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Searching for the sublime in deep dark holes

Robert Macfarlane exchanges mountains and high plateaus for caves, catacombs and subterranean streams to explore what lies at the heart of things

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

4 May 2019

9:00 AM

Underland: A Deep Time Journey Robert Macfarlane

Hamish Hamilton, pp.470, £20

Edmund Burke, as a young Irish lawyer in 1756, first made the distinction between beauty and sublimity. Beauty for Burke was about continuity and connectedness. ‘Vegetables,’ he says, in one of the great pre-Romantic sentences, ‘are not sublime.’ Vegetables are beautiful because they are constant and continuous, and because beauty is the quality of perfect continuity: ‘The sense of being swiftly drawn in an easy coach on a smooth turf with gradual ascents and declivities is a better idea of the beautiful than anything.’

The sublime is the opposite, needing deep distances, withdrawals and chasms —the Abgrund, in the resonantly expressive German word for ‘an abyss’.  And where can you find the Abgrund, that hollow of otherness, on an average English day? Burke’s answer is in the gaps between the strokes of a single, slowly ringing bell, that chasm of a pause as you wait for the next stroke, each gap a hole opened in the texture of the world, a repeated view into silence, as if it occupied a floor below the one on which we stand.

The sublime, this potent otherness, depends on privations: ‘All general privations are great,’ Burke wrote: ‘Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence.’ These privations are not great in themselves, but are great because they withdraw, and, in the gaps they open, a sense of the unaddressably immense floods in around them. The sublime requires the world to diminish as you watch, and for that diminution to leave you not with something less  but something immeasurably more.

This is Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful dark subject in the most powerful book he has yet written: an exploration of the under-geography of the world, the places where in culture after culture, age after age, people have chosen to hide what is precious, to dig for what is valuable, to put away what might be harmful, including the dead. It is a province as resonant as Burke’s lingering bells, animated by the long western preoccupation, from the Greeks onwards, with the relationship between what appears on the surface and what lies behind it, the ever-present sense, in Homer, Plato, Luther and Heidegger, that what is hidden is in some ways more real and more substantial than anything more easily to hand. The assumption is coded in our very language: the ‘under-lying’, the ‘innermost’, the ‘fundamental’, the ‘heart’ of something will always be where its true self can be found. The skin is a deceit; the inward is the real.

In that way a huge metaphysical engine is at work behind the journeys Macfarlane undertakes. His previous books — on climbing, walking, being in remote places — have always been up in the air; a sequence of the high and the wide. This one deals with the deep: the dangerous caves of the Mendips; the strange, half-liquid corridors of a giant mine in Yorkshire extending under the North Sea; the Parisian catacombs; the riddled karst mountains and hidden rivers of northern Italy and Slovenia; Bronze Age caves in the Lofoten Islands in Norway; Greenland’s glaciers and the deepest of nuclear waste storage facilities in Finland.

The book hums and sings between its polarities. The physical is immensely physical here: caverns so deep and so huge that they have their own weather systems; mists and fog rivers in the dark; dunes 1,000ft below ground which seem to Macfarlane like the sands of ‘a windless desert on a lightless planet’; the narrow gaps to this otherworld, the sinkholes and swallets, the wriggle-only corridors to revelation. Immersion is the method, so that effort —sweat and fear, the presence of the human body in the world — becomes the vehicle of meaning and understanding. Actually going down and in — not simply knowing but being there, being in and under — is the contorted path to revelation.

For all its astonishingly vivid and realised sense of adventure, the questioning mind is never absent. Death inhabits these hollows, deliberate or inadvertent, sought or challenged, occupying a world beyond the one in which language is adequate. Death can seem to be, here as in the mountains, the enlivener of life, but it also often reduces Macfarlane and his many co-courters of the dark to silence or to a state where they are made to feel incapable of expressing what these places are or what it is to be there. Underland is in that way a journey into the immeasurable.

For long stretches, Macfarlane is the careful reporter. He sends well made and tightly organised dispatches from the underworld, filled with diverting facts. He gives a firm material foundation to the book, so that you get to understand the workings of a mine or a river system, the nature of geological salt or the preoccupations of a scientist looking for dark matter deep in the protective folds of the earth. But the telling never dries. Every one of these adventures in the dark has, at points, the atmosphere of a dream, often filled with intense anxiety, lostness, unlikely connections and disconnections, sudden appearances, sudden gaps.

Underland has been more than six years in the writing, and you can tell. It is carefully considered, so that physically, emotionally, intellectually, Macfarlane entirely fills the dark and rocky spaces in which the book dwells: the ambition is huge, aiming no less than to establish another dimension in which to encounter existence, but it is also honest in its failings and uncertainties. It isn’t caught up in its own language, as you might fear, but it’s often capable of concentrated lyric moments — ‘a scarf of radar green flutters in the sky’, he says of the northern lights in Greenland. It probes the invisible as the place of the imagination, marshalling the mysterious, coolly roaming over a hugely wide, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary set of understandings and resources. This is as deep as topography gets, a materialising of the immaterial. It would be difficult to imagine a  richer or more stirring response to the strange landscapes hidden beneath us.

It is not as if Macfarlane feels sour about the light. He loves the world, and loves being in it. For all the seductive transcendence of the alluring hollow, there is no misanthropy here. He returns again and again at the end of each journey to the upper world to find it filled with the epiphanies of normality, marvellous after the deprivations and reductions below. His young son is the touchstone of that love of being — in some ways the recurring, slight presence at the heart of the book.

A sense of the ecological crisis is always present, and Macfarlane’s anxiety over it deepens as the book proceeds. He never quite says this, but an implication hangs over his final emergence and ‘surfacing’. The dark is revelatory. Understanding comes from depths. One of the functions of the sublime is to reveal the consolations of the beautiful. But in this moment of crisis, the beautiful is under threat. The Anthropocene looks now like a giant act of deprivation, a giant hollowing, a giant removal of the valuable and the sustaining so that the underland may in its way be premonitory of the future. Are these haunted and threatening places a pre-visioning of the diminished and darkened world in which ‘species loneliness’ becomes the dominant sensation that awaits us? Is the future a cave?
Is the void now pushing up into the surface of the actual?

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