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Spelunking Literature for Fun and Profit : THE LIFE BELOW THE GROUND : A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History by Wendy Lesser (Faber & Faber: $19.95; 191 pp.)

February 14, 1988|Brian Stonehill | Stonehill's study of "The Self-Conscious Novel" will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in April. He teaches in the English department at Pomona College. and

Wendy Lesser's topic is the history of an idea. She's interested not in subways, or caves, but the ways in which the subterranean has acted upon our imaginations. While the greater part of her ingenious study is devoted to literature, Lesser is one of a growing breed of critics who are impatient with the injunction to stick to literature.

She practices intelligent and informed cultural criticism, opening up the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the verses of Dante, and the Metro chase scenes in the movie "Diva." She will chase the idea of burrowing itself, following it through the parallel aisles of literature, archeology, geology, psychology, science fiction, detective fiction, and cinema.

Lesser digs for meaning; she mines remarkable merit; and shows us, once again, the earth-shaking power of ideas. The subterranean doesn't sound, at first, like a promising idea, but there's nothing superficial about it. It turns out that understanding indeed comes from standing under.

Why is the metaphor of the underground so powerful? Lesser shows its consistent appeal to the imagination from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" to Kafka, and from Dostoevsky to Graham Greene and the film of his "The Third Man." Why is a tunnel such a funnel for our thoughts?

The underground is frightening. Not only the Greeks but many other cultures since have placed the Land of the Dead under the ground, usually for purposes of punishment. And we continue to plant our corpses as if they were root stock.

Here in the County of Angels, we particularly keep our ears to the ground. "The life below the ground" means also, for Southern Californians, the movements underfoot that we can't wholly foresee. We fear these fissures as if they were fishers of souls, ready to snatch us out of our element, to seize us and pull us under. Lesser's topic taps into the nightmare of Angelenos.

Almost in passing, Lesser redeems self-conscious fiction from disrepute. She suggests, for instance, that Greene's detective thrillers take place in tunnels, in part, because Greene is aware that the genre of detective thriller is in the extreme position that all writing is about writing. But instead, she finds interesting those writers in which subterranean excavation does indeed seem to function as a metaphor for the art of understanding. It's not hard to "dig" her meaning.

Lesser's method, then, is the establishment of parallels. As Greene's thrillers mirror the "underground" situation of the thriller genre , so she traces through Jules Verne's novel "Journey to the Center of the Earth" a deliberate symmetry "between the interpretation of writing and the journey downward." She reads Dante's "Inferno" as a Tower of Babel built downward, and in this and other ways generally raises even her lower-culture subjects to a higher plane of regard.

Yet there's something paradoxical in Lesser's attempt to bring to the surface something defined by its inaccessibility. Archeologists, she reminds us, must destroy as they dig; Schliemann and Indiana Jones are both available, here, as examples.

So we have to dig through the words to reach understanding; yet the spatial metaphor remains powerful. You watch TV from the roof of your mind. You read poetry in the basement of your soul.

It's amazing, in short, when you get right down to it, how much merit can be mined from the idea of the subterranean. Lesser stops short of claiming more than metaphoric status for the resemblance between "the life below the ground" and the life within our bodies, but think of it. Those buried water pipes and our blood vessels. . . . It's an idea that simultaneously tempts and repels our imaginations.

As if Gaia--the Earth itself--were becoming a living thing, thanks to our human efforts; as if our labor all these years had actually been devoted to carving the planet's guts, paving its arteries, launching the satellites of its global nervous system. . . ! Perhaps we burrow and scribble and launch to remake the world in our own image.

Lesser's mission is in a sense to flesh out the spiritual content of the concept of down . Now we're ready for a companion embodiment of the concept of up .

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