The cave of Werner Herzog
Mr. Herzog lets us know at some point that a child’s footprint had been impressed next to a wolf’s. He says, we can never know whether the wolf stalked the child; or they walked together; or they were separated by ages. These are the three ages of men–man was once prey seeking shelter from predators, then man came into mastery of the animals, & then he completely separated himself from the wilderness. Now we wonder whether we should go back.
Mr. Herzog offers two comparisons to the paintings in the cave. One is the dancing-with-his-shadows act Fred Astaire did in Swing Time: A startling comparison: The mood of the documentary is awe or reverence: & there is hardly anything more irreverent than Fred Astaire. This may be considered a suggestion about the innocence of play so well displayed by the experienced artist.–Or a darker suggestion, that the images made up in Hollywood know no more about shadows than that.
The other is the painting of Picasso. This would seem to serve a more serious purpose–the question is whether, after the high realism of the Renaissance, it is even possible for human beings to retrieve their basic or original experiences. Whether the heart could be freed from the conventions of the arts…
Mr. Herzog lets us know that, the paintings all done at the back of the cave, they could only have been drawn & seen by fire. This of course recalls to any educated man the cave of which Socrates speaks in Plato’s Republic. Mr. Herzog lets us know that before the cave painters moved into Europe, there dwelt the Neanderthals who, for all their achievements, had no arts. Does it take imagination for men to enter the cave? Or does it take imagination to become aware of it?
The remarkable ability to draw evidenced on the walls of the Chauvet cave has the effect of divorcing the ability to imitate from politics & religion. This discovery of a world less impermanent & maybe less opaque than the merely human world forces on us the question of human nature. (This is also suggested by the display of the famous statuettes of fertility, where femininity is exaggerated. & Mr. Herzog’s remark about the disproportionate size of the horn of the rhino, which would otherwise obviously denote merely fear, not male aggression.)
Is human nature anything but an image, like the images of other animals in the cave? Our awareness of our lost origins or that we are parts of an existence or history we cannot really scrutinize objectively–does it condemn our conventions as it condemned those we expected or desire to find in that cave? Is beauty the revenge taken on our politics?