Some time in the fifteenth century, a manuscript attributed to one Horapollo was discovered and quickly went viral in Western Europe. The manuscript presented itself as an authoritative interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Following Horapollo’s lead, Renaissance humanists thus believed that the Egyptian system of signs represented a means of communicating the ultimate truths of the worlds of nature and spirit. They then proceeded from reading Horapollo to writing in codes derived and extended from his Hieroglyphica. Unfortunately (or not), “Horapollo’s” interpretations were for the most part purely fanciful; hence the kind of allegorical writing that flourished as a result of them turned out to be based on a charlatan’s fiction rather than an initiate’s truth!
This adventure in misunderstanding interests me for a number of reasons. Most pertinently here, it rouses my interest because it displays a kind of presumption that doesn’t seem exclusive to Renaissance humanists. It is the presumption of the triviality of the present in relation to the past. The Egyptians knew the truth, thought the Renaissance man. They had unearthed the very depths of occult knowledge and had forged a stable society on what they found. They lived in complete harmony with the cosmos: all was a peaceful procession from the land of the living to the Western Lands. If we decadents are to reverse the tendency toward triviality that marks our present, we had best be recuperating or returning to the ways of the old ones.
In the case of the Renaissance humanists, this reverential prostration before the past, and its presumed spiritual plenitude, may have been in part a strategic way of dissembling the novelty of their adventures in science, philosophy and art. In Herzog’s case, the attitude seems less strategic and much more genuine. Moreover, it manifests in those few moments when Herzog or one of the other commentators diffidently proffers an interpretation of the paintings’ possible meaning.
I am thinking especially of the ex-unicyclist’s attempt to relate the cave paintings with the rock paintings of Australian aboriginals. The latter are called upon to explain the mind-boggling fact of the cultural continuity implied by the former, a continuity that allowed a painting which was begun 20,000 years ago to be completed 5,000 years later. This is something that Cormac McCarthy found “astonishing” in the NPR interview with Herzog: how is it that a culture could last 20-30,000 years? It seems impossible in light of the series of cultural upheavals marking the last 10,000 years of human history. Attempting to answer this question, the young archaeologist relates how once in Australia he (or someone else, I can’t remember which) was accompanying an aboriginal on a trek through the outback when they came across an image painted on a rock. The aboriginal then climbed up the rock and added something to the image. “How did you know what to do?” asked the social scientist. “It wasn’t me who was adding to the image,” his subject replied. “It was the spirit working through me…”