No amount of theorizing by introspection with a psychoanalyst or high tech recording of neuron connections and functions can ever capture what goes on in the brain of the dreamer and the poet. The movie called “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is about the thirty-thousand year old Chavet cave. Once a more conventional open-mouthed cavity, one of many along limestone cliffs penetrated by water and fronting on streams, places where people would laze on a stone porch to cook fish on sticks, the cliff front here had collapsed tens of thousands of years ago so that access was nearly impossible. No one could get into the caves to erase the many sketches of prey animals, the many imprints of hands -- one clearly a man with a crooked pinky finger on his right hand and many evidently women plus a few children. The floor is littered with the skeletons of the ungulates and the cave bears who evidently lived there. No human skeleton has been found.
The very early modern humans who evidently made this art with intervals between drawings of thousands of years, overlapped with neanderthals for many thousand years, but there is no evidence that neanderthals drew in these caves. Until recently, there was no evidence that neanderthals and modern humans mixed, but now we find neanderthal genes in contemporary cells. One woman claims she can “hear” the sounds of the animals, running with open-mouthed cries, and a perfumer with a highly trained “nose” walks among the cliffs outside, sniffing the drafts of air coming from caves through crevices.
Some people think they can decode this art, discover the hearts and minds of the artists who were part of the evolution of our species-line and therefore must have had survival value for both individuals and groups. Laming-Emperaire was a female member of the French underground during WWII, which may be why her structuralist analysis seems somehow more helpful. Her work is mapped on computers now, pointillist, a swarm of dots. Others say these images will always be mysterious and should be left alone. Just feel them. Don’t analyze. Modern instruments reveal that the deepest caves are hypoxic because of high CO2 and therefore narcotic -- suggesting that the artists were hallucinating.
The work of Laming-Emperaire and her husband led to the discovery of the oldest human bones in Brazil, twelve thousand years old, which may have meant that South Asian boat people reached South America and populated it long before Europeans found the Caribbeans. (Remember Kon-Tiki?) Discoveries are as much a victim of the explorer’s imprinting opinion as they are a function of the sensory reality. Analysis of the order in which the paintings were made revealed that the most ancient were horses, then aurochs, then stags.
Judith Thurman, who wrote about the caves in the New Yorker, suggested that “the variations in their coats correspond to their respective mating seasons. The triad of “horse-aurochs-stag” links the fertility cycles of important, and perhaps sacred or symbolic, animals to the cosmic cycles, suggesting a great metaphor about creation.” Quite a leap. Quite abstract. Rational thought, not feeling. She has not stood in a classroom next to a boy drawing horses over and over, seeing from his face that he’s re-living the smell of horse, the swelling power of its back between his knees, the flight over the grasslands in a swift dangerous dazzle. If I stood next to a French schoolboy drawing the horses of French grasslands, they would not look very different. In fact, some “experts” suggest that all those smallish “female” hands might actually be boys: “horny, reckless, and transgressive”, making graffiti with their own mouths as spray cans.
Jean Clotte had been an English teacher where there are many caves. He is the Jung of the scientists, an honorary Taureg, and the discoverer of caves only accessible by diving through water. They say that among the many bear paw prints are the footprints of an eight-year-old boy, his imprint older than nations, older than glaciers. The bears clawed height-marks on the cave walls as they still do on trees. All is flow, but some swirls remain. From charcoal sketches to boys leaping Cretan bulls, to minotaurs and labyrinths, to homeless street boys in New York fleeing "bulls" -- cops. All these thoughts apply as well to our internal sleeping lives in the soft undergrounds of beds. Even more so to the dreams of those who “sleep rough” where they can find a niche, dreaming not of nature but of a predatory culture and its built environment of catacombs.
This is from Thurman’s article: “In an earlier article, “The Signs of All Times,” written with the anthropologist T. A. Dowson, Lewis-Williams had explored what he called “a neurological bridge” to the Old Stone Age. 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.”
Terrifying and empowering at once, because this is how to learn to bullfight -- naming it and analyzing it, controlling emotion with rationality. But if the intense feelings are lost, which has happened to many moderns, sometimes by resorting to drugs, then there is nothing to control and rationality is useless. They have even imagined to blot out and reinterpret the sky. When they managed to redact their own dreams using the customary black bars, they have erased their humanness and have gone mad, reduced to robots. Then it is the work of the poets and artists -- even if they’ve been eliminated from the curriculum -- to restore us to our hearts.
Jean-Michel Geneste, operating on the Jungian principle that at the deepest level humans converge, brought Australian aboriginal shamans to see what they thought of the caves. Reacting like our Canadian Blackfoot consultants when Bob Scriver painted his own dream lodgeskin, they were worried and created a smoke-curtain limen at the threshold. (The Canadians merely smudged.) But they did not know these animals and they did not abstract principles. They do not value pristine preservation for scientific study, but rather will renew old paintings to keep them bright because the power is in the art work which they say is not created by humans but by spirits, even as they apply more paint.