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.

Very fairly, Rosalind Williams contends in her preface that each time a reader says, ‘She should have mentioned ...’ it is a sign not of her book’s failure, but of its success. She has deliberately highlighted the inorganic emptiness of underground spaces, and humanity’s imaginative attempts to colonise and fill them. For her, the characteristic experience of the underworld – a response to a cavern rather than a cubby-hole – is one of sublimity. When Fanny Kemble visited the excavations of the Thames Tunnel in 1827, she reported being overcome by an ‘indescribable feeling of subterranean vastness’. The stories of marvellous underground voyages, from Holberg’s Journey of Niels Klim (1741) with its fantasy of a separate planet hidden inside the Earth to Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth with its dinosaur bones and underground ocean, disclose a hidden vastness of both space and time. Williams has an entertaining account of the US Congressional expedition of 1838-42 to the coast of Antarctica; one of its ambitions was to search for Symmes’s Hole, the legendary passage linking the South and North Poles. The bulk of Notes on the Underground, however, is devoted to the later 19th-century’s attempts at reconstruction and occupation of the underground environment. A second metaphor as powerful and indispensable as that of the mine is the idea of the social ‘underworld’ of criminals and slum-dwellers, which is attributed to Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. After Hugo, every fictional underground journey is also a social journey, a descent into man-made abysses or into the lower depths of a circumscribed society.

Here is Wells, in a youthful essay, recording his disillusionment with the Baconian dream of scientific omniscience: ‘Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room – in moments of devotion, a temple – and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary sputter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated – darkness still.’ The root metaphor here is that of the natural temple as a featureless cavern, a space that only human beings and their shelters could fill up and make meaningful. Darkness hides the vistas that science had hoped to light up, and sublimity gives way to claustrophobic enclosure. The fiction of artificial underworlds at this period includes Utopias and anti-Utopias such as Lytton’s The Coming Race, Gabriel Tarde’s Underground Man and E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, as well as several of the novels of Wells and Verne. These narratives feature prominently in Notes on the Underground, though the achievement of the book lies in its synthesising sweep rather than in any great subtlety of close textual reading.

Verne’s texts, in any case, have recently been the subject of a whole series of influential and subtle reinterpretations. While Andrew Martin’s work marks an innovation in the English criticism of Verne, he is much indebted to such Parisian predecessors as Roland Barthes, Michel Butor and Michel Serres. Moreover, The Mask of the Prophet is a sequel to Martin’s earlier book, The Knowledge of Ignorance: From Genesis to Jules Verne (1985), so there is a certain amount of self-repetition. Martin sets out both to suggest that Verne’s voluminous oeuvre is emblematic of all fiction and criticism, and to draw an engaging portrait of literary monstrosity. If these narratives are the product of a ‘literary brontosaurus’, they also exhibit all their secrets on the surface and so constitute the ‘Beaubourg of literary architecture’. The Knowledge of Ignorance depicted a Verne who was ‘in all things most pathologically exhaustive’, who set out to provide an undiminished, inclusive description of the physical universe and, at the same time, to exhaust all possible nouns. Such artistic voracity was only equalled by the gourmandise of his heroes, whose unrealisable objective was that of ‘eating everything, in impossible quantities, as often as possible’. At one point Martin claimed to find in a mere punctuation device, the exclamation mark, the ‘master key’ to the Voyages Extraordinaires. The exclamation mark was an ‘encyclopedia of the Vernian imagination’, procuring for the attentive reader an ‘instantaneous and comprehensive voyage through the Voyages’. Words fail the present reviewer at this point, but perhaps an ‘!’ will suffice.

The Mask of the Prophet is only a little less baroque than The Knowledge of Ignorance. Nevertheless, Martin’s two books are notable and interesting where they overlap with, and to some extent qualify, Rosalind Williams’s thesis about Verne. Both critics seem to want to rescue him from the lowly status of an SF writer by stressing his credentials as a political novelist. For Martin, the template for everything Verne wrote can be found in a certain Oriental legend of a masked prophet in revolt against an empire, a legend which is retold in narratives by Napoleon Bonaparte and Jorge Luis Borges, although it is never made explicit in the Voyages Extraordinaires. The prophet becomes an oppressor in the course of his revolt. This means (and the same is true for Williams) that Verne’s archetypal character must be the anarchistic Captain Nemo, master of the submarine Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Nemo’s origins and his hatred of bourgeois civilisation remain unexplained until The Mysterious Island, which functions in this respect as a sequel to the more celebrated earlier novel. He was formerly Prince Dakkar, a leader of the Sepoys in the Indian Mutiny. Disappearing without trace when the Mutiny was crushed by the British, he devoted his fabulous wealth to the construction of the Nautilus on a deserted Pacific island. For the rest of his life he would prowl the oceans in his electric-powered submarine palace, spreading fear and apprehension amongst the world’s shipping. The remainder of his fortune is given in the cause of popular liberation, and perhaps to the First International. Within the confines of the Nautilus he is an absolute ruler, imprisoning Professor Aronnax and his companions and arranging everything to secure his own entertainment and comfort. The submarine begins as a seaborne library and museum, and ends as its owner’s sarcophagus. In The Mysterious Island, however, Nemo has mellowed, and his earlier anarchic and subversive energies are reflected only in the final volcanic explosion which shatters his dead vessel.

Captain Nemo personifies the project of scientific omniscience. ‘Thanks to me, our planet will give up her last secrets,’ he boasts. According to Andrew Martin, Verne’s recent French critics have also aspired to an illusory omniscience as they pursued structuralist, Marxist, archetypal or hermeneutic readings of the Voyages. Martin’s own (not wholly effective) way of disclaiming omniscience is to fill up his text with riddles and paradoxes. His claims for Verne as the ‘Homer of the 19th Century’ (on the grounds that he is ‘less an individual than a style, a symbol, a mythology’) may seem disastrously overblown. (Has Martin not read Moby Dick, one wonders?) Nevertheless, the critical agility on display in The Mask of the Prophet may be set against Williams’s tendency to reduce literary fantasies to something like cryptographic status. Such a tendency can be seen in the pages where she sets out to analyse the respective shapes of both Verne’s and Wells’s ‘political dreams’.

During his early years as a scientific romancer, Wells made some anguished attempts to escape from Verne’s shadow. ‘ “English Jules Verne” is my utmost glory,’ he complained to Arnold Bennett. Yet soon, even a French critic such as Henri Ghéon, the friend of Gide, came out in Wells’s favour. ‘I would not speak ill of the French author who delighted my earliest infancy,’ Ghéon wrote in a 1901 review, ‘but I think he is in fact too infantile to be reread at my age.’ Faced with Verne’s 64 novels, that is surely a judgment that outlives many of the Structuralist and Post-Structuralist ingenuities? But if the French arguably now make too much of Verne, the English make too little of Wells. Two of his finest fantasies, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The First Men in the Moon, are out of print in this country at present. Rosalind Williams, who teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gives Wells his full due, though her interpretations are often debatable.

In Wells’s 1936 film, Things to Come, there is a long 21st-century sequence showing the triumphant construction of an underground city. Earlier, however, Wells pioneered the subterranean anti-Utopia in works like The First Men in the Moon, When the Sleeper Wakes and The Time Machine. The first two of these are, respectively, a Swiftian social satire and an overtly political extrapolative fantasy. The Time Machine is more complex, since the mythopoeic England that the Time Traveller visits is set so far in the future as to frustrate the purposes of a political allegory. Williams contends that Marxism and Darwinism are merged in Wells’s portrayal of the Eloi and the Morlocks, so that the Morlocks’ control over their Upper-World counterparts confirms ‘Marxist hopes’ of proletarian revenge. This is not the only place in Notes on the Underground where Williams’s understanding of Marxism seems blurred. In writing The Time Machine, Wells can hardly have thought that Marxism, with its prophecy of a successful proletarian revolution, could explain a world in which the subhuman Morlocks have remained troglodytes after 800,000 years. Not only are the Time Traveller’s hypotheses presented as purely speculative, but he actually seems to abandon Marxist for Darwinian or even Hobbesian models once he realises that the Morlocks regard the effete Eloi as no better than domestic animals.

That the Morlocks are carnivores is a sign not of the class struggle but of biological adaptation. Though the Under-World in Wells’s romance throbs with the hum of the machinery of a previous age, its sounds and smells are those of an abattoir. The Under-World can be reached by wells and ventilation shafts, but its main entrances are beneath the statue of the White Sphinx – symbolising humanity’s regression to animal status – and in the basement of the Palace of Green Porcelain, a vast ruined Science and Natural History Museum which the Time Traveller sees as a latterday South Kensington. The great Victorian Natural History museums with their skeletons of dead and extinct animals (among which one will always find a human skeleton) are perhaps the most spectacular modern exhibitions of death in our culture. The Time Machine like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has a museum among its central symbols, though in Wells’s text the public galleries are connected to a fetid underworld which may be reminiscent of the South Kensington laboratories and dissecting-rooms. The Sphinx and the Palace of Green Porcelain are powerful images of a memento mori.

The same theme can be found in each of the modern underground anti-Utopias (except perhaps The First Men in the Moon), skewing the kind of political reading that Williams prefers. Notes on the Underground ends with a moral critique of the artificial environments of contemporary life, with their promise of retreat into such private consumerist spaces as the television room, the shopping mall and the nuclear shelter. The author sides with those writers whom she calls ‘maverick conservatives’ who warn of the loss of human solidarity promoted by a technological world. Here the ‘underground’ theme is in danger of becoming superfluous, since, although Underground Man and ‘The Machine Stops’ are chosen as examples, Brave New World would surely have done just as well. There is something rather predictable, in any case, in the portrayal of artificial underworld societies as lacking in vitality. The fate of these Utopias seems pre-empted by the funereal associations of underground spaces.

The world of Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ is a mechanised society offering a prefabricated version of the aesthetic satisfactions that Huysmans’s Des Esseintes found in his isolated mansion, or Proust in his cork-lined room. Once the individual is immured in private or collective fantasy, the business of living can be handed over to the servants or to mechanical prostheses and servo-systems. Forster’s tale is based on the contrast between Vashti, a sybaritic aesthete, and her son, Kuno, a born rebel. Vashti is a media-junkie and contented troglodyte, while Kuno cannot rest until he has visited the surface. Here he shares Forster’s (and, it would seem, Rosalind Williams’s) fantasy of an unspoilt Wessex countryside, unchanged since King Alfred’s fight against the Danes. Finally, the alienated and (literally) disconnected society below ground commits suicide, but the pastoral world lives on.

Underground Man, by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde – first published in English in 1905, with a preface by Wells – is a delicately ironic narrative portraying the underworld itself in pastoral terms. In the midst of a new Ice Age, a group of determined survivors sets out to build a new society in a network of caves beneath the Arabian Desert. Founded on intellectual refinement and the emotion of love, the troglodytic civilisation aims to achieve aesthetic perfection, but once again the book’s political message is coloured by the fact that its protagonists are self-evidently buried alive. Tarde’s colonists begin by amassing a huge museum and library to take with them on their descent. In the new settlement sexual intercourse is forbidden (on pain of being thrown into a lake of petroleum) to all except the odd artist of genius who has produced a masterpiece inspired by his chosen partner. There is also a custom among lovers of travelling together to the summit of an extinct volcano. Since death takes place at the first moment of their emergence on the Earth’s surface, the incidence of amorous fatalities would seem to be fairly high. The troglodytes’ main (and nonrenewable) food source consists of the deep-frozen animal carcasses to be found in glaciers. Underground poetry is written in dead languages, while philosophers and sociologists fantasise about a Last Man who will eventually blow up the globe. When films and records reproducing the sensations of the extinct natural world become available, they are rejected as being far inferior to the artificial delights to which the troglodytes have grown accustomed. Finally, there are hints that the Ice Age is ending and that life on the surface is becoming possible again, but nobody below ground is interested.

According to Rosalind Williams, ‘Tarde proclaims that the pursuit of material wealth inevitably divides humanity, whereas the twin ideals of art and love unite it.’ She seems to have overlooked Tarde’s irony, and also the extent to which both art and love in Underground Man are possessed by death. Her final chapter, on intimations of apocalypse and on contemporary underground refuges such as air-raid shelters, command and control centres and nuclear bunkers, is meant to be alarming but is perhaps unduly cosy.

Here, rather unexpectedly, she introduces the only animal fable in her book, Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’. Kafka’s story remorselessly explores the paranoid mentality involved in the construction of shelters, but it nevertheless treats the underworld as a site of human community. The burrow may be an anxious, panic-stricken space, but at least it is somebody’s dwelling. There are other late 20th-century underworlds which (so far as I am aware) no writer has been bold enough to imagine or describe, and which reflect the full horror of contemporary technologies. Uninhabitable and virtually unthinkable, the products not of human architecture but of the mindless forces science and militarism have unleashed, these ultimate spaces are the caverns and cavities torn by underground nuclear-weapons testing. The world below may be our (scarcely inexhaustible) mine of wealth, and the place to which we scurry in the hope of shelter, but it is also where we bury whatever we most want to keep out of sight: radiation, unutterable destruction, our dress rehearsals for universal death.