Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Clayton Eshleman on Lascaux

At Nomadics, famed poet Clayton Eshleman (author of several Black Sparrow titles) has a really wonderful reflection on the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux. He writes, "The area known as the Apse is a cupolar ceiling once 9 feet above the ground (which involved scaffolding to reach). Over 10 feet in diameter, it is packed with over 1400 mostly engraved figures: animals and parts of animals, comets, blazons, ovals, barbed signs etc. The all-over impression created by the Apse is that of a location and a surface so special that it cried out to be covered with markings. As Lascaux’s “holy of holies,” it evokes a primordial star map, as well as a visual pun-filled labyrinth, a kind of Upper Paleolithic Finnegan’s Wake.

"Below and to the west of the Apse is the entrance to the 16-foot-deep Shaft. In the 1960s, evidence of twisted rope made from vegetable fiber was discovered, suggesting that the Cro-Magnons descended into the Shaft hand over hand down such a rope. On the Shaft’s lower wall, to the left of the iron ladder now used for descent, is the most marvelous “scene” in Upper Paleolithic image-making. On one side is a hairy rhinoceros, on the other a bison with its intestines spilling out from a gash in its belly. Aslant under the bison is a bird-headed man, naked and ithyphallic, quite possibly a shaman in flight who has dropped his bird-headed staff as he penetrates bison paradise. While there are some 30 hybrid figures in Upper Paleolithic caves (including two in Lascaux’s Apse) that can be interpreted as magical hybrids, the bird-headed man in the Shaft is the most solid evidence that we have for the presence of proto-shamanic mental travel, or the rudiments of poetry, 17,000 years ago.

"What I have briefly described are but a few of Lascaux’s truly amazing images, some of which in their lineaments, execution, and beauty are unsurpassed in historical art. In Lascaux, humankind’s greatest endowment, imagination, is initiated, empowered, and fully realized. It is arguably the most spiritual spot on earth."

You can read the rest of his short essay at Nomadics.

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