Clan of the Cave Bear Skull

June 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

Chauvet Cave painting


Last weekend I saw The Cave of Forbidden Dreams, by Werner Herzog. Only in France are scientists so attuned to art, so fluent in their discussions of Picasso and the freshness and boldness of the line. I immediately wondered how to befriend one of these charming and friendly people, or how to break through the steel door and sneak in to the cave. The as-if-done-yesterday paintings of horses, bison, lions and rhinoceros outlined against the bulging walls, surrounded by cave bear and other animal skulls, claw marks on the walls, paw marks on the floor, and thousands of years of crystalline stalactites and stalagmites will be destroyed eventually, as everything is, so why can’t I see it now? I know, I know, the world was not made for me alone, but I still wish I could sneak in.

Herzog was fondest of the painting of the female pubis with the bison head nestling in it (the only human image; and in the stone, the “steps of an eight-year-old boy beside those of a wolf.” I didn’t know you could tell sex from a footprint in stone. The lions were my favorite. Liking cats must be hardwired into humanity: the artists, possible prey to those lions, thought they were beautiful too, and deeply, for lack of a better word “human.”

France no longer has any of that, except for horses, but they do have albino crocodiles, who live in the hot baths created by the nuclear plants and maintained by the French nanny state which loves its monstrosities (and that’s a good thing). You’ll have to see the movie. Suffice it to say Herzog ends with a suggestion that modern humans are like the albino crocs: utterly foreign to the people of the cave; very weird; kinda cute. Or that’s how I took it.

Saturday was my wedding anniversary. In the morning, Charles and I had a loving discussion about our cats and the decades and I longed to be with him in Florida, floating on the waves like an albino crocodile. Today, I’m remembering my wedding day: light rain; my mother’s house on the ocean, me at 22 in my green dress, astonished to realize that I was actually the center of benevolent attention. It was something outside of my imagination. It eclipsed the marital union, which had, in most respects, already taken place.

The past clings to me, or me to it. Maybe it’s a ball and chain and maybe it’s the intemperate dwarf in fairy tales: if you refuse to carry him where he wants to go, you’ll miss the grand reward…in my profession we call it “material.”

Also, last weekend, the news about gay marriage in New York hit. A wild extravaganza took place under my window: I live right above the parade route. There was so much joy in the air, and so many different kinds of people, not just the usual show-offs, but an amazing cross-section of humanity, even I got a little rush. I do love New York. But no herds of wild horses gallop here, no cave bears sharpen their claws on the sides of buildings. Of course, there’s plenty of time for all that. Meanwhile, I leave my feeble marks, hoping the future superior race doesn’t build a parking lot on my corner of the Cloud.

“The Aquatic Uncle” from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

The first vertebrates who, in the Carboniferous period, abandoned aquatic life for terrestrial, descended from the osseous, pulmonate fish whose fins were capable of rotation beneath their bodies and thus could be used as paws on the earth.
By then it was clear that the water period was coming to an end, — old Qfwfq recalled, — those who decided to make the great move were growing more and more numerous, there wasn’t a family that didn’t have some loved one up on dry land, and everybody told fabulous tales of the things that could be done there, and they called back to their relatives to join them. There was no holding the young fish; they slapped their fins on the muddy banks to see if they would work as paws, as the more talented ones had already discovered. But just at that time the differences among us were becoming accentuated: there might be a family that had been living on land, say, for several generations, whose young people acted in a way that wasn’t even amphibious but almost reptilian already; and there were others who lingered, still living like fish, those who, in fact, became even more fishy than they had been before.
Our family, I must say, including grandparents, was all up on the shore, padding about as if we had never known how to do anything else. If it hadn’t been for the obstinacy of our great-uncle N’ba N’ga, we would have long since lost all contact with the aquatic world.
Yes, we had a great-uncle who was a fish, on my paternal grandmother’s side, to be precise, of the Coelacanthus family of the Devonian period (the fresh-water branch: who are, for that matter, cousins of the others — but I don’t want to go into all these questions of kinship, nobody can ever follow them anyhow). So as I was saying, this great-uncle lived in certain muddy shallows, among the roots of some protoconifers, in that inlet of the lagoon where all our ancestors had been born. He never stirred from there: at any season of the year all we had to do was push ourselves over the softer layers of vegetation until we could feel ourselves sinking into the dampness, and there below, a few palms’ lengths from the edge, we could see the column of little bubbles he sent up, breathing heavily the way old folk do, or the little cloud of mud scraped up by his sharp snout, always rummaging around, more out of habit than out of the need to hunt for anything.
“Uncle N’ba N’ga! We’ve come to pay you a visit! Were you expecting us?” we would shout, slapping our paws and tails in the water to attract his attention. “We’ve brought you some insects that grow where we live! Uncle N’ba N’ga! Have you ever seen such fat cockroaches? Taste one and see if you like it …”
“You can clean those revolting warts you’ve got with your stinking cockroaches!” Our great-uncle’s answer was always some remark of this sort, or perhaps even ruder: this is how he welcomed us every time, but we paid no attention because we knew he would mellow after a little while, accept our presents gladly, and converse in politer tones.
“What do you mean, Uncle? Warts? When did you ever see any warts on us?”
This business about warts was a widespread prejudice among the old fish: a notion that from living on dry land, we would develop warts all over our bodies, exuding liquid matter: this was true enough for the toads, but we had nothing in common with them; on the contrary, our skin, smooth and slippery, was such as no fish had ever had; and our great-uncle knew this perfectly well, but he still couldn’t stop larding his talk with all the slanders and intolerance he had grown up in the midst of.

Buy the book to read the rest of the story.


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