Monday, May 30, 2011

The Cave Painter

       When we stayed in the Lot Valley in southern France, we visited the cave called Pech-Merle, and saw the hand prints, and the powerful images of dotted horses, bison and mammoths. "They've invented everything",
Picasso said when he visited Lascaux.

      Lascaux was closed to the public when all the human exhalations caused mold to form on the art. Chauvet, discovered in 1994, had art older than all the others. To protect the art, a steel door had been placed on the narrow entrance, and only a small team of experts would be allowed to enter. One of those experts came to Cal with slides shortly after the discovery, and the auditorium was filled. 

My friend Tim and I stood in back to hear him speak. The images of cave art he showed were startling masterpieces, and we thought we would only ever see these images in books or slides.     
    I read all I could on Chauvet, intrigued by this mysterious 30, 000 year old art whose origins and meaning might never be understood. Was it Tim who gave me The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, that remarkable book that claimed shamanism and initiation as the basis of paleolithic art? There was, Lewis-Williams claimed, a direct tie between the shamanic rock art of Australia and the ancient images on the cave walls. 

     In Lewis-Williams' earlier book, The Signs of All Times, written with the anthropologist T. A. Dowson:
  “The authors cited laboratory experiments with subjects 

in an induced trance state which suggested that the human 
optic system generates the same types of visual illusions, 
in the same three stages, differing only slightly by culture, 
whatever the stimulus: drugs, music, pain, fasting repetitive movements, solitude, or high carbon-dioxide levels 
(a phenomenon that is common in close underground 
chambers.) In the first stage, a subject sees a pattern of  
points, grids,  zigzags and other abstract forms (familiar 
from the caves); in the second stage, these forms morph 
into objects—the zigzags for example, might become a 
serpent. In the third and deepest stage, a subject feels 
sucked into a dark vortex that generates intense 
hallucinations, often of monsters or animals and 
 feels his body and spirit merging with theirs.” 
[Or maybe the spirits are contacted?]

When we first read about Werner Herzog’s 3D film The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we were very excited, and last night, when my back was sufficiently healed to sit in a the ater seat for the length of a film, we went to see it. Constant background music, eerily contemporary, kept us from experiencing the deep ancient silence of the cave, but the images on the curved and sometimes undulating surfaces were remarkable. Just a few lines, just a few perfectly executed outlines, (what Zen artists once strived for), and the animals of Aurignacian Europe, as though drawn yesterday, emerged from the rock face. Were they spirit animals coming through the porous rock from the underworld they inhabited?  Rhinoceros, lions, leopard, bison, aurochs and horses - a quartet of horse heads so beautifully drawn one thinks of Renaissance draughtsmen. 
       Herzog says it is as though the human soul awakened here. On a phallus-shaped  pinnacle suspended from the cave ceiling is the only picture of the human figure.  It shows a bison above and surrounding a woman’s sex. A fused figure, from a shamanic vision, perhaps. There is a bison-woman at Pech-Merle as well.
      Recently we downloaded a film made by and about the Inuit people, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. ( At the end of the film a shaman must either give up the old religion or starve. He sends his spirits, who have always been with him, away. He tells them they must go, and they are sobbing, they are weeping and holding on to each other, and they finally walk away. They turn around after walking a few yards and look back, but the shaman repeats that now he must accept Jesus or starve, because that is the condition of the Christian feast another converted Inuit is holding nearby. He must eat the taboo animal organs that shamans must never touch. That will be his communion. He is crying. He is without choice. He has a wife and daughter and followers to feed, and he does not want to die the agony of starvation.

I think of the shamans of the Aurignacian, and the power of their visions. An archeologist in Herzog’s film says that perhaps Homo Sapiens is the wrong name for us. Perhaps we should be known as Homo Spiritualis.

  The Cave Painter         

And then
             to us it is sudden
              but not to them
        they discovered murder

the animals had been idolized terrors
but now     they had the spear 
when they woke up to what they were doing
it was not morning
killing came into their nightly seance
animal spirits invaded their dreams
carrying spears thicker and taller than cedars
and shredded carcasses
           washed down night’s river

and the dreamers were us
just as smart and no longer innocent
and they promised   they begged   they offered
and they couldn’t forget
and they made it the task of one man    one woman
to remember   to be remembering every minute
and he or she   make it she
went into the caves on hands and knees   snake belly crawl
touched her hand to the farthest wall
she knew   they all knew by now
    they were certain
           the spirits lived on the other side

Let her place the torch  on the bear-trodden floor
and press her hands against the shivery membrane -
She   the one with hands    the one with a body
the gods count on our hands     they use our bodies
the animal spirits see the future through cro magnon eyes
see the hills   the rivers   the forest   there were animals  yes
     but not them    not a one
so they send her their own true shape     
           and she grinds her colors   picks up charcoal
               and leaves us the auroch   the bison

Enter the caves
     and the ancient age
    of what you believe
                 we just invented
              will be shown to you
           and you will not be afraid

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Red Book Mondays

        Monday is Red Book day. The reading of Carl Jung’s extraordinary book is a ritual, repeated weekly. I sit in my large chair with the huge book (12" x 16" and 9 lbs) across my lap, and my laptop balanced on the wide arm of the chair, and enter Jung’s mysteries, revelations, horrors, and prophecies. I begin with his words, some of which I copy, and then immerse myself in the paintings, which are not mirrors of what 
I’ve read, but windows into the psyche’s symbols. 

      I read one short chapter at a time
and I never look ahead.  I follow the book chronologically,  and of course I do not know what will come next, and neither did Jung when he wrote it. 
The Red Book is the record and self -interpretation of Jung’s journeys using active imagination, a journey where he encountered both the sublime and the sinister. At the beginning he is a scholar-scientist, egotistical, ambitious, and concerned with the world’s opinion. 
He reminds me of Dante, at mid-life, lost in a dark wood, his soul demanding a place for herself. When he finishes his very private, (finally published) Red Book, all that he encounters within himself, all of what he will call archetypes & anima, all the darkness he will name Shadow, the process he will call individuation, will appear in his written theories and consulting room.

From the beginning I respond to Jung by taking phrases from the Red Book that I find particularly inspiring or jolting and write short poems - expanding, denying, struggling, adding my own imagery to his. At first it felt audacious to respond to Jung - now it is simply what I do on Red Book Mondays.

“I am the holy animal that stood astonished and cannot grasp the becoming of the God”
How privileged and peaceful 
the dear ox and the donkey 
in the manger  Since animals are sinless  they may Witness
Sometimes   in ivory    oils   
or stained glass 
the ox and the donkey stand close  
smile down on the newborn   
Even the kneeling kings  the wise men  
step aside
The Image: The Opening of the Egg
He bows before the egg
the power    rises 
becomes a canopy  of fire and flametears
falling like raindrops
in the jadewalled chamber

“He who had been pressed into the core of the beginning rose up”
And so the universe might have begun
a collapsed black star  infinitely dense
exploding into a trillion holy suns

But if the soul dips into radiance, she becomes as remorseless as the God himself….
Margaret of Cortona   Christ-bitten  ecstatic 
starved thornwhipped body
She lies on the cold bare floor on Easter mornng
begging to feel His wounds
unable to Rise

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who Wrote the Song of Songs?


Warm. In the Eighties. Sunny. These are words I don’t often use together. Where we live ‘foggy' and’ cold‘ are partners, and  can describe summer. “It’s been raining all week” is also common. It’s May, the roses are blooming. and the rhododendrons and the lilies. I’ve been working in the garden daily, planting, weeding. The Gardener in me responds to the season, and the earth takes over my week.

The Curious One did manage to sneak in today. Now that I’m not teaching, this inner voice announces herself with a question, and must have the answer immediately. Today I was thirsty, sitting on my writing deck with a hot sunbeam penetrating the treescreen, but the Curious One wouldn’t let me re-fill the glass until she received the possible answers to her question. You see, there is rarely only one answer in cultural history. You get “probably written in the  9th century B.C., “may have been written by a woman who was black”, “must have been written by a highly skilled bard”. Nary a fact to be found, and if one is provided, it is often overturned a few years later.
Finally, the question-compulsion and the possible answers dissolve into a poem. Before I finish the poem I return from 900 B.C. to my deck, and the sun finally reaches me. I stop and hear the birds. I listen to the birds. I walk over to the garden that Bill & I have created, and realize I have a blog post.

Who Wrote the Song of Songs?

Who wrote the Song of Songs?
Excuse me Rabbi
you want me to say
it was Solomon
and I say not Solomon

A woman says a woman wrote it   it was womensong
a dreamscape of love if love could be chosen   and this woman
is black  the woman says  a Shulamite from the village of Shulem
A man says “an extraordinary talent (a him  a his)
created this Hebraic masterpiece of world literature
sometime in the 9th century B.C.”

Have you noticed that narratives never borrow
not “This came to us from Persia”   or  
“that was taught to us by African traders”?

How unwilling we are to admit
the cloth of culture
is woven from threads
handspun in a dozen places

I think of Persian erotic tales
the artful consummations of Indian Gods
and wonder if The Song of Songs was on loan
Is it  or is it not
a wonder
that hero sagas   chronicles 
warnings   exiles  
613 commandments
were canonized together with
a Garden of Delight?

Sunlight and birdsong
finally reach me
I turn away from questions  
from answers
to the truth of this moment:
It is so good to have this song
Especially since the songliles
the roses  the apple blossoms
“have appeared
in our land”
and love    settles down beside me