Alva Caving Philosophy

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February 6, 2020 13:12

The nature of Caves and Caving (A Philisophical Treatise)


Zen and the art of Single Rope Technique

By Alva R.S. Gosson


       An inadequacy in the language and conception of caving is addressed, an inadequacy which is attributed to general problems in Occidental society and thought.

In the 'Phenomenon of Caving' an aesthetic description attempts to focus the discussion by giving an immediate impression of the activity. 'A Hermeneutics of Caving' uses old conceptions of caves (valid because they are unhindered by impartiality and embed themselves better in the problem) from mythology and religious myth to augment and test a deciphering of what caving and caves mean. Caving is shown to make sense as an exploration involving the concepts of inside and outside, home and out-doors or better in Japanese uchi and soto. However on the other hand, caves are present in mythology because these concepts are also critical to our understanding of ourselves. We are entities whose essence is to have a place in the world (i.e. we are subjects) and this place incorporates both inside and outside. Caves thus have a special place in our world view because they represent fundamental structures of our being. As cavers then we are performing journeys that have a parallel with our very identity as humans. And these parallels, at different conceptual levels, are more than similar they are intertwined from which arises the problems (e.g. disparity between pictures above and below ground, inability to explain caving to non-cavers "You'll just have to do it") that are the source of the questioning that is this discussion.


       The cave is an unusual thing. It has many descriptions which attempt to clarify its nature and bring it within the locus of everyday experience, yet each one fails to grasp this at first hand. For the man of measure a cave is of length, depth and size. For a man who enjoys the mountains which solidly rise into the sun-filled sky it is an accident, a dark crevice formed by the removal of mountain. For them the cave is always reduced to a point of interest on the surface 'it is below here', or 'on this level into the mountain'. To the scientist it is a mechanical feature of limestone or an entity controlling hydrology. To the city dweller it is a cold inhospitable place its shortness of space a symbol for its hostility. For the mythologist a place of magic and odd creatures - this is the most truthful. In exasperation, cavers are reduced to saying if you never see it you'll never know.

       To illustrate take the photo of a cave scene. It has come to strike me as strange and claustrophobic. In the shelter of a lecture theatre we are asked to view a picture taken at some depth and distance within a cave. Indeed we now know what the cave looked like but the scene is wrong, the picture does not capture the cave as it was for the people who had to cave to get there - the scene demands a context which it hasn't got. Information about depth and distance only serve to show how inadequate the picture is, and conversely depth and distance cannot locate a 'situation' in the cave. A photo of a landscape captures both what can be seen and also the context: the distances and elevations, gullies and mountains they are integral- the photo is self supporting. Have you ever noticed how irresolvably disjointed photos above and below ground seem in a slide show?

       In this sense caving is a whole body experience not convincingly reducible to just one sense. It takes people and people alone to get to a 'position in a cave' and the relationship between cave and surface is so mediated. When talking of caving our individuality is vertiginously present and our words offer too close a vision of the void that ourselves offer to explanation. This void, a metaphor taken from the cave itself, is the very nature of non-received experience, in other words the experiencing of the new in which we play the critical role in judging and making it meaningful. Caving brings us closer to this originary birthing and primary experience and in reflection the cave itself is a fascinating and fearful place of the unknown.

       Another way of expressing this might be that landscapes are too meaningful. Never when we experience a landscape are we brought to consider it in its novelty or reality. The sheer expanse of space hides the individual things that compose it, hiding their particularity, and in so doing raise us from the level of being in a situation to 'overlooking' and 'rising above' it. It is no accident that gods reside on mountains and in the Heavens, and consider the language of the last sentence we draw heavily on this experience to discuss such removal from the world. Landscape paintings address this by pinning down the situation often around some  particular but distant object - then we have the interest of an actual experience crossed with the removal presented by the space. When caving our attentions are essentially more focused. We are brought to consider individual rocks and pebbles, flakes and stall and when we do this we are brought to an awareness of their accidental nature. Why here? or why there? or just why? And finally we are brought to the immediacy, the actual presence of the situation alone and out of this meaningless we create original meaning. This is best captured in Zen and Japanese art where landscapes and pictures don't seem to intentionally frame particular objects, these are accidents and the focus is then on the contentless experience alone.

       So to authentically talk of caving we must be careful for the experience is closely connected with the originating nature of experience. Words may help capture the experience but ultimately caves are an alien world devoid of connection to the conservative words of the surface. Like the point of tangent between the pole of a globe and a line to the infinity of the plane of its equator, the cold timeless world of caves is this arctic, at best a close inference in words. Surveys, pictures and dialogue are forces from the surface trying to invade this space, a space that we must conserve.

The phenomenon of Caving

The cave is all and none of these for its presence is a unique experience demanding a language of its own. Like no place on Earth except the bottom of the sea this place owes nothing to light - for countless millennia darkness its element. This shy and retiring nature of the cave must remain hidden from us.

But in our light a symbiosis is created wherever I go it will reveal itself and where it will reveal itself I will go. I forget that I am the source of that warm glow for at the same time wherever I turn the cave shows itself up. And the shadows which have bathed it for so long evaporate away. But the shadows are also friends striking deep relief across my vision and also unnoticeably yet essentially framing my vision. I am cradled in the warm nothingness that means that the glow never ends - this is my only world there is no outside. And while the colours are white through golden brown to black I feel no need for more.

       The symbiosis lures me on deeper into the cave it guides me over its many faces. Sometimes they are cascades of boulders in immense vistas, sometimes just pebbles that stretch for only an arms length. Undulations and waves carry space above and before, curves and ellipses catch diminishing light long into the distance, angular rocks break these broad alluring shapes; textures change, even but never regular waves of scalloping, enchanting corals grow from the walls each a world of minute minarets and rooms; suddenly harmless forests of spears hang in the air. Puddles, lakes and streams these I know, but they are cousins many times removed - like liquid diamonds dancing around white stones so eager to head for the darkness or leap into the chasms of space where without pattern what seemed so solid a floor ends. On ropes descending through space carved through with shadow, huge bridges and rocks inquisitively rise out of the eternal darkness below.

       Everywhere I look a multitude of meaningless but fascinating features and personalities glide out of hiding and the harder I look the more intricate this incomprehensible design. Indeed I am a brief guest here; I know no language to converse or do this justice and yet while a stranger I feel welcome and at home. Never will be the time when I can say I know but only that I have seen.

A hermeneutics of Caving

       Cave and man have a long history our ancestors being, rightly or wrongly, closely associated.  For them in the harsh winters of the ice ages this natural shelter formed by mysterious benevolent forces offered a home from the hostile forces of nature  outside. When cave-man first appropriated caves for his home he began a relationship with a force which protected him from nature and yet like nature had a source outside himself and his time. The oldest problem had a symbol, that existence had favoured us in its creation yet our lives were uncertain, filled with contradiction and ill-fate, how could something that gave us Being also be so hostile? Caves offered man an insight 'into' that which was not him and that which birthed his situation, that is, an insight into his origins, and in so doing an insight into himself.

       In religion, the original discussion of origins, caves occur in a multitude of guises. In some mythologies the cave is a source. In ancient Greece Zeus was born in a cave, New Guinea was populated by the earth giving birth through caves and Mohammed received his revelations in a cave. In Japanese mythology the emergence of Amaterasu the sun-goddess from a cave each day brought light, but each night she would return bringing darkness (and pre-empting the following discussion the Japanese effigy of Amaterasu is a house made of corn). And here we see our more fundamental schizophrenic relationship with caves and with nature itself. The very feature which offers us shelter also deprives us of the sun, light and warmth and at the mouth of the cave these opposing forces meet. In the depths of the cave we are no longer at home, no longer 'sheltered' and in so doing are going beyond our human situation(home) and ourselves. We are exploring that force which gave us home gave us ourselves but which is neither and seeks to entomb us eternally divorcing us from meaning and the surface where we live. The depths are hidden from sight and knowledge, the possibility of a place in the world hidden. That WE consider going 'beyond' a situation (not leaving and going without, but going further into the darkness and return) brings this situation to light as noteworthy and essential, and that WE did it brings us into relief as well as show us that we belong there - something that the structure of science with its eyes forever turned into the light would have us forget. In these distant depths cave-man saw magic and evoking the fearful but benevolent spirit so the he might find favourable situations in his life in the sun painted powerful pictures of his endeavours.

       But where there is protection there is also weakness and caves also represent this. Our greatest weakness is mortality and so what offered us life and hope must also offer us death and despair. For this reason caves are also burial places - adopted by churches in their crypts. Here we have shelter in its destructive mode consuming life but also offering respect, eternally protecting death from the inhumanity of nature. Like Lady Usher our emergence from the cave is an escape from the lulling clutches of eternity and a reassertion of life and the bilateral relationships forming home. This resolution of the conflict between shelter and the world of the sun (cf. Amaterasu) is mirrored by the passage from the depths of the cave to the afterlife often associated with the sky and the sun. The symbiosis between carbide and cave is this conflict and the alluring darkness that we obliquely negotiate with is Charon.

       In Greek mythology the dead pass deep into the cave before finally crossing a river of no return. The underworld awaits. An insignificant financial offering facilitates this crossing of fluid. Like water which refuses a form, the river represents the dissolution of all connection with the world. The money a symbol for the cheapness of death and ironically the cheapness of life - we are not bound to this world in the sense of money or things but rather play the key role in letting it be. What gave us protection finally takes us away. The Egyptian burial was different. Huge towering caves built in pyramids reaching to the sun housed the dead and all around were their riches. However the Egyptians believed that death was a simple transition to another world in which nothing dramatically changed, there was no dissolution and their death was a continuation of life.

       In Christianity the presence of dissolution in a fiery hell for the damned is an added twist. Dante presumably drawing upon the nature of volcanic activity viewed the depths of the cave to resolve in the destruction of flames - also like water refusing form. Dante may also be drawing upon the nature of egoism from which evil issues. The ego is a false home for it fights for supremacy over all things cutting itself off from the world and burning all that it touches to feed itself. In this way it is fire but a fire with feeling, the possibility of redemption, which tortures itself. Such a caver would be forever napalming a cave entrance from the inside to stop others entering so as the prove that he was caving! Likewise in Revelations the wicked use the cave as a hiding place from the final judgement. Rather than leave their situation by trying to get back into the garden of Eden (outside the cave) to become at one with god and undo the damnation of being a self (the apple), instead they live inside the cave thinking they chose to eat the apple and not remembering that their situation involved a source outside . Similarly during the developing egoism of the british empire where man triumphed in his domination of nature he also rejected his personal relationship with nature, cut connection with home and his situation. Primary experience became cold science, and emotion and passion were the Evil (corrupted) from the Void. Cellars, catacombs and caves became for the Victorians' fearful places where the unconscious is unrepressed (q.v. conservative Freudianism) and devilish, bachic activities are freed. We need only see the cruelty of Victorian family life and the work place to see how the 'home' in connection with this had become a repressive dogma. As cavers we reject this.

      And as an antidote to egoism: Caves are also like drains and sewers which for the city dwellers cleanse the cities of nature and removing what is most natural about us from sight and discretely returning it to nature so that they never have to address it. Caves are thus also like the arse that mysterious rejected part of our anatomy. Arses and dirt are seen as humiliating but it is exactly that humility found in the gutters and shit that we need to escape the framework of socialisation that alienates us from our source, nature. Being face down in mud as any caver will attest to is a cleansing experience for there in the clarity of our humility we find life, nature and ourselves once again. And in connection with this the cave and the sewer are like the ear and by going into this noteworthy silence that demands humility, like in a church, we have an antidote to Dante's heat of in-authenticity and with our silenced egos we can hear once again that call of our true situation and become ourselves.

Today, still within this framework, God and Evil has been rejected and we do not rely upon caves but instead buy them ready made and coincidentally we believe that we can now freely shop for our 'situation' through work and money and pay science to tell us who we are. But in this world where houses are no longer built with cellars have we really lost that eternal darkness. In one corrupted inside-out sense no - the endless subterranial corridors of power and nuclear bunkers where the worlds politics is covertly planned (q.v. X files) and also in the eternal money vaults of banks where that most benevolent but also uncontrollable source of home also seeks to overwhelm us. But surely also, if we are not hypnotised by science, our own place in the world still and always will carries that poignancy that found cave-men sheltering in caves.

So as cavers we are like Orpheus entering the underworld to rescue beauty. We leave our homes by entering the fearful darkness and unknown from where came a situation and home at all. Unlike the outdoor enthusiast or the scientist who escapes from any semblance of home, rejects that he has a place in the world; we explore this and risk losing everything. We risk leaving life behind and surcomming to the cheap call of Charon in which we forget. But we have faith in our will to live and then like Lady Usher or Orpheus with Persephone we return to the surface. In the spring so created we may air our houses and allow nature back into our homes. This freshness and reinvigoration that we feel is the ritual recreation of our home and our situation, our realisation that it could not be were we not mysteriously protected by nature from itself in the shelter of the cave.