Notes from Underground

Marshall Berman

I like subways. At home in New York, I ride them more days than I don’t. When I visit another city, its subway system is one of the first things I check out. But last year, riding the subways in Washington, D.C., I found myself feeling dizzy, disoriented, close to vertigo. At first I didn’t see why: I enjoyed the D.C. trains, which were clean, well-lighted, comfortable, and perfectly designed to show off the District’s splendid multicultural demography. But soon I learned to distinguish between the subway trains and the subway stations. Washington’s Metro stations were scary, but they were scary in a very different way from the stations in New York. In New York, and in other old systems, the problems were those of disintegration, of things falling apart. Here, in this system so lavishly built and well maintained, the problem was integration, the way things held together. Platforms were wide (hence rarely overcrowded), benches were abundant, escalators worked or were fixed promptly. The trouble was the crushing landscape created by the primal design.1

Plato’s Cave, Piranesi’s Prisons, and the Subway

In the Washington Metro, the platforms seemed to stretch out into infinity; this was weirdly incongruous with the trains, which weren’t long at all. Walls and ceilings were massive monoliths, with facades unbroken by colors or diverse materials or signs. We passengers were encased in enormous voids shaped by barrel-vaulted ceilings, and by vast blots of blackness at the platform’s ends, pressing us toward them like black holes in outer space. Meanwhile, pulling us upward, escalators seemed to surge up from the bowels of the earth. Lighting was not only too dim to read by, it also transformed people of every color into shades. You couldn’t get a clear view of the person next to you, or else, getting off a train, you lost your view of the person next to you; though, on the other hand, when you got on a train, the shades who had surrounded you became suddenly, miraculously human. It was not that there was a lack of light in the D.C. Metro, as there tended to be in old subways, but that the light was theatrically deflected, if we were extras in a movie being shot: “Scene: Deep Night.” Before long, I realized that the system was a kind of theater—a theater of absurdity and cruelty, whose scenery seemed contrived to create anxiety. But I couldn’t deny it made me think. I thought, “Why are they doing this to us?” I thought, “Who are they, anyway?” I thought, “Where have I seen this before?” The last question was the easiest to answer. This environment was prefigured in at least two great philosophical spaces, one modern and one ancient: in Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons, and in the structure that underlay them, that of Plato’s Cave.

Plato’s Cave appears in parable form in Book Seven of the Republic (514–521).2 Here Plato describes the inhabitants of the cave as prisoners, “their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads.” The prisoners can’t see each other, and hence can’t form coherent images of each other. Their only source of light is “the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them,” maintained by their rulers. The interplay of solid bodies and flickering firelight generates ever-changing shadows on the walls. These shadows are the only things the prisoners can see, and so they come to believe the shadows are real. Plato has many laughs at their expense. But he knows that, although the shadowy images are sometimes grotesque distortions of reality, at other times they convey fairly accurate outlines of the things themselves. The prisoners’ real problem is that they can’t assess the shadows, can’t form criteria to judge them. How real are the things they see? The prisoners have never been out in the sun where things are clear, so they have no way to know. For Plato, the inability to know where you are, to orient yourself, to grasp what you are going through, is a primary source of dread, harsher than any chains. There are all sorts of ironies in the history of Plato’s reputation. For centuries, he has been famous for inventing not only an ideal of space, but an ideal of being that is clear, transparent, uniform, and geometrically perfect: the way out of the cave. Today he is perhaps mainly famous for his profound vision of the cave itself: the first “imaginary prison.”

Renaissance artists and architects appropriated the dualism that pervades the philosopher’s thought. But they also transformed it with a chutzpah that in that time could only come from the certainty that you were part of the Christian elect. Plato believed that everyone has the capacity to strive toward the light, but he was skeptical that any human being could permanently live in it. Classical Christianity, which Nietzsche called “Platonism for the people,”3 was based on a radical dualism that divides humanity into “children of light” and “children of darkness.” Among Christian sources, the gospel of John is especially rich in light imagery and especially fervid in light-versus-darkness antagonism. Early sources differ as to how many “children of light” there are—many say only a few—but all agree that those who are chosen can “walk in the light,” can enjoy earthly lives flooded with light. The age we now call the Renaissance was based on a distinctive synthesis: a Christian vision of transcendence was fused with a Greek image of human power. For more than a century, especially in Italy, it was widely believed that people could create ideas and works of art and buildings that not only looked grand, but that had the power to break through the cave, to liberate all who had the ability to see, to plant our bodies and our souls permanently in the sun.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78) was born and educated in Venice, but he spent most of his life in Rome. He made a living by selling folios of etchings of Imperial Rome, mostly to the English and French who had journeyed to Italy on the “grand tour.” Throughout his career, Piranesi drew, etched, and asserted himself with all the self-confidence—the chutzpah—of the great Renaissance and Baroque masters. But what he portrayed, especially in his Imaginary Prisons series (1745, 1761), is a cosmos of terror and disintegration that seems to annihilate the luminous world envisioned by those earlier artists.4 Imaginary Prisons does not seem to have been one of Piranesi’s best sellers. But it is the folio best attuned to modern spirituality and culture, and when today we say “Piranesian,” it is the vision contained in these drawings that we have in mind.

The underground world of Imaginary Prisons is dramatic, but it is an ominous spectacle. In these enormous rooms, it’s hard to find a stable place to orient ourselves. We are overpowered by gigantic structures, but we can neither trace their foundations nor figure out their functions. Cables and stairways slash through the sky, but it’s difficult to say where they are going or why. If we move our eyes only slightly, we are forced to shift our perspective radically, and we may find it hard to shift back. All the visual elements of this world seem to clash and contradict. This must be the purest “negative space” ever envisioned. The light is weird: how can such vast darkness yield such clear, precise images of details? (Here Piranesi prefigures the great 20th-century black-and-white photographers.) There are many more mysteries. One of Piranesi’s most resonant images is The Wheel. It evokes the wheel of fortune, an obsession in early modern Italy, whose collective fortunes were so bad. (See the great tarot decks, and see Machievelli.) It also suggests paraphernalia of torture. What race of giants could have been its victims? (The Italians?) Piranesi teaches us to see from a very low perspective, to confront immense instruments that could crush us. Who knows what they are, or might be? Remember, this nightmare is imaginary. But once we have imagined this, can the giant turbines of modern times be far behind?

The way structures are layered, cross-hatched, and intertwined in this underground world, the way light flashes from above only to be swallowed up by the darkness again (this is especially true in the 1761 second-state engravings), the absence of entrances or exits, the way the heaviest piers are piled on each other and seem to press us down—all this gives this place an aura of disaster about to happen. Any minute, it seems, the whole world could crash. (And would we weep, or rejoice?) It’s a place any honest building inspector would close were it real. So why is Piranesi imagining such a place? He might be asserting a grand gesture of refusal, refusal of all the claims that architecture had been making for centuries, claims that architecture could unify space so thoroughly and completely that it could also unify human existence. Piranesi seems to gather up all the forms that men have created to break out of Plato’s cave, but he then puts them together in such a way that we seem to be trapped in that cave more deeply than ever.

And yet, somehow, those of us who love Imaginary Prisons don’t feel trapped. Instead, we experience this work as a parable of rising, of striving, of overcoming, of breaking out of the cave and into the sunlight. Goethe, Stendhal, Byron, Coleridge, and De Quincey all felt inspired by the Prisons in the 19th century, M.C. Escher, Sergei Eisenstein, Elias Canetti, Aldous Huxley, and Busby Berkeley in the 20th. In the middle of the 20th century, the mystical radical art historian Leo Bronstein put it this way: “. . . a message of liberation, of revolt and promise, a message of the heart’s logic; thirst for justice. . . . Promise, across ruins, of liberty . . . Transfiguration of the might and terror of the machine into the freedom of man and his landscape’s activity.”5 Piranesi’s prisons were created when the Enlightenment was becoming more focused and more radical. And just at that moment, a new form of literature, the Gothic novel, appeared, and achieved instant popularity. Gothic fiction opened up a world of mystery, of darkness and danger, where any step could plunge the reader into an abyss. Gothic novels were usually situated in crumbling castles, abandoned villages (“ghost towns”), convents and monasteries, vestiges of the feudal past that turned out to be surprisingly alive in the modern present. They might be set in distant places—Scotland, Transylvania (and all of “Eastern Europe”)—that were closer to home than we thought. Or they might be just around the corner, ordinary houses that concealed dungeons 
and torture chambers, if only we knew. The Gothic genre explored a dreadful otherness that wasn’t so very other after all.

The most exciting writer of Piranesi’s generation, with very similar dates (1712–78), was Jean Jacques Rousseau. “Wild Rousseau,” as Byron would call him, burst on the scene at the end of the 1740s with a radical attack on the whole of European culture. Culture’s main function, he wrote in his 1750 Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, was to create what he calls “peuples policés.” Art and science “fling garlands of flowers over the chains that weigh men down. They stifle the sense of individual liberty for which people would seem to have been born; they make men love their own slavery, and transform them into civilized peoples.”6 Of course, Rousseau’s own thinking was part of this civilizing process; he never thought otherwise. Five years later, in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, he develops a critical theory of history that can be understood as a kind of “imaginary prisons”—a negative space—in prose. Rousseau presents a historical dialectic in which every discovery, every invention, every triumph, every creative leap, turns out to imprison humanity all the more profoundly. The result is that “in the midst of so much philosophy, humanity and civilization, and of such sublime codes of morality, we have nothing to show for ourselves but a frivolous and deceitful appearance, honor without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.”7 The middle of the 18th century marked a crucial moment in modern history, the moment when the civilizing process began to turn furiously against itself, and when more and more people began to feel that the forms of their world were both inscrutable and crushing. The real beginning of the French Revolution was the day the citoyens tore down the Bastille.

What has this dark world to do with America? In the early days of the United States, the answer would have seemed to be: not much. A nation without an absolutist ruling class, America could have its revolution without tearing down a Bastille or killing a king; we seemed happily free from the debris of imperial ruins. Observers praised our everyday life for its rough-and-ready honesty. Our farm fields, our plain farmhouses, barns, silos, and Main Streets might appear shallower than the apartment houses of Paris or the castles on the Rhine, but at least these structures were frank and open about what they were. Alexis de Tocqueville, our most perceptive visitor, seems to have believed in the possibility of America’s openness and to have enjoyed its aura for a time. Indeed, the first volume of Democracy in America, published in 1835, elaborated and enriched that aura.

But as time passed, de Tocqueville came to believe that this openness was largely a myth, and that in fact the young nation was living a lie—or rather a series of lies. The first big lie consisted of all the hypocrisies and cruelties that enabled Americans to enslave blacks, to treat millions of people as property. The second lie consisted of the social conformity that de Tocqueville called the “tyranny of the majority.” The third lie consisted of Americans’ irresponsible self-destruction of their own environment, which in a single generation had already created a great complex of ruins. The last volume of Democracy in America, published in 1840, portrays a tragic dualism at America’s heart. At the surface of everyday life, where most of the people lived most of the time, you could find sunshine and open space, fresh air and easy sociability and common sense and rough equality and everyday friendliness. But just below this surface lay a buried life, layers of darkness, torture and viciousness, terror of one’s neighbors, people lying to their children and to themselves, hypocrisy and self-betrayal and ravaged lives and people growing up not knowing who they were. De Tocqueville had come to see an America that was split in two, genial and terrified, light and dark, conscious and unconscious. Many of the best American writers of the age—Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Thoreau—shared this frightening vision. And if their visions were truthful, then in what other earthly place would the Piranesian mysteries be more at home than here?

In America before the Civil War, elaborate debates took place about the nature and scope of public works. How much should we be willing to pay for bridges, canals, parks, transportation systems, and what should we expect from these works? Two vital forces shaped these debates: first, democratic ideals of a civic culture that could unify people across class lines; and second, a fairly widespread awareness that these ideals were not only betrayed but actually buried in everyday life. And so when Americans finally agreed to spend money—a lot of money—on these projects, they made not only material but also spiritual demands. They demanded forms that could help them break out of the prison of a crippled consciousness, forms that could bring them into a sunlight of mutual recognition and respect.

This spiritual need can help us understand—or decode—some of the great public works of the 19th century. It can help us decode the Eastern State Penitentiary—built in Philadelphia in the 1830s, dropped from the prison system only in the 1970s, and opened for visitors in the 1990s—a spectacular panopticon of solitary confinement cells that makes chillingly clear Piranesi’s American incarnation. It can also help us understand why, at the end of the 1850s, New York’s Common Council awarded the contract for Central Park to a man who had never before designed or built anything. Eric Homberger, in his excellent Scenes from the Life of a City, explains what was special about Frederick Law Olmsted: his power to tell a story.8 Olmsted’s early reputation was based on a notorious book, The Cotton Kingdom, which brilliantly narrated and analyzed the story of Southern slavery. Olmsted’s central theme was that the institution of slavery cripples not only slaves but their masters as well. Olmsted’s image of slave society was especially powerful because he opposed it to a model of a free society in which nobody owns anybody, in which no person can become a piece of property, and in which all human beings treat each other with respect. The new park planned for Manhattan, Olmsted thought, could both facilitate and symbolize a free society. But he imagined it not as a Platonic incarnation of any existing perfect freedom, but rather as a means of achieving a freedom not yet obtained. Much of the thrill of the spaces that Olmsted and Calvert Vaux conceived lay in the human processes and actions they made possible. People could be shown the way from darkness into light, from unconsciousness into consciousness, from solitude into mutuality. Today, after a century and a half, the vision still works amazingly well. Any of us can experience the clash between the Anti-City of the thickly forested Ramble, where it is easy to lose yourself alone (or with a lover), and the radiant Super-City of the nearby Bethesda Fountain plaza, where you and your fellow citizens can recognize each other in great crowds, and thrive as “angels in America.”

We can see Piranesian dynamics at work in other classic New York public spaces. We can see them at the Brooklyn Bridge, whose central contradiction is between inside and outside, between the chokingly dense lower Manhattan street and the great openness of the span. The anchorages of the bridge can feel stifling; when you are on the ground, the stone is so massive, the weight bears down on you, and you can feel like a Piranesian prisoner helpless before the giant machine. But then you climb up, and suddenly you are out on the span, flooded with radiant light. There the towers, massive as they are, don’t threaten you at all, they even look delicate against the sky, and although they are on top of you, you feel higher than they are, as if you could fly out over the sea.

Piranesi lived, too, in the great murdered Penn Station. (When I was seventeen, I worked there nights, at the Union News Company. It was like working in the Grand Canyon, and no one doubted that the great structure would live forever.) The great clash at the Pennsylvania Station was between the claustrophobic darkness and compression of the Lincoln Tunnel, which took trains and travelers under the Hudson River, and the spectacular steel-ribbed Concourse, flooded with daylight—light concentrated and intensified by the curved glass roofs—where trains and travelers arrived. There, the sense of infinite space was vertical, pressing upward from the underground to the sky. The point of view of a passenger just getting off a train, and seeing the world from that low point, was actually quite like that of the spectator at the bottom of an Imaginary Prisons etching. (I would bet that Charles McKim had studied Piranesi on his grand tour.) As you strode up the steel stairs, surrounded by steel pillars, you could feel the strength of the immense structure pressing you upward. In that old Penn Station, as the architectural historian Vincent Scully put it, “one entered the city like a god.” (In its replacement, he said, “one scuttles in like a rat.”9) One reason you could feel like a god—a classical hero—in the old Penn Station was that, going under the river, you were traversing an underworld. The experience of moving through that tunnel and emerging up into that station became an archetypal democratic rite of passage.

All these great American spaces incorporate extreme contrasts between light and darkness, between formidable structures and enormous spaces, between underground and street and sky, between individual solitude and mass participation, between effacement of nature and immersion in nature. All are designed to plunge you into experiences that might be scary; but all promise that you can make your way out of the tunnel and into the light, and that when you do, you will be not only a better human being but also a better citizen, worthy of partaking in a civic culture. (Or at least, you will be able to imagine being a better human being and citizen.)

The experience—the shock—of the modern suspension bridge, in New York or anywhere else, is dramatically heightened if we get to the bridge on the subway: if, after being enveloped by the subway tunnel’s inscrutable darkness, we burst out and find ourselves flooded with the radiance of the sky and the expansiveness of the sea. Of course, in a minute or two, the train may plunge us into the dark again, but now we know we’re not trapped. In this experience of breakthrough from darkness to light, any man or woman can experience the pathos of the Platonic philosopher. For Plato, the passage from the cave into the sunlight signified an escape from enslavement to democracy. The railroad not only gave Plato’s vision a democratic force, but also transformed it into a democratic rite. The subway’s dirt-cheap fares spread the democratic horizon even wider. Today, with “accessibility,” virtually everybody can join the crowd underground. The subway is a modern agora; it carries the democratization of transcendence about as far as it can go.

Subway systems have evolved a great deal over the past century. The worst subways were plagued by dangerously poor light, deafening noise, and, in the summer, unbearable heat. (My father used to say that New York’s Transit Authority, ever thoughtful, wanted to introduce all travelers to a core New York experience: what it felt like to work in a sweatshop. That might help explain why the subjects in Walker Evans’s classic series of subway photographs, Many Are Called, look so numb.) But toward the end of the 20th century, thanks in part to long-overdue bureaucratic rationality, and in part to post-1960s aggressive citizen action, the worst has gotten strikingly better. Reliable air-conditioning arrived about a quarter century ago; noise abated thanks to rubber wheels; fluorescent light may not be romantic, but it’s cheap and highly illuminating. (On sound and light, it took America’s transit authorities about twenty years to follow the commonsense advice of their radical critics. Maybe the bureaucracies simply couldn’t hear or see them?) In the hot summer in the city today, subway cars can be among the pleasantest places in town. Alas, subway stations may be the least pleasant: they are saturated with the cars’ heat, and nobody seems to know how to cool them off or quiet them down. The Piranesian dungeons of the Washington subway stations are actually cooler and quieter than most.

In recent years, then, many of the subway’s inner contradictions have been smoothed out, eased over. Passengers can talk freely with each other, as if they were on a street or in a park, and not worry that the roar of the engines will drown them out—as only yesterday it would have done. Rather than avoid eye contact, as people seemed to do in Many Are Called sixty years ago, they can look each other over freely in the light, and give themselves up to fantasies about each other, and not fear for their safety—or at least fear less than they once did, and far less than their parents did. Today’s subways are no longer the arenas of dread that earlier generations knew. The world underground has become nicer, more comfortable, more beautiful; but it has become less sublime—less Piranesian. Still, there is something irreducibly uncanny about this plunge into a hole in the ground. The fact that in 2001 the trip is a lot smoother doesn’t make it any less weird.

In one striking way, the smoothness can even highlight the weirdness. The structure of the modern metropolis, especially in the age of global “flexible accumulation,” ensures that an endless supply of new people will be taking the plunge. The new people are bound to be a source of shock. T.S. Eliot, at the start of the 20th century, noticed that some urban environments “lead you to an overwhelming question.”10 One of these questions must be about the people who are pressing up against you. Who are these guys? When did they immigrate? Where did they come from? Where are they going? Who can we ask? How can we ask, in a way they will understand and respond to? And how can we explain ourselves when someone asks about us? Since the days of Dickens, Poe, Victor Hugo, Eugène Sue, Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky, the detective has been a central figure in urban culture, his (or her) presence and power growing from a widespread feeling that everyday life in the metropolis is a mystery. In the 19th century, the detective was an elite sleuth, different from ordinary people, with special powers to solve the mysteries. In 20th-century urban culture, the detective is more a symbol of Everyman, and the case is never closed. Citizens of the modern city know that we all must become detectives, simply to make it through the day and night. The subway’s Piranesian space, intensely dark and bright, simultaneously intimate and infinite, has the power to expand and concentrate our minds, so that we can wrestle with the unending mystery of who we are.

1 If my portrait sounds exaggerated, please see the “Building the Washington Metro” and “D.C. Underground” web sites, which reproduce official “Classic Vault Design” drawings, executed in 1967 and 1968 by Harry Weese Associates, but based on a conception by Gordon Bunshaft.

2 Plato, “Republic,” trans. Paul Shorey, Plato: Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Bollingen Press, 1964), 747–753.

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, 1885, trans. and with an introduction by Marianne Cowan (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1955, 1967), xii.

4 Reproduced in The Prisons: First and Second Series (New York: Dover, 1974). Alas, this volume omits many of the darker second-state etchings published in 1761. These are visible in many museums today. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibited some in the summer of 2001.

5 Leo Bronstein, Fragments of Life, Metaphysics, and Art (New York: Bond Wheelwright Company, 1953), 200–205.

6 Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and the Discourses, trans. and ed. G.D.H. Cole (New York: Everyman, 1973), 4–6.

7 Ibid., 105.

8 Eric Homberger, Scenes from the Life of a City: Corruption and Conscience in Old New York (New Haven: Yale, 1994). Homberger explores Olmsted’s career in Chapter 4, 212–293, 340–350. His analysis of Olmsted’s genius and originality is the best I have read.

9 Vincent Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (New York: Praeger, 1969), 143.

10 This phrase occurs in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in 1917, but written some years earlier, probably when Eliot was a Harvard undergraduate who rode the Boston subways.

Marshall Berman teaches political theory and urbanism at the City University of New York. His latest book is Adventures in Marxism.