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EN / nl

Underground as Hell

The underground has been a real as well as metaphorical hell. 

In Paradise Lost, Milton portrays Hell as a dark and bottomless abyss, a great flaming furnace, and an illimitable ocean without dimensions, presided over by Chaos and Night. The artist John Martin gave the most graphic visualisation to these images; an engineer and practical reformer, he also published “A Plan for Purifying the Air and Preventing Explosion in Coalmines” (1829). A hundred years later the filmmaker and artist Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950), who belonged to the British documentary film movement (c. 1930-1950) and to Mass-Observation, made films of mining communities, and at the same time spent many years collecting texts and images to construct an imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution, which he equated with Pandæmonium and described in terms reminiscent of William Blake: “Pandæmonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c. 1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandæmonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years [...]” (Jennings 1985: Pandæmonium Part One, 1660-1729 Observations and Reports, pp3-43 [p. 5]). Jennings started his unfinished archive with Paradise Lost and the building of Satan’s capital Pandæmonium by the fallen angels.

Émile Zola’s description of the pit accident in Germinal, realistic as his devastating account of mining conditions in Northern France in the 1880s is, reveals sublime underground landscapes like those of Paradise Lost: “[...] enormous caves could be glimpsed through the broken lining...while the waters of the Torrent, that underground sea with its uncharted tempests and shipwrecks, spilled forth as if a sluice had been opened. He went further down, lost in the midst of greater and greater gulfs, battered and spun by a maelstrom of springs, so weakly lit by the little red star that flew downwards beneath him that he thought he saw the streets and the crossroads of a ruined city far off in the patterns made by the great moving shadows” (Zola 1993: 469).

Equally terrifying as the unimaginable depths and distances of the underworld were the cramped and confined conditions of the mines. At the coal face the hewers often worked in narrow openings, often only with the space to inch their bodies in horizontally so “that they were more or less flattened between the roof and the wall, dragging themselves around on their knees and elbows [...] In order to get at the coal, they had to stay stretched out on one side with their necks twisted, so that they could swing their arms far enough back to wield their short-handled picks at an angle” (ibid 39). Similar scenes were increasingly recorded in photographs such as those by the Reverend Cobb and in drawings by artists like Henry Moore who made trips underground, as well as by pitmen like Gilbert Daykin. Emerging daily from the real hell of the pits and the metaphorical Hell underground, the miner understandably became something of a hero figure. DA