Cryptolithic Passions

The cave is an egg

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

Order and preview pages on Elaine Tam’s site.

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…