Back last century, while I was a squatter in Hackney East London, I took my boneshaker to France and set off on a bicycle journey to Paris with the artist Emit Snake-Beings. We took our lead from Guy Debord and the French Situationists and investigated the Paris Catacombs. I recently revisited Paris with Dick but was disappointed that the Catacombs had become part of the tourist itinerary with queues winding around the block, official expensive guided tours only and waiting times of several hours. Back in 1989 the catacombs were less popular and our visit was a wild unaccompanied surge through silent unpeopled tunnels and chambers. They were dead creepy!
The essay below was originally published in CamFin (1998) and later appeared in Necro-Tourist (1999), an early collection of my travel writings which was subsequently reviewed in The Headpress Guide to The Counterculture (2004).
We chained our pushbikes to the railings, and trotted across the bright late afternoon road, bought tickets at the tiny ticket booth in the entrance, then clattered unattended down an iron staircase deep down into the chilly damp depths of Catacombs that burrow innumerable labyrinths underneath the streets of Paris.
Briefly, these Catacombs had been most extensively used during the French Revolution by aristocrats evading the guillotine. After the revolution they were used to store the bones from surface cemetries which were cleared to create land for building. More recently, it is said that they were used by the Resistance during the Nazi occupation to hide fugitives. During the 1950s, the Parisian Situationists accidentally discovered a previously unknown entrance in to the Catacombs and spent sometime exploring the disused and unlit sections as part of their Psychogeographical research. Guy Debord makes references to this Situationist activity in his 1958 essay “The theory of the derive”, claiming that “…slipping by night into buildings undergoing demolition, hitch-hiking non-stop and without destination through Paris during a transportation strike in order to add to the confusion, wandering in subterranean catacombs forbidden to the public…” were typically seen as revolutionary acts by the Situationist participants. Later, (in another essay “The Adventure” December 1960) Debord re-uses the Catacombs as a metaphor for the subversive nature of the Situationist ideology …”The Situationists are in the catacombs of the visible culture”.
There was no tourist guide when we visited, yet it wouldn’t have been possible to discover revolutionary situations in the section of the Catacombs that are presently open to the public. A prescribed route was clearly marked with bright spotlights, contained by locked iron gates that cut off access to any enticing diversionary paths. I found this reassuring, only a few minutes after entering the Catacombs I’d felt so disoriented by the circuitous labyrinths that I already felt I’d never remember the route to return. This was an unnecessary fear, as I discovered later, return by that route was already a pre-determined impossibility. During those first few moments of disorientation I was swamped with an incredible helpless animal fear, that numbed me with its intensity. My conscious mind struggled with encroaching claustrophobia. I was deep underground, lost in confusing tunnels, which were centuries old, that perhaps had been used by the aristocrats and others for all sorts of hideous tortures, imprisonments and assignations. The vivid awareness of the savage barbarity of recent human history crouched snarling in my mind, seeing off the claustrophobia good and proper. Neither of these sensations was what I’d expected to feel, so I quickly overcame my fear and horror with my usual sadistic fantasies. I followed the prescribed path, pausing at locked gates, peering through off into unlit recesses. There was no possibility of deviation from the one winding route, inevitably leading I knew not where.
About half-way into the Catacombs the tunnels seemed to widen out, and we came to an ante-chamber, with a portal to the right. Through the portal I could see another larger room, lit selectively with spotlights, dimly-lit passages leading off, over the portal were painted the words “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”, or something similar, in French, which I don’t speak at all.
Through the portal, this larger room was decorated with human skulls and crossbones, I swear that this is true. The passages off this room led to other smaller rooms, with bowed ceilings like wine cellars, they were filled to halfway up the walls with human thigh bones, arm bones, vertebrae. All arranged neatly, like the bricks in a wall, and topped off with designs made from human skulls, some had teeth missing, some skulls were bashed in, others still with jaw-bones, grinning. We wandered around these rooms, cellars and ante-chambers for another twenty or so minutes, and I had a good chance to examine the designs, and imagine what the information plaques in French could mean.
I suspect that I was operating in some altered state of consciousness, possibly brought on by the earlier unexpected attack of claustrophobia, and very quickly the grisliness of human remains exhibited in this way wore off and I found myself stunned by the sheer number of human bones stacked so precisely in these tunnels. I thought about how odd the people who’d done this strange work must have been, daily, gaily building walls from the bones of the dead, so many bones. I was overwhelmed and mindblown by the sheer power that the grinning skull symbol of death held over my consciousness, and I felt awed in the presence of death. Momentarily, I felt I’d made peace, for death seemed to wink at me, dispel my wonderment and left me with a stilled dispassionate gaze. I looked carefully at the bones, particularly the skulls, which were very smooth and shiney, without a trace of the flesh and skin that once covered them, they were like polished wood, solid, unyielding, somehow inanimate, yet so familiar for the life they once contained. And other strange unnatural musings trumbled through my mind.
Suddenly, we left, clattering up the iron staircase, out into the bright street. Our appointment with death terminated, at least for the time being.
We emerged blinking from the gloomy Catacombs, blinded in the burning sun, like vampires with broken internal clocks we stood shivering in the August heatwave. The heavy traffic stormed up and down the busy road and rush-hour commuters pushed and shoved on the pavement. Behind us we heard the attendant wearily usher away the last of the visitors and clangingly lock the big iron doors.
As the sunlight shock receded, I began to feel an increasing sense of geographical confusion, and it slowly dawned on me, that the entrance to the Catacombs was not the same as the exit. They were in different places. There was no prescribed route of return. We’d walked through underground labyrinths for forty five minutes, oblivious of surface landmarks, walked in god-knows-what-direction. We could be ANYWHERE in Paris. We began to evaluate the situation, concluding decisively that our Paris street plan was with my packed lunch in a carrier bag, bungeed to the back of my bike. And my bike, I now knew, was in another dimension…