Underground spaces such as basements have rich, attractive, and symbolic connotations. That empty space under our feet which, like a premature grave, archives the remnants of our dead and lost past, is a repetitive symbolic element in our individual and social dreams. From the Greek myths to Modern literature, from horror movies to childish fantasies, underground spaces enjoy a permanent, mysterious, and enigmatic presence. Sometimes from their dark depths they call upon us with a frightening temptation, other times they awaken an adventurous desire for discovering a hidden mystery. That is why in Greek mythology, many heroes are sent to Hades (the underground world of the dead) to discover its mysteries. But what is this ‘underground’ place? Where do its borders lie? What are we talking about when we speak of underground literature, underground theater, underground protests and movements, and underground music? What can be called ‘underground’?
In man’s individual and collective imagination, underground places have for long been associated with death. It is as if the underground is a realm mediating between the dead and us. In the usual conception of death as a separation of the spirit from the body, the spirit ascends to heavens and continues its life there while the body is buried under the ground to go through the process of degeneration and decay. Hence, the dense and hermetic mass of soil is set against the dilute and free space of the sky. If flying freely in the open space of the sky qualifies as man’s ancient dream, being buried alive under the density and non-porosity of the ground is equally his oldest nightmare. But man’s life on earth is itself happening at the intersection of these two spaces, a point where death and life or grave and the sky are intertwined. A single house can only capture and captivate part of the sky if it is built on top of solid ground. Yet, the basement is the penetration of the sky into this solidity – digging an empty space in the graveyard of earth where wandering souls take refuge. Hades, this greatest imaginable underground space, appears as a territory between city and graveyard where the dead ‘live’. While burying requires an empty space within the density of the soil, a space immediately filled, the basement resembles a dug grave which is never filled: a premature grave that opens but never closes, an empty grave which might, similar to Christ’s empty grave, herald salvation.
In his short story, Bobok, Dostoyevsky tries to create an underground space which appears in the city’s cemetery. The story tells that after death, some kind of a residue of life continues to survive for four to six months in the form of consciousness, before complete death prevails. As such, a realm is created between two deaths where the dead converse. The narrator—an unsuccessful and semi-insane writer who from time to time hears the strange sound ‘Bobok… Bobok…’, suddenly hears one day, after participating in a funeral, the voice of the dead conversing. Later, during their conversation, a dead person explains that the repeating sound of ‘Bobok’ belongs to one of the dead murmuring his last incomprehensible words before his final death. What happens in this realm mediating two deaths, in this spectral ‘underground’ of the cemetery? Although in the beginning, the conversation between the ghosts is a continuation of the dialogues they had during their lives (a group of high governmental officials even continue their meetings after death!) one of the dead at a certain moment points out the fact that here their social status no longer holds. The dead (who realize they have fallen out of the system of social hierarchy) then decide to narrate unashamedly for one another the truths of their lives, and reveal their naked selves. At this point, the narrator’s sneeze interrupts their conversation. Himself an outcast like the dead, whom no one recognizes as a ‘writer’, the narrator decides to write down the conversations at the cemetery. He wants to be the narrator of the underground spirits the same way Dostoyevsky was the narrator of the underground spirits of St. Petersburg.
As such, the ‘underground’ in this story is an intermediate space opening between the social space of the city and the cemetery. This is a place for those who have fallen out of the system of social ranking just like the narrator and dwell in a domain mediating two deaths. Such a domain, however, is not a place of exile but rather a unique place where the system of social hierarchy itself is suspended. Dostoyevsky’s living dead resemble the pale ghosts of men whom Benjamin calls the ‘redeemed mankind’—the mankind for whom “its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour”.1
In residential buildings, the basement is the realm between the house and the garbage dump; it is the place for objects that have exited the accelerating train of consumerist life and abandoned the category of accessible everyday objects, things which have lost their particular place in the intertwined network of objects, but have not joined the formless mass of garbage. This is the realm of dead but unburied objects; an empty space between two deaths where relations based upon functionalism and consumption governing objects is suspended.
However, if the basement is an underground space between home and ‘cemetery’ it must be added that the borders of this space are violated from two sides. On one side, any object in the basement is at the thresholds of final death, of turning into garbage and taken to be buried as a formless mass of waste. On the other side, there is the shifting border between the basement and the inner space of the house. Part of the basement always becomes the extension of the house. Many of the objects commute between the living spaces of the house and the basement: the clothes temporarily stored for next season, the wine bottles gradually brought up to the house, tools that occasionally need to be used, or even, as it happened in the past, the naughty child sent to the basement for punishment. Despite such movement through the basement, some objects become permanent residents there. These are objects completely removed from the train of everyday life, yet we keep storing them as if they impose themselves on us. We think one day they might become useful, a day that might never arrive. However, in the suspension of their reanimation, the object seems to become independent of us.
Thus, the basement is a space seizing ‘useless’ objects and preserving them like in a seashell. Agamben sees a kind of salvation in St. Thomas’ reflections on limbo. According to St. Thomas, the punishment for men who are sent to limbo is to be eternally deprived of seeing God. However, they are not even aware of such depravity and even if they were, they would not experience it as a torture. Agamben writes, “The greatest punishment—the lack of the vision of God—thus turns into a natural joy (…) God has not forgotten them, but rather they have always already forgotten God; and in the face of their forgetfulness, God’s forgetting is impotent.”2 Such a redemption might be a proper description of the limbo-like nature of the basement. Such a redemption is not synonymous with the return of the objects to the space of the home but rather with the creation of a space where dominant relations and regulations are suspended, a place independent from God’s will, where objects seem to have forgotten the Lord of the house.
Yet if the inner space of the house and the cemetery will always violate the borders of the basement, if by ‘accumulating’ the underground one can turn it into a cemetery, or if it is possible to transform it into an extension of the space of the house, can the basement too manifest itself in the space of the house and thus occupy it? Can it crack the ground, the setting of the house, and appear as an empty grave? Can it open up and swallow the building? Can it herald salvation the same way Christ’s empty grave did?
Jose Saramago’s short story, ‘Things’ narrates the seepage of the underground into the entire space of the house: in an unknown city, suddenly objects start to disappear and it is not long before lifts, windows, clothes, doors, etc. are gone and as a result the buildings and bridges start to collapse. The horrified government announces an emergency situation asking the citizens to report any disappearance of objects. The situation worsens day by day finally reaching a point where the government asks the citizens to abandon the city altogether so that the army can attack the city and suppress the rebellion of objects. In the closing scene, the protagonist who is a civil servant, who informs us of the events, awaits together with other citizens outside the city and next to the woods to watch the army’s spectacle. As the army starts the attack, guns, canons, and other weapons disappear. Finally, the whole city disappears. Then people come out of the woods in droves. We realize that these people are the disappeared objects, that have taken refuge at the moment of disappearance in the woods. They have disappeared from the dominant relation and regulations so as to be placed in an underground space. One says, “Now we must rebuild everything.” Another says, “There was no other remedy since we were those things.”3
Here, we are confronted with a kind of resurrection which, however, happens not through a return of underground objects to everyday life, but rather through objects falling out of the cycle of everyday life. It is as if in this story the jungle is the ‘underground’ which swallows the objects of the house, and ultimately the whole house, hence placing the objects outside the realm of relations and rules governing them; a space where objects are born anew in the form of free men. It is against such a background that one can conceive of underground art or politics, or of what makes a movement or activity to qualify as ‘underground’ and what an underground movement is. Underground activities are attempts at disappearing from the scene of dominant relations and regulations and to simultaneously create, impose, and extend a space where such relations and regulations are suspended. Hence, it can be said that underground activity is, more than anything else, about inventing the ‘underground’ itself.
In Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal portrays an underground activity. Hanta, the narrator, who calls his story a ‘love story’ is a worker pressing wastepaper for thirty five years in a basement, creating identical cubes out of it to be sent to recycling factories: the wastepaper ranges from bloodstained papers coming from the butcher’s shops to discarded books of the Royal Library, from banknote packaging to bus and theater tickets. He is a half-witted drunkard who is unimaginably cultured: an absentminded worker who quotes Hegel, Nietzsche, and Spinoza. From the very beginning of the story, the similarity between the social status of the narrator and wastepaper is underlined. When Hanta loses his job, like his cherished discarded books, he is completely situated between two deaths. Strict rules and regulations have clearly seized the basement where the protagonist works. Yet it is exactly in this occupied space that we witness from early on his attempts to create an autonomous space. He who enjoys, due to his semi-insanity, little place in the hierarchy of social relations and is considered a very low-ranking employee, gradually tries to create an independent underground space. His boss is very disappointed with him because he is always behind schedule and easily distracted. The basement where he works is always filled with piles of wastepaper stacked on top of one another and increasing day by day due to his slow rhythm. While working, he rescues many books out of the piles. During and outside his working hours he reads these books, which is also the reason behind his education. He also takes most of the books home and stores them. These books (belonging to a realm mediating two deaths) gradually take up the basement of his house and later the whole of his house. He also indulges in a kind of artistic practice. For him, making each of those paper cubes is to create a work of art. He arranges the papers in the pressing machine with an obsessive precision and then scatters confetti and paper ribbons on them. He decorates them with prints of works by classic painters which he finds among the wastepaper and gives each cube, in his judgment, a distinct personality. At the end of the story, when he is expelled from his much-enjoyed job, he enters the press machine and turns it on. One of his last sentences is: “I’m in my cellar and no one can turn me out.”4
It is in this space where he suspends his fate and his social statues and in a desperate and unsuccessful manner tries to make a writer and artist out of himself:
That’s why I’m always behind in my work, why the courtyard is piled to the rooftops with old paper that can’t go down the opening in the ceiling of my cellar for the mountain of old paper blocking it from below; that’s why my boss, his face scarlet with rage, will sometimes stick his hook through the opening and clear away enough paper to shout to me, ‘Hanta! Where are you? For Christ’s sake, will you stop ogling those books and get to work? The courtyard’s piled high with paper and you sit there dreaming!’5
But Hanta listens not, because like the wastepaper, he is among the residents of the limbo who have already forgotten God.
- Benjamin, Walter ‘On the Concept of History’, trans. Harry Zohn, aphorism III.↩
- Agamben, Georgio, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, 1993), 5-6.↩
- Saramago, José, ‘Things’, in The Lives of Things, trans. Giovanni Pontiero, Verso (London 2012), 114.↩
- Hrabal , Bohumil, , Too Loud a Solitude, trans. Michael Henry Heim, Harcourt (San Diego, 1990), 95.↩
- ibid., 6-7.↩