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Ponderings Upon The Netherworld As A Place Of Freedom…

“Don’t be scared by the dark…”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering escape, not purely within a metaphorical context, but also physically. Contemplating logistics, considering exit strategies, wondering if I could begin again some place new…

Life comes at you fast, sometimes too fast, to the point where everything, even that which is normally perceived as miniscule, mundane, becomes completely overwhelming. The ‘Fight or Flight’ default setting that has been with Hominins from long before we evolved into Genus Homo, gets triggered. The urge to flee is strong.

Yet it’s not only myself who has to contend with these yearnings, and the desire to escape is far from being a purely modern phenomenon. The longing has been with us constantly, since the beginning…

Last week I relistened to a fantastic radio documentary that was first brought to my attention last year, The Secret Catacombs of Paris, presented by Jonathan Glancy.

The Catacombs are 177 miles of tunnels that run beneath Paris. A concealed place of safety and shelter, a means of escape. The Catacombs are also a vast ossuary, containing the material remains of approximately six million individuals, some of these people having lived a millennia ago. A labyrinthine ‘mirror-world’ that facilitates equilibrium. Even the City of Light needs its dark counterpart.

Although there are municipally endorsed tours of the Catacombs, these are not enough to quench the desire of Cataphiles (of which I am one), who are driven to head deeper, further, into the Netherworld to escape from the world above. It has been illegal to privately enter the catacombs since 1955, and the tunnels are patrolled by a designated Gendarmerie unit.

“The forbidden place is always an attractive place…”

Katrine Decoeur, The Official Catacombs Museum

Yet Cataphiles do not head into the catacombs purely as an act of anti-authoritarian defiance. Although some have identified that the lack of laws, and having to depend upon your own values to guide both yourself, and your conduct, is attractive. There are very real dangers in traversing the Parisian tunnels, especially if you’re a solitary wanderer. If you run out of batteries, lose your light through damage or misadventure, then there is a very real possibility that you could die. There’s no telecoms signal coverage, no natural, or powered, light beneath the streets of Paris. What starts off as an adventure could potentially manifest into a nightmare. One must approach the catacombs with respect. With deep stratigraphies come deeper dangers, and deepest fears…

“But getting lost, presumably, is part of the excitement, isn’t it? Because when you’re up above, in the normal city, everything’s signed, everything’s directed. You know where to go, what to do, there’s traffic lights. And down here, you can get lost…”

Jonathan Glancy, The Secret Catacombs of Paris.

Glancy’s quote has been drifting within my consciousness for a good few days now. Yes, we want to lose ourselves in order to find the way, but are we ever truly able to fully let go? Does the ‘Fight or Flight’ response trigger, whether we are conscious of it or not?

For many people, heading into the subterranean realm allows them to shed their ‘everyday’ skin. To become the person they want to be, or perhaps, truly are. Stepping into the underworld is seen by many as something akin to a religious experience. For others, the very act of walking where others fear to tread produces a veritable high.

 For myself, I find that walking through tunnels, underpasses, and other forms of underground structure, opens my mind to new ways of seeing, of experiencing. In some of these spaces sound reverberates to such an extent that I can literally feel the sonics seeping through my epidermis and piercing my very soul. In the darkness I rely on my bodily extremities far more than my eyes. Touch offers connection. Through my fingertips I experience changes in texture, temperature. I sense people who have wandered these paths before me through the incisions they have made in the surfaces. Alongside these indentations, I often happen upon talismans and gifts that have been left as offerings for certain deities and saints by devotees who have trodden these tracks. My footsteps allow me to ascertain subtle inclines, changes in the physical makeup. And I think that this is where Glancy’s thoughts on the excitement of getting lost really hit home for me. When I’m wandering within the down below, I do not literally get lost. However, I do lose myself through the ways that I interact with the subterranean.

As Glancy highlighted; ‘up above’, especially within urban contexts, we are constantly directed, physically and socially, by signage that appears on the streets where we wander, and on the smartphones, we keep in our pockets or hands. We’re told when to walk, where to walk, especially now in a world trying to get to grips with social distancing. Where to shop, where to eat and drink. Everything is fed to us through signposts and markers, both material and digital. The need for physical engagement with our surroundings above ground is diminishing. Perhaps one day it will disappear completely.

Whereas below, all of these ‘distractions’ are removed. We are no longer spoon-fed the information we require to navigate the landscape in which we are traversing. We have to actively engage with our surroundings. And this engagement sparks a deeper connection with our environment, with ourselves, it empowers us. Hearing, touch, olfactive senses, are all intensified. Nerve endings sparkle with the energy that radiates physically and acoustically. I slip away from the everyday and escape into the liminal, where I am neither here, nor there, where I truly feel free…

“This Romantic mindset, Landscape Punk outlook, call it what you will, has enabled me to wander, and wonder, within some truly phantastical and awesome surroundings; subterranean, digital, paranoiac, pulsating. Movement within all four of these realms, no matter how unsettling, enables transition. It is only by being willing to shed the somatic, to step away from the rational, to take the leap and go deep, that we can fully connect. It’s not always easy, at times it can be terrifying, bordering on the preternatural, but it is always truly Empyrean…”

Lady Liminal 2021; Ponderings Upon Losing Yourself To Find The Way