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Catabatic Ecphrasis, April 9th, 2000 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: April 9th, 2000
"Catabatic Ecphrasis" [permalink]
    keywords: subway, parageography, underground
    soapbox #: 236
    written: April 9th, 2000
    words: 1714

"Catabatic Ecphrasis", an Essay

[NOTE: I wrote this for my parageography class in my spring '99 semester. At least, I think it was that semester. Anyway, it was a horrid class, but the statute of bad writing limitations has expired for this piece, and I found it in a pile of papers, so I figured I'd post it. The goal was to write objectively and in great detail about something underground (hence the name of the paper, catabatic ecphrasis, which with a little knowledge of Greek will yield its definition), but of course I wavered on the objectivity part. The hardcopy of the paper has the prof's notes on it, but will I adjust the paper accordingly? Of course not. :P]

"The Underground"

They, the timid and phobiaphiles, love to express the fear and anxiety of descending into the earth. Me? Personally, I thrive off the darkness, the enclosure, the isolation, the unfamiliarity, the subworld. Screw Plato and his escape from the caves.

London used to be the seat of imperial power in the world, dominating everything from military tactics to colonies to even the arts. The city itself still shows off its achievements in its rebuilt Globe, Westminster, the British Museum, and other famous landmarks. But these constitute only one aspect of one of the greatest cities in the world -- underneath all the winding, narrow, cobbled roads and the well-tended parks lies an alternate reality, a world with its own culture, its own customs, and a distinct type of population.

To a foreigner, this world is called "London's subway system". To a visiting tourist, it's the "London Underground". And to a native, it's not referred to by name at all, unless of course, he happens to speak to a foreigner or visiting tourist. This world is easy to find indeed -- like the numerous purported gateways to Hell found in antiquity, scattered amongst the archaic, strangely tilted buildings along the streets are long flights of stairs with cryptic, almost runic instructions emblazoned onto signs above them. The Underground wastes no time in displaying the characteristics of a world alternate to the primary one -- its identifiable symbol, a solid blue line streaming through a hollow red circle, clearly demarcates London from the different realm below.

Descending straight down into the soil, leaving the land which glorifies sun and light (although, one supposes, this is different for an often overcast England), everything rapidly changes. One's senses are bombarded with unfamiliarity, the air tasting and smelling slightly stale and lethargic, the visual colors tinted yellow and green with the lights and the overt proliferation of bacteria and grime on the walls, the ears hearing every sound with a foreign echo, the machines and walls slightly slimy with salty sweat and unknown substances. The escalators draw hundreds of thousands of people down into the earth's bowels every day, moving at a pace almost hypnotic and maddening, descending at steep angles almost reaching sixty degrees. The ceilings in the escalators are low, making the short journey feel more like traversing through a cave than riding a well-designed man-made passage leading to the subway tunnels. Fellow travelers behind and in front of you seem not to mind. They seem not to do much of anything at all. To them, it's normal. To you, an intrepid but terribly inexperienced American, you struggle to remember the land of Beef Eaters and Radio Taxis you just departed from, since your path downwards has cleansed you of past memories, as if crossing the Lethe.

And indeed, there are symbolic references that can be made -- you pay your toll to a being which cares not for your life story, but only to grant or deny your passage to the underworld. Without emotion and partiality, this modern day Charon allows you to undergo your journey, but only if you pay up. The other lost souls seeking travel by ferry to their destination do not look at you, or at each other. They seem not to care about their surroundings, or about anything else except getting to where they need to go. They do not communicate, deviate in behavior, or question any of the abnormal things happening around them. You will never see them again, particularly not above ground, so as far as you are concerned, their lives exist only in this subterranean world, not unlike the modern-day relationship between American student and professor at the university.

The bottom is intriguing -- labyrinthine walk tunnels twist and turn seemingly without logic, connecting various routes and track directions together. Claustrophobic one must not be to find one's way around, deciphering and translating the instructions on the constricting walls. But upon reaching the platforms themselves, the room opens up, the ceiling reaching up high, tantalizing for the people crammed together like sardines below, as they wait for the next train. Huge advertisements, twice the size of men, equal to the size of giants, have been pasted haphazardly on the walls opposite the platforms, marketing products unknown in the subworld, but obviously recognized by at least someone there. Why would they bother marketing these surface world products to dwellers under the rock? These people care not about deodorant (although, ugh, they should) or the latest album from Fatboy Slim. To you, the Underground is cut off from the upper world. The passengers could have been riding the trains their whole lives for all you care. The random poetry and Cadbury chocolate ads on the walls mean little to you because they are done up by English advertising agencies -- the slang and phrasing are foreign and don't endear themselves to you the way American ads do. The people waiting speak in a British accent, furthering your alienation from them. The lights are dimmed with green mold (which thrives off the warm heat emitted by the bulbs), so the whole platform is bathed with dirty incalescence. There is no brightness or cleanliness so common above ground -- this civilization under the rock seems like the ancient remnants of a once upper world.

On each side of the platform are large holes dug horizontally (or are they? There is no way to be sure down here.) into the rock, passages speckled with lights generating not enough light to be useful, and laden on their floors with sturdy tracks. Through these tunnels, great steel worms cascade from destination to destination, swallowing up the earth as they pass through it, shuttling hundreds of indifferent Londoners from place to place. When a train is about to arrive, the usually complacent people jolt to life, pushing towards the track in anticipation. Loud, echoing sounds rumble out of muffled speakers above, tossing about sound waves which disorient the ear. Whooshing punches of air pass through the tunnel and across the platform, moving about the sweaty, heavy air slightly. The train stops and people wrestle to get in and out.

There is not much to do in a train. Just as on the platform, you get a good sense for what the floor looks like. Tiled on the platform, and painful, spirit-robbing linoleum on the train. You don't look around much, for fear of sharing glances with another soul who also does not care for eye contact.

The lights in the train flutter on and off, like a young debutante's furtive eyelashes. The train shakes and rattles randomly, quivering with a juvenile energy, and people struggle to retain their balance inside. The air of comfort displayed by all the people here is, upon closer inspection, betrayed by the inherent instability and uncomfortable nature of the Underground. No one can be truly comfortable here -- every step of the way jostles the senses and causes vertigo.

Eventually, everyone finds their stop and leaves the Underground in the same manner they arrived. They pass back into the light (or grey as London would have it), go back to their normal lives buying groceries or watching rugby, and think little of the experience underground. But to a tourist, it is a different experience altogether, something completely unfamiliar to anything they've experienced before. (even for those who are used to New York's or Washington D.C.'s subways)

The London Underground is both London and underground, both complicated and difficult for a foreigner. You may scoff at the exaggeration, but take time to consider the above, what your senses undergo during an subterranean sojourn. Eventually, one gets used to it and is numbed to the experience. But the fact still remains that there exists a whole other world under London, with its own set of customs of where to look and how to act, with its own set of laws enforced by distant men watching through security cameras, with its own physics and environment of unnatural passages and earthy smells and surfaces.

People are afraid to go underground because that is the world their fears inhabit. The darkness, the unknown, tickles the imagination into believing it saw things which weren't there. The underground is associated through philosophy with ignorance and illusion, through religion with the devilish Dantean bolgias, through physics with scorching magma and brimstone, through literature like Verne's dangerous, eventful journey to the center of the earth. As one progresses inwards, he becomes less man, less rational, more bestial, and so on, as if the surface and sun somehow provided human nature. I, for one, descend into the earth with a light step, because through experiencing the flipside of what is considered reality, by entering worlds like the London Underground, I learn more about what it is actually like to live on the surface. The underground is subject to different laws than the surface, and one cannot appreciate the difference unless he goes through it first-hand.

Others will write that it is horrific, scary, even life-threatening to descend into the earth -- I content it is merely unfamiliar to us in that its laws and physics are the complete opposite of what we're used to, and only by immersing ourselves underground do we emerge less afraid and more enlightened.


 
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