When they think of catacombs most people think of the catacombs of Rome because of the stories about Christians who hid there to celebrate Mass, even though they had to keep a napkin over the wine chalice so no untoward substances from the bat-infested ceiling would fall into the wine. But the Catacombes de Paris, officially known as l’Ossuaire Municipal, are also famous. Built on valuable deposits of “plaster of Paris,” clay and other building materials, the city has long been under-tunneled with caverns and mines. When the mining stopped, the spaces were pressed into service as ossuaries, in order to reclaim the overcrowded and fetid cemeteries of Les Innocentes and Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs. Bodies of the dead from the riots in the Place de Grève, the Hotel de Brienne, and Rue Meslee were put in the catacombs on 28 and 29 August 1788.
The catacombs contain the indissolubles, the indescribables, the spines and phalanges and skulls of the lost. But they also shelter those who are hunted, seeking burrows like any other mammals, a literal underground society of those too wicked or too virtuous or too revolutionary for those walking above.
Once we leave the Latinate word and think of tunneling, we think of the Vietnamese underground towns; the tunnels that bypass the walls we build to keep Israel from Arab, Mexican from American; escapes from jails -- many patient hours of slow small labor in confined spaces. A list of notable burial “catacombs” includes Anatolia, Turkey; Sousse, North Africa; Naples, Italy; Syracuse, Italy; Trier, Germany; Kiev, Russia. The Capuchin catacombs of Palermo, Sicily were used as late as the 1920s.
Underground galleries and mines are dangerous, collapsing without warning, creating sinkholes that swallow houses. But we continue our tunnels for sewers, water mains, subways, raceways for wiring, reinforcing as necessary and -- hopefully -- keeping accurate maps. Tunnels are scary and yet we dare to drive the Chunnel between Franch and England; mock danger by floating in small boats through “Tunnels of Love.” Coastal cities have underground labyrinths created for smuggling inland from ports as recently as prohibition or created in small Western towns by Chinese hiding from authorities and hostile ruffians. Everywhere the piling up of new construction on top of old buildings, the filling-in of streets, have caused what was once ground level to become subterranean.
Very early caves surrender neolithic hair and not-yet-coprolites for analysis, high and dry places preserve ancient artifacts of remarkable fragility and ingenuity -- in America, sandals said to be 60,000 years old, even though no humans were supposed to be present so early. But the most touching are the early art like the painted figures at Lascaux, ghostly animals and handprints so deep in caves that the sun has never seen them. We almost know what they mean: something religious no doubt, something about good fortune and success in the hunt.
What worries us about the underground is not being able to see. Miners and spelunkers hope they have enough fuel, enough battery power, to last through their work. We feel our way through our dreams, not quite able to see what looms over us, what falls away beneath our feet, what paralyzes us.
Human thought is topographic so we speak of the subconscious, that part of the mind that cannot be consciously, deliberately, conveniently accessed, but that constantly controls from underneath our feelings and ideas -- only now and then surprised into observation by a clever psychoanalyst or poet. Now and then we feel something “in the back of our mind,” know it’s there but can’t quite drag it out with memory or logic. We hate not knowing our own minds. We pry at the doors of perception with drugs or lately with mild magnetic currents applied to the temples, hoping to see through to some bright vision.
Likewise, on the social level, for every culture there is a subculture where forbidden things happen: drugs, sex, violence, captivity. The underground is where messages are passed and censored information is accessed. Books you aren’t supposed to read. Like the tiny filaments of fungus that crisscross beneath groves of trees, unseen unless they pop to the surface as mushrooms, these mycelia surreptitiously supply elemental substances that support the trees, things that polite society doesn’t want to know about. Death, disease, perversion, sociopathy, betrayal, slavery, murder, infanticide and forbidden love. These surface in novels, plays, opera -- all the arts. Sometimes they burst out in revolution. Everyone is curious, but most don’t dare go into the dark, unless safely removed to a stage or a book or a screen. We are always there to watch. Car wrecks and pornography, or are they the same thing? (J.G. Ballard thought so.) The insane deaths of famous artists, movie stars and princesses: we review them endlessly in search of what? A key? An explanation. There is none.
When we wander the catacombs, we hope to meet the dead, the dear faces we used to know -- not the old mother we last saw on her deathbed, but the young mother who came to us at bedtime. The once-so-well-known faces of the past wax and wane, so that we wonder whether losing the memory of the faces means we are losing the person.
I remember many things. Portland, Oregon, where I grew up, is portrayed as a green city, honorable and progressive. It has its street people. It has its runaway kids, sleeping on the porch of the Outside-In, an agency run by First Unitarian church, because in the Sixties, when they were allowed inside to sleep on the cushioned pews (in spite of semen stains discovered on Sunday morning) one of the crazier runaways set a fire in the organ loft that destroyed the sanctuary as well as (temporarily) the sanity of the minister. In the Seventies someone showed me where the young boys sat along a parking structure, waiting for the chicken hawks who came by in expensive cars to choose someone for the evening -- maybe the night. It was dark and we didn’t get out of our own car, but the street lights were strong enough for us to identify a few politicians.
But would you want to take one of these boys home? To save, I mean? What would make them stay with you? What would you do with them? Who do you think you are -- Orpheus? Or Jesus? What do you know about the catacombs of their minds? What do you know about how AIDS reduces boys to bones?