Saturday, 5 November 2016

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

(Written for a MovieMail podcast in 2011, with the core of the piece appearing in Artesian magazine the previous year as a reflection entitled Dark with Power.)

Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is his film about Chauvet cave, a significant site of prehistoric art discovered in 1994 and situated in the Ardèche region of southern France. In addition to its many fossilised remains and numerous bones of different animal species, some now extinct, wall scratchings and footprints from cave bears and the 25,000 year-old footprints of a child, it contains the oldest known cave paintings, usually dated to around 30-32,000 years old, which in their quality, range and preservation provide some of the finest early human paintings discovered thus far. Access to the cave is difficult, the original entrance having been covered by a landslide, and the environment in the cave so delicately balanced that fungal invasion promoted by an excess of human breath, as has happened in Lascaux, could damage the images irreparably. Therefore, the cave is closed to the public and will remain so. Herzog’s film is the closest that we are likely to get to the experience of visiting Chauvet cave. In order to give some context to Herzog’s film, and based on visits to other painted caves throughout France, this essay reflects on cave paintings in general and the relationship they hold to us now.

Our journey takes us into darkness – the secret, velvety darkness of subterranean passages, their time marked by the drip of stalactites, and the shapeless darkness of long-forgotten knowledge, knowledge lost through disconnection with its source. Whatever light we have for this journey is too strong, too constant; it obliterates. It cannot create the forms our peripheral vision requires, nurturing them, drawing them forward as our fire dims, jerking them back into shadow with its flicks of flame. Better instead to take a tallow-filled stone bowl wicked with lichen or a smouldering pine brand blown into sparking life and then, in the brightest part of day or in the pitch of night – where we are going it makes no difference for the black is profound, the temperature constant – enter the earth, beneath the looming rock ceiling of Grotte de Gargas, deep into the echoing cavern of Niaux, between the narrow engraving-filled walls of Grotte des Combarelles, and into the sacred central chamber of Grottes de Cougnac. These caves respond and breathe to the glimmer of an ancient light, appearing mammalian with their passages and tubes, nodules, glands and rippled flanges. These were not places of sight so much as places of touch, where the walls were tense with the might of a neck, the sinew of a leg and the shaggy hang of a mane. In this regard, Herzog’s decision to film in 3D in the Chauvet cave makes a perfect sense.

le dos, la tête, le ventre, patte avant, patte arrière…’ These days, guided tours in the caves are mainly devoted to delineating body parts by laser pointer ­– sections of mammoth and bison, auroch and deer; as if the people we are now could judge by our deracinated standards of representation the accuracy of an animal’s depiction by people who were intimately involved with the stalking, killing, carrying, butchering and eating of a deer, bison or ibex; they would have known a beast’s every move, bone and muscle. Our appreciative mutterings about accuracy and perspective in the paintings are laughably wide of the mark. In Chauvet, Herzog points out the delicacy with which a female lion not ready or willing to be mated has been depicted in a few spare lines, and points out another lion, drawn around a single stroke 6 feet long for its spine.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams captures something of the disorienting excitement and anticipation of entering a cave for the first time and even the experience of being deep in the earth, surrounded by traces of long-passed people. ‘The presence of humans in the cave was fleeting like a shadow,’ says Herzog; ‘Listen to the silence of the cave.’ says the leader of the visit, archaeologist Jean Clottes.

In the darkness of a cave, our eyes are drawn to the things we feel we can understand, often the showpiece paintings of animals, relegating what we think of as dots, lines, stipples and palm prints to marks of lesser importance. And the thought to which I keep returning; we are missing the essential charge that would help us know these images so much better – a charge of fear, awe and uncertainty, a feeling of needing to claim a place in a world that is evidently not ours, a teeming land of animals on which man has but a fingerhold. Of the many thousands of paintings in the painted caves of France and Spain, fewer than a hundred figures of humans have been found, and those usually incomplete or fragmentary, deliberately crude or schematised. Some have suggested there was a taboo against the depiction of human figures – a conceit that is thoroughly in tune with the anthropocentric egotism of our age; maybe we simply weren’t important enough to warrant it. Our precarious hold on the world these days is of a different order entirely. As Herzog says at one stage of the makers of these images: ‘we are locked in history, they were not.’

Engravings, scratches, marks, finger-flutings and paintings in a cave are inseparable from the place of their creation, resonance and significance, and the rocks which they emphasise. In Chauvet for instance, paintings of animals are clustered around an ancient rain hole, a mammoth is lightly outlined in red ochre around the natural relief of a stalagmite, while a prominent roof boss features the cave’s most enigmatic image, of the bison with, perhaps, a human hand, whose contours are shared with a woman’s torso. In some places, the image has been named ‘the Venus and Sorcerer’, which only takes us back to the darkness with which I began. It seems appropriate that now and again, the rock, and the beyond the rock, returns to claim its own: a deer browsing at a fissure in La Caverne de Niaux has had its nostrils blocked by a creamy calcite exudation; in La Grotte de Villars, a horse, blue from a covering of calcite, is returning to its origin, being shielded from our uncomprehending eyes.

After about an hour of any given Herzog film, my mind unfailingly begins to wonder how he is going to end it, with what oddly apt image he is going to shift our perspective of the film into a new and unpredicted area. I think of the horseman riding across windblown sands in Nosferatu the Vampyre, I think of Kaspar’s vision of a caravan led by a blind Berber across the desert in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and of course, there’s the infamous dancing chicken at the end of Stroszek. Well, being eyeballed by an albino crocodile basking in a water’s nuclear-sourced warmth at the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams was certainly unexpected. It is an image that suddenly places us in a different timescale, one in which we are outlasted on the planet, and one that also recalls Herzog’s words from within the cave, ‘It felt like eyes were upon us,’ he says at one point. Well, those eyes upon us brings me onto my final thought, which is about claims of kinship and responsibility.

The final credits of Herzog’s film roll over an image from the cave that has come to be known as a ‘negative hand’ – the shape of a hand outlined by blowing paint over it to mark its outline. This ‘negative hand’ is an iconic symbol for a number of painted caves. It’s often taken and reproduced on brochures, flyers and website ‘contact’ buttons to extend a Pioneer plaque-style greeting across the millennia. These paintings were created by modern humans it is taken to say; this is where we recognisably began. Except it seems to me that we are attempting to establish a meaningful link with the incidental trace of something far more important and intangible – an act of supplication through the resting of a hand on a rock wherein spirit animals were nurtured and lived. If we could only grow from this urge to connect without being distracted by a visual residue, fetishised into 'the art of our origins' – as if our sated selves could know anything about the necessity of laying our hands on a rock membrane to contact the world within. With claims come responsibility; if we could but touch things and leave no mark, if only we did not erase with our presence and our touch.

Interviewed in the film, Jean Clottes says that he has always thought that ‘homo sapiens’ is a terrible description of who and what we were and are, suggesting instead that the term ‘homo spiritualis’ would be more appropriate. He talks of the cosmos in which the people who created the art were living, introducing notions of fluidity and permeability; a fluidity between modes and forms of their imaginative being, and a permeability that saw no barriers between assuming such states, least of all a rock wall in a cave that notionally separated them from the animals within.

The experience of entrance and descent into the earth is commonly told, less so the return to earth. How would it feel, how would your mind be changed, what new knowledge would you walk across the crust of a land poised between other levels of a world in which you risked wrath or rejection? It is such a feeling that is missing from our unchecked usage – our management – of the earth and its animals today.

I’ll end with a line from a poem by Wendell Berry, called Openings, from 1968. Originally written in the context of the Vietnam war, it now stands as an important lament and a plea for our times. It reads simply: Dark with Power, we remain / the invaders of our land.

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