Pitfall – Part 1

For Greeks of a certain vintage, Tartarus was both a god and a hole in the ground. A primordial being who emerged just after Chaos and Gaia did, and right before Eros. And also, ever, a subsurface pit – “as far beneath Hades as Earth is beneath Heaven,” according to Homer. Hesiod gets even more specific: a bronze anvil, dropped from heaven, would fall for nine days before it hit the earth, then another nine before it struck the bottom of Tartarus.

It’s this latter conception, of Tartarus as an awesomely deep vertical shaft within the earth, that Virgil and, by way of him, Dante appropriated for their matryoshka variations on, and enlargements of, the νέκυια depicted in the Odyssey, Book XI. These textual recapitulations, with the intent of re-contextualizing the Homeric underworld – thereby asserting primacy over successive poetical forebears while claiming their accumulated inheritance – exemplify, in some sense, the logic of Tartarus itself. For it isn’t just a pit. It’s a prison, whose prisoners are occasionally released – or, more precisely, jailbroken – to help topple a prevailing order. By “order” I mean the supersessions of Space by Time by Electromagnetism (ahem, I mean Ouranos by Kronos by Zeus), yes, but also of Greece by Rome by Christianized Europe, and many other sorts of pseudo-replacement – up to and including that of Neanderthals by modern humans.

Tartarus is a pressurized wellspring of such successions, of welling ups to overturn – some of which succeeded; others, were merely attempted. At bottom, it’s always the worst – Lucifer, most recently: a distribution of offenders that corresponds to gravitational differentiation during planetary formation. Weightier sins sink toward the center. Treason against god, in such schemata, being the basest metal. All the rest – despite their various rebellions having occurred sequentially, historically – remain, in cross-section, present, simultaneous, atemporal.

As with myth, so with metaphysics (and geology). Tartarus is as much a principle as it is a pit. A principle of under-the-groundness – of absence-of-groundness, even – with all the obvious ontological and geological implications thus imbricated. Its fundamental association with convective successions of orders of gods, from Kronos to Christ, combined with this under-the-groundness, makes it look a teensy bit, squinted at through the wrong end of hindsight’s telescope, like an intuition of stratigraphy: a logic of stone embedded in a mythographic matrix.

And of much else, perhaps. Remember: the prisoners of Tartarus are – or were, initially – the children of Gaia (i.e., of Earth), sired by Tartarus itself – that is, by an underness or absence of ground; or else by Ouranos – by cosmos, by withoutness. And what are these children of Earth? Giants. Seething, smoking, smashing, snake-furred, colossal boulder-hurling beings – be they Titans or Typhons, Cyclopes, Hecatoncheires, or whatever else. They’re down there in the pit, monstrous, enraged, awaiting their turn to vomit forth and war against the prevailing order. They are magma chambers. They are seismic swarms. Fumeroles, ripped in their dam’s flesh, stink of sulphur from their thunderbolt wounds.

My point being: these agitated subterranean earth-bodies are enchained at the bottom of an enormous tube that reaches the shallow subsurface. Age after age, their matter, as materiel, is brought up through this plumbing to combat an order which, once defeated, gets cast down into the depths of the earth while a new order is established at the surface and atmospherically.

In this sense, we aren’t just dealing with a theory of history or epistemology (although it is also those), but of tectonism: an ancient intuition of at least some of what James Hutton would articulate twenty-five hundred years later in his 1788 Theory of the Earth.

7 Responses to “Pitfall – Part 1”

  1. Ryan Oakley Says:

    Wayne, pound for pound, you drop more weird and mindbending shit than just about anyone. I like it.

  2. wchambliss Says:

    Thanks, Ryan!

  3. prudenceinhell Says:

    Surely your deepest one to date. Fantastic stuff.

  4. wchambliss Says:

    Glad you dug it.

  5. Josh Says:

    Deep both literally and figuratively. I would read a whole book on this topic… PS When is the last time you read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth? It’s like a tectonics CD-Rom, really.

  6. wchambliss Says:

    I may write one (in the context of my PhD), Josh! As for the Verne, I re-read it last year. A couple of fun nods to Dante’s Inferno in it. I’m doing some field work in Iceland this summer, and will definitely try to get out to – and up, if feasible – Snæfell while there.

  7. Bough wow wow yippie yo yippie yay | Chamblissian Says:

    […] two longstanding interests of mine – in geobotanical prospecting and the mythopoetics of the Campi Flegraean volcanic province – I want to bioengineer a ‘golden bough’ as a passport for the underworld […]

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