Friday, March 23, 2012

Georges Bataille, "A Visit to Lascaux," The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall

"Nothing could have rendered the presence of this nascent humanity of long ago more tangible. Yet this tangible aspect also amplifies the paradox proper to all prehistoric art. The traces of their distant humanity that these men left, which reach us after tens of thousands of years, are almost completely limited to representations of animals. These men made tangible for us the fact that they were becoming men, that the limitations of animality no longer confined them, but they made this tangible by leaving us images of the very animality from which they had escaped. What these admirable frescoes proclaim with youthful vigor is not only that the man who painted them ceased being an animal by painting them but that he stopped being an animal by giving the animal, and not himself, a poetic image that seduces us and seems sovereign."

In my opinion, this hypothesis equally accounts for a paradoxical fact that I would now like to consider in greater depth. The fact is well known. Whereas the Upper Paleolithic painters left us admirable representations of the animals they hunted, they used childish techniques to represent men. This negligence does not illustrate an essential intention in relation to which the representation of a man did not have any importance in itself; the representation of man only mattered in relation to the animal. It was effectively necessary to give the evocation of the animal not only the central value but a tangible characteristic that the naturalistic image alone allowed them to attain. The animal had to be, in a sense, rendered present in the ritual, rendered present through a direct and very powerful appeal to the imagination, through the tangible representation. It was, on the contrary, useless to try to make man’s presence tangible. In fact, man was already present; he was there in the depths of the cave when the ritual was taking place.

Let’s take a closer look at the only clear representation of a man found in the Lascaux cave. You see that it is crudely schematic. It appeals to our intellect, not our senses. It is an intelligible sign. I don’t mean that it entails a kind of writing, but moving from the image to writing, we would only have to multiply the signs; we would also have to simplify them and render them conventionally systematic, yet it is clearly a question, for figurative art, of a completely different direction, of another open path.

Let’s turn our attention back to the image of the bison, still in Lascaux. Now let’s imagine before the hunt, on which life and death will depend, the ritual: an attentively executed drawing, extraordinarily true to life, though seen in the flickering light of the lamps, completed in a short time, the ritual, the drawing that provokes the apparition of this bison. This sudden creation had to have produced in the impassioned minds of the hunters an intense feeling of the proximity of the inaccessible monster, a feeling of proximity, of profound harmony. Definitely a more powerful and disturbing feeling than if it were a question of a previously completed, known painting. As if men, obscurely and suddenly, had the power to make the animal, though essentially out of range, respond to the extreme intensity of their desire. This time it is a question not of rendering it intelligible—as with the human figuration—but of making it tangible. This time it is a question of manifesting the animal and letting it loose to live out one of the roles in the drama of the hunt.


  1. Ibid: I will allow myself to use a philosophical term here—you’ll see that I won’t abuse this privilege—it means that humans see themselves as transcendent in relation to animals. For a human being there is a discontinuity, a fundamental difference between an animal and himself. An animal is nothing, or, if you prefer, it is only a thing, whereas we are minds, and when one has a mind, one necessarily counts for something.

    Except—there is an exception—what is true for us was not true for prehistoric man. For the men of prehistory—even if we’re talking about the beings that anthropologists call Homo sapiens, our truly complete brethren, like Cro-Magnon man, who made not only tools but also art proper—insofar as we are able to judge them, animals were in principle no less like them than other human beings. Of course, nothing proves that this is completely and absolutely true, but it is certain that prehistoric man’s similarity with animals served an important function for him. We are certain that he confronted the animal not as though he were confronting an inferior being or thing, a negligible reality, but as if he were confronting a mind similar to his own.

    I went into detail on this point before talking about the close connections, the connections of sympathy, that united the men of the caves with animals… In fact, what is certain is that the images they left us amply testify to a humanity that did not clearly and distinctly distinguish itself from animality, a humanity that that had not transcended animality.

  2. Ojibwa Song Pictures, adapted from translations by Frances Densmore by J. Rothenberg:

    "hunting song"

    shining like a star—
    the animal that looks up's
    dazzled by my light

    * * * * *

    I'm living in a cave
    old Grandfather
    got arms
    with feathers
    I must be a cave-man

    * * * * *

    "song of the fire-charm"

    flames are shooting up
    far up as my body

    * * * * *

    sure thing!
    I'm a spirit!
    see me becoming visible?
    must be a male beaver

    * * * * *

    ["Adapted from translations by F.D., circa 1907. The drawings ("song pictures," as she called them) are ideographs recorded on birch bark, representing individual songs & extended series of songs that can be read out from them. The songs so depicted are almost all from the Midéwiwin (Society of the Midé, or "shamans"), the basic organizational form of the tribal religion. The individual artists named by Densmore are Debwawendunk, Odenigun, Becigwizans, & Nawajibigokwe. The structure of image-juxtaposed-with-text arises in the act of translation." —J.R.]

    1. ["The number of songs in the repertory of an Indian is remarkable. I have heard of an Indian who can sing all night for three or four nights, singing each song only four times and not repeating a single song. It is said that many men know three hundred or four hundred songs. I have never tested an Indian to this extent but have recorded more than 200 songs from one singer without any sign of reaching the end of his memory. This is more astonishing as the Indians have no system of musical notation. The only approach to this [a system of musical notation!] is a system of picture-writing in which the Chippewa record the words of the songs of their Grand Medicine Society, a secret organization. There are certain symbols which represent words occurring in the songs, and by the grouping of these symbols the initiated Indian knows what song is intended. He recalls the melody by looking at these little pictures. The songs are in groups of ten, and a member of the society has little strips of birch bark on which are the pictures of the songs, always sung in the same order.//Very old songs are highly regarded by the Indians are handed down from one generation to another..." —F.D.]

    2. ["The songs and teachings of the Chippewa Grand Medicine Society (Midewiwin) are recorded by means of drawings (mnemonics), understood only by members of the society. So exact is this system that a member of the society, on being shown a song-drawing, can sing the song, while widely separated members of the society draw the same picture on hearing a phonograph record of a melody. These song-pictures are in sets of ten, drawn on strips of birch bark" —F.D.]

  3. Michel Leiris, from "Trade Marks" [Last Writings] trans. by Richard Sieburth (Jan.1988/Feb. 1989):

    A conqueror whose sole dominion is the desert... A king whose only fool is himself... A reed that thinks it slyer not be an oak... A monkey at a mirror, mistaking himself for man... A Ulysses anchored in no Ithaca... An ethnographer who looked in vain for lessons among distant tribes... An atheist who worships the moon... A lover of myths who wishes they were nothing of the sort... A Philemon suffering from the knowledge that he and Baucis are slowly turning into trees... An Alice who stumbled on the snake in Wonderland... Once, a traveller in quest of a Promised Land... Now, a cork making its way to the sea... Henceforth, a man left to his own, only existing by half.