Darkness Itself II

That England is populated will always come as a surprise; humans can live on an island only by forgetting what an island represents. Islands are either from before or for after humankind. [1]

What luck to be lured underground by darkness itself in the London suburb of Chiselhurst. What luck to sink beneath the surface at that time so that I might fall out of time itself. There was an agency attached to that experience – I’m sure of it – and it is this agency that is responsible for what has occurred since. Alternatively, perhaps this agency comes from now, or some indeterminate future, making sure of its existence by impregnating the thoughts of today through the recently experienced. Somehow, this sounds more plausible… Either way, I am sure that desires do not naturally dovetail like this through coincidence alone.

My original post, exploring the (per)plexing ahistory of Chiselhurst Caves was surprisingly well received. There was certainly something there too, in the writing, but I felt that others were more aware of it than I was.

In the weeks since my trip underground, despite no longer being a student, I have been lurking in a postgraduate seminar once a week where the subterranean has become a central topic of consideration.

This was not something I had anticipated. I have felt like each thought had in class was struck in relief by my recent excursion, which has continued to unfold within and without myself.

I have recently found myself underground once more.

The first introductory session of the postgraduate seminar drew the attention of the class to Freud’s account of humanity’s three narcissistic wounds. Freud wrote in his own Introduction to Psychoanalysis:

Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realised that our earth was not the centre of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable; this is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian doctrines taught something very similar. The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him: this transvaluation has been accomplished in our own time upon the instigation of Charles Darwin, Wallace, and their predecessors, and not without the most violent opposition from their contemporaries. But man’s craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavouring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind. We psycho-analysts were neither the first nor the only ones to propose to mankind that they should look inward; but it appears to be our lot to advocate it most insistently and to support it by empirical evidence which touches every man closely.

What if, it was argued, it is not psychoanalysis but geology that forms our third narcissistic wound – geology, which has endeavoured to prove to the human ego that we are not the master of our own lands, which have existed long before us and will exist long after. Freudian psychoanalysis has always borrowed its terminology and analogies from geology. The unearthing and excavation of traumas from deep within the psyche – Deleuze & Guattari’s “destratification” most obviously – echoes the geological study of tectonic plates.

This analysis, when considering England’s subterranea at least, is further complicated by those spaces that our collective consciousness has long since forgotten that we created. Chiselhurst Caves are, as was previously pointed out, not caves at all but mines, and the forgotten purpose for which the mines were created has led to the indexical nomenclature slipping from the man-made into the God-given.

An even more mysterious subterranean structure can be found a mile inland from the Kentish coast in the heart of the seaside town of Margate. There, just two metres below street level, lies the Shell Grotto.

Here, there is no question that this underground world is man-made. It has been a tourist attraction since the early 1800s and the single-room museum that proceeds these mollusk catacombs is far more honest about its history than Chiselhurst Caves but it is all the more occulted for its honesty. Their mystery is far more genuine.

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Darkness Itself

I spent last Sunday afternoon exploring Chislehurst caves and it was far more goth than I expected.

I’ve been on a few spelunking adventures recently, inspired by the last few months spent lurking around #CaveTwitter. As such, this post is something of a #CaveTwitter tribute – probably the first of many. I have so many thoughts circling since this trip underground but there’s not enough space to get them all down here. Think of this as a prologue…

The Chislehurst Caves are located at the centre of an exceptionally wealthy London suburb. To find the place you must make your way through the kind of winding, bloated neighbourhoods that have you masochistically checking house prices on your phone every few hundred metres. There is an unimaginable amount of money here, making Chislehurst a surprising location for a hollowed-out subterranean city. Below the excess of the living, there is another world – a vast underground cave system inverting the grandeur above with its silence and darkness.

It also has a gift shop, but when it sells merchandise like this poster for £1.50, that is not something to gripe about.


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