Cave: 5

So the unicycling archaeologist presented his story about the Australian aboriginal who served as the medium through which “the Spirit” added some brushstrokes to its transindividual painting-in-progress, as analogically suggestive of the psyche of the paleolithic artists.  Thus (the analogy goes), just like with the Australian aboriginal painting, one paleolithic painting could be finished by one hand 5,000 years after it was started by another because in that culture the individual mind’s temporal bandwidth was so expansive as to minimize (if not abolish) the difference between the personal and the collective. Each was a singular form of all (in space and time) and knew itself as such.  Minds of individuals 5,000 years distant from one another could thus co-create a painting because they were taken up into an emergent aggregate/extended mind that liked to paint.  In Spinozese, the paintings are thus understood as the compositions of an aggregate or collective substance for which the individual painters were but so many modes.

While he lets it be articulated, Herzog doesn’t really run with the idea in the documentary, nor do he and McCarthy run with it in the NPR interview.  The shame is: they could have.  Instead they dance around it.  Perhaps both thought that the idea belonged properly to fiction and not to science and therefore inappropriate to indulge in, contextually speaking.  In any case, if they had run with it, they could have proffered more interesting interpretations of the paintings than they did.  Take, for example, these images:

The interpretation Herzog offers is that with such images the paleolithic mind represented movement (spatial translation).  In this way, he says, they could be seen as representing a kind of proto-cinema.  Okay, Herzog was pretty overdetermined to see in these images the foretelling of his own art!  But he could also have looked at it from the “Homo Spiritualis” angle.  Instead of proposing the images as representations of a single animal translating itself in space, he could have, following the unicyclist’s conceit, proposed them to be representations of a single spirit translating itself in time.  And then he could have rued with more force the shrinking of the contemporary mind’s temporal bandwidth to the narrowest sliver of the passing present…

Herzog made McCarthy uncomfortable reading a passage of the latter’s novel All the Pretty Horses.  How much more interesting it would have been if Herzog had quoted some passages from Blood Meridian instead.  For this idea of the individual being invested with the collective, being an offshoot or mode or eccentric nodal point of the collective–in essence, this thought of the microcosm-macrocosm analogy, the master metaphor of allegorical cognition–is expressed quite frequently in that earlier work.  For example, in these passages:

  • “For each fire is all fires, the first fire and the last ever to be.”
  • “…mute as gorgons shambling the brutal wastes of Gondwanaland in a time before nomenclature was and each was all….”
  • “Whether in my book or not, every man is tabernacled in every other and he in exchange and so on in an endless complexity of being and witness to the uttermost edge of the world….”

Imagine if Herzog had interrogated McCarthy on these passages in relation to the matter of the great continuity of paleolithic culture and imagine if McCarthy spoke without diffidence.  How much fun they could have had if only they gave in to the temptation of allegorical interpretation!  Each horse is allhorses, each rhino allrhinos and so each painter is allpainters too…


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