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Interpretation of “Pompeii” by Memphis (Μ3ΜΦ1Σ)

For this entry, I am picking a song from Memphis (stylised as “Μ3ΜΦ1Σ”), one of my favourite contemporary rock bands. It is titled after the historical city of Pompeii and draws inspiration from the volcanic eruption that led to Pompeii’s burial under several meters of lava: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tfWxOEWIzM (also check their Bandcamp page for their entire discography: https://m3mf1s.bandcamp.com/music)

Below are its original lyrics in Greek, my translation, and subsequent philosophical commentary. Note that I have covered Memphis before:

Πομπηία

Άνοιξε η γη κι η τελευταία μας πνοή
σαν μουσική μες στους δρόμους αντηχεί
Και η συμφορά κατά πάνω μας ορμά
λυτρωτικά, ένα βήμα την φορά

θα μας βρουν κοντά
μες στην λαβα που κυλά
μεσ' στην στάχτη, στην φωτιά

Φίλα με αργά
η Πομπηία επάνω μας
θα πέφτει και θα μας κρατά

Άρχισε η γιορτή, η τελευταία μας σιγή
Διστακτικά, πριν περάσουν τα μισά
ξαναμετρά, ένα βήμα την φορά
Pompeii

The earth has opened and our last breath
like music echoes in the streets
And calamity rushes towards us
as salvation, one step at a time

They will find us nearby
in the lava that flows
in the ash, in the fire

Kiss me slowly
Pompeii will be falling upon us
and will be holding us

The festival has started, our last silence
Cautiously, before the half is over
it counts again, one step at a time

The ancient city of Pompeii was a prospering city that was wiped off the face of the earth by a volcanic eruption. One moment it was there, the next it was no more. Just like that!

Poetically, this event reminds us of our powerlessness against the forces of nature. Our presence hinges on a delicate balance of multiple factors that we do not control. People can interpret such phenomena as the manifestation of a god’s wrath. We have this intuition that the world revolves around us, so something terrible on that scale must mean that we erred lamentably. The specifics vary depending on the culture, though the central theme is one of desert (as in deserve), of reward and punishment.

We seek an explanation to catastrophes that answers the underlying “why”. In the absence of definitive proof, we formulate hypotheses and attribute this outcome to the workings of a greater power whose machinations we do not understand. All this is plausible and worth considering. An alternative theory is that things happen despite us and we are simply caught in the middle. In this case, there is no grand plan with us as its protagonists or main victims, but the ordinary workings of a greater system of which we are but a tiny factor.

[ Watch: On forgiveness and hubris and On the meaning and purpose of life ]

In their song, Memphis deliver what I consider an encouraging message: presence, the virtue of focusing on the here-and-now. It is easy to interpret this powerlessness of ours in a way that deprives us of our willingness to live or appreciate what we have. We may wonder what the point is, anyway, and in the process reason ourselves into depression.

[ Watch: Loss, entitlement, and presence ]

To ask your lover to kiss you while your shared world collapses all around you is to say that this is beautiful, this is nice, this is meaningful to us, regardless of the before and the after. The moment is not beautiful due to its ever-lasting duration. No, we know moments fly by and, generally, we are transient. The moment is not worthwhile as an intermediate step to some greater reward. No, we can like something in itself, plus we never know for sure what our future has in store of us. By focusing on the event, we find meaning in the little things that our humanity is attuned to.

Presence helps us overcome existential fears and insecurities that we have. Why are we here? What is the purpose of all this? With presence, we learn to trust in our devices and to follow all those hints that our nature has scattered all around for inquisitive folks to make something out of what they have been endowed with. By being present, we learn to enjoy the journey while acknowledging our ignorance; ignorance which also applies to the fact that we do not know what the destination is.

In the end, we all die. The healthy and the sickly; the sober and the drunks. Everyone! With presence, we learn to appreciate what we have, in the way that we do, and for as long as we do. If there exists some other world where we still operate as human, some destination worth reaching, it will also be an ever-present experience, given our humanity.

Learn to kiss like there is no tomorrow. Kiss as if Pompeii is collapsing upon you. It happens here; it happens now.