When Lascaux was discovered, a tall juniper had fallen over the
long-abandoned cave, lifting up with its roots a large mass of earth creating
a pit, soon entangled with brambles. On September 8, 1940, Marcel Ravidat (a
young garage hand from nearby Montignac), was drawn to the pit by his barking
dog, caught in the undergrowth. While cutting the dog out, he discovered a dead
donkey and, under it, a vertical shaft. On September 12, Ravidat returned with
his friend, Jacques Marsal. Working with a knife, head first, he dug down some
20 feet, at which point he tumbled into the cave.
Wicks made of 1/4-inch juniper branches were used in many of the hand lamps found in Lascaux.
Juniper as the wick of the cave!
Since the Upper Paleolithic, wick has become fuse as the conveyor of ignition for electrical purposes as well as for shells and bombs.
* * *
My book, Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld, examines some of the origins and developments of imagination recorded in cave wall imagery (for the most part in southwestern France) during the last European Ice Age, roughly between 37,000 and 11,000 years ago. It looks at theories proposed by others as well as my own two-part thesis that considers why such imagery sparked when and where it did. The metaphorical unfolding that can be traced back to a 30,000-year-old Aurignacian engraving of a horse head and neck--across which a vulva of equal size was superimposed--startles with the same refreshed energy as Allen Ginsberg’s “hydrogen jukebox.”
To follow poetry back to Cro-Magnon metaphors not only hits real bedrock- -a genuine back wall- -but gains a connection to the continuum during which imagination first flourished. My growing awareness of the caves led to the recognition that, as an artist, I belong to a pre-tradition that includes the earliest nights and days of soul-making.
This book is also an attempt to answer the first question that the science writer Alexander Marshack fired at me when he walked into our kitchen in the French Dordogne in the spring of 1974:
“What is a poet doing in the caves?”
* * *
In 1955, Charles Olson wrote two letters to the young poet Ed Dorn, later revised as A Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn. I read this compilation in the late 1960s. At one point, Olson argued:
PRIMARY DOCUMENTS. And to hook on here is a lifetime of assiduity. Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it. And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might take 14 years). And you’re in, forever.
His admonition is to Dorn as a novice, and rings with a certainty that at sixty-four I can only partially share. But it planted a seed in me for the writing of this book. My aim is not to know more than “is possible to any other man,” but to make use of a pluralistic approach that may result in a fuller “reading” of Upper Paleolithic imagination than archeological or literary approaches alone might yield. I don’t want to engage the caves in an ahistorical void or to strip mine them for “poetic” materials. Among other things, I want to incorporate their imagery into poetry as a primary antecedent dimension, in effect opening a trap door in poetry’s floor onto these unbounded but evocative gestures. As a poet’s book, Juniper Fuse is an attempt to reclaim the caves of the Dordogne and the Pyrenees for poets as geo-mythical sites in which early intimations of what we call “muse” may have been experienced. Poetry itself is questioned throughout this book: how can I make use of its strategies to engage materials that have no historical frame or recorded language?
Ice Age imagery, sealed off for thousands of years, re-emerges as a nearly disintegrated Atlantis in the 20th century, offering a basis for the “hidden wealth” attributed by different cultures to the underworld. In a century rife with alienation and hope lessens, Upper Paleolithic imagination implies that we belong to an undifferentiated paradise, a primordial underworld of un changing perpetuity.
* * *
After my wife, Caryl, and I began to visit the caves in the Les Eyzies area, our then neighbor, the translator Helen Lane, loaned us her cave book collection, and I found something of equal importance in regard to anything I might write: no poet had taken on the Upper Paleolithic to perform what Olson called a “saturation job.” There was the novelist and essayist Georges Bataille’s 1955 monograph on Lascaux and that was it. Henry Miller and Ezra Pound seem to have known of the existence of the painted caves discovered at the turn of the century, but neither of them, to my knowledge, visited caves or wrote about them. T.S. Eliot appears to have visited a cave in the Pyrenees--Niaux, Hugh Kenner conjectures--and on the basis of what he saw there he determined that “art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.”
The Upper Paleolithic’s resurfacing can be thought of as a retrieval of depth, of a bottomlessness that is not simply absence but one complexed with hidden presence and invisible connections. While cave stone might well be thought of as the tabula rasa par excellence, caves themselves are hardly tabula rasas each has its own character. For some, the caves’ sensory isolational atmosphere is experienced as spirit-filled, even as hallucinogenic. For example, grotesque and hybrid cave images suggest a fusion between early consciousness and subterranean “entities.” It is as if the soul of an all-devouring monster earth could be contacted in cavern dark as a living and fathomless reservoir of psychic force.
We see our present world of vanishing species not only against what we know of the immense and divers biomass of Pleistocene Europe, but also against the end-Pleistocene extinctions that eerily forecast our own. While climatic change, unaffected by humans, appears to have played a major role in early extinctions, there is credible evidence that from the late Upper Paleolithic on, especially in the New World, extinctions have been increasingly human-induced. So I’m haunted by the rock shelter’s name where our ancient and direct ancestors’ skeletons were first discovered: Abri du Cro-Magnon, or shelter of the Big Hole People. It seems that over the centuries our “big holeness” has increased in proportion to our domination of the earth. Today it is as if species are disappearing into and through an “us” that lacks a communal will to arrest their vanishing.
* * *
In the late 1970s, I found that cave imagery is an inseparable mix of psychic constructs and perceptive observations. That is, that there are “fantastic” animals as well as realistic ones. There are not only human figures representing men and women whose social roles cannot be determined, but others, with bird masks, bison heads, and peculiar wounds, that evoke an interior world, in some cases, shamanism. Instead of solely employing rational documentation (as have the archeologists), it struck me that this “inseparable mix” might be approached using poetic imagination as well as thorough fieldwork and research.
Thus in the writing of Juniper Fuse I sought to be open to what I thought about and fantasized while in the caves or while meditating on their image environments--to create my own truth as to what they mean, respecting imagination as one of a plurality of conflicting powers. I also sought to be a careful observer, and to reflect on what others have written, photographed, and drawn. Sometimes a section is all poetry, sometimes all prose--at other times it is a shifting combination like a Calder mobile, with poetry turning into prose, prose turning into poetry.
I also sought to bring to bear on my work a range of thinkers
outside of archeology proper. While I studied the writing of the Abbes Breuil
Glory, Annette Laming, Andre Leroi-Gourhan,S. Giedion, Max Rafael, Paolo Graziosi, Alexander Marshack, Jean Clottes, Margaret W. Conkey, and Paul Bahn, I also read C.G. Jung, Sandor Ferenczi, Geza R Mikhail Bakhtin, Weston LaBarre, Charles Olson, N.O. Brown, Kenneth Grant, James Hiliman, Hans Peter Duerr, and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. I sought to match my pluralistic approach with varying styles. Juniper Fuse is an anatomy, composed of poetry, prose poetry, essays, lectures, notes, dreams, and visual reproductions.
* * *
I believe that the origin and elaboration of cave imagery may have been motivated by a crisis in which Upper Paleolithic people began to separate the animal out of their about-to-be human heads and to project it onto cave walls (as well as onto a variety of portable tools and weapons often made out of the animals themselves). In other words, that the liberation of what might be called the autonomous imagination came from within as a projective response on the part of those struggling to differentiate themselves from, while being deeply bonded to, the animal.
This separating out of the animal as a formative function of Cro-Magnon imagination indicates, on a daily, practical level, the increasing separation between animal and human domains. I conjecture that this separation was brought about in large part by action-at-a-distance weapons (the spear, the spear-thrower, the harpoon, and probably the bow and arrow). Shamanism, or what might be more accurately termed proto-shamanism, may have come into being as a reactive swerve from this separation continuum, to rebind human being to the fantasy of that paradise which did not exist until the separation was sensed.
While the overlapping and intermingling of animal forms typical of cave imagery certainly evokes the historic shamanic paradise of direct communication between animals and humans, or otherworlds/ underworlds and earth, the strongest evidence for shamanic trance activity are the hybrid or grotesque animal/human forms positioned in relation to one or many animal forms in such caves as Les Trois Freres, Lascaux, Gabillou, Pech Merle, Cougnac, Combarelles, and Chauvet.
As we come forward in time the animal-headed figures become gods in human form with animals as consorts or antagonists. The so-called “Fall” is hardly a singular event, as depicted in the Bible, but rather a multiphasic expulsion from something that took on increasingly paradisiacal depth (and loss) as human beings became more self-conscious.
Cro-Magnon hand lamps made certain aspects of wall contours suggest
animal and human anatomy. A significant number of engravings,
paintings, and wall sculptures employ natural formations. In Font de-Gaume, a horizontal ripple in a wall that curves down into a cluster of fluted draperies is turned into a painted horse’s dorsal line, rump, and springing rear legs. In Combarelles, a stag lowering its head while drinking is positioned so that the tongue touches a widening fissure in the wall. In the Combel section of Pech Merle, ochre disks have been painted around a stalactitic “breast.” And in Le Portel, a tiny belling stag is painted on the ceiling of a tight cul-de-sac in such a way that to view it one must scrunch backwards on one’s back, head craned back in the same position as the stag’s.
It may have seemed to these early explorers that animals (and
less often, humans) were partially embedded in, or emerging through, such
walls, and that such presences only needed the assistance of some man-made lines to be completely present. As the animal was sighted partly submerged in stone, imagination, reinforced by actual modeling or engraving, brought forth its form. If a wall was “with animal,” then
some Cro-Magnon mid-wifery could help it to give birth. “To explore is to penetrate; the world is the insides of mother,” N.O. Brown writes in Love's Body. If we follow out the psychic implications of penetrating and exploring we might imagine finding a Cro-Magnon adolescent gouging a hole in the wall of a cave’s terminal chamber. By gouging a small cavity in the limestone this person would symbolically be feminizing the surface of the wall but would also be facing an unincadable impasse.
The simple but extraordinary solution to this impasse was to abandon penetration into for cutting a line across the otherwise unyielding matroclinic matter. Engraving especially was a remarkable solution as it allowed for a shallow surface penetration at the same time that it opened up a surface area for a laterally extending line. Once the line turned, a shape in nature was suggested; when it formed an enclosure, not only were “insides” and “bodies” at hand, but also the hole-making impasse had been converted into a successful hole outline. The hole that had become a line was a fundamental metaphoric transformation.
* * *
I believe that we make images not simply because we are creatures who seek to loose ourselves within a pattern’s mastery, but that the making of images is one of the means by which we become human. In this sense, to be human is to realize that one is a metaphor, and to be a metaphor is to be grotesque (initially of the grotto). While it is understandable to think that we stand on blind Homer’s and Shakespeare’s shoulders, it is perhaps more accurate to say that we stand on a depth in them that was struck hundreds of generations before them by those Upper Paleolithic men, women, and children who made the truly incredible break through from no image of the world to an image. The cathedrals and churches in which humankind passively sits today, listening to watered-down statements based on utterances of visionaries and ecstatics, were, before being in effect turned inside out, active underground “sanctuaries” or “incubational pits.” There people created the first electrifying outlines of animals while performing rites of passage, commemorations of the dead, rituals to insure fertility, and just messing around.
At the point imaginative depth is evoked, soul becomes involved. With the Greeks in mind, James Hillman writes: “When we use the word underworld we are referring to a wholly psychic perspective, where one’s entire mode of being has been desubstantialized, killed of natural life, and yet is in every shape and sense... the exact replica of natural life.” Behind such a definition is the Upper Paleolithic underworld: animal forms removed from their flesh and blood. These simulacra propose that the soul is always partly hidden or submerged, because the weight of reality lies in a realm we cannot completely conceive.
* * *
Previously, I spoke of the contours in the wall itself that gave
rise to some engravings and paintings. Such imagery could be thought of as containing
the figure’s emergent, or retreated, essence. Attempting to understand
how early consciousness man-aged to make the nearly invisible visible,
I thought of a moment in a prose work by Rainer Maria Rilke called “An
Experience.” After leaning against a small tree in the Duino Castle garden
by the sea, and having suddenly been filled with the most delicate of vibrations
that he could not physically explain, Rilke “asked himself what was happening
to him and almost immediately found an expression which satisfied him, as he
said aloud to himself that he had reached the other side of Nature.”
Is it possible that the “place” Rilke reached in the interior
or nightside of the tree was a “place” that Cro-Magnon people looked
out from? If it were, it would suggest that the locus of projection was sensed
as inside the material the surface of which was being painted or engraved. Of
course they must have had an intimate relationship with the surface of a wall
to be able to pick up, by a flickering flame, the contour that implied the potential
presence of a figure. Such people could be said to have seen from the “other
side of Nature” as well as outwardly, to have had no fixed boundary or
“reality principle” within the fluidity of the imaginal and the
Thus the double separation--from animal, and from mother-- endured by our
ancient forebears may not only have taken them to the wall but have allowed
them an encompassing access behind the wall’s undulating surface as ghosts
of their own potential. Do we today look at images that once were the rounding
out of an outwardly-directed, interior gaze, “the movement of a self in
the rock?” Are Upper Paleolithic images for us the worm casts of this
“The descent beckons..."