How it was at the start

Reality Perception

JUNE 23, 2008 ISSUE

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

This reportage was the inspiration for Werner Herzog’s film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

What does the world’s oldest art say about us?

Judith Thurman
June 16, 2008

During the Old Stone Age, between thirty-seven thousand and eleven thousand years ago, some of the most remarkable art ever conceived was etched or painted on the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain. After a visit to Lascaux, in the Dordogne, which was discovered in 1940, Picasso reportedly said to his guide, “They’ve invented everything.” What those first artists invented was a language of signs for which there will never be a Rosetta stone; perspective, a technique that was not rediscovered until the Athenian Golden Age; and a bestiary of such vitality and finesse that, by the flicker of torchlight, the animals seem to surge from the walls, and move across them like figures in a magic-lantern show (in that sense, the artists invented animation). They also thought up the grease lamp—a lump of fat, with a plant wick, placed in a hollow stone—to light their workplace; scaffolds to reach high places; the principles of stencilling and Pointillism; powdered colors, brushes, and stumping cloths; and, more to the point of Picasso’s insight, the very concept of an image. A true artist reimagines that concept with every blank canvas—but not from a void.

Some caves have rock porches that were used for shelter, but there is no evidence of domestic life in their depths. Sizable groups may have visited the chambers closest to the entrance—perhaps for communal rites—and we know from the ubiquitous handprints that were stamped or airbrushed (using the mouth to blow pigment) on the walls that people of both sexes and all ages, even babies, participated in whatever activities took place. Only a few individuals ventured or were permitted into the furthest reaches of a cave—in some cases, walking or crawling for miles. Those intrepid spelunkers explored every surface. If they bypassed certain walls that to us seem just as suitable for decoration as ones they chose, the placement of the art apparently wasn’t capricious. In the course of some twenty-five thousand years, the same animals—primarily bison, stags, aurochs, ibex, horses, and mammoths—recur in similar poses, illustrating an immortal story. For a nomadic people, living at nature’s mercy, it must have been a powerful consolation to know that such a refuge from flux existed.

As the painters were learning to crush hematite, and to sharpen embers of Scotch pine for their charcoal (red and black were their primary colors), the last Neanderthals were still living on the vast steppe that was Europe in the Ice Age, which they’d had to themselves for two hundred millennia, while Homo sapiens were making their leisurely trek out of Africa. No one can say what the encounters between that low-browed, herculean species and their slighter but formidable successors were like. (Paleolithic artists, despite their penchant for naturalism, rarely chose to depict human beings, and then did so with a crudeness that smacks of mockery, leaving us a mirror but no self-reflection.) Their genomes are discrete, so it appears that either the two populations didn’t mate or they couldn’t conceive fertile offspring. In any case, they wouldn’t have needed to contest their boundless hunting grounds. They coexisted for some eight thousand years, until the Neanderthals withdrew or were forced, in dwindling numbers, toward the arid mountains of southern Spain, making Gibraltar a final redoubt. It isn’t known from whom or from what they were retreating (if “retreat” describes their migration), though along the way the arts of the newcomers must have impressed them. Later Neanderthal campsites have yielded some rings and awls carved from ivory, and painted or grooved bones and teeth (nothing of the like predates the arrival of Homo sapiens). The pathos of their workmanship—the attempt to copy something novel and marvellous by the dimming light of their existence—nearly makes you weep. And here, perhaps, the cruel notion that we call fashion, a coded expression of rivalry and desire, was born.

The cave artists were as tall as the average Southern European of today, and well nourished on the teeming game and fish they hunted with flint weapons. They are, genetically, our direct ancestors, although “direct” is a relative term. Since recorded history began, around 3200 B.C., with the invention of writing in the Middle East, there have been some two hundred human generations (if one reckons a new one every twenty-five years). Future discoveries may alter the math, but, as it now stands, forty-five hundred generations separate the earliest Homo sapiens from the earliest cave artists, and between the artists and us another fifteen hundred generations have descended the birth canal, learned to walk upright, mastered speech and the use of tools, reached puberty, reproduced, and died.

Early last April, I set off for the Ardèche, a mountainous region in south-central France where cave networks are a common geological phenomenon (hundreds are known, dozens with ancient artifacts). It was here, a week before Christmas in 1994, that three spelunkers exploring the limestone cliffs above the Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge of awesome beauty and scale which resembles a giant mammoth straddling the river gorge, unearthed a cave that made front-page news. It proved to contain the oldest known paintings in the world—some fifteen to eighteen thousand years older than the friezes at Lascaux and at Altamira, in the Spanish Basque country—and it was named for its chief discoverer, Jean-Marie Chauvet. Unlike the amateur adventurers or lucky bumblers (in the case of Lascaux, a posse of village urchins and their dog) who have fallen, sometimes literally, upon a cave where early Europeans left their cryptic signatures, Chauvet was a professional—a park ranger working for the Ministry of Culture, and the custodian of other prehistoric sites in the region. He and his partners, Christian Hillaire and Éliette Brunel, were aware of the irreparable damage that even a few indelicate footsteps can cause to an environment that has been sealed for eons—posterity has lost whatever precious relics and evidence that the carelessly trampled floors of Lascaux and Altamira, both now sealed to the public, might have yielded.

The cavers were natives of the Ardèche: three old friends with an interest in archeology. Brunel was the smallest, so when they felt an updraft of cool air coming from a recess near the cliff’s ledge—the potential sign of a cavity—they heaved some rocks out of the way, and she squeezed through a tight passage that led to the entrance of a deep shaft. The men followed, and, unfurling a chain ladder, the group descended thirty feet into a soaring grotto with a domed roof whose every surface was blistered or spiked with stalagmites. Where the uneven clay floor had receded, it was littered with calcite accretions—blocks and columns that had broken off—and, in photographs, the wrathful, baroque grandeur of the scene evokes some Biblical act of destruction wreaked upon a temple. As the explorers advanced, moving gingerly, in single file, Brunel suddenly let out a cry: “They have been here!”

The question of who “they” were speaks to a mystery that thinking people of every epoch and place have tried to fathom: who are we? In the century since the modern study of caves began, specialists from at least half a dozen disciplines—archeology, ethnology, ethology, genetics, anthropology, and art history—have tried (and competed) to understand the culture that produced them. The experts tend to fall into two camps: those who can’t resist advancing a theory about the art, and those who believe that there isn’t, and never will be, enough evidence to support one. Jean Clottes, the celebrated prehistorian and prolific author who assembled the Chauvet research team, in 1996, belongs to the first camp, and most of his colleagues to the second. Yet no one who studies the caves seems able to resist a yearning for communion with the artists. When you consider that their legacy may have been found by chance, but surely wasn’t left by chance, it, too, suggests a yearning for communion—with us, their descendants.

Two books published in the past few years, “The Cave Painters” (2006), by Gregory Curtis, and “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” (2005), by R. Dale Guthrie, approach the controversy generated by their subject from different perspectives. Guthrie is an encyclopedic polymath who believes he can “decode” prehistory. Curtis, a former editor of Texas Monthly, is a literary detective (his previous book, on the Venus de Milo, also concerned the obscure provenance of an archaic masterpiece), and in quietly enthralling prose, without hurry or flamboyance, he spins two narratives. (The shorter one, as he notes, covers a few million years, and the longer one, the past century.)

I packed both volumes, along with some hiking boots, protein bars, and other survival gear, all of it unnecessary, for my sojourn in the Ardèche. My destination was a Spartan summer camp—a concrete barracks in a valley near the Pont d’Arc. It is owned by the regional government, and normally houses groups of schoolchildren on subsidized holidays. But twice a year, for a couple of weeks in the spring and the autumn, the camp is a base for the Chauvet team. They, and only they, are admitted to the cave (and sometimes not even they: last October, the research session was cancelled because the climate hadn’t restabilized). Access is so strictly limited not only because traffic causes contamination but also because the French government has been embroiled for thirteen years in multimillion-dollar litigation with Jean-Marie Chauvet and his partners, as well as with the owners of the land on which they found the cave. (The finders are entitled to royalties from reproductions of the art, while the owners are entitled to compensation for a treasure that, at least technically, is their property—the Napoleonic laws, modified in the nineteen-fifties, that give the Republic authority to dispose of any minerals or metals beneath the soil do not apply to cave paintings. Had Chauvet been a gold mine, the suit couldn’t have been brought.)

By dusk on the first night, most of the researchers had assembled in the cafeteria for an excellent dinner of rabbit fricassée, served with a Côtes du Vivarais, and followed by a selection of local cheeses. (The Ardèche is a gourmet’s paradise, and the camp chef was a tough former sailor from Marseilles whose speech and cooking were equally pungent.) Among the senior team members, Evelyne Debard is a geologist, as is Norbert Aujoulat. He is a former director of research at Lascaux, and the author of a fine book on its art, who calls himself “an underground man.” Marc Azéma is a documentary filmmaker who specializes in archeology. Carole Fritz and Gilles Tosello, a husband and wife from Toulouse, are experts in parietal art, and Tosello is a graphic artist whose heroically patient, stroke-by-stroke tracings of the cave’s signs and images are essential to their study. Jean-Marc Elalouf, a geneticist, and the author of a poetic essay on Chauvet, has, with a team of graduate students, sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of the cave’s numerous bears. They pocked the floor with their hibernation burrows, and, in a space known as the Skull Chamber, a bear’s cranium sits on a flat, altar-like pedestal—perhaps enshrined there by the artists. The grotto is littered with other ursine remains, and some of the bones seem to have been planted in the sediment or stuck with intent into the fissured walls. (No human DNA has yet surfaced, and Elalouf doesn’t expect to find any.) Dominique Baffier, an official at the Ministry of Culture, is Chauvet’s curator. She coördinates the research and conservation. Jean-Michel Geneste, an archeologist, is the director of the project, a post he assumed in 2001, when Jean Clottes, at sixty-seven, took mandatory retirement.

Clottes is a hero of Gregory Curtis’s “The Cave Painters,” one of the “giants” in a line of willful, brilliant, and often eccentric personalities who have shaped a discipline that prides itself on scientific detachment but has been a battleground for the kind of turf wars that were absent from the caves themselves. No human conflict is recorded in cave art, although at three separate sites there are four ambiguous drawings of a creature with a man’s limbs and torso, pierced with spearlike lines. More pertinent, perhaps, is a famous vignette in the shaft at Lascaux. It depicts a rather comical stick figure with an avian beak or mask, a puny physique, and a long skinny penis. He and his erect member seem to have rigor mortis. He is flat on his back at the feet of an exquisitely realistic wounded bison, whose intestines are spilling out. The bison’s glance is turned away, but it might have an ironic smile. Could the subject be hubris? Whatever it represents, some mythic contest—and the struggle of prehistorians to interpret their subject is such a contest—has ended in a draw.

Curtis profiles a dynasty of interpreters, beginning with the Spanish nobleman Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who discovered Altamira in 1879—it was on his property. (Parts of Niaux and Mas d’Azil, two gigantic painted caves in the Pyrenees, had been known for centuries, but their decorations were regarded as graffiti made in historic times, perhaps by Roman legionaries.) He was accused of art forgery, and his scholarly papers on the paintings’ antiquity were ridiculed by two of the era’s greatest archeologists, Gabriel de Mortillet and Émile Cartailhac. Sautuola died before Cartailhac repented of his skepticism, in 1902. By then, the art at two important sites, Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume (which contains a ravishing portrait of two amorous reindeer), had come to light, and, in 1906, Cartailhac published a lavish compendium of cave painting that was subsidized by the Prince of Monaco. The book’s much admired illustrations of Altamira were the work of a young priest with a painterly eye, Henri Breuil, who, in the course of half a century, became known as the Pope of Prehistory. He divided the era into four periods, and dated the art by its style and appearance. Aurignacian, the oldest, was followed by Perigordian (later known as Gravettian), Solutrean, and Magdalenian. They were named for type-sites in France: Aurignac, La Gravette, Solutré, and La Madeleine. But Breuil’s theory about the art’s meaning—that it related to rituals of “hunting magic”—was discredited by subsequent studies.

During the Second World War, Max Raphael, a German art historian who had studied the caves of the Dordogne before fleeing the Nazis to New York, was looking for clues to the art’s meaning in its thematic unity. He concluded that the animals represented clan totems, and that the paintings depicted strife and alliances—an archaic saga. In 1951, the year before Raphael died, he sent an extract of his writings to Annette Laming-Emperaire, a young French archeologist who shared his conviction that “prehistory cannot be reconstructed with the aid of ethnography.” Beware, in other words, of analogue reasoning, because no one should presume to parse the icons and figures of a vanished society by comparing them with the art of hunter-gatherers from more recent eras. In 1962, she published a doctoral thesis that made her famous. “The Meaning of Paleolithic Rock Art” dismissed the various, too creative theories of its predecessors, and, with them, any residual nineteenth-century prejudice or romance about the “primitive” mind. Laming-Emperaire’s structuralist methodology is still in use, much facilitated by computer science. It involves compiling minutely detailed inventories and diagrams of the way that species are grouped on the cave walls; of their gender, frequency, and position; and of their relation to the signs and handprints that often appear close to them. In “Lascaux” (2005), Norbert Aujoulat explains how he and his colleagues added time to the equation. Analyzing the order of superimposed images, they determined that wherever horses, aurochs, and stags appear on the same panel, the horse is beneath, the aurochs in the middle, and the stag on top, and 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.

Laming-Emperaire had an eminent thesis adviser, André Leroi-Gourhan, who revolutionized the practice of excavation by recognizing that a vertical dig destroys the context of a site. In twenty years (1964-84) of insanely painstaking labor—scraping the soil in small horizontal squares at Pincevent, a twelve-thousand-year-old campsite on the Seine—he and his disciples gave us one of the richest pictures to date of Paleolithic life as the Old Stone Age was ending.

A new age in the science of prehistory had begun in 1949, when radiocarbon dating was invented by Willard Libby, a chemist from Chicago. One of Libby’s first experiments was on a piece of charcoal from Lascaux. Breuil had, incorrectly, it turns out, classified the cave as Perigordian. (It is Magdalenian.) He had also made the Darwinian assumption that the most ancient art was the most primitive, and Leroi-Gourhan worked on the same premise. In that respect, Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.

Jean Clottes is a tall, cordial man of seventy-four, who still attends the biannual sessions at Chauvet, conducting his own research (this April, he and Marc Azéma found a new panel of signs), while continuing to travel and lecture widely. The latest addition to his bibliography, “Cave Art,” a luxuriously illustrated “imaginary museum” of the Old Stone Age, is due out from Phaidon this summer.

Clottes’s eminence in his field was never preordained. He once taught high-school English in Foix, a city in the Pyrenees, near the Andorran border, which is an epicenter for decorated caves. He studied archeology in his spare time, and earned a doctorate at forty-one, when he quit teaching. He had been moonlighting in a job that gave him privileged access to new caves, and an impressive calling card—as the director of prehistory for the Midi-Pyrenees—but a nominal salary. The appointment was made official in 1971, and for the next two decades Clottes was usually the first responder at the scene of a new discovery. The most sensational find, before Chauvet, was Cosquer—a painted cave near Marseilles that could be reached only through a treacherous underwater tunnel, in which three divers had drowned. Like Altamira, Cosquer was, at first, attacked as a hoax, and some of the press coverage impeached Clottes’s integrity as its authenticator. He could judge its art only from photographs, but, in 1992, a year after Cosquer was revealed, carbon dating proved that the earliest paintings are at least twenty-seven thousand years old. That year, the Ministry of Culture elevated him to the rank of inspector general.

At the base camp, Clottes bunked down, as did everyone, in a dorm room, and braved the morning hoarfrost for a dash to the communal showers. There is a boyish quality to his energy and conviction. (At sixty-nine, he learned to scuba dive so that he could finally explore Cosquer himself.) One evening, he showed us a film about his “baptism,” in 2007, as an honorary Tuareg; the North African nomads crowned him with a turban steeped in indigo that stained his forehead, and he danced to their drums by a Saharan campfire. Among his own sometimes fractious tribesmen, Clottes also commands the respect due an unusually vigorous elder, and it was hard to keep pace with him as he scampered on his long legs up the steep cliff to Chauvet, talking with verve the entire way.

The path skirts a vineyard, then veers up into the woods, emerging onto a corniche—a natural terrace with a rocky overhang on one side, and a precipitous drop on the other. “En route to Chauvet, the painters might have sheltered here or prepared their pigments. Looking at the valley and the river gorge, they saw what we do,” Clottes said, indicating a magnificent view. “The topography hasn’t changed much, except that the Ice Age vegetation was much sparser: mostly evergreens, like fir and pine. Without all the greenery, the resemblance of the Pont d’Arc to a giant mammoth would have been even more dramatic. But nothing of the landscape—clouds, earth, sun, moon, rivers, or plant life, and, only rarely, a horizon—figures in cave art. It’s one among many striking omissions.”

Where the terrace ended, we plunged back into the underbrush, following a track obstructed by rocks and brambles, and, after about half an hour of climbing, we arrived at the entrance that Jean-Marie Chauvet and his partners discovered. (The prehistoric entrance has been plugged, for millennia, by a landslide.) A shallow cave at the trailhead has been fitted out as a storeroom for gear and supplies. From here, a wooden ramp guides one along a narrow ledge, shaped like a horseshoe, that was formed when the cliffs receded, to a massive metal door that’s as well defended—with voice alarms, video surveillance, and a double key system—as a bank vault. Some members of the team relaxed with a cigarette or a cold drink and a little academic gossip, but Clottes immediately changed into his spelunking overalls, donned a hard hat with a miner’s lamp, and disappeared into the underworld.

On a map, Chauvet resembles the British Isles, and, like an island with coves and promontories, its outline is irregular. The distance from the entrance to the deepest gallery is about eight hundred feet, and, at the northern end, the cave forks into two horn-shaped branches. In some places, like the grotto that Éliette Brunel first plumbed in 1994 (it is named for her), the terrain is rocky and chaotic, while in others, like the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, the walls and floor are relatively smooth. (In the nineteen-nineties, a metal catwalk was installed to protect the cave bed.) The ceilings of the principal galleries vary in height from about five to forty feet, but there are passages and alcoves where an adult has to kneel or crawl. Twenty-six thousand years ago (six millennia after the first paintings were created), a lone adolescent left his footprints and torch swipes in the furthest reaches of the western horn, the Gallery of the Crosshatching.

The Megaloceros Gallery—a funnel in the eastern horn named for the huge, elklike herbivores that mingle on the walls with rhinos, horses, bison, a glorious ibex, three abstract vulvas, and assorted geometric signs—is the narrowest part of the cave, and it seems to have been a gathering point or a staging area where the artists built hearths to produce their charcoal. Dominique Baffier, the curator, and Valérie Feruglio, a young archeologist who arrived at the base camp during my visit with her new baby, were moved to write in “Chauvet Cave” (2001), a book of essays and photography on the team’s research, “The freshness of these remains gives the impression that . . . we interrupted the Aurignacians in their task and caused them to flee abruptly.” They dropped an ivory projectile, which was found in the sediment.

From here, one emerges into the deepest recess of Chauvet, the End Chamber, a spectacular vaulted space that contains more than a third of the cave’s etchings and paintings—a few in ochre, most in charcoal, and all meticulously composed. A great frieze covers the back left wall: a pride of lions with Pointillist whiskers seems to be hunting a herd of bison, which appear to have stampeded a troop of rhinos, one of which looks as if it had fallen into, or is climbing out of, a cavity in the rock. As at many sites, the scratches made by a standing bear have been overlaid with a palimpsest of signs or drawings, and one has to wonder if cave art didn’t begin with a recognition that bear claws were an expressive tool for engraving a record—poignant and indelible—of a stressed creature’s passage through the dark.

To the far right of the frieze, on a separate wall, a huge, finely modelled bison stands alone, gazing stage left toward a pair of figures painted on a conical outcropping of rock that descends from the ceiling and comes to a point about four feet above the floor. The fleshy shape of this pendant is unmistakably phallic, and all of its sides are decorated, though only the front is clearly visible. The floor of the End Chamber is littered with relics. In order to preserve them, the catwalk stops close to the entrance, and the innermost alcove, known as the Sacristy, remains to be explored. But one of the team’s archeologists, Yanik Le Guillou, rigged a digital camera to a pole, and was able to photograph the pendant’s far side. Wrapped around, or, as it appears, straddling, the phallus is the bottom half of a woman’s body, with heavy thighs and bent knees that taper at the ankle. Her vulva is darkly shaded, and she has no feet. Hovering above her is a creature with a bison’s head and hump, and an aroused, white eye. But a line branching from its neck looks like a human arm with fingers. The relationship of these figures to each other, and to the frieze on the adjacent wall, is among the great enigmas in cave art. The woman’s posture suggests that she may be squatting in childbirth, and the animals, on a level with her loins, seem to be streaming away from her. Gregory Curtis, who fights and loses a valiant battle with his urge to speculate, admits in “The Cave Painters” that he can’t help reading a mythical narrative into the scene, one that relates to the Minotaur—the hybrid offspring of a mortal woman and a sacred bull “who lived in the Labyrinth, which is a kind of cave.” Art on the walls of Cretan palaces depicts the spectacle of youths leapfrogging a charging bull, and that public spectacle—in the guise of the bullfight—has, he points out, endured into modern times precisely in the regions where decorated caves are most concentrated. “European culture began somewhere,” he concludes. “Why not right here?”

In the course of a friendly correspondence, Yanik Le Guillou gave Curtis a warning about indulging his imagination. Perhaps that sin might be forgiven in an American journalist, but not in Jean Clottes. The book that sets forth his controversial theory about the art, “The Shamans of Prehistory,” co-written with the South African archeologist David Lewis-Williams, and published in 1996—the year Clottes took over at Chauvet—detonated a polemical fire-storm that hasn’t entirely subsided. Defying the prohibitions against importing evidence to the caves from external sources, the authors grounded their interpretation in Lewis-Williams’s studies of shamanism among hunter-gatherers, historical and contemporary, and of African rock art, specifically the paintings of a nomadic people, the San, whose shamans still serve as spiritual mediators with the powers of nature and with the dead. 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.

Peoples who practice shamanism believe in a tiered cosmos: an upper world (the heavens); an underworld; and the mortal world. When Clottes joined forces with Lewis-Williams, he had come to believe that cave painting largely represents the experiences of shamans or initiates on a vision quest to the underworld, where spirits gathered. The caves served as a gateway, and their walls were considered porous. Where the artists or their entourage left handprints, they were palping a living rock in the hopes of reaching or summoning a force beyond it. They typically incorporated the rock’s contours and fissures into the outlines of their drawings—as a horn, a hump, or a haunch—so that a frieze becomes a bas-relief. But, in doing so, they were also locating the dwelling place of an animal from their visions, and bodying it forth.

This scenario has its loose ends, particularly in the art’s untrancelike fidelity to nature, but it fits the dreamlike suspension of the animals in a vacuum, and it helps to explain three of the most sensational figures in cave art. One is the bison-man at Chauvet; another is the bird-man at Lascaux; and the third, known as the Sorcerer, looks down from a perch close to the high ceiling at Les Trois Frères, a Magdalenian cave in the Pyrenees. He has the ears and antlers of a stag; handlike paws; athletic human legs and haunches; a horse’s tail; and a long, rather elegantly groomed wizard’s beard.

Clottes was hurt and outraged by the rancor of the attacks that greeted “The Shamans of Prehistory” (“psychedelic ravings,” one critic wrote), and the authors defended themselves in a subsequent edition. “You can advance a scientific hypothesis without claiming certainty,” Clottes told me one evening. “Everyone agrees that the paintings are, in some way, religious. I’m not a believer myself, and I’m certainly not a mystic. But Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis. The ability to make tools defines us less than the need to create belief systems that influence nature. And shamanism is the most prevalent belief system of hunter-gatherers.”

Yet even members of the Chauvet team feel that Clottes’s theories on shamanism go too far. The divide seems, in part, to be generational. The strict purists tend to be younger, perhaps because they came of age with deconstruction, in a climate of political correctness, and are warier of their own baggage. “I don’t mind stating uncategorically that it’s impossible to know what the art means,” Carole Fritz said. Norbert Aujoulat tactfully told me, “We’re more reserved than Jean is. He may be right about the practice of shamanism in the caves, but many of us simply don’t want to interpret them.” He added with a laugh, “If I knew what the art meant, I’d be out of business. But in my own experience—I’ve inventoried five hundred caves—the more you look, the less you understand.”

For an older generation, on more intimate terms with mortality, it may be harder to accept the lack of resolution to a life’s work. Jean-Michel Geneste, a leonine man of fifty-nine with a silver mane, told me about an experiment that he had conducted at Lascaux in 1994. (In addition to directing the work at Chauvet, he is the curator of Lascaux, and last winter he had to deal with an invasion of fungus that was threatening the paintings there.) Geneste decided to invite four elders of an Aboriginal tribe, the Ngarinyins—hunter-gatherers from northwestern Australia—to visit the cave, and put them up at his house in the Dordogne. “I explained that I would be taking them to a place where ancients had, like their own ancestors, left marks and paintings on the walls, so that perhaps they could explain them,” he said. “ ‘They’re your ancestors?’ they asked. I said no, and that stupid reply made them afraid. If we weren’t visiting my ancestors, they wouldn’t enter their sanctuary, and risk the consequences. I was terribly disappointed, and finally, as good guests, they agreed to take a look. But first they had to purify themselves, so they built a fire, and pulled some of their underarm hair out and burned it. Their own rituals involve traversing a screen of smoke—passing into another zone. When they entered the cave, they took a while to get their bearings. Yes, they said, it was an initiation site. The geometric signs, in red and black, reminded them of their own clan insignia, the animals and engravings of figures from their creation myths.”

Geneste agrees with their reading, but he also believes that a cave like Lascaux or Chauvet served many purposes—“the way a twelfth-century church did. Everyone must have heard that these sanctuaries existed, and felt drawn to them. Look at the Pont d’Arc: it’s a great beacon in the landscape. And, like the art in a church, the richness of graphic expression in the caves was satisfying to lots of different people in different ways—familial, communal, and individual, across the millennia—so there is probably no one adequate explanation, no unified theory, for it.”

For the next week, I climbed the hill to Chauvet once a day. A guardian, Charles Chauveau, who, by law, has to be present when the scientists are underground, took me hiking, and we scaled the cliffs to sun our faces on a boulder, watching the first rafters of the season negotiate the river and pass under the Pont d’Arc. Only a few members of the team enter the cave at a time, each to pursue his or her research, though because of potential hazards, especially carbon-dioxide intoxication, no fewer than three can ever be alone there. “In the old days, when you sometimes had Chauvet to yourself, it was awesome and a little frightening,” the geologist Evelyne Debard said. But Aujoulat felt more intimidated at Lascaux. “I used to spend a solitary hour there once a week,” he said. “I rehearsed all my gestures, so I wouldn’t lose time. But after a while it became oppressive: those huge animals staring you down in a small space—trying, or so it feels, to dominate you.”

Those who have elected to stay behind spend the day in a prosaic annex next to the camp parking lot which was built to provide the team with office space and computer outlets. Marc Azéma, who has collaborated with Clottes on books about Chauvet’s lions (he also filmed the Tuareg baptism), gave me a virtual cave tour on a big monitor. Of necessity, Fritz and Tosello spend more time Photoshopping their research than conducting field work. (Henri Breuil made tracings directly from cave walls—an unthinkable sacrilege to modern archeologists.) They digitally photograph an image section by section, print the picture to scale, and take it back underground, where Tosello sets up a drawing board as close as possible to the area of study. The digital image is overlaid with a sheet of clear plastic, and he traces the image onto the sheet, referring constantly to the original painting as he does so. This dynamic act of translation gives him a deeper insight into the artists’ gestures and techniques than a mere reading would. He repeats the process on successive plastic sheets, each one focussed on a separate aspect of the composition, including the rock’s contours. Then he transfers the tracings (as many as a dozen layers) onto the computer, where they can be magnified and manipulated. Describing the detail in a monumental frieze of horses between the Megaloceros Chamber and the Skull Chamber, Fritz and Tosello wrote, in “Chauvet Cave”:

Once again, the surface was carefully scraped beneath the throat, which suggests to us a moment of reflection, or perhaps doubt. . . . The last horse is unquestionably the most successful of the group, perhaps because the artist is by now certain of his or her inspiration. This fourth horse was produced using a complex technique: the main lines were drawn with charcoal; the infill, colored sepia and brown, is a mixture of charcoal and clay spread with the finger. A series of fine engravings perfectly follow the profile. With energetic and precise movements, the significant details are indicated (nostril, open mouth). A final charcoal line, dark black, was placed just at the corner of the lips and gives this head an expression of astonishment or surprise.

While the team was at work, I often stayed on the cliff with Chauveau, reading Dale Guthrie’s book at a picnic table. Guthrie, a professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Alaska, specializes in the paleobiology of the Pleistocene era. Not only is he an expert on the large mammals that cavort on cave walls; he has spent forty years in the Arctic wilds hunting their descendants with a bow and arrow. In that respect, perhaps, he brings more empiricism to his research than other scholars, though he also brings less humility. “The Nature of Paleolithic Art,” as its title suggests, aspires to be definitive.

It is a handsome, five-hundred-page volume composed, like a mosaic, of boxed highlights, arresting graphics, and short sections of text that distill a wealth of multi-disciplinary research. The prose, like the layout, is designed to engage a layman without vulgarizing the science, or, at least, not too much. Guthrie, who sounds and looks, in his author’s photograph, like an earthy guy, has fun with occasional rib-nudging subtitles (“Lesbian Loving or Male Fantasy?,” “Graffiti and Testosterone”), but they promote a premise at least as audacious as that of Clottes and Lewis-Williams: that our biology, expressed in our carnal appetites and attractions, including an attraction to the supernatural, is a “baseline of truth” for the cave artists’ symbolic language.

Nearly all the illustrations are Guthrie’s own renderings or interpretations of Paleolithic imagery (there are no photographs). A number of prehistorians are and have been, as he is, gifted draftsmen and copyists. But unlike the devout Breuil, or the cautious Tosello, Guthrie is a desacralizer. He admires the creative “freedom” of cave art—an acuity of observation coupled with, in his view, a nonchalance of composition. He stresses its erotic playfulness, even straining to discern evidence of dildos and bondage, despite the rarity of sexual acts depicted on walls or artifacts. (“No Sex, Please—We’re Aurignacian” was the title of a scholarly paper on the period.) The reverence with which certain researchers—including, one infers, the Chauvet team—treat even the smallest nick in a cave strikes him as a bit too nice, and, where they perceive an elaborate, if obscure, metaphysics, he sees high-spirited improvisation. “Some Paleolithic images identified as part man and part beast may simply be artistic bloopers,” he writes. (But the artists sometimes did correct their work, Azéma told me, by scraping the rock’s surface.)

Paleobiology is, in part, a science of statistical modelling, and, analyzing the handprints in the caves, Guthrie argues that many, perhaps a majority, of the artists were not the “Michelangelos” of Lascaux or Chauvet but teen-age boys, who, being boys, loved rutting and rumbling and, in essence, went on tagging sprees. It is true that among the masterpieces there are many line drawings, including pubic triangles, that seem hasty, impish, or doodle-like. In Guthrie’s view, prehistorians have imported their mandarin pieties, and the bias of a society where children are a minority, to the study of what, demographically, was a freewheeling youth culture.

Guthrie is both provocative and respected—Clottes wrote one of the cover blurbs on his book—but some of his methods make you wonder how much of the light that he throws onto the nature of the art owes to false clarity. By culling examples of erotica from a huge catchment area without noting their size, date, or position, he distorts their prevalence. His cleaned-up drawings minimize the art’s bewildering ambiguity and the contouring or the cave architecture organic to many compositions. As for the bands of brothers spelunking on a dare, and leaving what Guthrie calls their “children’s art” to bemuse posterity, the life expectancy for the era was, as he notes, about eighteen, since infant mortality was exorbitant. But those who lived on could, thanks to the rarity of infectious diseases and the abundance of protein, expect to survive for thirty years more—considerably longer than the Greeks, the Romans, or the medieval peasants who built Chartres. Can puerility as we know it—horny, reckless, and transgressive—be attributed to a people for whom early parenthood and virtuosity in survival skills were, as Guthrie acknowledges, imperative? Rash spelunkers die every year, yet no human remains have been discovered in the caves (with the exception of a single skeleton, that of a young man, at Vilhonneur, near Angoulême, and those of five adults who were buried at Cussac, in the Dordogne). That is a staggering testament to the artists’ sureness of foot and purpose, if not to their solemnity.

Afew days before Easter, I left the camp and drove southwest, over the mountains, stopping at the town of Albi, where the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, in a thirteenth-century palace off the cathedral square, has a small gallery of Stone and Bronze Age artifacts. I wanted to see the museum’s tiny Solutrean carving, in red sandstone, of an obese woman with impressive buttocks. She seemed well housed among Toulouse-Lautrec’s louche Venuses. By the next evening, in a thunderstorm, I had reached Jean Clottes’s home town of Foix, and found an old-fashioned hotel that he had recommended. From a corner table in the dining room, I could watch the swollen Ariège River flowing toward a distant wall of snow-covered peaks—the Pyrenees—that were black against a livid sunset. The Neanderthals had come this way.

Pascal Alard, an archeologist, met me the next morning at Niaux, where he has conducted research for twenty years. It is one of three caves (with Chauvet and Lascaux) that Clottes, who had arranged the rendezvous, considers paradigmatic. I had driven south for about forty minutes, the last few miles on a road with hairpin turns that wound up into flinty, striated hills. The site was nothing like Chauvet. There was, for one thing, a parking lot at the entrance, deserted at that hour, a bookshop, and an imposing architectural sculpture, in Corten steel, cantilevered into the cliff. (It is supposed to represent an imaginary prehistoric animal.)

Niaux is Magdalenian—its walls were decorated about fourteen thousand years ago—and it was one of the first caves to be explored. Visitors from the seventeenth century left graffiti, as did pranksters for the next three hundred years. In 1866, an archeologist named Félix Garrigou, who was looking for prehistoric relics, confessed to his journal that he couldn’t figure out the “funny-looking” paintings. “Amateur artists drew animals here,” he noted, “but why?”

Niaux’s enormity—a network of passages that are nearly a mile deep from the entrance gallery, which was used as a shelter during the Bronze Age, to the Great Dome, at the far end, branching like a cactus into narrow alcoves and low-ceilinged funnels, but also into chambers the size of an amphitheatre—helps to give it a stable climate, and small groups can make guided visits at appointed times. But when Alard had unlocked the door, and it closed behind us, we were alone. He had two electric torches, and he gave me one. “Don’t lose it,” he joked. He told me that he and some colleagues, all of whom know the cave intimately, decided, one day, to see if they could find their way out without a light source. None of them could.

The floor near the mouth was fairly flat, but as we went deeper it listed and swelled unpredictably. Water was dripping, and sometimes it sounded like a sinister whispered conversation. The caves are full of eerie noises that gurgle up from the bowels of the earth, yet I had a feeling of traversing a space that wasn’t terrestrial. We were, in fact, walking on the bed of a primordial river. Where the passage narrowed, we squeezed between two rocks, like a turnstile, marked with four lines. They were swipes of a finger dipped in red pigment that resembled a bar code, or symbolic flames. Further along, there was a large panel of dots, lines, and arrows, some red, some black. I felt their power without understanding it until I recalled what Norbert Aujoulat had told me about the signs at Cussac. He was the second modern human to explore the cave, in 2000, the year it was unearthed, some twenty-two thousand years after the painters had departed. (The first was Cussac’s discoverer, Marc Delluc.) “As we trailed the artists deeper and deeper, noting where they’d broken off stalagmites to mark their path, we found signs that seemed to say, ‘We’re sanctifying a finite space in an infinite universe.’ ”

Beyond the turnstile, the passage widens for about six hundred feet, veering to the right, where it leads to one of the grandest bestiaries in Paleolithic art: the Black Salon, a rotunda a hundred and thirty feet in diameter. Scores of animals were painted in sheltered spots on the floor, or etched in charcoal on the soaring walls: bison, stags, ibex, aurochs, and, what is rarer, fish (salmon), and Niaux’s famous “bearded horses”—a shaggy, short-legged species that, Clottes writes in his new book, has been reintroduced from their native habitat, in Central Asia, to French wildlife parks. All these creatures are drawn in profile with a fine point, and some of their silhouettes have been filled in with a brush or a stumping cloth. I looked for a little ibex, twenty-one inches long, that Clottes had described to me as the work of a perfectionist, and one of the most beautiful animals in a cave. When I found him, he looked so perky that I couldn’t help laughing. Alard was patient, and, since time loses its contours underground, I didn’t know how long we had spent there. “I imagine that you want to see more,” he said after a while, so we moved along.

Every encounter with a cave animal takes it and you by surprise. Your light has to rouse it, and your eye has to recognize it, because you tend to see creatures that aren’t there, while missing ones that are. Halfway home to the mortal world, I asked Alard if we could pause and turn off our torches. The acoustics magnify every sound, and it takes the brain a few minutes to accept the totality of the darkness—your sight keeps grasping for a hold. Whatever the art means, you understand, at that moment, that its vessel is both a womb and a sepulchre. ♦

Altamira is not in the Basque country, as originally stated.

Post truth and objective truth

George Orwell, which made accessible to our minds with his 1984 and Animal Farm two of perhaps best examples of what came to be known as post truth, said, and I quote, when he first discovered that there is no genuinely non-political language, from his trip to Spain in 1936: “Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie…. This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”

In 1984 he imagined a time when, no longer an instrument, language might become the exemplification of a lie that had gotten beyond any man’s control.

In Animal Farm, Pig Napoleon’s famous motto that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Orwell kept emphasizing that there is a truth to all things, that this truth is often so simple that it is we who are too sophisticated to see it, “that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back.” And he would tolerate no suggestion that consciousness might be ambiguous. Orwell sought a style of writing in which it would be impossible to lie without knowing it. He worked with what was conscious, to keep it that way. 

Believe it or not the above introduction was taken from an article written in 1957 by Jonathan Beecher. This article is highly readable and motivates us to read his lesser known work In Homage to Catalonia.

Post Truth nowadays, as of 2019

If you live in an English speaking environment, specially the US and the UK, it is generally accepted that the “post truth” exploded to public attention with the election by the Oxford Dictionary as the 2016 word of the year. The Brexit with its Brexiteers and their buses with $350 millions pounds outdoors of weekly expense to the EC from the UK, was a good contender. The winner of post truth was the election of Donald Trump, with his schemes, which do not need to be repeated. Should Brazil represent anything the idea that President Dilma Roussef’s impeachment was a coup and the imprisonment of President Lula was political, were by far the very essence of post truth and makes George Orwell an optimist…

The Oxford Dictionaries define “post truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” They also underline that the prefix “post” is meant to indicate the idea that it is a “past truth in a temporal sense, such as “postwar”, but in the sense that the real truth has been eclipsed and became irrelevant.  

Actually Post truth is a rip off from “truthiness”, defined back em 2005, by Stephen Colbert as:

“Truthiness (noun) the belief in what you feel to be true rather than what the factss will support”

Take a look at the video where Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” (defined as being persuaded by whether something feels true, even if it is no necessarily backed by facts) in response to George W.Bush’s excesses in relying on his “gut” for big decisions such as the nomination of Harriet Miers for the US Supreme Court or going to war in Iraq without adequate proof of weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, what started as a big joke, doesn’t make people laugh anymore.  

Weltanschauung & Worldview

Best start with Freud lecturing it.

When I see a phrase such as this one from Freud above:

Of the three forces which can dispute the position of science, religion alone is a really serious enemy. Art is almost always harmless and beneficent, it does not seek to be anything else but an illusion. Save in the case of a few people who are, one might say, obsessed by art, it never dares to make any attacks on the realm of reality. Philosophy is not opposed to science, it behaves itself as if it were a science, and to a certain extent it makes use of the same methods; but it parts company with science, in that it clings to the illusion that it can produce a complete and coherent picture of the universe, though in fact that picture must needs fall to pieces with every new advance in our knowledge. Its methodological error lies in the fact that it over-estimates the epistemological value of our logical operations, and to a certain extent admits the validity of other sources of knowledge, such as intuition.

I feel like stopping because certainly there isn’t anything else to add to the question… Specially when I see the dialectics he brings to it when he says:  

The scientific Weltanschauung is, however, markedly at variance with our definition. The unified nature of the explanation of the universe is, it is true, accepted by science, but only as a programme whose fulfilment is postponed to the future. Otherwise it is distinguished by negative characteristics, by a limitation to what is, at any given time, knowable, and a categorical rejection of certain elements which are alien to it. It asserts that there is no other source of knowledge of the universe but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations, in fact, what is called research, and that no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition or inspiration. It appears that this way of looking at things came very near to receiving general acceptance during the last century or two. It has been reserved for the present century to raise the objection that such a Weltanschauung is both empty and unsatisfying, that it overlooks all the spiritual demands of man, and all the needs of the human mind.

If you understood, there is no need to explain, if you didn’t it is useless to explain…Unfortunately what he criticizes from the last two centuries is very much alive in this 21rst and urging us to follow his advice to squeeze it out of our expectations that progress, science and technology will solve everything and Nietzsche was after all right…  

Although Freud sort of pre emptied the subject, and kind of try to fill it out with the science taken under its promesses, he closes the subject with the touch of the genius he was: He strongly goes against anarchism and the moral relativism implied and criticizes the hell out of Marx, even still before WWII, in the mid thirties, when he did this lecture, long before communism exploded.

Why  “Weltanschauung” and not Worldview

Because Weltanschaauung became the Zeitgeist !
Another germanicism…
I take it from English Language & Usage:

Weltanschauung is used as an English word, from the German because the English worldview is too vague and not comprehensive enough. (For anschauen = to look at, rather with the meaning “to take a good look at”, for schau = to show, display, as opposed to blicken = to look, or aussehen from sehen = to see).

Primarily it means a way a person looks at the phenomenon of life as a whole. Some people (particularly those who have not lived very long) have not formed any broad (inclusive, even “sophisticated”) view of life. Others consider a large number of factors before forming their overall view — maybe in their seventies — of the phenomenon of human existence. Typically a person’s Weltanschauung (as an English word we drop the capital letter required of all German nouns) would include a person’s philosophic, moral, and religious conclusions — including e.g. the duality of spirit and matter — and perhaps their conclusions about the origins of the universe and of the development of life. They would also have conclusions about the state, society, politics and economic activity. I suggest def. “A person’s conclusions about existence (however tentative) at a particular time of life, after taking a good look at everything they have come across about”.

To what I should add: “The meaning of life”. Which obviously has an even more open answer, because perhaps the best answer was given by Aristotle. who said: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

Post truth and objective truth

Point of View in Literature

This is a tricky subject. Strictly from the narrative point of view, you can have:

  • First person point of view. First person is when “I” am telling the story. …
  • Second person point of view. The story is told to “you.” …
  • Third person point of view, limited. The story is about “he” or “she.” …
  • Third person point of view, omniscient.

From the point of view of the narrator you can imagine the often used metaphor of the fly on the wall of a room seeing just what is in front of her eyes. Another good metaphor is that of the camera fixed on the forehead of the character who conducts the action in a given scene.

But… if you consider the protagonist under the Freudian concept which gives him an unconscious, and on top of that he may sleeping and dreaming, you are nearer to the kind of literature James Joyce is famous for in his Finnegan’s Wake. Or you are getting close to where Gianbatista Vico was wanting to go when he presented his ideas in his work The New Science. Better yet, you are creating a frame to understand what Marshall McLuhan wanted to say when he said that he had no point of view.

Finnegans Wake

Obviously it is considered the most difficult work of literature ever written and I have dealt with it from many angles separately, but here we are concerned with it as an example of point of view. Forget for a moment that it is not written in ordinary English and has a lot of second meanings in the words used and the famous assertion of Joyce that it is not about something, it is about everything… What doesn’t help, but let us stay whit the point of view only.

Finnegan’s Wake is about consciousness. It is about awakening to full consciousness. As any one who had to study it knows, it has a lot to do with Giambatista Vico. From Vico, James Joyce took the concept of historical cycles of four ages, and that can be used to interpret the book. It is said that an actual exchange between Joyce and a critic: “Your puns are trivial” “No.” said Joyce, “they are quadrivial” —four ages, four rivers. He also took from Vico is the Viconian idea of the unconscious, what Vico called “ignorance”, and how the primitive consciousness comes into awareness. To Vico the construction of the edifice of reality, turns into a falling into fear, sleep, guilt, confusion and laughter. The title comes from the comic song about the inebriated Irish hard hat named Finnegan who falls to his death and wakes up at his own wake and arises — meeting spirits (both as entities and as beverage) and lies drunk in his coffin, with a lot of confusion and a fist fight.

Vico also was concerned to create an understanding of the world differently than that Descartes brought about, with his method, which goes against the idea that Science can describe the word impersonally and effectively and provide a perfect explanation about reality. Vico thought that this was false and the only way was to associate it with the human experience and fate. 

In Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce proposes nothing less than a new explanation similar to that of the Bible, except that the salvation is for those who can comprehend and understand what he is talking about. Although this is basically impossible to this day, one thing is clear, he is the New Prophet of his new religion… 

Giambatista Vico

From Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, summarizing:  

Vico is concerned, specially in his major work The New Science, with wisdom, history, truth, causality, philology, rhetoric, philosophy, poetry, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of ancient and modern learning (as of 17th century).

The text consists of an overview (“Idea of the Work”) couched as an explication of a frontispiece depicting a female figure (Metaphysics), standing on a globe of the Earth and contemplating a luminous triangle containing the eye of God, or Providence. Below stands a statue of Homer representing the origins of human society in “poetic wisdom.” This is followed by five Books and a Conclusion, the first of which (“Establishment of Principles”) establishes the method upon which Vico constructs a history of civil society from its earliest beginnings in the state of nature (stato di natura) to its contemporary manifestation in seventeenth century Europe.

Vico and Descartes

In the work, Vico consciously develops his notion of scienza (science or knowledge) in opposition to the then dominant philosophy of Descartes with its emphasis on clear and distinct ideas, the most simple elements of thought from which all knowledge, the Cartesians held, could be derived a priori by way of deductive rules. As Vico had already argued, one consequence and drawback of this hypothetico-deductive method is that it renders phenomena which cannot be expressed logically or mathematically as illusions of one sort or another. This applies not only most obviously to the data of sense and psychological experience, but also to the non-quantifiable evidence that makes up the human sciences. Drawing on the verum factum principle first described in De Antiquissima, Vico argues against Cartesian philosophy that full knowledge of any thing involves discovering how it came to be what it is as a product of human action and the “principal property” of human beings, viz., “of being social” (“Idea of the Work,” §2, p.3).[7] The reduction of all facts to the ostensibly paradigmatic form of mathematical knowledge is a form of “conceit,” Vico maintains, which arises from the fact that “man makes himself the measure of all things” (Element I, §120, p.60) and that “whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand” (Element II, §122, p.60).

This limitation, Vico argues, could or should be overcome considering the passage of years and the changes in language and customs, to avoid the enveloped falsehood. Unveiling this falsehood leads to “wisdom,” which is “nothing but the science of making such use of things as their nature dictates”. Given that verum ipsum factum-“the true is in the making,” or something is true because it is made-scienzia both sets knowledge per caussas as its task and as the method for attaining it; or, expressed in other terms, the content of scienza is identical with the development of that scienza itself.

Ignota Latebat

In the 1744 edition, another image of similar iconography was printed on the title page, overleaf of the dipintura.    This image, which in the scholarly literature has become known as the impresa, depicts a woman with a winged cap seated on a sphere, holding a builder’s square and staring into a mirror, and it bears the inscription “IGNOTA LATEBAT.”

The scholarly literature still does not to present a uniform interpretation of all matters concerning the symbolism of the two images, but a few likely possibilities seem to have emerged.  Verene, for instance, writes, “I believe that the impresa and the dipintura are ‘before and after’ depictions of Vico’s ‘new science of metaphysic,’” and he goes on to suggest that “[t]he impresa shows metaphysic as self-sufficient and thus the producer of abstractions.  The dipintura shows metaphysic as the mediator of the divine and the civil and thus is a portrait of Vico’s new metaphysic.”  Verene sees the impresa as roughly equivalent to those metaphysical systems of the early modern era that Vico outwardly denounces in his work, the dipintura as an approximate figuration of the world of Vico’s philosophy. One should, therefore, be able to extract from the imagery of the dipintura the structure of Vico’s philosophical system and to define his position vis-à-vis various early modern philosophers by comparing the imagery of the dipintura with that of the impresa


Jouissance here as intellectual orgasm. Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one thing is replaced with a word closely associated with it. An example of a metonymy is referring to the King as “the Crown.” Metonymy is the use of a linked term to stand in for an object or concept. You’ll find examples of metonymy used frequently in both literature and everyday speech. You might use it yourself without even realizing it. Sometimes metonymy is chosen because it’s a well-known characteristic of the concept.

Teleology is the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise.

Promethean is acting like Prometheus, a Titan in Greek mythology, by being creative and original. An example of someone Promethean is a person who always rebels against just doing what everyone else is doing.

Verum, factum and Certum: The principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes, through observation

Hermetic Vision:  Western esoteric tradition involving mysticism and the occult.

REC: It is doubtful that Vico was based on anything hermetic. He is often credited with the invention of the philosophy of history. Specifically, he was the first to take seriously the possibility that people had fundamentally different schema of thought in different historical eras. I left the figure as it is because on the whole of it gives an understandable idea of his thought.

He is tied up with philosophy as it was possible at his time. He sort of imagine oneself like Heracles, (Hercules)for whom madness and divinity were two sides of the same coin.The centrality of a “Hermetic” view for Vico and the readers of The New Science is evident by his placement of the helmet of Hermes in the dipintura. The generic function of wings on heads: to indicate the power of thought to transcend its immediate circumstances.

Anamorphic: denoting or relating to a distorted projection or drawing that appears normal when viewed from a particular point or with a suitable mirror or lens

Ben DeForest Spring 2008 214.748 – Vico and the Old Science Prof. Walter Stephens Through a Jewel, Darkly: A Reading of the Frontispiece of Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova

He also sort of place anybody in the place of the divine eye, which is the position of the reader, who inverts the metaphors of mythic and heroic mentality to read their reversed metonymical “messages.”The reader will “feel a divine pleasure throughout his body”(jouissance) in the process of seeing the “necessity” of the ages of the gods, heroes, and men.

Vico’s “code” to the “reader-insider”was couched in key terms and references that would have been generally recognizable in the eighteenth century – a lore of philosophically interpreted humors, Stoicism, and Epicureanism enriched with classical erudition and broad reading in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The modern reader’s reading is enriched, when it is, with psychologisms,scientisms, and terms of mechanical economics, but the results can be the same if the Möbius-band structure is intuited.These make the search for pleasure in the text and in theory very much the same from age to age, and allow the same “anamorphic”wry insight into cultural institutions now as then.

The problem (REC) is that anybody doing this, is stuck in the surface or how deep it is possible taking the available ideas to exercise that train of thought…. Perfect example of the fly in the wall within a room, within a building, within a city, within a country, within a planet, within a solar system, within a galaxy, within….. reality!

With Descartes, you can go to the moon, plant satellites and enable anybody communicate with anybody anywhere, not to mention go there by plane, etc., etc., etc., With Philosophy, you are damned to go after your tail like the dog… Or you can chase your tail in a very complicated way reading Finnegan’s Wake…

Vico and Newton

Vico’s knowledge of prisms could not have come from Descartes.  Descartes Optics, which really is a dioptrics—a study devoted to the refraction of light—never mentions the refraction of light as it passes through a prism.  The first major study of prisms was that of Newton, who first shared his discoveries about them with the Royal Society in February of 1672.  Upon observing the behavior of rays of light as they pass through prisms and cast their illumination upon a backdrop, Newton concludes that “light itself is a heterogeneous mixture of differently refrangible rays,” and further, as the rays of light differ in degrees of refrangibility, so they also differ in their disposition to exhibit this or that particular color.  Colors are not qualifications of light, derived from refractions or reflections of natural bodies (as it is generally believed), but original and connate properties, which in diverse rays are divers.

In claiming that “colors are not qualifications of light,” Newton is disclaiming a fundamental precept of Cartesian optics—that color is a property only of light that reflects off colored surfaces (i.e. surfaces that bestow a color to light, in the same way that a non-frictionless surface bestows spin to a tennis ball).  As Newton demonstrates, color can be made to appear in any beam of white light, even when that beam does not reflect off a surface but simply passes through a transparent medium—a prism.  All light is a “heterogeneous mixture,” and not a uniform ray that admits to various qualifications, as Descartes held.  Had he this conception of optics, Descartes would have been unable to conceive of the various sciences as mere variations that ultimately together compose the universal human wisdom; for they, if they should appear differently, would indeed be different rays—“divers rays” composed diversely.  Vico, although he seems mostly to have accepted Descartes’s conception of disciplinarity by way of the analogy of different rays of light to the different scientific disciplines, rejected both Descartes’s metaphysics and his optics.  His is a Newtonian conception of the behavior of light.

Since we now have some idea of how Vico must have understood the behavior of light, we can begin to fill out the picture that Vico gives us in the dipintura.  We can be reasonably sure that the divine ray that emanates from the eye at the top left of the dipintura is a ray of white light.  It comes from the sun, after all, and there is no reason to think that it should have taken on any color.  It should, then, appear to the viewer of the dipintura as white.  The jewel on the breastplate of dame metaphysic seems almost certainly clear.  It functions as a prism, as I have just argued, and it is transparent and its surface smooth, such that the ray of light refracts as it passes through it.  Moreover, the jewel is convex.  It is not obvious whether the jewel has a smooth convex surface or whether its surface presents a single smooth facet.  Both interpretations seem to be consistent with the requirement of a smooth surface, and neither, to my knowledge, directly contradicts anything Vico likely would have known about the behavior of light.  The crucial aspect of our new reading of the dipintura is the appearance of the ray of light once it has refracted through the prism: this ray appears to the viewer of the dipintura not as a ray of white light, but as a rainbow of all of the “heterogeneous mixture” of colors contained in the ray of white light.  The ray is not different in its Being, in its nature: according to Newton, and as Vico must have known, pure white light, such as that which emanates from the sun, contains within it all the colors of the visible spectrum.  Considered through the internal logic of the image, the refracted ray is the same ray, is of the same nature as the ray of white light emanating from the divine eye.  Considered through the eyes of the viewer of the dipintura, the ray emanating from and illuminating within the realm of the divine appears white, whereas the ray refracted through the human science of metaphysics and scattering light upon the various institutions of human civil history appears as a rainbow of colors.

That the second bend of the beam of light in the dipintura is intended to be seen as a refracted beam—as containing a rainbow of different rays—should be evident from nothing more than a close inspection of the image.  In the 1730 imprint of the dipintura, the beam of light emanating from the divine eye clearly appears as a single ray of light,whereas the refracted beam is divided into seven distinct rays.  That this division of the beam should be interpreted in respect to Newton’s optical discoveries is put perhaps beyond question by comparison of the dipintura with a painting produced in Venice during the years 1727-29, entitled An Allegorical Monument to Sir Isaac Newton.    The painting was commissioned by Owen McSwiney for a series of works intended to glorify various English luminaries of the previous decades and was painted in tandem by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, the younger and Domenico and Giuseppe Valeriani.  The painting depicts, among other things, a fanciful setting of the experiment in which Newton proved that white light was composed of differently refrangible rays of colored light.  Although Vico had access to various books of philosophy whose frontispieces include imagery of light and reflection—including the frontispiece of Athanasius Kircher’s 1646 Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, which shows, among other things, a ray of light emanating from the eyes of a divine figure and reflecting to the world below—nothing in any previous frontispieces that I am aware of shows the division of a ray of light.  In the absence of any other likely influence, and in view of the apparent correspondence between the division of the ray that appears both in Pittoni’s painting and the dipintura, it seems clear that Vico’s image is intended to be seen as an invocation of Newton and his conception of light and refraction.This interpretation of the dipintura has significant ramifications for our understanding of Vico’s conception of disciplinarity.


Newton at large or what is really at stake

The case of light

What Nature was saying and they were not listening

What Freud has said about the same thing

Perception of Reality

(from: Man and his symbols – CG Jung)

This picture (by Erhard Jacoby) illustrates the fact that each of us, knowing the world through our individual psyche, perceive it a little differently from somebody else. In the picture above, the man, woman, and child are looking at the same scene, but for each of them the different details appear more or less bright and more or less dark. Only through our conscious awareness does the “outside” world exist: we are surrounded by something completely unknown and impenetrable (represented by the gray background of the painting).

What is at stake here is that there is no fixed point of view, but an evolving mobile point of view. As Godard had put it: Art is not the reflex of reality, but the reality of the reflex.

The movie La chinoise is available at youtube with English and Spanish subtitles

All modernist aesthetics revolves around this.

This subject can be tackled under several perspectives which ideally should be combined to create some understanding how it is our perception and understanding of the world and how it works our ability to learn from it. Let’s examine some of them not necessarily in any kind of order:

Point of view

Our physical capabilities and traditional forms of perceiveing reality at the end of the day generate a point of view, which is the final result our perception. Let’s also examine some of them, not necessarily in any kind of order

Culturally

Dante’s Inferno

How many languages there are at James Joyce’s works?

Although eventually you can find that ability in any of Joyce’s work, it is in Finnegan’s Wake that it becomes exceptionally apparent.

Perhaps the most striking ability as a prodigious mind James Joyce had is that with idioms. Scholars concerned with that split in terms of origin from “Small languages” to how should we say, “Major languages” or “Most spoken languages”. As matter of fact there are over 40 (forty) languages in his works. Some authors claim 70. I opened a discussion about that in the Encyclopedia in the article Finnegan’s Jargon. To my knowledge one of the scholars which has, how do I say, “collected” the appearing of idioms was C. George Sandulescu. He was Swedish and there is a page where you can take a look at his findings.

You can have two approaches to language: The one above took by Sandulescu which is to detect in the words Joyce used where they came from and what are the possibilities they express. This approach was pioneered by Helmut Blenheim in his A Lexicon of the German in Finnegans Wake, (1967) and O.Hehir’s A Gaelic Lexicon for Finnegan’s Wake , also 1967. There is also a Glossary of the Greek and Latin in the Major Works of Joyce, by Brendan O. Hehir and John Dilon (1977).

This approach just described  is concerned with morphology understood under linguistics.   

As you could read in the Wikipedia entry, there is a lot of nitty gritty details which is not what we are after and the concern with words, in the case of James Joyce, has more to do with syntax and grammar, which Joyce decided to blow up in order to create something new, very much in the same style which occurred with painting.

The second approach is to elucidate the purpose of something written.

Take a look at the following examples of that approach:

Having in mind that Joyce works were created in a Print Visual Culture, but he tried somehow overcome and get nearer to an Acoustic Culture. That is the reason why it is said that his works are to be read aloud.

The purpose of something written becomes complicated depending if you write to be read, or in the case of poems or songs, recited or sung, or to be read silently.  

This is a tricky subject because nowadays we tend to take for granted that everything should come some how printed as in a book and the language is stabilized with a very definite set o rules and meanings.

This has always not been the case, when the vernacular was becoming national languages and the predominant culture was oral. Joyce sort of “reverses” everything up and send us to an environment similar to the one which existed at the time when modern states and languages were taking the format we know today and take it for granted as eternally so. Take a look at the entry “Printing, Nationalism and Modern States.”

The bottom line is that the words you see at Joyce’s works are his main concern, coming first than whatever meaning they enable or carry on.

What he had in mind was Wakese….

McLuhan on Wakese.

This subject revolves around many points of view and perhaps one of the best all around discussion of what lies under Wakese, James Joyce and Marshall McLuhan can be found at MARSHALL MCLUHAN AND JAMES JOYCE: BEYOND MEDIA by Donald Theall and Joan Theall.

Victor Hugo and Gutenberg

Architecture is a major concern of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, (a.k.a The Huntchback of Notre Dame) not just as embodied in the cathedral itself, but as representing throughout Paris and the rest of Europe an artistic genre which, V. Hugo argued, was about to disappear with the arrival of the printing press.

Claude Frollo’s portentous phrase, ‘Ceci tuera cela‘ (“This will kill that”, as he looks from a printed book to the cathedral building), sums up this thesis, which is expounded on in Book V, chapter 2. Hugo writes that ‘quiconque naissait poète se faisait architecte‘ (“whoever was born a poet became an architect”), arguing that while the written word was heavily censored and difficult to reproduce, architecture was extremely prominent and enjoyed considerable freedom.

Il existe à cette époque, pour la pensée écrite en pierre, un privilège tout-à-fait comparable à notre liberté actuelle de la presse. C’est la liberté de l’architecture.There exists in this era, for thoughts written in stone, a privilege absolutely comparable to our current freedom of the press. It is the freedom of architecture.
—Book V, Chapter 2

With the recent introduction of the printing press, it became possible to reproduce one’s ideas much more easily on paper, and Hugo considered this period to represent the last flowering of architecture as a great artistic form. As with many of his books, Hugo was interested in a time which seemed to him to be on the cusp between two types of society.

The major theme of the third book is that over time the cathedral has been repaired, but the repairs and additions have made the cathedral worse: “And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows” and “…who substituted for the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels’ heads and clouds” are a few examples of this. This chapter also discusses how, after repairs to the cathedral after the French Revolution, there was not a significant style in what was added. It seems as if the new architecture is actually now uglier and worse than it was before the repairing.

What was exactly being destroyed?

Richard Ellmann’s book NY Times review, 1954

April 11, 1954

Book Review
By JOHN GROSS

ULYSSES ON THE LIFFEY
By Richard Ellmann.

N one can altogether ignore the elements of myth in “Ulysses,” but most ordinary readers, as opposed to professional Joyceans, are probably content to take the book fairly straight, as a slice of life with mythological trimmings. And small wonder if they turn for guidance to what looks like the obvious starting-point, the quasi-official commentary by Stuart Gilbert. Amid the immense literature which has grown up around the novel, Gilbert’s exposition stands out as something of an embarrassment. It was supervised as well as authorized by Joyce himself; under the circumstances, even the most dogged opponent of the International Fallacy would surely hesitate to set it aside. Yet what it reveals is uninspiring, and on the whole uninspired: a mechanical master-plan, with each episode allotted its presiding symbols like so many signs of the zodiac, and with the various underlying analogies–Homeric, physiological, et cetera–worked out in minute and often grotesque detail. An indispensable work of reference, perhaps, but also an interpretation of “Ulysses” which many admirers would be only too relieved to dispense with if they could.

One of the many virtues of Richard Ellmann’s new study is that he shows how far it is possible to move beyond Gilbert without necessarily discarding him. In his own attempt to elicit a basic Ulyssean myth, he takes due note both of Gilbert’s schema and of the somewhat different outline which Joyce sent to his Italian translator, Carlo Linati, but refuses to regard either of them as in any way definitive: for the most part he draws his evidence from that unrivalled source, the novel itself. And, even more important, he is primarily concerned with the moral and intellectual burden of “Ulysses” rather than its technique--to borrow his own distinction, with Joyce’s meaning (about which the writer was reticent) rather than his means. Provided we go along with him, a good deal of what might otherwise seem mere arbitrary pattern-weaving can consequently be interpreted, and justified, as significant form.

Reduced to its simplest terms, Mr. Ellmann’s book is an account of the ways in which “Ulysses” arrives at its final affirmation. Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom complement each other, move steadily closer together, and between them come to represent a liberating denial of both secular and spiritual tyranny. Stephen, steering a middle course between brute materialism and rarefied idealism, gradually achieves “a vision of the act of love as the basic act of art”; Bloom, more humbly, demonstrates what love is; Molly, completing the trinity, enables us to see that love is also “the basic act of nature.” And behind this sacred-and-profane trio there looms an unnamed, archetypal, androgynous figure, including and subsuming all of them. By analogy with Blake’s giant Albion, he “might be called Hibernion. One day he will be Finnegan.”

A summary as bald as this, however, can scarcely hope to do justice to either Ellmann or Joyce. What may sound, in paraphrase, like the simplifications of “Ulysses on the Liffey” are in fact elegant solutions: the main strength of the book lies in the insight, subtlety and tact with which the corresponding problems are first analyzed and thought through. It is also, one should add, a highly entertaining book, wittily written and enlivened by some ingenious detective-work. Never again, after Mr. Ellmann’s investigations, will readers have to puzzle their heads over such conundrums as why Bloom eats a gorgonzola sandwich, or the exact genito-urinary implications of Breen’s anonymous postcard (“U.P.: up”), or the concealed literary allusion in the joke about “Mr. Leopold Shakespeare.” At the same time, there is no parade of ingenuity for its own sake. Clues are followed up only when they throw light on the central design, and, conversely, Mr. Ellmann is every bit as spry and readable on the big metaphysical themes–Joyce’s handling of time and space, say–as he is on less daunting topics such as the inner life of Gerty MacDowell.

As far as it goes, the final result is as distinguished as anyone who knows Mr. Ellmann’s biography of Joyce (“James Joyce,” Oxford, 1959) would expect; lucid, well-proportioned, humane. There is one major (and presumably self-imposed) limitation, however. In clarifying Joyce’s intentions, Mr. Ellmann more or less equates them with the finished product: we are invited to take Joyce very much on his own terms. And unless we are also willing to accord “Ulysses” the status of Holy Writ (there are those who are), this means that we still have to decide for ourselves how far the myth can be said to work, and how far it tallies with our over-all impression as readers.

My own feeling is that whatever Joyce may have supposed he was up to when he planned “Ulysses,” the book which he actually wrote is at once too rich and too ramshackle to be adequately encompassed by any monomythic interpretation, even the most flexible. Mr. Ellmann is alert to the danger of unduly hard-and-fast formulations: indeed, he makes a good deal of the way in which Joyce deliberately wove “an uncertainty principle” into the narrative, while some of his most original pages are devoted to arguing that for half-a-dozen episodes the dominant mood of the book is doubt, and the foremost philosophic presence that of the arch- skeptic Hume (“Bloom’s day but also, for the nine hours from three to midnight, Hume’s day“). Yet in the end, by the very nature of his enterprise, he seems to me to be describing a work which is more orderly and harmonious than “Ulysses” itself–and for my money, somewhat less congenial. For all his epic aspirations, Joyce’s vision was profoundly subjective. He could also be perverse over and above the call of any uncertainty principle; but that is simply part of the price which we have to pay for his creative, formula-transcending energy.

As for the mythic scaffolding itself, Mr. Ellmann is more persuasive than most of his predecessors, but there are still many points at which he leaves me unconvinced–about the measure of Joyce’s success, that is, not about his aims. The famous device of identifying each episode with a separate part of the body, for instance: does it really add up to the “slow accretion of a human form”? Personally I would have said that the effect is about as “organic” as a collection of specimens in an anatomy museum.

Once we start entertaining our doubts about the mythos of “Ulysses,” it is unlikely that we are going to feel quite as comfortable as Mr. Ellmann does with the book’s underlying ethos. Take Joyce’s attitude towards history, the nightmare from which Stephen Dedalus is trying to awake. As Mr. Ellmann maintains, with considerable eloquence, a consistent social morality can be deduced from the novel, a rejection of nationalism, imperialism or any ism which makes for bigotry and violence. Against the poisons engendered by the will to power Joyce prescribes, however obliquely, love and lovingkindness. But if only it were all so simple. Surely the least we can do is to think long and hard, before endorsing Stephen’s view that all victories in war are equally Pyrrhic, or accepting, say, that the last word of Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock is Leopold Bloom breaking wind. At one level Joyce’s urge to abolish history may represent a selfless conviction that individuals ought to be freed from the forces which thwart them; at another it smacks of colossal arrogance.

Unless, that is, we can bring ourselves to think of him as a kind of latter-day Blake, authentically persuaded that it might be possible to hold infinity in the palm of your hand. Certainly there is a strong intellectual tug in that direction throughout “Ulysses”: Mr. Ellmann demonstrates how much the structure of the novel depends on the example of Giordano Bruno, with his vision of a universe where “contraries coincide to confirm their mutual participation in Being, ‘the foundation of all kinds and of all forms.'” But while Joyce’s imagination may have been peculiarly stirred by a doctrine which gave him carte blanch to search out hidden affinities, whether he took it literally is another matter. As Mr. Ellmann also points out, the Brunonian (or Brunoesque) pattern in “Ulysses” is superimposed upon without being allowed to supersede the more fundamental influence of Aristotle, for who one thing was irrevocably itself and not something else–and as long as Joyce distinguishes between Bloom and not-Bloom, or Stephen and not-Stephen, he is recognizably a novelist as well as a mythmaker.

Reaching out for universal significance, “Ulysses” remains rooted in the here-and-now of Bloomsday; and even if we agree with Mr. Ellmann that Joyce ultimately “outflanks the individual lives of his characters,” it is only because those lives have first been brilliantly and movingly realized that the book continues to cast so powerful a spell

Linati and Gilbert Schemes Compared

The original copy of the scheme is in Gilbert Harley K. Croessmann Collection of James Joyce at Southern Illinois University Carbondale:

There are differences between the two schemes which we discuss in Ulysses on the Liffey, from Richard Ellmann which we make compatible at Telemachus opening analysis

The compatibility between the two schemes and the possibilities offered by the Internet and computing are embedded in the scheme we use which is summarized as follows:

PartHomer’s Ulysses adopted episodePage number as at vintage Edition 1961 (brackets [n])
I -TelemachiadeEpisode 1 – Telemachus01 – 23
Episode 2 – Nestor24 – 36
Episode 3 – Proteus37 – 51
II – OdisseiaEpisode 4 – Calypso54 – 70
 Episode 5 – Comedores de Lotus71 – 86
 Episode 6 – Hades87 – 115
 Episode 7- Aeolus116 – 150
 Episode 8 Laestrygonians151 – 183
 Episode 9 – Cila e Caribdis184 – 218
 Episode 10 – Rochas Errantes219 – 255
 Episode 11 – Sereias256 – 291
 Episode 12 – Ciclopes292 – 345
 Episode 13 – Nausicaa346 – 382
 Episode 14 – Bois do Sol383 – 428
 Episode 15 – Circe429 – 609
III – NostrosEpisode 16 -Eumaeus612 – 665
 Episode 17 – Itaca666 – 737
 Episode 18 – Penelope738 – 782

The method is to highlight in red on each page of the 1981 edition whatever was built in with obscure or hidden meaning and that can be accessed through a “pointer” next, within the page or on the highlight itself.