Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I find myself increasingly drawn to the term "magic" (e.g. see this entry and this one...and, for that matter, this one and this one). I use it cautiously, though, since, like other powerful words ("love", "art", "God", etc.), it's been denatured and distorted via long misuse. "Love" is when two people deem each other particularly hot. "Art" is a gesture of personal expression, something like a dog's gesture at a fire hydrant. And "God", of course, is that stern bearded dude on a cloud.

These terms have had the life and power choked out of them, but "magic" still has some slipperiness left. It's still undefined, still a bit raw and wild, so something inside us still perks up at its utterance. It may be the last undefined word left, and it's no coincidence that it's also the only one with this mysterious effect. The very word "magic" conveys a tiny jolt. It's like...magic! How many words create the same effect as the thing they name?

But it's waning. The problem is that magic arises in realms like love, art, and God, which are at this point 99.9% paved over with conceptual concrete. Artists, lovers, and believers hardly traffic in magic anymore, and so it's rarely found. Yet there are still exceptions, and those anomalies keep us going as a species. We need them; a vague emptiness longs to be filled. We yearn to perk up. And so we pursue love, art, and God in various forms, hoping for a certain buzz.

There was surely lots more buzz to be found before humans became modern and conceptual. But sometimes we still manage an errant spark or two. A work of art might touch us, forging an unexplainable connection transcending the medium. Love might bring a sensation of profound resonance at a level so fundamental as to have previously been
unconscious. Spiritual seekers might drop their resistance to the all-pervasive underpinning of It All.

Or, more modestly, an exceptional lasagna might transport us in ways that can't be attributed to its constituent ingredients. Why, after all, do certain lasagnas have that power, while others do not? Why do some results amount to so much more than the sum of their parts? That's the magic!

In his film
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog takes us inside a French cave, discovered in 1994, containing the oldest known art, from some 32,000 years ago. The obvious surprise is that these ravishingly beautiful drawings are far more sophisticated than we'd have expected. The most skilled modern artists could respect them without condescension. The less obvious surprise, spoken of only indirectly, is the nature of their power. Herzog, the investigating scientists, and the cavern's discoverers all report a vivid and very chilling impression of presence in the cave.

You may squint and study the drawings as closely as you'd like, trying to pinpoint the magic, but, of course you will fail, because a lasagna's magic is never about the noodles, tomato sauce, meat, or cheese. As we analyze the art, trying to define it and conceptualize it, we miss everything. It's what's missed when our own art is viewed literally and technically. The thing our ancient forebears excelled at is the thing we've mostly lost - to the point where we can't even recognize it when it's in front of our face - or, more to the point, under our skin. We can only chatter in confusion and fear, like the cavemen probing the monolith in "2001".

The "purpose" of these paintings is a question so mysterious that both scientists and filmmakers pronounce it forever unknowable. And that is literally true. It's what can't be directly spoken of. It's the reason we ever did art in the first place. It's the thing that makes truly great art a little scary ("awesome", in the term's pre-denatured sense). It's the craved stuff we can no longer handle except in the tiniest doses - and which we can therefore no longer evoke except in tiny doses. This is a much larger dose.

Naturally, the French government plans to erect a theme park nearby, offering tourists an exact recreation of the cave and its drawings. Hey, just as good, right?

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