If the dagger is the tool by which you might pick the lock, or pry the lock bar back from whatever keeps you from the dungeon, then the dungeon is one contemporary way by which we explore the netherworld, that which Orpheus ventures into, the Center of the Earth that Verne limns, and the Freudian underworld with which humans have always obsessed, and should always be obsessed. There is more within us than we know, of course. We are ourselves other.
The dungeon is Antarctica.
The dungeon is dark.
Lots of goth songs play as we explore it.
The dungeon is our childhood.
The dungeon is what we remember of our childhood as well as the real dangers there that we don't.
The dungeon is where we stash our prisoners, where we torture them, underground, a place where the rule of man, like the privilege of daylight, does not apply. Once they are pushed away from the surface world, we lose track of them.
Whether we're talking a literal dungeon, being something underneath, or even a prison, or even the subconscious, the effect is the same.
We should be glad we have depths to be plumbed.
In Dungeons & Dragons a dungeon stands in for any space to be explored, whether below ground or not. It's a catch-all nerd term to hold together parts of an adventure.
In these times we also have mines from which we produce coal and natural gas, and minerals, and death, and gems.
We have always removed valuable material from below the surface.
The mine remains a dangerous place.
How could it not be, with all those gases, darkness, pressure, the threat of collapse.
Though we don't think about these spaces often (that's the point, after all), when one caves in we care.
The hills around my hometown are bedecked with mine shafts through which anyone could descend into the world of their fathers, and their fathers' fathers. Inside the mines is a past in which this place once mattered, in which Calumet, Michigan, was once seriously considered as a possible state capitol. (True story.)
Now the mines are boarded off, cordoned off, locked off, filled in, gated, barred, signed and forgotten.
Now the population, as of the 2000 census, is 879, 3,789 fewer people than lived there in 1900.
Now the town of Calumet, formerly known as the company town Red Jacket, is next to the town of Laurium (population 2,126 in 2000; population in 1900 was 5,643), which was itself formerly known as Calumet.
Growing up around all those DO NOT ENTER signs adorning holes in the earth, they start to take on a kind of mythology, don't they?
You see where you are prohibited from going. You want to go there. The same goes for psychology. We fetishize the prohibited; we elevate it in importance. We charge it up with psychic energy. To us it gleams like a vein of ore in the little light we can get to shine on it.
The (awful) film and (slightly better) novel Mazes & Monsters explores the (fictional) effects of games of "real-life" Dungeons & Dragons (which already makes it not Dungeons & Dragons but something else entirely, since actual Dungeons & Dragons doesn't involve live action anything) in the steam tunnels underneath the campus of Michigan State University.
Every campus has its passageways, its steam tunnels, its escape routes (particularly in case of demonstration or riot, for buildings built in the 60s and 70s, the times of campus unrest). Stories abound about these dungeons. Where they're accessed. What happens there. Sex might be had (gasp). Drugs might be done (gasp). Games might be played (gasp). Some combination of the three might happen in the darkness that we cannot see into or know (gasp! gaps! an apse! perhaps an asp!).
The Dungeons & Dragons version of dungeon is more like a labyrinth than a dungeon. The Dungeon Master (or, in some variations, she's called the Game Master) creates, and ideally maps out on graph paper, a series of passages through which the players may slink, hack, or charge, in search of some larger narrative purpose, or possibly just in search of virtual loot. She stocks the labryinth with fauna to molest and challenge the players. The players' job is to get through it, to explore its confines, to see just what ingenuity the Dungeon Master has constructed for their pleasure.
In myth Daedalus builds the labyrinth out of which only Theseus can find his way out (thanks to Ariadne). In the labyrinth, the minotaur, the symbol for something really strange, stuck between human and the other world. In some versions he is named. In several his name is Asterius, sometimes Asterion. Both of which descend from aster, star, from which comes disaster (end of stars, end of world, where we know we really fucked up, because the gods have seen fit to darken everything) and, among other things, the name for the asterisk glyph. I'm not sure why that name. Why a beast named after the idea of a star lurks in a labyrinth waiting to kill anyone who ventures in.
Though: we don't know what his motives were. Different stories tell it differently.
I have been thinking a lot about Daedalus and Icarus, and the outlines of the myth in The Available World, at least in the website accompaniment to it. There's Icarus in the book, and much more Icarus in the web.
Why Icarus, you might ask? Isn't that an easy myth?
Indeed it is. But there's a reason why you know its outlines.
Michael Ayrton, British artist (and sculptor, painter, writer, broadcaster, quite the polymath), uses the Daedalus/Icarus myth as the center of a great deal of his work. It's overwhelming to look at his figure studies. They are beautiful, spectacle. They are bursting with pathos. His novella, The Testament of Daedalus, mostly consists of Daedalus' first-person narration and meditation on the loss of his son and what it means to act his role and his son's role in terms of story. The Icarus story becomes less about hubris (as it's commonly glossed) and becomes a mostly realist psychological exploration on the part of the grieving father and technician, Daedalus, who loses a son even as his son ascends to the sun, descends to the water, and is raised up again in story. It's pretty great.
In André Gide's version of the labyrinth (in Theseus), Daedalus explains that the labyrinth isn't particularly labyrinthine, not physically/spatially, but is designed to catch the mind and keep it:
"But, believing that no prison can withstand a really obstinate intention to escape, and that there is no barrier, no ditch, that daring and resolution will not overcome, I thought that the best way of containing a prisoner in the labyrinth was to make it of such a kind, not that he couldn't get out (try to grasp my meaning here), but that he wouldn't want to get out."
It's hallucinogenic, functioning via vapors and poisons. Like any good artifice, it envelops and enmeshes you. The actual description of the labyrinth and its many machinations, and Theseus' penetration of it, is over and done in about two pages. It's barely interesting at all. Clearly Gide took no pleasure in the boundless dungeoning that Daedalus (early proto dungeon master, literally, the maker and the master of this dungeon), the master technician, was renowned for.
Other writers and readers have done more with it.
There's a reason why nearly all video games feature labyrinths, or dungeons, or created spaces that the player is forced to explore. It's wired in us, isn't it, to want to know more?
The dungeon is a metaphor.
For the body (think the mess of intestines, of passages: the body is nothing but passageways). For the brain. For what we don't understand about our lives, how we act, why we do those stupid things we do even when we know or have at least been told not to do them. Don't fly too high, Daedalus says, or the wax will melt. Not too low or the waves will take you in. Or in Ayrton's version, Daedalus understands the inexorability of what is to happen and is helpless to act. This is what our children do to us, he might as well be saying. We tell them a thing and they do another.
The fork in the electrical socket and the blanched face. The burn marks on the hands from whatever's on the stove. The microwaved egg explosion. The metal bits in the microwave. The homemade bombs. The drunkenness. The car surfing, the stupid threats we made on the presidents' lives for which we were interviewed embarrassingly by the Secret Service. The armed robbery. The divorce. The pregnancy. The other divorce. We are here to fuck things up until by process of elimination (of false leads or of ourselves). We eventually arrive at something approximating acceptable behavior. Even rats can do it.
We find a pathway through the dungeon. Or we are stuck there, or are killed there by things gelatinous or tendrilly, by our own stupidity, or by ennui.
Maybe we wake up to the Arizona sun that seems like it will never end, like it illuminates every possible portion of the world above the ground. Yet underneath the world continues to contain its secrets.
If we don't have dark places, we're going to have to make them.
Arizona houses don't have basements.
Still there is a lot beneath us.
* This essay appeared in Devil's Lake, perhaps in a somewhat different incarnation.