Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

Ground motions from the earthquake in Abruzzo, more than 100 kilometres away, woke my neighbours in their beds, though I managed to snore my way through it all. I live in a flat on the top floor of a house with a new, allegedly earthquake-resistant roof, and it’s possible the reason I didn’t wake up has something to do with that. Though it may just be that I’m a heavy sleeper. And the tremors, by the time they reached us, weren’t strong enough to do any damage. In the event of a larger earthquake closer to home, there’s an emergency muster point in a car park at the bottom of the hill. It’s nice to know the authorities have made contingency plans, though hard not to see this as window-dressing: most of the 295 people who died in and around l’Aquila were buried under rubble before they got as far as the bedroom door.

If an earthquake strong enough to crack the walls were ever to strike, I suspect that – assuming I woke up, and assuming I was able to get downstairs, and assuming etc etc – rather than trying to dodge my way through the narrow medieval streets and falling masonry down to the muster point in the car park, I might head for the relative safety of the cellar. This isn’t quite as mad as it sounds. The town is built not so much on a hill as on a volcanic plug: a very large lump of cooled lava extruded millions of years ago by a long extinct volcano. One reassuring consequence of this is an intrinsic resistance to earthquakes: ground motions shake the rock as a whole, a bit like a ship on a rough sea. Another, more or less reassuring depending on how you look at it, is that the rock is riddled with tunnels and caves carved out by its various inhabitants over the past few thousand years – one of which is my cellar.

At the back of the garage, which belongs to the people who live on the first floor, there’s an old wooden door that closes with a very large, rusty bolt. Beyond that, a narrow flight of stairs cut out of the rock goes down three metres or so into the neighbours’ cellar, from which another flight switches back to descend another couple of metres into a long, low chamber with a curved roof and walls peppered with chisel marks, to which I hold the title deeds. I’ve no idea who made it; I’m only sure they can’t have been very tall. It could be medieval; it might even be Etruscan. It’s now full of empty wine bottles, crates, carboys, stacks of old tiles, lengths of pipe and a red plastic toboggan. A bare energy-saving light bulb casts its unromantic glare across the clutter. There’s a hole in one of the walls, just big enough to put two fists through, out of which, rather amazingly, blows a steady supply of fresh air. So if the house collapsed you could survive down there for three or four days (the amount of time, on average, it takes to die of thirst) while you waited to be rescued.

The atmosphere’s dry, and the temperature’s a constant 13ºC all year round. So it’s a good place for storing wine, but not the first spot I’d think of if I were looking for somewhere to find enlightenment. Maybe that’s because of the junk; maybe it’s the ugly fluorescent lighting; or maybe it’s just because I’m not an ancient Greek. In Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind: Descending Underground in the Search for Ultimate Truth (Oxford, £50), Yulia Ustinova argues that ‘Plato’s image of the cave as a place of ignorance’ is anomalous, and that for many Greeks not only was ‘actual physical descent into the darkness of a cave … a way to enlightenment’ but ‘passage through a cave or a tunnel’ was ‘a mental image of the route to divine truth’. She acknowledges that ‘the connection of caves with fertility and chthonic cults’ is nothing new, but points out that ‘they are much less universal than thought formerly, and the notion of a primeval fertility goddess from whom all comes and to whom all return, as well as the Freudian inclination to see every grotto as uterine image … have been generally abandoned in recent research.’

Instead of Freud, she looks to neuroscience to explore what caves might do to minds. ‘In a deep cave, under conditions of almost total suppression of sensory input, our mind enters a state of severe “stimulus hunger”, and the subjective self emerges forcefully.’ So the unatmospheric lighting in my cellar is the problem after all. However, ‘in neurological terms, there is no consensus on the biochemical and neurophysiological mechanism of hallucination in a state of sensory deprivation.’ The promised revelatory cave at the end of the neuroscientific tunnel is a bit of a letdown: Ustinova’s conclusion that ‘it is now abundantly clear that human consciousness is largely defined by the neurological functions which are characteristic of Homo sapiens as a biological species, irrespective of social conditions’ is a strange mixture of truism and question-begging. Still, perhaps that’s because she isn’t, as she’s the first to point out, a neuroscientist or psychologist.

The not entirely persuasive cross-disciplinary methodology aside, Caves and the Ancient Greek Mind is a diverting survey of the sages of the ancient world and the caves they liked to hang out at. Two of the characters she mentions – Abaris, a mythical ‘Hyperborean holy man who did not require earthly food’, and Pythagoras, the semi-mythical banner of beans and non-discoverer of his eponymous theorem – were said to be able, among their many other fabulous talents, to predict earthquakes. This is unfortunately just as impossible now as it was 2500 years ago, though that didn’t prevent the international media from being distracted by the wild claims of a local lab technician who said he’d foreseen the catastrophe in Abruzzo. Not being able to predict earthquakes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for them, not least by conforming to building standards, though there may also be something to be said for a well-stocked subterranean bunker.