Patrick Parrinder

  • Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society and the Imagination by Rosalind Williams
    MIT, 265 pp, £22.50, March 1990, ISBN 0 262 23145 X
  • The Mask of the Prophet: The Extraordinary Fictions of Jules Verne by Andrew Martin
    Oxford, 222 pp, £27.50, May 1990, ISBN 0 19 815798 3

‘See Naples and die,’ the old saying has it. But a better motto would be: ‘See Naples and go underground.’ Tourists since the 18th century have enthused over the subterranean wonders of this part of Italy. In 1818, Mary Shelley and her husband visited the cave of the Cumaean Sibyl, and eighty years later, H.G. Wells joined the throng of sightseers at the entrance to the Blue Grotto of Capri. Lake Avernus, the site of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld, was a place of pilgrimage for the Victorians even though (as one of them reported) it meant being carried on the backs of porters through a ‘black, repulsive pool’ of water. The ancient Romans’ skill in tunnelling had joined Avernus to the sea and made it into a naval base. The half-mile-long road tunnels through the Ridge of Posilippo, connecting Naples with Pozzuoli, are also of Roman origin. The modern age has added an epic railway tunnel beneath the city.

The excavation of the buried cities around Mount Vesuvius began with the discovery of Pompeii in 1750, and is still continuing. An early collector of Pompeian antiquities was Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Court of Naples in the 1770s, whose frequent observations of the crater of the volcano were communicated to the Royal Society. Bulwer-Lytton stayed in Naples long enough to write his hugely popular romance The Last Days of Pompeii (published in 1834, not 1866 as Rosalind Williams erroneously informs us). Once Lytton had woken the ‘City of the Dead’ to what he called a ‘second existence’, it was no longer necessary to visit the Naples area in order to relive the most catastrophic moment in its history. By the end of the century, New Yorkers could watch the fall of Pompeii, thanks to a mechanical exhibit at the Coney Island amusement park.

Most, though not all, of these Neapolitan facts can be gleaned from Rosalind Williams’s provocative, absorbing and wide-ranging study. Notes on the Underground brings 19th and early 20th-century literary history together with accounts of the heroic ages of geology, palaeontology, mining, tunnelling and foundation-laying, not to mention modern military architecture, cable-laying, and the construction of mains and sewers and drains. One would like very much to describe this richly entertaining book as a mine of information, were it not that the metaphor involved is itself one of the guiding conceptions of modern science and technology, and hence part of this history. In the 17th century, Francis Bacon pioneered the notions of knowledge as an underground seam or deposit, and of research as an assault on ‘nature’s womb’ in order to uncover its secrets. In Bacon’s New Atlantis, the sages of Solomon’s House boast of the artificial caves, up to three miles deep, which they use for refrigeration, the cure of diseases, the production of new metals, and even the prolongation of life. The hermits who live in these caves are the predecessors of the Morlocks, troglodytes, burrowers and Underground Men of more recent literary fantasy.

In Technics and Civilisation (1934), Lewis Mumford identified mining technology as the key to the world-view of modern science. Mining robs raw nature of its colour, shape and symbolic significance, and converts it into lumps of mineral ore to be torn out and exploited. The more traditional view of the underworld was not of seams waiting for extraction, but of a hallowed and sanctified region. Early mining was a task for outlaws and slaves, but after Bacon intellectual digging became the task of scholars and savants. The quest for truth in the industrial West is constantly figured in terms of a vertical penetration through geological strata and architectural layers. Marx, Freud, Saussure and Chomsky all base their scientific claims on the imagery of subterranean excavation. Deconstruction shows its continuity with earlier Western thought by undermining the mines, and opening up conceptual abysses beneath the foundations. Rosalind Williams argues that the power of underground metaphors stems in part from inherited mythologies, but still more from the vertical dimensions of technological advance. The piling-up of scientific systems of thought responds to (though it has also done much to create) the age of the pile-driver.

It could be argued that the initial emphasis on mining and excavating points to one of the limitations of Notes on the Underground. Certainly the mythical and legendary aspects of subterranean life are very selectively covered. Few other academic cultural historians these days could have managed to write two hundred pages on the theme of the underworld without once alluding to Plato’s cave. Though Williams frequently refers to the various myths of descent into the underworld, she never mentions the usual reason for going there, which is to encounter or converse with the spirits of the dead. The idea of underground regions as the abode of the dead is strangely absent from these Notes, and this affects the author’s interpretations of literary texts, as we shall see. Not only does Williams avert her eyes from catacombs and burial chambers, but like Mumford she views the world below the surface as a place of fossils and minerals rather than of organic life. We are shown an Aladdin’s cave of technological resources, but not the Wonderland of strange creatures found down a rabbit-hole (there is no mention of Alice), nor even a convocation of politic worms.

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