The hand is the window on to the mind.
Early man is our brother, body and soul. We beckon to him down the void of time, craving a glimpse of that epochal moment the human creature confessed, in his being, the image and likeness of God. A Paleolithic premise of ourselves, he gestures back; he signs to us with the work of his hands. Whatever meanings—part discovery, part projection—we pull from his works, one thing is indisputable: Our brother was gifted with an aesthetic sense. And grace of hand was well within his capacities.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams for the second time. I immersed myself in it to erase from mind, if only for an hour or two, the squalor of Ferguson and a power-and-race crazed president.
Filmed in 2010, the documentary is an enraptured tour of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave in southern France. Discovered twenty years ago, the cave is twice as old as the famed caves at Lascaux and Altamira. Chauvet’s wall drawings are about thirty five thousand years old in radiocarbon years. A smaller, second wave of activity followed some five thousand years later.
Cave is a glorious movie. I am glad not to have seen it in its original 3-D version. The impact of these Stone Age images is stunning enough without inflating the element of spectacle that, invariably, becomes an end in itself. My laptop condenses the poetry of Herzog’s camera. It mutes the opera of big-screen entertainment to penetrate the obscurity of our beginnings with a suitable hush.
Hibernating bears used this cave for thousands of years before man put his mark on it. A primeval landslide sealed those marks in a long, solitary slumber. The beauty of these drawings, their elegant lines and careful shadings, chastens that strain of our own contemporary art trumpeted for its presumed revival of the vitality of primitive forms. Those Paleolithic cave drawings available to us testify to an inherent love of workmanship independent of whatever function they might have served when they were made.
The word function is key. The Wagnerian sweep of Herzog’s own artistry is in service to what he calls “ecstatic truth.” But what truths these drawings reveal is open to debate. Herzog acknowledges their ambiguity with a typically modern question: “Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artist over the abyss of time?”
Substituting vision for function, the filmmaker bestows on the makers of these works a self-consciously expressive, individualistic component. Ahistorical, that ingredient is the modified fruit of modernity and leisure. It is an unlikely factor in the precarious lives of ambush hunters and food gatherers during harsh centuries of glacialization. But what function did they serve? E. H. Gombrich asserted the prevailing opinion seven decades ago in The Story of Art:
Among these primitives, there is no difference between building and image-making as far as usefulness is concerned. . . . Images are made to protect them against other powers which are, to them, as real as the forces of nature. Pictures and statues, in other words, are used to work magic.
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It is easy to patronize rude ancestors who cannot testify with up-to-date eloquence. It is harder to remember that man’s primordial sense of enchantment—that same intuition of the numinous we bring to the sacraments—coexisted with his rationality. It did not displace it; if it had, we would not be here. It is hard to know that, though, from popular enthusiasm for retrospective condescension. One introduction to Chauvet describes the natural bridge over the Ardèche River, running close to the cave, as something that was likely considered a “symbolic animal” by Paleolithic passersby. Maybe. But it could as easily have been considered a handy way across the gorge. Another modern voice-over chirps that the bridge “would have been an impressive sight to Paleolithic residents.” It still is.
Herzog’s seductive presentation of the cave as a “lost cathedral” gilds the accepted interpretation. But before surrendering altogether, it is beguiling—in its own way—to keep in mind Josh Billings’s old caution: “Why is it that so much of what everybody knows just ain’t so?
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Without denying received wisdom, we can still ask whether more than a single motive was in play in Paleolithic art. The dynamism of the Chauvet images upends any exclusively magical or runic one. These are not static symbols but life-like animals in motion. Horses gallop. Two rhinos butt heads. Lions stalk prey. A bear bends his head to the ground, as if foraging. Why such rambunctious emphasis on movement? Chauvet’s compositions delight in clamor and tumult. They evidence no interest in stylization. Only an inexplicable panel of red ochre palm prints suggests ritual purpose or the sensibilities of priestcraft. Its cavalcade of species conveys the zest of the pursuer together with the admiration of wary cohabitants.
I love this bear. It was drawn with regard, even tenderness. Snuffling for berries or tubers, it does not display the posture of an object of veneration. Whatever else it might have represented in the day of its making, it comes to us as mortal, eking livelihood from a hardscrabble world:
Our early brothers had the same need we have to instruct the young. How did they do it? Even if we grant them language, did they have syntax? We can guess but all we know for sure is they had pictures. And pictures are instructive.
It is not just whimsy that makes me wonder if prehistoric drawing had a possible tutorial function, among others. Chauvet, with its chambers, fireplaces, and—so crucial—solid roof, would have served beautifully as a classroom. We moderns project PowerPoint presentations onto walls or proxies for them. Aboriginal instructors had no screens, no blackboard. They worked straight on the wall. Imagine a huddle of little boys being initiated into the hunt before joining adults on the risky business of a kill. (A young boy’s footprint survives on the floor of Chauvet.)
A fantasy, perhaps. But I am fond of it. One reason it appeals to me is that it offsets, without evicting, unquestioned insistence on religious function alone. Dominant association of the primitive with the religious yokes the two together in facile accommodation to secular self-congratulation. Religion is for cavemen. We are past all that now, thank God.
Herzog made an appearance in last year’s The Unbelievers, a talking-head paean to biologist Richard Dawkins, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and the New Atheism in toto. His interview lent celebrity support to celebrity detractors of religious belief. Watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams again, this time in the wake of that interview, Herzog’s euphoric embrace of the cave-as-cathedral leaves behind the scent of atheism-for-aesthetes. Atheists, too, bow to beauty where they find it.