I’ve just finished Will Hunt’s Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet. I can’t recommend him for style or fertility of thought but his anecdotes are charming and his enthusiasm endearing. I do wish someone – his editor? or his internal censor? – had not counselled him to cultivate/falsify a reflective voice. Will seems a doer, not a thinker. And, despite the mandates of MFA-stylings, it’s always best to be ourselves and trust our truths will come out better in authenticity than in fashionable narrative structures. I also wish he’d learn to cite sources, caption photos, and – a personal quibble – stop quoting Annie Dillard (twice is twice too much for a straw puppet). But I like where his interests trend and among the more interesting things I took away is this tale:
I decided to go down into the catacombs in order to retrace the path of an eighteenth-century man who, as it happened, had famously entered the quarries and be come lost. In 1793, Philibert Aspairt – a man in his sixties, who worked as the guard at the Val-de-Grace hospital – had descended underground on a quest to find the cellar of a nearby convent, which was said to contain a secret cache of very fine chartreuse. Aspair lost his bearing, and eleven years later his corpse was found in an alcove beneath the boulevard Saint-Michel. A memorial tomb stone was installed on the spot were he fell.
In the few minutes I’m generally willing to give to passing topics I couldn’t find a consistent account of Aspairt’s death. Everyone now knows him as the patron saint of the catacomb explorers – les cataphiles – but they disagree over the motives for his adventure. One site – whose content I choose to trust based solely on their comforting 90’s aesthetics – phrases his quest as the Proustian ‘à la recherche de quelque trésor (solide ou liquide)‘. Observing the de mortuis nil nisi bonum principle I therefore opt for Hunt’s version of a man in (holy) quest of (Green) Chartreuse.