We are at the New Moon, and I woke this morning still in darkness. It is not late enough in the year that 6am on a given Sunday is well lit.
Across from the bed, M’s shirt was laid across the weight bench. In the shadows the outline was clear and startling: A large cat. A jaguar. Or a sabertooth! Just the head and the shoulders in profile, with one front leg extending down and forward like a brace, the powerful neck cocked, the eyes low and focused. You know, that big cat look.
In the photo, yes, okay, it looks more like a bear, or an article of clothing tossed on a weight bench, but I assure you that at 6am this morning when I first opened my eyes, it was definitely a sabertooth lion.
I stared at the shadowy shape a long time. The contours were exquisite. I don’t otherwise spend alot of time studying the contours of large cats, but the musculature and modeling here were uncanny.
It was uncanny that a dress shirt would assume the exact pose of a mountain lion in profile, nearly impossible to create if you wanted to from a dress shirt under any circumstances, but also, and hinting deeper at something more significant than happenstance, it was uncanny that when I saw that inanimate object, which I know to be a shirt draped across a weight bench without any signification whatsoever except perhaps that we are slobs, my mind would interpret it immediately as something which in fact I have rarely ever actually seen: A noble cat, and a human predator: The least likely thing in the world to be in my bedroom.
This is a lens through which I wake to the world?
Chauvet was already 18,000 years old when Lascaux was first adorned with cave paintings 18,000 years ago. That’s rather incredible. Lascaux is the halfway point between us and the Chauvet painters.
These were not just doodles, but meditations, and their significance is beyond our reckoning. But why draw these things on that rock? Why underground? And why are these seemingly random representations the only ones remaining of our entire pre-history?
In the images, of course, we find the most basic human concerns: Threat to life and sustenance of life.
Certainly the fiercer animals like cave bears and lions would have been terrifying to an undefended human, while the most common actual human prey (reindeer), which we know from bones at the feasting sites, were not depicted at all. Maybe the edible animals which were chosen, like aurocs and horses and rhinos, were the idealized prey of rare feasting, or maybe the most dangerous to hunt.
There are no plants at all. And people, what few there are shown, are so stylized as to become pure symbol stick-figures, in marked contrast to the supple, realistic depictions of other fauna.
Through a window of mortality
No realistic drawings of human beings, that is, except for the outline of hands. And not really depictions of hands, but spray-paint relief of actual human hands from 30,000 years ago. And those actual hands are a key to my morning muse on a dress shirt become a predatory beast.
These hands are found all over the world, on every continent exactly the same, spanning over 30,000 years in age. They are usually in red, or rather defined in negative space by a red outline, like a shadow of red cast over the hand.
I will hazard a guess that the transparent silhouette is our own shadow on the world. The open space of the soul, of our subjectivity, perceiving (and painting) objectively outward onto the canvas of carnal life. The canvas of a plain rock wall in a protected place, on which we at some point instinctively imagined visions of terrifying predators and succulent prey, the alternating threat to and sustenance of our mortality.
The red is no mistake, if that is the case. It’s our lifeblood, the circumscribing imposition which at once defines us and the world around us – the fuel of our perceptions and sensations literally used to define us not apart, but as integral to that which we perceive outside.
Unlike the animals drawn on the canvas of rock, the prehistoric hand representations are the unimbellished rock itself. We are it. Any ideas of life and death, feast or threat, are superimposed over the union between us and the bedrock. The paint around them is only a way of perceiving differently what was already there.
That world around us is then in a way seen through the window our own human form, recognized as self and inseparable, to be held as protected and sacrosanct as we hold ourselves, an ideal world unblemished inside our own corporeal boundary of insight.
I am not the first to notice the cave trope here of the outside made as internal as possible in the earth. These drawings were made as “profound” as they could be.
And given that canvas, what do we then from the beginning of history record there onto that world which we see on the stone wall through ourselves as a portal, spread in the red beyond? Superlatives of plenitude and terror.
Those visions come from dreams, the depiction of which is unique to us as a species, in which we sense eternal predators in the shadows, and imagine eternal feasts in the shapes of dry rocks, and wake to lions by our bedside in the darkness.
What else could I have seen this morning in the shadows of our cave? Maybe next time a big coconut cake.