Notes on the Underground

This book uses underground places, both imaginary and actual, to understand what human life is like in a largely self-created world. In the words of its opening paragraph, “What are the consequences when human beings dwell in an environment that is predominantly built rather than given? This book seeks to answer that question. It explores the psychological, social, and political implications of living in a technological world.”

Although the underground has always had an important role in human imagination, this study focuses on the late nineteenth century, when Western societies were rapidly and dramatically expanding technological infrastructures and scientific excavations in the underworld. These activities stimulated new kinds of subterranean imagination, which in turn stimulated further projects. In the words of Bill McKibben, this “classic book…describes one of the great transformations of the human world, and hence the human psyche—a transition still underway, and still hidden in plain view.”

No book writes itself, but this one did so more than most. I had to write it quickly, with three children in the house, if I had any hope of getting tenure at MIT. Thanks to this motivation and set of constraints, I narrowed the topic to manageable proportions. In the afterword written for the second edition, I introduce the more sprawling theme of human empire and conclude,
Notes goes as far as it can in using the spatial analogy of the underworld to understand the meaning of this event [of consciousness, that we humans dominate the planet]. There is much more to be said about it, but this will require fresh sources of evidence and insight. And that is another book.”

This “another book,” now finally completed, does more than Notes to connect this event with the literary history of the time. In Notes I wrote about many subterranean romances, but I did not attempt to say much about the origins and implications of this literary choice. I am glad I have gotten to this in Human Empire, better late than never.