A couple of weeks ago I went to see the recently released Werner Herzog documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It’s probably fair to say that I still haven’t quite recovered.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about the Chauvet Cave, in the Ardèche region of France. The cave was discovered and explored in 1994, but that wasn’t the first time that humans had ventured into it: the three people who discovered it in 1994 found within it an extraordinary array of cave paintings, which were subsequently dated to around 30,000 years ago – making them the oldest known cave paintings in the world.
Before seeing Herzog’s film I’d been aware of the cave, and of the paintings – but only in the dimmest way: when I first read about the film, in the New York Review of Books earlier this year, I immediately remembered having heard about the cave at some stage in the past; yet prior to reading that article, if anyone had mentioned the Chauvet Cave to me by name, or if anyone had shown me a photograph of any of the paintings within it, I would have struggled to know what they were talking about.
I’m bad at keeping up with the news. Even with the best intentions in the world, newspapers in my house go unopened, and online articles go unread, and whenever I’m with friends I’m amazed by the depth and breadth of their knowledge about the world. I want to know more than I do, and perhaps I’m being hard on myself, but when it comes to the hard work of actually finding out about the world I get too easily distracted. I’m a terrible procrastinator.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is, more than anything else, a testament to the constant, unending curiosity of human beings. In many ways the focus is not so much on the paintings themselves as on those people now seeking to understand the paintings, and to understand their provenance and meaning. These people are not just the various scientists and experts Herzog interviews, both those directly involved in studying the paintings and those engaged in tangential, but (sometimes tenuously) related fields, but also Herzog himself: the constant soundtrack of the film is not so much Ernst Reijseger’s keening music, as Herzog’s endless questioning and speculation and wonder. How much you get out of the film may depend to a great extent on how much you buy into his occasionally esoteric lines of inquiry.
Herzog’s narration and interviews are something of a distraction in the film, actually, if a welcome one in that they’re of a piece with a film which is fundamentally about the human quest to understand the world around us. The real reason to see the film – as it should be, and as Herzog certainly realises – is to get a chance to see the extraordinary paintings up close, and in great detail and on a large scale.
Even having read about the film, I hadn’t realised before seeing it just how extensive the paintings in the cave are. One shot in particular stands out in my memory, a long shot which shows – almost casually – a narrow band of paintings on a wall stretching the entire length of one enormous cavern. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that the paintings are, in effect, very much like the murals we might see inside a church, or on an art gallery wall.
The most surprising of the paintings are those that depict animals that we now associate intractably with Africa: rhinoceroses (Rhinocerotidae) lions (Felidae); hyenas (Hyaenidae). Or rather, their ancient ancestors, though given the sense of wonder at seeing such creatures depicted on the wall of a cave in southern France the difference is negligible. Still, for all the astonishment and delight at seeing such animals depicted, the paintings that most captivated me – and clearly most captivated Herzog, too, given how often he returns to them – are those of horses. It’s not hard to see why: the horse paintings are beautiful, and in one image in particular, of a group of horse heads arrayed one in front of the other, there’s a palpable tenderness which anybody who’s ever seen horses nuzzling against each-other will surely recognise. In some way the horse paintings are the ones that seem most vivid, and most contemporary.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve been going every few years to London to visit relatives and family friends. I’m fortunate enough to know a couple, old friends of my parents, who live only a few minutes’ walk from the British Museum, and though I’m generally not particularly excited by ancient history I love going to the British Museum every chance I get.
The British Museum contains one artefact in particular which is probably my favourite object in the entire world. In the section of the museum dedicated to Assyrian artefacts there are a number of large statues which used to stand at the entrance to a royal palace. The statues are extraordinary: ceiling-high, they depict fantastic creatures with the legs of lions, the wings of birds, and human heads with long, elaborately carved beards. Yet for all that they’re collectively a breathtaking representation of human imagination and human endeavour, it’s not the statues which I so adore.
At the base of one of the statues, inconspicuous if it wasn’t for the Perspex box which carefully encases it, is a crudely scratched board game. The game is one which was apparently played in ancient Mesopotamia for thousands of years. The board itself is unremarkable as an object – but as an example of an essential humanity, as a representation of the commonality of human experience and human emotion over vast distances of time, it’s better than anything I’ve ever seen.
Except, perhaps the paintings in the Chauvet Caves. Of course I’ve never seen those in person, and I never will – but that wasn’t the reason why seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams moved me to tears on more than one occasion. I don’t mind that I won’t ever get a chance to see those extraordinary paintings myself: there’s simply so much extraordinary stuff in the world that if you started to consider how much you’ll never get a chance to see or experience in your lifetime you’d become paralysed by despair. No, the reason I was so moved by the paintings in the Chauvet Caves – the reason I’m so moved by that hastily made board game at the base of an ancient and ferociously imposing statue – is that they depict with great elegance and eloquence how, despite differences in culture, despite difference in belief systems, despite enormous differences in almost every aspect of our daily lives, humans, essentially, haven’t changed. I mean that in a good way: there’s a deep bedrock of essential humanness which clearly underlies us as a species, throughout the entire course of our history. Those guards in ancient Assyria who carved out a game to play one night weren’t just representatives of an alien and unknowable civilisation: they were two humans who got bored at work and came up with a way to try to pass the time. Those painters in a cave in what’s now France weren’t naked savages eking out a meagre existence: they were artists, observers, people who thought deeply about the world around them, and took great pride and care in their attempts to depict that world. We’ll never know what they were thinking when they painted those horses, and all those other animals, any more than we can ever know what any human besides ourselves is thinking – but we can recognise, clearly, vividly, and to our great enrichment, individuals who saw the world with our own eyes, and interpreted it with our own imagination. We can say, truly: we understand them – and, more significantly, they would understand us.
Image sourced from http://www.guardian.co.uk