Caverns Deep

Last March brought a cardiac arrest to the heart of our collective life, and April became the stutter-step ba-bum, ba-bum of life trying to soldier on. Like everyone else, I retreated to my apartment after a hasty run to the grocery store. There, the Twinkies were fully stocked, but the canned garbanzo beans were gone. The shelves hung thickly with canned fruit while two aisles over, air-conditioned wind whistled through the empty space where paper towels and toilet paper used to perch. Diapers were rationed but panic was not.

My roommates and I escaped the store with a few cans and a wild, shifty-eyed wonder at the world we then claimed; building a fort of pillows and blankets in the living room, we hunkered down inside. “What a cozy cave!” my roommate said. Her enthusiasm had a raw edge to it, like frayed fabric at the end of a bolt. “We’ve gone spelunking inside.” I wondered what we would find.

June and July were much of the same. Our cave grew to include a blanketed pavilion in the kitchen so we could access the fridge, and a necessary tunnel to the power outlet on the far west wall. Hibernating in the height of summer, we peeked our heads out only to see that the world outside our windows was experiencing a raging thaw, with cars burning on television and social media feeds telling the story of a nation violently alive with anger for unacknowledged, unanswered sins. We kept our heads down and cried out to those out and about on the streets. “We’re in a pandemic,” we said as we huddled under our blankets in the front room. “Everyone should stay inside. It will only end if we all remain in our caves.”

I retreated to my cave of a bedroom and transported myself to different disasters in books, all the more manageable because they were not mine. I dissolved into Shakespeare’s Tempest, its storm calming. I was in the fictional eye while around me the non-fiction raged. Melville’s Bartleby became my hero for having the tactful civility to say what I wanted to scream into the universe: “I’d prefer not to.” Not then, not now.

King Lear’s dysfunctional family drama read like a medieval Jersey Shore, but Act III, scene two gave me pause. “The wrathful skies/ Gallow the very wanderers of the dark,/ And make them keep their caves.”[1] Shakespeare had a knack for transfiguring language, turning nouns into verbs and back again; “gallow” as verb is to frighten excessively, to confound with fright.[2] It is an old Saxon word, earthy and rooted as the caves King Lear and the Duke of Kent sought for protection from “oak-cleaving thunderbolts…[and] all-shaking thunder.”[3] What a verb, I thought as I kept to my cave, sheltering from the world’s storm. What a word.

*****

In the Renaissance, to leave the surface of the earth one must go under the ground or up into a tower. To enter a cave was, in an imaginative and wondrous sense, to fly. Caves were frequently the gateways to secret passageways and other worlds; Orpheus walked to hell and back by way of a cavern’s deep recess. St. George vanquished the Dragon who dwelled in a pond’s dark grotto; treasures were piled high inside gaps, widened by wind and water, in the world’s bedrock. Ochre-yellow and blood-red handprints, the signatures of the first meaning-makers—for this is what we homo sapiens, in the end, truly are—were left behind in Lascaux and Chauvet’s gloom. Art was sheltered for millennia by the womb of the earth: the cave, symbol of both containment and mystic freedom from the ground above.

God seems to be in on it, too. Isaiah reads differently when in my cave of wonders looking for diamonds in the rough. “Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept…as when one goeth…into the mountain of the Lord.”[4]In the tops of the mountains”[5] the holy people gather, and “in my holy mountain…all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings.”[6]

Christ, too, retreated to caves to gain strength: “He went up into a mountain apart to pray.”[7] After Joseph of Arimethea begs the body of Christ from Pilate, he “laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock.”[8] A site of profound sorrow on that dark Friday afternoon, the tomb was much like John Keats’s “den/ Beyond the seeming confines of the space/ Made for the soul to wander in and trace/ Its own existence, of remotest glooms.”[9] The tomb, the cave, the cavern—“buried griefs the spirit sees…all is still within and desolate.”[10] In my cave, I mourn the loss of friends to COVID-19, bury my griefs under remote work, and retreat into my holy mountain to pray.

I spelunk my way into Plato’s Allegory, as any self-respecting literary cave explorer would. I chain myself to my desk within my cave and attempt to decipher, somewhat blindly, the shadowy form of Plato dancing across the page. Within the Allegory of the Cave, I read of the philosopher, freed, who ventures from the cave into the world of sunlight, warmth, and forms. He comes to understand that the shadows on the wall—which still entertain and satisfy the ones he left behind in the cave—are not reality at all. They are only pale imitations of the Real that goes on outside their cavern walls. The philosopher comes back to share his sight with the cave-dwellers, but they do not desire to see. They know nothing better than the shadows, so they stay and watch life shiver as wisps of wonder, and nothing more. The “very wanderers of the dark” gallow, and the world moves on without them.

*****

It is March again. The sunlight makes the shadows on my blank wall more defined. Netflix continues to beckon with pale imitations of the Real, Zoom displays projections of ourselves that distort friendships and discussion. I have made quite a cave for myself, this past year, a cave filled with half-finished crafts and vegan cookbooks, at-home exercise plans collecting dust and the clippings of hair from my April hair experiment gone terribly wrong (a good thing the cave dress code requires nothing more than a shower and sweats most days, I think, as on the sweats go). Legend has it that caves are where the ego and self unite: as I have really only chatted with me, myself, and I, I’ve become the stuff of legends, the fulfillment of myth. Perhaps we all have, we fellow dwellers of caves and caverns, isolation and containment on a global scale. I’m worn down by the winds that have buffeted me. Perhaps I’ve become not only cave dweller, but also cave.

*****

Wind-sculpted and breeze-borne, aeolian caves are named after Aeolus, the Keeper of the Winds, who blew billowing aid towards Odysseus’s sails. It was a favorable gust that sent him skating homeward atop crests of glass-green sea. (That his crew decided to let the wind-cat out of the bag is another story for another time.) Post-Homerian myths promoted Aeolus to god status; his name became an adjective meaning, “borne, deposited, produced, or eroded by the wind.”[11] If you listen closely outside aeolian caves, you can hear the earth sigh. For what, I cannot say, but the exhale comes from the cave’s mouth; it is alive, and it grows—changes—with each breath. Thousands of breaths, millions of years. The cave is changed by the wind that blows, whether favorable or not. Wind rushes into crevices, nooks, and crannies, and leaves behind mineral seeds, crystal pods, stalagmite fertilizer; color blooms, blossoms, etiolates in gloaming light.

Spring has come, and I am part cave, part cave-dweller, both parts long hibernating underground. I recognize the time has come for me to shake off the gallowing tremor that runs through me when I consider what lies outside my cave: betrayal, perhaps, but also friendship; failure, maybe, but also success; the danger of rejection but also the hope of rapturous romance. The world holds so much, both good and bad, that I am tempted to remain inside, introvert my way into another year, and bluster through conversations with my mother about my dating life. (“It’s 2021, dear! Surely people are dating in person now?”)

But I am also cave now, an aeolian cave shaped by the winds that have blown through 2020 and into 2021. I am aeolian, eroded by the wind, but also full of its deposited bounty. Empathy has grown in the dim light of quarantine and social deprivation; empathy, and an increased awareness of my privilege and others’ lack, leading to a growing sense of my covenant to address such inequality. I am aeolian, I am the philosopher, I am the inmate of the cave. It is March, and it is time, after all, to leave behind my cavern and face the blazing, irradiating, real sun.

This post was written by Abby Thatcher, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.

[1] King Lear, 3.2.41-44

[2] OED, “gallow”

[3] King Lear, 3.2.5-6

[4] Isaiah 30:29, KJV, my emphasis

[5] Isaiah 2:2, KJV, my emphasis

[6] Ezekiel 20:40, KJV, my emphasis

[7] Matthew 14:23, KJV, my emphasis

[8] Matthew 27:60, KJV

[9] Keats, John. Endymion, Book IV, lines 512-515

[10] Ibid, lines 517, 528

[11] OED, “aeolian”

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