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Arme Wanderer ohne Haus, auf Landstraßen, in Wäldern, bestenfalls verkrochen in einen Blätterhaufen oder in einem Rudel der Genossen, ausgeliefert allem Verderben des Himmels und der Erde!
—Kafka, “Der Bau”
Poor homeless wanderers in the roads and woods, creeping for warmth at best into a pile of leaves or a herd of comrades, delivered to all the perils of heaven and earth!
—Kafka, “The Burrow”
Like many children, in the summer of my eighth year I took my dinky toy shovel and set myself up in our backyard with the intention of digging a hole to Inner Mongolia. The children of Inner Mongolia, no doubt, intend in reciprocal fashion to dig their holes to California, but the principle is the same — when you are small, the appeal of travelling through the earth is far greater than travelling around it. The causes of this yearning are uncertain, though it is no stretch to conjecture a certain annelid atavism we could never quite shake, even as we gained limbs and took to the surfaces of things and bathed ourselves in light. My voyage was cut short practically as soon as it had begun, when my shovel hit a rusted pipe leading to the septic tank, and launched a geyser of liquid shit spuming out across our lawn. I was only encouraged by this. It seemed to me I had struck one of the earth’s primary arteries, and that the fluid pouring forth was sooner our planet’s vital essence than a foul product of human endeavor. I would have happily kept going, if the adults had not proclaimed my mission over.
It had been many years since I last thought about this experience, and I probably would not have thought about it ever again, had it not been for the most remarkable turn of events in my recent life, which I would like to share with you here.
When the Paris weather turned a bit warmer in mid-March and the blossoms appeared on the cherry trees, I got into the habit of walking to the Buttes Chaumont each morning and reading twenty pages or so of À la recherche du temps perdu — I was by then up to volume 6 of Proust’s masterpiece, Albertine disparue. I turned the pages enraptured, as Marcel sent the servile Aimé on a mission to Combray, to investigate the suspicion that his beloved Albertine, recently deceased in an equestrian accident, had indulged in sapphic trysts in the public showers at a seaside resort. As all this was unfolding, quite unconsciously I grabbed a stick of cherry wood that lay beside me, and I began to swivel it around in the earth. By the time Aimé submitted his second report from Touraine, with a detailed account of Albertine’s membership in the secret sorority of Gomorrah as detailed by a washer-girl she had seduced, the hole my cherry stick had dug was as wide and as deep as a kitchen trashcan. It was only on the fourth day that I became at all consious of my digging. It was the day after that that I decided to settle into the hole, by now the size of a bathtub, as a rodent might settle into its burrow, to read my book of loss and obsession, and to dig absent-mindedly with my cherry stick at the ground directly beneath me. On the sixth day I left my book at home, and came instead with a shovel.
I suppose this was a symptom of what they sometimes call “midlife crisis”, though in my case it doesn’t make much sense to periodize things like that, since I’ve been in some sort of crisis or other at every stage of life. It’s true, though, I was frustrated with my pointless job, with all the noise of public debate, the dumb jabbering that men mistake for “having opinions”, the despicable wars, the ruin and waste of precisely all of human history — nearly all of which, it suddenly dawned on me, had unfolded at the very most superficial level of the earth’s crust. I wanted away from it all, and every horizontal line of escape I considered seemed that it would only bring me more of the same. No, the only path to freedom was downward — not into the grave, not yet, but into the counter-world that I knew, that we all know instinctively, to lie beneath us.
This is the world, I had come to believe, that the Reverend Père Kircher witnessed in his Mundus Subterraneus, which he accessed through the crater of Pompeii, teeming with gnomes, sprites, and banshees. These beings are widely supposed to have been conjured in the Jesuit’s own florid imagination, perhaps as a result of the inhalation of volcanic fumes. But that there is life down there is not in doubt, and the truth is we just don’t know how far the “deep biosphere” extends, nor the diversity of its species, nor yet the role it plays in planetary ecology. We know that for the archaea and bacteria it is sooner the norm to dwell in the depths, and those of their kind who emerge on the surface may rightly be seen as the ones who have sadly lost their way, like a coyote strayed into Central Park.
When men first troubled the inhabitants of the deep subsurface, it is not as though they had gone looking for them. We only saw the chemical signature of deep-earth biota a century or so ago, after we had gone looking miles down for oil, and drew up barrels of bicarbonates. What was discovered by chance in pursuit of profit eventually became the focus of study in its own right, and soon enough the scientists found eukaryotes too, not only annelids, which we might have expected from our childhoods spent digging for earthworms to use as bait or to torture, but nematodes too, and rotifers, and platyhelminthes; and even some arthropods, of the same distinguished phylum as lobsters and butterflies, who have somehow learned to thrive in a world, a counter-world, of virtual anaeroby. Catabolism in the deep biosphere is slowed to near-dormancy, cells sucking up a trace of nickel or molybdenum from the porewaters every now and then, no hurry, there’s not much happening, and down there it takes eons to die.
My hole was in the one small grove of cherry trees at the lower “floor” of the park, underneath one of its several scenic passerelles, down where railroad tracks once ran, away from the crowds of sunbathers and tourists, where only scattered homeless men and addicts happen by, graciously indifferent to the sight of a “middle-aged” man digging a hole. Each evening I covered my work with a clutter of humus and I returned home to read all that I could about the subterranean world (Proust was, not for the first time in my life, on indefinite hiatus… or so I thought). I read Pliny the Elder’s stern warning against digging too deep into the earth: “We penetrate into her entrails ... as though each spot we tread upon were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile for us.” And I relished the irony that it was a man named “Agricola”, of all things, who centuries later was to confute this prudishness, criticizing Pliny for “glorify[ing] agriculture beyond measure”, when it is the deep shafts of the earth that yield up metals and gems far more valuable than any fruit — more valuable because exchangeable for all conceivable fruits.
I had photographed a first-edition copy of the De Re Metallica some years ago at the Staatsbibliothek of M****, in the Governorate of East P****, and I was long intrigued by some chicken-scratch Latin handwriting on the verso of the title-page. But it was only after I began digging my hole at the Buttes Chaumont that I found the motivation to decipher it. What I discovered in this anonymous and undated fragment (with 1561 as its terminus a quo) astounded me. It appeared to be a compilation of desiderata, belonging to the genre of “wish lists” so common among researchers in the early modern period, in which the inquirer specifies a number of things he would like to know about the depths of the earth. I’ll provide here, in translation, those parts I have so far managed to decipher:
Whether the Earth be cavernous in its depths, or whether it be composed of solid Rock or Sediment, or some other Matter.
Whether the Weather penetrate into the depths of the Earth, as Rain, Wind, Hail, Graupel, &c., or whether it be proper only to the Superficies.
Whether the Worm wiggle downward so far that he cannot come up again, & if so, how far, and wherefore, & what he eat, &c.
Whether there be a Boundary one must necessarily strike after some days of Digging, & if so whether this Boundary be like unto an Integument, or the fleshy Part of the human Palate.
The peculiar appearance of several “floors” in the Buttes Chaumont may be explained by the fact that the park was once a limestone quarry, which delivered a significant portion of the dull white building material that gives Paris its distinctive look (as if sculpted out of gull guano, it sometimes seems to me, when I look out on a hazy day through the dirty and time-worn plastic escalator-tubes of the Centre Pompidou). It is therefore not surprising to discover that there are invisible “floors” beneath the visible ones known by casual visitors to the park, and that any digger is likely soon to pierce their roofs and fall into them. This happened to me one day in early April, and much as when I hit the septic-tank pipe as a child, I was thrilled. I only fell two meters or so, and was not harmed, and so picked right up again and kept digging.
Within another few days I broke through another surface, and fell again, nor again was I harmed. This time, though, I landed not in a room of white limestone smoothed by human excavation, but in a proper and natural cavern adorned with all possible speleothems, bulbous with amber-colored flowstone almost obscene, walls candied with straws, drapers, and infinite other species of cave-macaroni for which I have no name. I admired them all for a spell, and then I kept digging, and after a few days I broke through again. This time there was a strong stench of sulfur, and even before I lit my headlamp I knew I had landed in a realm thick with bacterial chemosynthesis, whose quadrillions of little bodies, though barely anything at all, sustained the ecosystem that, as I saw soon enough, also hosted leeches, snails, centipedes, water-scorpions, pseudoscorpions, and lice, all of them blind, all of them small and deviant, cave-stunted, wallowing in the nutrient-dense film that lined and enlivened this, the first true counter-world I was to see.
O Earth —crust, mantle, and core—, you are all I have ever known, but I have barely known you! All that has yet been discovered of the iron-nickel alloy composing our planet’s solid core was inferred from seismic waves and fluctuations in the geomagnetic field. In turn the mantle feels, as they say, closer to home, but even that, lying beneath the crust at a distance no greater than the Buttes lie from the Seine, has never been pierced. Imagine buying a bread whose crust would repel all attempts to penetrate into its breathing and bubbly innards — that is the bread of a boulanger who would not stay long in business!
By now I had equipped myself with a sophisticated array of spelunking tools, and I easily hoisted myself out with a system of harnesses and ascenders. I paid no attention to the hour, for there are no hours where there is no sun, and only when I came out did I see that it was the middle of the night. A shadowy figure moved in the distance along the abandoned railroad tracks. It looked to be some lowly street gamin, and he seemed to be dimly glowing. This chilled me far more than any cave-leech or water-scorpion ever could, for I knew that long before the Buttes Chaumont was a municipal park, and even before it was a limestone quarry, until the reign of Louis XIII it had been the site of the notorious “Gibbet of Montfaucon” (“Mount Falcon”, as it was once called), where the bodies of executed criminals were hung out for public display like so many scare-crows, except that they were rather scare-men and scare-boys, dissuading all the other street gamins who might otherwise be tempted to run off with a quince from the greengrocer’s. I shivered, and the glowing boy vanished. I’m not at all superstitious, mind you, and so I presumed this was only a case of cave-delirium, where, as with Père Kircher before me, the sulfur rises to the head and excites what the ancients called the vis imaginationis, which is to say the power to project from the mind alone forms and figures that are not strictly speaking there.
I returned home, a quick walk to the Rue Edgar Poë (“écrivain américain”) at the top of the neighboring Butte Bergeyre. Although it was late I continued to read. I read August Strindberg’s account of his own efforts to manufacture sulfur (during a séjour in Paris to produce one of his plays, the Swede had browbeaten the faculty of chemistry at the Sorbonne into providing him with a laboratory), which he believed to contain all the secrets of nature. And of course I also read proper scientific and technical work as well. I had grown especially interested, by the end of April, in the various efforts, ongoing since the 1960s, to drill a “Mohole” — that is, to pierce right through the so-called “Mohorovičić Discontinuity” that separates the crust from the mantle.
It was not as easy as they expected. The Mohole Project in the United States was quickly abandoned as a result of political infighting and corruption, after penetrating only about eighteen meters beneath the ocean floor. A similar effort was taken up a few years later by the Soviets, who drilled a “superdeep borehole” on the Kola Peninsula reaching down more than sixty kilometers. Already at this depth the unexpectedly high temperature of the bedrock, roughly equivalent to water’s boiling point, gave it the consistency of caramel and rendered further drilling impossible. You cannot drill into the mantle, it was determined, since before you get there the drill begins to function more like an electric beater in a bowl of batter. The Soviets, nonetheless, celebrated their victory, and built a monument marking the site of the Kola borehole, which is, I’m told, not the only portal to hell dotting the landscape of that great empire.
Yet I was unable to keep myself from wondering: could I dig my own Mohole? Even if such a shaft would still be only a fraction of the distance to the core, not to mention the other side, could I still go further than any child ever had towards realizing that old dream of tunneling to Inner Mongolia? Perhaps the caramel consistency of the lower crust was particular to the Russian Arctic, and would not be encountered again if drilling began from another point on the globe? Or was I just as mad as the playwright in his effort to cook up some sulfur in a frying pan? “The Mohole is No Hole”, they said in the American press back in the sixties, deriding the expensive folly of the National Science Foundation, but also, it would seem, warning against a certain hubris that leads men ever to probe and puncture Nature’s walls.
No matter, I went back down. The deeper I sank, the denser and grander did the parade of living forms become. I saw springtails and anurids and other bright cosmopolitan collembolans, so called for their ability to thrive anywhere, even here in these bathetic extremities. I saw flatworms I could not classify, and marvelled at their radiant colors and luminescence. Why should they glow at all, I wondered, down here where evolution long ago took the eyes away from everything that lives? I saw a certain mephistophelean roundworm, the Halicephalobus mephisto, so called, in a nod to Faust, for its love of the depths, but by now, I estimated, far, far, deeper than the official deepest record of its sighting.
I came back up, and returned home to Poë. My thoughts were themselves aglow with strange Neptunian beings, and the cars on the Avenue Mathurin-Moreau seemed to shine with their own bioluminescence. When I got back I wanted to read, but I found I could not concentrate. I glanced again at the desiderata scribbled in Agricola, and wondered what on earth the author could have meant in his allusion to the “integument” subtending the surface soil, like “the fleshy part of a human palate”. What, but what, could this be? My mind was racing. I couldn’t focus. To sooth myself I decided to return to Proust.
What I found on the pages following the bookmark I had left in Albertine disparue only excited me more. Marcel has just encountered his deceased love in a dream. He speaks to her, but before she can reply “[a] part of her chin crumble[s] off like worn marble”.He wakes up and, like me, he tries to read. He thinks of Gabriel Fauré’s Le Secret, which reminds him of Albert de Broglie’s Le Secret du roi, which for reasons he does not explain makes him think of Holy Friday, which, I was so astounded to read as almost to presume that I must still be hallucinating, makes him think of the name “Chaumont”.
Now some sources will tell you that the Buttes Chaumont get their name from the compound Chauve-Mont, “bald mountain”, so called because the chemical composition of the soil there leaves it naturally devoid of vegetation (see the vintage postcard above for a vivid visual). Proust however has another theory. For him it is indeed a bald mountain, but this has nothing to do with chemistry. Instead the name derives from Calvus mons, which is a variant of Calvaria, whence “Calvary”, which is the Latin equivalent of the Aramaic Gulgultā, Hellenized as “Golgotha” and also often glossed in Greek as κρανίου τόπος, “the place of the skull”, where Christ is said to have been crucified. Thus John 19:17 tells us: “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull [Κρανίου Τόπον], which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha [Γολγοθα].” The “bald mountain”, it turns out, is a cranium.
In this etymological reflection, our narrator finds his pride pricked and his jealousy reawakened by a fleeting memory of a moment, when Albertine was still alive, and he discerned a hint of her lesbian counterlife. “Chaumont made me think of the Buttes-Chaumont,” he writes, “where Mme. Bontemps had told me Andrée often went with Albertine, while Albertine told me she had never seen the Buttes-Chaumont.”Later in the day Andrée herself comes to see Marcel, for the first time since their mutual friend fell off her horse. He confronts her with his suspicions, and she protests: “I may have gone to the Buttes-Chaumont with Albertine, but is there something particularly bad about that place?”
Is there something particularly bad about that place? It was the middle of the night, but I couldn’t stop myself. I grabbed my headlamp, my ropes, and my new iron pickaxe, and I set out from Poë and I went back down. I sunk through the strata and saw flatworms and roundworms and ∞-worms and ****worms that defied all geometrical specification; the Mephisto nematodes grew ever bigger and brighter. I slid down through the earth’s matrices like some innocent kit or cub, some universal animal, born again and again. I slid and slid for what seemed a supereon, until at last I hit a membrane. I knew at once this was the “integument” conjectured in the anonymous desideratum. Beneath it there coursed a fluid nothing at all like boiling asphaltic caramel, but, I could tell, rather more like blood. This was the mantle. My hole was now a Mohole, or was about to be, as soon as I punctured through it with my pick. Like a clumsy new father, thumb pressed upon the fragile fontanelle, I felt around.
O Earth, place of skulls, I have barely known you.
This is the sixth of seven planned installments in a series, engaging in some way or other with each of the seven volumes of À la recherche du temps perdu.
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“Une partie de son menton était tombée en miettes comme un marbre rongé.”
“Chaumont m’avait fait penser aux Buttes-Chaumont où Mme Bontemps m’avait dit qu’Andrée allait souvent avec Albertine, tandis qu’Albertine m’avait dit n’avoir jamais vu les Buttes-Chaumont.”
“J’ai pu aller aux Buttes-Chaumont avec Albertine, mais est-ce un endroit qui a quelque chose de particulièrement mal ?”