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