Staring At the Olds Staring At the Abyss

I’ve had the revelation more than once in life that I live like a retired person at an age when one is not supposed to be. As such, I often find myself out at certain hours and days of the week in a public space primarily dominated by the aged and decrepit. It often makes me fear that if and when I ever start working in a “real” capacity, I’ll be an old among nothing but youths just as I am a youth among nothing but olds in the present. It’s almost impossible at times to know which is worse. For while the olds are insufferable with their slow movements and malodorousness, they pose no real threat. Their senses are too dull to comprehend much of anything beyond the insular world they’ve created for themselves. Youths, on the other hand, are terrifying. They will discriminate against me if I ever make it to old age, just as I discriminate against the olds that surround me now. They will make jarring gestures and obscene comments, for society will have dispensed with all semblance of manners and decorum by the arrival of my geriatric state. I reckon that for olds to go out–or worse, work–among the youths will be a horrendous ordeal that could trigger some sort of age war in the vein of the race riots Charles Manson had originally imagined. 

But for now, I am a youth holding the aged in contempt as opposed to an old fearing for my safety when anywhere near a youth. I can’t fathom being that oblivious to what’s going on around me, that blithely unaware. As though nothing and no one could penetrate their state of self-involved bliss. Perhaps this is why it is said that children and the elderly are so similar, serving as two “life is a circle” bookends to one’s existence. Maybe it’s the sheer joy that comes with not having to work yet having a sinecure that makes them so bovinely contented as they lumber around indiscriminately. In this case, there is a herd of them ruining my ability to look at paintings in a museum focusing on the English Romantics. But I might have known it would be plagued with a paroxysm of olds, for when anything British is in the mix, it draws out the most geezerly and faux hoity-toity sorts. And I wonder if it might have been less crowded–less teeming with that putrid smell of geriatrics–had I chose to come on the weekend instead of believing I would meet the museum in an emptier capacity on a weekday. But no establishment is empty on a weekday so long as olds thrive. 

Every painting is cordoned off by a string of grays seemingly trying to vie for the status of being more ancient than the painting itself. And, naturally, the one painting I wanted to see most of all, John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, is obstructed by two goddamn gray heads listening to the audio guides they’ve paid extra for (fucking olds with all their disposable income). Which means they are really going to take their time standing in front of it, being fed the information they think they must absorb because they hail from a time when authority of any kind was respected and deferred to. I would have been happy to tell them what it meant were they not likely deaf to a tone without an ability to have its volume turned up. That is to say, we’re all going to die very unexpectedly at any given moment and maybe we ought not to waste our precious seconds eating up every pompous word of an audio guide. 

Painted from the perspective of the ancient Roman town of Stabiae–because Romans seem to love watching the destruction of Naples–the eruption of Vesuvius is made to look like some kind of portal to hell as its plumes of smoke embody a central opening just above the water where a number of people have made it to the shore. Though it looks as though the end is nigh for them regardless. I couldn’t help but see that scenario as something of a foil for the olds in front of me and all around me. To them, they had made it to the shore of a carefree existence after serving out their “sentence” in the workplace, and during a period in society when things were objectively better and more rewarding (financially and otherwise). From their perch on the shore, they seem to be looking back at us, the doomed and damned youth, not realizing that they’re just as close to their own demise as well. But the only thing more assured about an old than their stench is their smugness. 

Almost as smug as John Martin likely was after the success of this painting. One that allowed him to not only actually profit from its popularity, but also caused his star to further ascend in the painting world. But like all beings that reach a certain zenith, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and by extension, John Martin, came to be treated like little more than something to be passed off to another ad infinitum. For, after it was inherited by Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (Jesus Christ, the British are insane), it fell into the hands of Christie’s auction house when the duke went bankrupt in the mid-1850s. Purchased by art dealer Charles Buttery for a mere one hundred pounds, he then sold it to the National Gallery for two hundred pounds. It then made its way to Manchester City Art Gallery (the ultimate kiss of death, for no one looks at art in Manchester), then sent to the Tate Gallery, whereupon it was ruined by the 1928 Thames flood after being stuffed in the basement. Deemed irreparable in that moment, it was unearthed once more in 1973 and restored by Sarah Maisey from 2010-2011, in time for a John Martin retrospective at the Tate. 

Barring that final piece of the work’s story, the painting’s grim fate was something I couldn’t help but parallel to what would soon happen to these olds. Only no one would ever be able to dust them off–“restore” them–and make them all shiny and new again for the public. Fashionability wouldn’t come and go for them–they would always be irrelevant in their present state. That’s why staring at them staring into the abyss of The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum made me run out of the museum entirely with a shudder…and a sadistic relishment of my own mobility.

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