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, 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. 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, 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.
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 Melies.
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 20,000 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.
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.
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 ourself 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 reempower ourselves.