The Exclamation Point is a feature where I look at the moment a piece of culture made me go [!]. Today’s subject is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a film by Werner Herzog.
The paintings in Chauvet Cave, executed thirty-to-forty thousand years ago, are the oldest by human hand on record. Pristinely preserved, they feature some of the most sensitive animal representations you’ll ever see. When you look at the video images, it’s hard not to feel the sensation of “holy fucking Christ!” modern humans must have experienced when the cave was rediscovered in 1994.
Chauvet is French for Ghost: I’m Making That Up
Filmmaker Werner Herzog has built a reputation of stating his every observation with a nineteenth-century Romantic terror that the whole world has forgotten it needed. I once heard him describe baseball as “One man stands alone with a bat; the whole field is against him.”
I went into this documentary expecting (and hoping for) a savory mix of spiritual horror and nuttery.
In many ways, the story of Chauvet Cave is a ghost story: you have, on the one hand, individuals with a powerful emotional component expressing themselves to us over vast stretches of time. On the other hand, we have little idea who they were or what they were hoping to communicate. That is why, Herzog says, even people who aren’t total nutjobs feel the spiritual presence of the artists working when they are inside the cave.
People didn’t live in Chauvet Cave. Bears did. Giant fucking bears. Because I guess even in the Paleolithic, artists had trouble producing without a deadline.
If You Lose Your Hammer, Drive Nails with Your Soul
Toward the end of the film, Herzog asks a French archaeologist, who had earlier given us a pretty unconvincing demonstration of the atlatl, what he considers the human soul to be. Having once spent a semester translating Plato’s Phaedo from the Ancient Greek, I consider myself prepared for some pretty free-form definitions of “soul.” The archaeologist replies that soul consists of impressing an idea upon something hard.
English is not the archaeologist’s first language, but it is clear that he is equating soul with artistic expression. Yet this “hard” definition gives even Herzog pause. He asks if he would also include more transient mediums like music.
Yes, music too, says the archaeologist, but he does not back away from his fixation on hardness. Because for him soul is an artifact for the future.
Bear Claws Are Not Only A Pastry
Well, then what about bears? Are they also soulful? As the film observes, incisions from bear claws have left their mark over some of the paintings in Chauvet Cave. Caves are pretty hard!
In Ghost Dog, Forest Whitaker’s character informs a poacher that in ancient cultures, bears were considered equal with men.
“This ain’t no ancient culture, mister!” says the poacher, just before Ghost Dog ghosts him.
“Sometimes it is,” comes the reply.