Monday, February 14, 2011

Notes from Underground

To some, living underground is simply untenable—to do so is to be confined and cut off from light and air. On the one hand, retreating below ground can be the first step toward degeneration, as it is in The Time Machine. To embrace the earth is to embrace the primitive, atavistic side of our nature. But it is also a defense mechanism—whether the threat is a tornado or an atomic bomb, the earth is our shelter. Why is it that this natural sanctuary, safe from the elements, can also be so repugnant and terrifying? To go underground is to enter the ultimate interior. Why should we be so uncomfortable about dwelling in this seemingly safe place?

When the Time Traveler first sees a Morlock, one of these “white, ape-like…creatures of the half-light,” he believes it is a ghost or a trick of the light (56). There is something ethereal and phantom-like about them, perhaps due to their pallid hue (see Melville’s chapter on whiteness in Moby-Dick for more on this). The element most frequently associated with the Morlocks is bronze, the material from which the hollow base of the sphinx statue and the rims of the wells are made. This calls to mind the Bronze Age and primitive man. The Time Traveler refers to a Morlock as a “Thing,” a “little monster,” and a “human spider” as it scampers down the well (58-59). Another fictional creation with supernatural climbing abilities is Dracula (he climbs head-first down a castle wall and is compared to a lizard), also a product of the 1890s. The end of the nineteenth century is pervaded with a fear of degeneration and anxieties about illusory progress.

Interestingly in The Time Machine, both the Morlocks and the Eloi are products of degeneration (63). It is not as if only the creatures living down below devolved, while everyone on the surface stayed just fine. This implies that it is not the fact that they live underground that is the cause of the Morlocks’ fall into atavism. It is also notable that in his dealings with the Morlocks, the Time Traveler is reduced almost to their level: “I stood there with only the weapons and the powers that Nature had endowed me with—hands, feet, and teeth” (69). Later on, while he smashes the Morlocks with what is essentially an iron club, I cannot help but feel that the Time Traveler is starting to degenerate a bit himself (there are also a handful of extremely violent remarks made by the Time Traveler that clash with his usually more objective and scientific persona—see page 29 for an example).

For all the horrors associated with the Morlocks and their subterranean, machine-filled dwelling in The Time Machine, living underground is portrayed in a far more positive light elsewhere. In the case of a cozy hobbit hole or of a hollowed-out embankment by Gaudi, for example, there is something almost sacred about the earth. In agricultural communities like the Shire, the earth is the direct source of food and nourishment. In Gaudi’s case, this is the earth of Catalonia—to dwell within that earth and truly appreciate the land was part of the regional spirit. What is it that makes us embrace the earth as the foundation of life, and at other times to decry it as a terrifying and unnatural place to live? For instance, with some Modernist houses like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie or the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the key ideas is about living on an elevated plane away from the ground, which is dirty and profane. What made some Modernists reject the earth, while others (like Frank Lloyd Wright) held the land to be sacred?

Gaudi, Park Guell, Barcelona.

To conclude my post, I am putting a link to a video posted on another class blog, from the University of Edinburgh. It is a fascinating video, and I recommend watching the whole thing. But if you do not have half an hour to spare, go to about fifteen minutes in for a segment on the tunnel dwellers of New York City. Given the choice of sleeping out on a bench, exposed to the weather, and living underground, some have chosen the latter option and have lived in these tunnels for years.


***Most of the architecture references in this post are derived from material covered in ARC 203 and 242.


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