Cryptolithic Passions

Text on caves, mines, and other underground experiences—for the collection Subtexts.


Hoffmann’s retold fable ‘The Mines of Falun’ gives us a portrait of a double figure: two miners, one whose worldly thoughts remain above-ground as he prospects for profit below, and another whose plutonic heart betrays every bargain and contract he might make on the surface. Slowly, inexorably, the socialised agent of commerce, contributor to the collective enterprise of extraction, party to the commerce of matrimony and social success, yields to the questing miner of the soul, compelled by obscure promptings awakened in him by the strange sights and sounds of the underworld, in thrall to some inexplicable deeper passion that draws him into complicity with the mute, insensible, creeping growth of mineral organism.

In this telluric tale as in others, Romanticism looked to the sublime and secret places of nature as occasions for the recovery of a deeper self slowly losing ground to the mechanical regimens of the Industrial Revolution. In a cosmos conceived of as a graduated system of development radiating from inorganic to organic, from unconscious to conscious, entry into the subterranean realm could be imagined as a healing return to the matrix of an all-encompassing earth-process and thus to a more profound soul, dark double of the self condemned to surface dealings. But such a notion arose precisely in parallel with those other compulsions that were beginning to exert their cosmetic dominion over the face of the planet. It is the shaping and hauling and scraping and digging and layering of infernal machines that opened up new breaches and passageways through which the other soul could pass.

Whether it be a cave, a chasm, or the riddled workings of the mine, in modern geopoetics passage into the heart of rock is a dynamism that both undoes and consummates the troubled psychic displacements wrought by global navigation, extraction, and colonialism. Tracking across the rift that separates worldly from mythical time, it recovers, wittingly or not, ’[t]he initiatory pattern of the perilous return […]  a descent that brings the hero to the other world.’1 And isn’t it quite natural that ‘the essence of the non-appearing’ be ‘made available’2 to the initiate in those places where appearance itself is lulled by duplicitous gloom, where otherworldly desires are excited by the prospective gleam of half-glimpsed ore?

It is also a passage of time: movement into the rock ‘always coincides with a regression to an anterior stage of chronology’; or rather, from chronology to a vertical time. The deeper it is, ‘the more it resembles myth’,3 and the more the descent takes on the character of a disturbed dream or a progressive intoxication in which objective facts can no longer be reliably distinguished from fevered hallucinations or from the return of memories that are no longer those of an individuated subject.

This is an ordeal that will never be documented in the account-books of science, yet it does offer a weird parallel with the emerging notion that earth history is written in the depths, that ‘the exposed depths of our own existence’ can be read in the ‘cipher language’ of the subterranean realm.4 As Novalis remarked, geology is an inverted astrology, a divination. In ‘The Mines of Falun’ Elis reads in the caverns intimate messages engraved by the ‘Queen of the Mines’ for him alone. Progression and return—both phylogenetic and ontogenetic—become confused down here. The dark world where shining things bloom slowly over millennia, to be disturbed only on pain of awakening avarice, war, and conflict, is also the telluric womb, but the path of healing coincides paradoxically with the radical violation of the earth by industrial man and his machines. And the happy miner, accepted by the Queen, who ‘measures her depths and forgets every complaint in her womb […] and is enflamed by her as though she were his bride’,5 courts danger: perhaps, as in the case of Hoffmann’s cautionary tale, he is destined for the only marriage possible with this stony lover—loss in the depths, crystallisation, petrification. Parting the folds of superficial time accreted on the surface, the ‘sick animal’ travels back into the inorganic past, but the path it walks may coincide, at the limit, with death.


On the surface, administrative time is continually reinforced by the presence of architectural structures as an archive of the social, concrete and constraining in the present. The operation of colonisation is a perpetual struggle to impose these stays, under circumstances whose absurdity cannot be separated from their brutality. The enforcement of the present is naturally subject to a certain slippage, inevitable but warded off by all possible means: from official document to timetable, calendar, typewriter and clock, the instruments of administration are mechanisms of escapement, of a regulated passing, a control parameter. Time can’t be allowed to happen all at once, and the slightest egress threatens generalised collapse. The most minor fault-line in the collective psychic armature threatens to destabilise the whole precarious edifice, catalysing institutional breakdown and political revolt. A decolonising vector operating not as retrospective judgment and condemnation but as an integral machine part, an immanent line of flight that must be constantly checked by the colonial machine.

The colonist has entered a world where ‘[e]verything seemed cut off at its root, and therefore infected with illusion. […] Nothing was explained, and yet there was no romance.’6 A dissociative hiatus is always opened up by the experience of geographical and cultural displacement, and the implanted institutions and administrations continually build over this creeping chasm. But a whole lineage of fictions present to us those who are conscripted yet not fully invested in the enterprise, those who secretly feel the burden of the oppressive, loathsome and petty colony as a mere continuation of the lie of civilisation. For them, on the contrary, a line of escape projects outward, toward pathological encounters with what lies beneath the already-rotting compounds, stations, and offices of temporal power.

Welcomed rather than warded off, the dissociative state induced by the encounter with these ,‘immemorial’, ‘prehistoric’, ‘unspeakable […] outposts’ where one can touch the ‘flesh of the sun’s flesh’7 favours the delirious discovery of the markers of fatal predestination. Rather than dutifully helping fill in the ‘blank spaces on the map’, there is a certain art to bathing in their indifference, drifting languorously out from the administrative theatres in which the amateur dramatics of the civilised are played out.

Such are the journeys of Miranda and Marion in Picnic at Hanging Rock (facilitated by the libidinous Mme. de Poitiers and, in the ‘missing’ chapter, by the uncanny clown-crab-woman),8 and that of Adela Quested in A Passage to India (with Mrs Moore as spritely prodrome: ‘A new feeling, half languor, half excitement, bade her turn down any fresh path’).9

A plutonic valentine, an initiation that involves the choice of one kind of marriage over another, the cryptolithic passion draws bodies down a luminous path which denies them to the circuits of superficial commerce. ‘[O]bviously about women escaping’,10 both of these texts involve an ordeal, an initiatory passage to a womanhood that escapes coding: something other than either integration via matrimonial contract, or scandalous victimhood (‘quite intact’; ‘never actually touched’).11

For desire is perverted by the fatal passage. Even for Elis Fröbum, the miner of Falun, it was a flight, a fugue, an irresponsible throwing off of civilised duty, inglorious to the empire, unproductive from any human point of view, responding to a force that pulled at him from the inside, ‘as though invisible hands were drawing him down into the abyss’, ’suddenly gripped by an ice-cold hand’, his ‘inner being […] intertwined with the wondrous branches [of minerals] that rise up out of […] the midpoint of the earth’. But while Elis remains torn, duplicitous, and ultimately perishes, Miranda and Marion go easily with the same compulsion (‘The monolith. Pulling, like a tide. It’s just about pulling me inside out’),12 dancing, even. In the ‘missing’ chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock Marion and Miranda slip inside the rock of ‘indecent’ age13 having jettisoned their ‘absurd’ undergarments, the ‘stays’ which are left behind, ‘stuck fast in time’ as the girls squirm, animal-like, one by one, into a hole (‘it wasn’t a hole in the rocks […] it was a hole in space’).14 Miss Quested, having been led through a labyrinth of disorienting chasms similar to those through which the Appleyard girls made their ascent, wanders listlessly into the Marabar cave, a ‘black hole’ into which humans are ‘sucked […] like water down a drain’.

What happened?

On one scene, the clock will continue to tick-date its imported ordinances with the grim persistence of institutional synchrony, its incipient collapse telling upon the authorities: the headmistress Miss Appleyard, more tenuous with each second yet somehow not yet quite unraveled. While elsewhere, on the outside, the whole negligible anomaly will already have been absorbed, polo ground and boating lake included, as if it had never existed, a whimsical porcelain miniature dissolved into a vaster dream.

Perhaps like all latecomers into ‘new worlds’, the girls of Picnic at Hanging Rock are suspended between two time-faults which from the start ruin any unproblematic present-ation, any rendering present. Appleyard College is a colonial incongruity squatting absurdly in a landscape whose only anthropological time is that of myth and thus of the mutual coexistence of times. Imported from a foreign land with a shallow history,15 the building stands besieged by a climate utterly indifferent to its survival, a landscape over which broods that frozen plutonic anomaly, ‘the monolith—a single outcrop something like a monstrous egg’.16

In the cinematic version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the tension between these two scenes is relayed sonically by setting the politely insistent tick of the school clock against a subsonic rumbling (a slowed-down recording of an earthquake) designed to trigger the audience’s own archaeopsychic responses17—as if in the dark cavern of the movie theatre, the audience, mesmerised, could also be pulled inside out. But already in Joan Lindsay’s text, the girls’ solar trance brings with it an echo that resounds from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Ballard’s Drowned World, ‘a rather curious sound coming up from the plain, like the beating of far-off drums,’ resonating with ‘the separate beating of their […] hearts like two little drums’.18 An insistent pulse that signals at once the incipient synchronisation of the body with ulterior ungovernable outsideness (‘flesh of the sun’s flesh’) and the unacknowledged rumblings of native political discontent (‘Those drums are merely the festival, of course…’.)19

The dread rhythms prefigure a faltering of mastery and self-mastery, as does the unrelenting resonance which, in A Passage to India, proceeds to undo Miss Quested, ‘touched by the sun’, having undergone some unspeakable ordeal in the Marabar caves, the exact nature of which will never be resolved:

The sound had spouted after her when she escaped, and was going on still like a river that gradually floods the plain. […] the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life.20

These sonorous geopoetic devices21 imply and reinforce the unsayability of the event. The implacable density of rock exerts a preternatural gravity on the spirit, and in the darkness that it embraces, strange worms flourish. Something will certainly have happened down there, but its illegibility in the language of the surface (‘“Say, say, say,” said the old lady bitterly. “As if anything can be said!’)22 ensures that it will subsist only as a traumatic gap, as a locus of contention (Callendar vs. Quested: the call of social synchronisation against the seeker’s serene-blind compulsion). The event is an absent centre which sends out the very signals that will have drawn them toward it:

[L]ike dropping a stone into the water […] the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles, from that first thing that happened, and it went on and it affected so many lives […] before and after…but anyway, I’m getting a bit complicated….23

Hanging Rock’s magnetic reverberations and A Passage to India’s ‘ou-boum’ both echo ourobouros, the looping singularity in which time coils itself into a tight pocket of darkness—the confined space of the rock into which they pass in pursuit of the prodrome:

Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum,’ or ‘ou-boum,’—utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce ‘boum.’ Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling, which is too small to complete a circle but is eternally watchful. And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently.24

What happened in there was deafening, a recession of reason: ‘“In space things touch, in time things part,” she repeated to herself […]—her brain so weak that she could not decide whether the phrase was a philosophy or a pun.’25 Unspeakable, carnal, senseless, vulnerable, and innocent:

My body felt impossible. Touching my face, I encountered only the features and limbs of a little girl. Below the waist, however, all was confusion, snaking endlessly into itself, or rather, into depths beyond sense, traversed by languid spinal waves that culminated in the distant hint of a tail […] I was dissolving […] a labyrinth had opened up.26
During the descent he started to lose it and couldn’t go on. The men refused to turn back, and told him to stay put in some coffin-sized space while they went on to get the bats, and as long as he didn’t move they would pick him up on the way back. Think of it. He said that after they left him, the absolute blackness, the stagnant air and the silence just swallowed him into a different dimension. With increased volume, his consciousness turned on him suddenly and severely. Like some nightmare out of Beckett. Five minutes became so many hours, and that was the least of his hardships. You know how your tongue’s spatial knowledge of your molars never corresponds with what you see in the mirror? Shifting his body even slightly felt like he’d moved into a different chamber—he reached out with his arm expecting the air of the crevice through which he’d crawled in by, and finds instead a bar of cold stone. Haha, plummeting fear. So what does he do? Among other things, egged on by his treacherous consciousness, he masturbates repeatedly.27
The blackness in which he was enveloped turned to white. He was floating in white shadow, like a lump of cream in a bowl of milk. And had he not been forced to rub his body in milk in order to penetrate to this depth? […] In this deep place the feminine nature of Speranza became wholly maternal, and because the weakening of the bounds of time and space enabled Robinson to plunge as never before into the forgotten world of his childhood, he was haunted by the memory of his mother.28


The modern figure of homo duplex summarises the broader sense of this splitting of psyche into administrative and subterranean dimensions:

[M]an is twofold. Within him there are two beings: an individual being that originates in the organism and whose sphere of action is strictly limited by this fact; and a social being that represents the higher reality of the intellectual and moral order […] by which I mean society.29

Durkheim here repeats what the great naturalist and pioneering geologist Buffon had written a hundred and fifty years earlier:

The internal man is double. He is composed of two principles, different in their nature, and opposite in their action. The mind, or principle of all knowledge, wages perpetual war with the other principle, which is purely material. The first is a bright luminary, attended with calmness and serenity, the salutary source of science, of reason, and of wisdom. The other is a false light, which shines only in tempest and obscurity, an impetuous torrent, which involves in its train nothing but passion and error.30

Those unable to attain, or disbarred from, the civilisational dignity of ‘Man’, those attached to the ‘purely material’ or to ‘the organism’, may end up enrolling on the wrong side of this war. In temperance of the cryptolithic passion, those recovering from the ‘impetuous torrents’ of Romanticism will argue that, through obedience to such inner biddings at the expense of participation in the conventions of the surface, one merely trades ‘broadly shared societal illusions’ for an embrace of ‘personal delusions’.31 And indeed, Mrs Moore’s advice to Adela that ‘India forces one to come face to face with oneself—it can be rather disturbing’32 suggests we view her ordeal as an indulgent exercise in negative narcissism on the part of the coloniser. But who would dare hear in the Marabar caves, where ‘[w]hatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies’, their own self? Who would gaze into the ‘enormous gulf […] colossal work of destruction […] monstrous abyss’33 of the Falun main-shaft or the ‘gray volcanic mass’ of Hanging Rock34 in search of a looking-glass reflection of their own face? This would be to assume that the fugitive ‘light of obscurity’ leads to the kernel of the individual, rather than outward, via that which is contained in me that is not me.

A subtle point can be found in the metanarrative that frames ‘The Mines of Falun’ in The Serapion Brethren. Hoffmann’s book tells of a group of friends attempting to determine what it is that makes a truly compelling narrative. One ‘brother’, Cyprian, tells of meeting in the forest a hermit who earnestly believes himself to be the early Christian anchorite Serapion. This delusional man’s tales, Cyprian observes, are all the more powerful in that, in his madness, he mistakes inner for outer sense, and so has in effect virtually experienced the fictional events himself. In response, his fellow brother Lothair maintains that ‘duplexity’ is

the essential condition of our earthly existence. There is an inner world; and a spiritual faculty of discerning it with absolute clearness, nay, with the most minute and brilliant distinctness. But it is part of our earthly lot that it is the outer world, in which we are encased, which is the lever that brings that spiritual faculty into play. The things of the inner world appear to us only inside the circle which is formed round us by the objects of the outer world […].35

Serapion’s only fault lay in his failure to acknowledge this catalytic role of the outer world as trigger for the discovery of inner sense.

But in shifting the locus of duplexity, this ‘Serapiontic Principle’36 suggests what binds together colonial commercium and plutonic noumenon, calendar and quest, as parts of the same integral plot. The privileged sites where one who is not quite ‘Man’ finds egress—the Mines of Falun, the colonial outposts of Africa, India, or Australasia, laid bare by the very machines that scar the earth and beleaguer the spirit, are discovered by the subject of desiring-production,

a strange subject […] with no fixed identity, wandering about over the body without organs, but always remaining peripheral to the desiring-machines, being defined by the share of the product it takes for itself, garnering here, there, and everywhere a reward in the form of a becoming or an avatar, being born of the states that it consumes and being reborn with each new state […].

And if ‘the earth […] is a body without organs’37 as well as the ‘primitive, savage unity of desire and production’,38 then this wandering is synonymous with the movement of the deracinated human across the face of the earth, where the fresh wheals left by digging machines open up new tunnels into the psychic underworld and lever open passages to rebirth.


A contemporary geopoetics will find its own uses for these cavities, climates, and gradients. Of course, however politically disavowed they may be, there are still dark and forbidding mines where men risk their lives in search of metal; there are still colonies where absurdity vies with brutality under a cloak of administrative politesse. And to deal with the despoliation wrought by the machines, there is greater devastation, there are huger machines, vaster construction sites, and deeper holes.

In Into Eternity, Michael Madsen’s 2010 documentary about the Onkalo nuclear waste facility under construction in Finland, experts explain that ‘[t]he world above ground is unstable’:

We have to find a permanent solution […] We have come to a conclusion that the Finnish bedrock, 19 billion years old, is the medium that we can predict far to the future, at least 100,000 years ahead. […] conditions down in the rock will be stable and won’t change, but on the surface you never know what’s going to happen—it could be wars, it could be economic depression—on the surface the clock runs very fast, while in the rock it goes very very slowly.

From the point of view of those dealing with the toxic slag ejected by industry, the division between the realms of clock-time and mineral, lithic, or planetary time is a matter of relative safety, while for the volatile matter of the soul, the journey into the rock is a descent into a moral ordeal, a struggle of the soul or a struggle of different forms of desire over the soul, and an entry into unconventional perversions and couplings.

Since there are many ways in which this passage can be lived, many possible detours, divergences, and divagations, many failings and fault-lines, there are innumerable tales of depths and surfaces to be told: geopoetic amplifications, Serapiontic relays, of anomalous encounters. Each will attest to the fact that the displacements and delirious wanderings of the modern subject cannot be separated from continual processes of extraction, translation, transformation, mediation, and ejection whose administrative coordination and progressive march is in every case doubled by occult workings and cryptolithic passions.

The function of myth is not to conserve the remembrance of the primordial event, but to project the sick […] to where that event is in the process of occurring.39
It is happening now […] it is always acted out in the tepid twilight of a present without a past.40
  1.  M. Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: Birth and Rebirth (New York: HarperCollins 1966), 52.
  2. A. Montagu, Coming into Being among the Australian Aborigines (London: Routledge, 1937), 336.
  3. M. Lévy, Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 68).
  4. T. Ziolkowski, ‘The Mine: Image of the Soul’, in Romanticism and its Institutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 33.
  5. Novalis, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, quoted in Ziolkowski, ‘The Mine’, 50.
  6. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924) (London: Penguin, 2002) (eBook).
  7. Ibid.
  8. J. Lindsay, The Secret of Hanging Rock (North Ryde, NSW and London: Angus & Robertson, 1987),  26–7.
  9. Forster, A Passage to India. The figure I call the Prodrome seems to be as crucial to such tales as the Double itself; there is always one who has walked the path before (pro-drome), since the path is immemorial. In ‘The Mines of Falun’ this is the ghostly figure of Old Torbern. One of the earliest exemplars would be Burd Ellen in the Ballad of Childe Rowland: the sister who exits, herself following the trajectory of a lost ball, thus setting a quest in motion—a trope repeated in an important 1965 fantasy novel by English author Alan Garner. The Prodrome leads the one that would elide, the Elidor, who is the land to which they would escape (A. Garner, Elidor [London: Williams Collins, 1965]).
  10. Mark Fisher, in M. Fisher, J. Barton, ‘Outsights’, in R. Mackay (ed.), When Site Lost the Plot (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2015), 281–303.
  11. Picnic at Hanging Rock (dir. Peter Weir, 1975); Forster, A Passage to India.
  12. Lindsay, Secret of Hanging Rock, 24.
  13. J. Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock (London: Penguin, 2014) (eBook); Secret of Hanging Rock, 25.
  14. Secret of Hanging Rock, 26–28, 30.
  15. Like the college in Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, the house used as a location in Weir’s film, Martindale Hall, was built at huge expense by Edmund Bowman using craftsmen and materials imported from England and Europe.
  16. Lindsay, Secret of Hanging Rock, 23; like much of the ‘missing’ chapter, the image is reused in a different context in Picnic at Hanging Rock.
  17. ‘You are already between listeners separated by millennia. When the amphibians left the seas two or three hundred million years ago, with their heads resting on the ground, they relied entirely on bone conduction of vibration for hearing. The vibrations in the earth were transmitted from the bones of their lower jaws to the bone surrounding the inner ear. It was only slowly that their organs, adapted to picking up vibrations in the denser medium of water, adapted to airborne sound.’ R. Mackay, ’Synthetic Listener’, <>.
  18. Lindsay, Secret of Hanging Rock, 23, 26; cf. Conrad, Heart of Darkness: ‘the tremor of far-off drums, sinking, swelling, a tremor vast, faint’; ‘I remember I confounded the beat of the drum with the beating of my heart’; ‘the beat of the drum, regular and muffled like the beating of a heart—the heart of a conquering darkness’; Ballard, The Drowned World: ‘the almost imperceptible sounds of a deep slow drumming’; ‘As the great sun drummed nearer’; ‘ the vast inflamed disc of the spectral sun […] the tremendous drumming of its beat […] he realised that the frequency was that of his own heartbeats’.
  19. Forster, A Passage to India.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Cf. the remarkable opening chapter of Garner’s Elidor, where the trajectory to be followed is marked out by the eerie sonic dynamism of the old prodrome violinist.
  22. Forster, A Passage to India.
  23. Interview with Joan Lindsay, (Video interview by John Taylor, Sydney: Australia Council, 1975).  <>; emphasis mine.
  24. Forster, A Passage to India.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Echidna Stillwell, in CCRU, Writings 1997–2003 (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2017), 70.
  27. ‘“Prostitution is a Country”: An Interview with New Juche’, Hoover Hog Blog, <>.
  28. M. Tournier, Friday, or the Other Island, tr. N. Denny (London: Penguin, 1974), 102–3.
  29. E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), tr.M.S. Cladis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  30. Comte de Buffon, Natural History, 1788.
  31. H.I. Sullivan, ‘Dirty Nature: Ecocriticism and Tales of Extraction—Mining and Solar Power—in Goethe, Hoffmann, Verne, and Eschbach’, Colloquia Germanica 44:2 (2011), 111–31: 120
  32. This advice from Mrs Moore is an addition in Lean’s film script.
  33. E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Serapion Brethren, tr. A. Ewing(London: Bell & Sons, 1908), 192–3.
  34. Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
  35. Hoffmann, The Serapion Brethren, 51
  36. A principle which in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would be better named the ‘Principle of Applied Ballardianism’.
  37. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, tr. B. Massumi (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 40.
  38. G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, tr. R. Hurley, M. Seem and H.R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1983), 140.
  39. M. Eliade, Aspects du mythe (Paris: Gallimard, 1988).
  40. Lindsay, Picnic at Hanging Rock.