One of my favourite quips fell from the misanthropic mouth of Brother Theodore (“philosopher, metaphysician, and podiatrist”): “I have gazed into the abyss, and the abyss has gazed into me . . . and neither of us liked what we saw.”
This turn on Nietzsche’s apothegm 146 — “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” — is, amusingly, a bathetic comment on the Depth, as it caps that awesome void with a plastic lid of “not liking.” But it’s also — typical of Theodore Gottlieb — something of a heroic stance at the same time: after all, which of us would really engage in a staring contest with the abyss?
Depth, abyss, void, bottomless pit . . . this is scary stuff regardless of what you call it. And the hollow beneath us always seems to be populated with equally scary beings. I’ve just inflicted the movie The Hobbit on myself, where I was reminded of goblins, storied in song from another flick: “She’s gone where the goblins go / Below, below, below /Yo-ho etc. etc.” Which, to stay topical for the moment, is causing a rumpus in England at the moment: after Margaret Thatcher’s death last week a campaign emerged to make the goblin song, “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead,” number one on the music charts, resulting in the sale of 52,605 copies in a week. Alas, this ditty with a (silver?) bullet shot only to number two. But nothing in England is ever easy, it seems; Ben Cooper, the controller (yes, I have that right) of BBC’s Radio 1 declared that the song would not be played on his station despite its high pop rank, but that since it was a news story, a brief excerpt would be played on news shows. Somehow, in my fevered mind, this is made all the more bizarre by the fact that in The Hobbit the goblin king is voiced by Barry Humphries, who, as you’ll likely know, is otherwise the grand Dame Edna — so you see, she did go below, yo ho.
That’s part of the fear of what’s below, surely. It’s where we and all life go when we die, where homo sapiens becomes humus soil. No wonder we keep reaching for the sky. And then there’s the good part of that dirt, which supports — grounds — us. So, if there’s a void under us, we’d better be in zero-grav or it’s plummet city for us. On that score I’ve come across some pretty fascinating and frightening voids called bellmouth spillways, down which you most certainly wouldn’t want to go. Essentially, they’re huge structures shaped like inverted bells that are located in reservoirs in order to handle the overflow. What’s scary about them, as this article on the beautifully named Ladybower Bellmouth says, is that because of the curving sides you can’t ever adopt a position from where you can see all the way to the bottom (unless you cheat with a helicopter). Here’s a video of the vortex:
The inability to “gaze into the abyss” where these bellmouth spillways are concerned reminds me of the infinite regress of barbershop mirrors: where two mirrors face each other, the bottom of the gyre always slips frustratingly out of sight to one side or another, suggesting depths that are beyond us. And a mirror, of course, redirects our gaze back into ourselves — where consciousness might get vertigo at the lip of an internal bellmouth leading down into, well, that-which-is-not-conscious, recently scorned as psychoanalytical make-believe but even more recently resurrected by neuroscience (see, e.g. this debate in the Guardian).
In a brief, final plunge into the subject, here’s a chart from Wikipedia of the depths of our oceans. Note the aptly named abyssal and hadal (as in “hades”) zones. The Smithsonian has done a lovely job of titilating our fears about the monsters that live in these deeps (“What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!) with a slideshow of some of these abysmal creatures. And while it’s hard to pick a favourite from these dandy demons, I’m going to plump for the giant isopod, who, by contrast with the zombie worms or the frilled shark, looks like he might be willing to negotiate.