living society such as that in Disney's Atlantis. Its decadence and leisure would become the focal point of the Bahamas' Atlantis resort, being an Atlantis preserved before its loss, or the playground of mermaids and friendly sea serpents in Disneyland's Submarine Voyage and Walt Disney World's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride (bringing everything full circle).

The theme of the 1900's version of Atlantis was not one of loss, but of redemption. Either Atlantis would redeem us or, as so many plots follow including Disney's film, we would redeem Atlantis, restoring its former glory or raising ourselves up to its glory. What this says about our culture, positive or negative, depends on one's perspective. The Victorian anxiety recognized the disconnection from nature and tradition that modernity brought it, and through Atlantis sought to regain what it had lost. Our present anxiety is over the loss of modernity itself, and through the redemption of Atlantis we seek to re-empower ourselves.

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