Werner Herzog: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Glenn Harcourt

My coming into the world [must have been] a terribly hard fall. –Kaspar Hauser1

Just how hard and how terrible a fall, and not just for the enigmatic Kaspar but for all the rest of us as well, is but one of the secrets hidden at the heart of Werner Herzog’s miraculous and incisive new documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).2 Discovered by three cave-hunting friends in 1994, Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France has literally reconfigured the study of Paleolithic art. Sealed by a rock fall in deep antiquity, the cave contained a myriad of drawn, painted, and engraved images—an Ice Age menagerie virtually pristine in its preservation. So powerful was the immediacy of its visual impact that, as the three discoverers—Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire—related afterward, it was as if “time was abolished, as if the tens of thousands of years that separated us from the producers of the paintings no longer existed.”3

<em>Red Bears</em>. Painting on rock in red pigment. Length of complete bear: 47 1/4 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-D’arc, Ardèche, France. Recess of the Bears. Aurignacian.

Red Bears. Painting on rock in red pigment. Length of complete bear: 47 1/4 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-D’arc, Ardèche, France. Recess of the Bears. Aurignacian. Photograph courtesy Jean Clottes.

But this sense of collapsing time was only the beginning. Scientific analysis of the images and other artifacts amenable to carbon-14 dating showed that the artists of Chauvet had been active between 30,000 and 33,000 years BP (before the present). This gave a date for the paintings at Chauvet at least 15,000 years earlier than that of those at the premier Paleolithic cave site at Lascaux in the Dordogne, where activity has likewise been radiocarbon dated.4 Further, it had previously been assumed that the level of skill—especially skill in naturalistic rendering—exhibited by the Lascaux artists virtually necessitated a considerable period of technical development, when technique would have been slowly refined along a learning curve of progressively increasing formal mastery. Yet the images at Chauvet, the oldest paintings that have so far come to light, seem (at least) equally adept. Indeed, the skill of the draftsmanship revealed by Herzog’s camera, the extraordinarily controlled efficiency of line and subtlety of tone, are little short of miraculous, especially when one considers the relentlessly harsh conditions under which the draftsmen worked.

Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog, 2010.

Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog, 2010. A Sundance Selects release. Photo: Marc Valesella.

In addition, the recalibration of the Paleolithic time-scale necessitated by Chauvet worked a further defamiliarizing turn, placing those already accomplished artists firmly within the earliest Upper Paleolithic at a time when early modern humans still dwelt “cheek-by-jowl” with a dwindling population of Neanderthals, when the defining attributes of a fully “modern” (i.e., fully human) material culture were themselves only beginning to coalesce into an identifiable constellation.5 Thus, the pictorial artifacts of an almost unimaginably remote culture offer to us, at a moment of apparently vital transformation, a visual aspect that makes them appear utterly contemporary. Existential or perceptual time collapses even as cultural time is deepened into a twilight of mysterious shadows. Standing alone in the first blush of discovery, Chauvet and his companions reported that they “were weighed down by the feeling that [they] were not alone; the artists’ souls and spirits surrounded us. We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.”6 Yet for the scientific research team, those same “presences” were the mute representatives of a culture so frustratingly intangible that simply presenting a convincing description of its essential outlines proves an arduous and ongoing task. Equally arduous, and in the long run perhaps equally important and rewarding, is the attempt, undertaken by Herzog and his crew, to mediate these two positions as they document the ebb and flow of science and soul, wonder and terror that coalesce in the cave. The existence of the film is a minor miracle in its own right. Herzog received unprecedented access to the cave, which is normally restricted to members of the scientific research team, who themselves work in the interior for only a short time each year, so as to preserve the state of the exceptionally fragile pictures.7 Filming on an extremely tight schedule in the spring of 2010, and in close quarters with specially modified equipment, the crew captured a breathtaking experience of the art within the cave, especially powerful in the intended 3-D format, which was then framed and interwoven with trenchant scientific and personal commentary provided by many of the principal members of the research team as well as by Herzog himself.8

<em>Panel of the Lions</em>. Black drawing on rock. Length: c. 157 1/2 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-D’arc, Ardèche, France. End Chamber. Aurignacian.

Panel of the Lions. Black drawing on rock. Length: c. 157 1/2 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-D’arc, Ardèche, France. End Chamber. Aurignacian. Photograph courtesy Jean Clottes.

Visually speaking, the most compelling aspect of the film is Herzog’s use of the suddenly ubiquitous 3-D format. This contemporary technical innovation doesn’t simply allow us an immediate sense of being “inside” the cave along with the filmmakers and researchers, although it certainly does provide that kind of powerful “as if” experience. It also places the paintings themselves so insistently within our visual field that we are able to appreciate as never before one of the most difficult to capture aspects of the images’ allusive verisimilitude—the way that the designs often seem to take advantage of the undulating surface of the wall of the cave on which they are composed and painted, as a way of increasing our sense of a depicted creature’s “presence” by means of a literal three-dimensionality.9 This pictorial use of surface relief, which has elicited serious consideration in the ongoing debate over the meaning and function of the images, is magnificently captured in 3-D; but even when viewed in standard format, the film conveys this sense of presence much more powerfully than seems possible for any printed, book-bound reproduction. Still, it seems a shame that our access to the film in its fully realized pictorial form—especially when that form highlights an interest in the dialectic between surface and depth that the filmmakers obviously share with their Paleolithic subjects—should have become ensnared in complex studio bottom-line decisions: how many showings can we afford to run in 3-D in order to maximize the profitability of our technology without hurting our potential total gross? But Cave of Forgotten Dreams is much more than a virtuoso presentation of one of the great monuments of a universally shared human culture. It is also a film that uses its engagement with its subject to articulate some of the most important questions that lie at the heart of how we understand the human cultural project both in general and in terms of the specifics of its origin. Just what do we think we mean when we use the term “culture” in the first place? How and when and why did it in fact come into being? What is its function? And how does that (abstract) function play itself out in the production of material artifacts like the paintings in Chauvet Cave? How is “culture” related to that other concept, “nature,” against which it is so often poised? Finally, and perhaps arbitrarily to terminate the list, how is the making of culture related to the mode of self-conscious, reflexive being that we call human? These are questions that Herzog has approached before, and to which he returns here with an address that is at once direct and elliptical, as we shall see. But before engaging Herzog directly, I would like to consider two other images, against which to measure the answer(s) that Herzog presents in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and which he has already adumbrated and elaborated in other films. The first is taken from a short essay published by the painter and critic Barnett Newman in the short-lived New York periodical Tiger’s Eye, in 1947.10 For Newman, the creative act itself was definitive of our humanity (the essay is titled “The First Man Was an Artist”) and it is that (creative) act that is recorded in metaphorical form by the author of the book of Genesis—not a fall into “toil,” nor a fall “from Grace to Sin,” but rather a fall into (God-like) art, a fall, as we would say, into figuration or representation. The raison d’être of the primal artist, rooted in dream11 and “[built] on the postulate that the aesthetic act always precedes the social one,” was essentially a cry “of awe and anger at [man’s] tragic state, at his own self-awareness, and at his own helplessness before the void.” Or, we might say, at his awareness of his alienation from the natural world, a world which itself exists only as the cultural production of the artist whose severance from it is essential to his own inmost and human being. For Newman, “literature” (perhaps perversely) preceded “communication,” just as “[t]he myth came before the hunt,” and “[t]he totemic act of wonder…came before the act of murder.”

<em>Fighting Rhinoceroses and Four Horses’ Heads</em>. Charcoal drawing on rock; Length of left rhinoceros: c. 39 1/3 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-D’arc, Ardèche, France. Panel of the Horses. Aurignacian.

Fighting Rhinoceroses and Four Horses’ Heads. Charcoal drawing on rock; Length of left rhinoceros: c. 39 1/3 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-D’arc, Ardèche, France. Panel of the Horses. Aurignacian. Photograph courtesy Jean Clottes.

Although Newman quite erroneously asserted that “a science of paleontology” [sic] can in fact be built on his fundamental set of propositions and postulates, we should nevertheless keep in mind his central argument, which carries considerable metaphorical, if not necessarily historical, force: that culture is born of self-consciousness, that self-consciousness is consciousness of an alienation from the world of nature, and that art both bears witness to and attempts to remediate this alienation. The essential tension that we see here between fact (those things that might be established archaeologically or by other scientific means) and metaphor (those things that speak “truth” in another language) is also central to the argument of Herzog’s film; and it is brilliantly realized as well in our second preliminary image, this one cinematic, and drawn from a dramatic rather than a documentary source. The opening sequences of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) certainly have a documentary feel to them.12 We are returned by the filmmaker to a sere African savannah where pre-human Australopithecines struggle for existence in a series of staged encounters that appear almost as if acted out in museum dioramas. The australopithecine “actors,” on the other hand, are utterly convincing in conveying the immediacy of their animal being: a matter of skillful trade-craft, or a hint of a connection deeper and perhaps more sinister? Without rehearsing the entirety of Kubrick’s unfolding story, we should note that the director and his coauthor Arthur C. Clarke have placed us not in Newman’s mythic Garden of Eden, but rather in the putatively “real world” of a paleo-archaeological vision made available to a lay audience in works such as Robert Ardrey’s 1961 bestseller African Genesis.13 In this reading of our deepest pre-human past, the hunt definitely came before the myth; the moment of transformation was not so much the awakening of alienated self- consciousness as it was the birth of technology, shown in 2001: A Space Odyssey in the moment our putative ancestor reimagines a bone as a skull-crushing club. According to Kubrick, “we” went on to establish our human credentials through systematic aggression (the “war” for the water hole) and reiterated murder.14 Needless to say, there are no dreams here, only eyes wide and staring in the darkness of a primal night ruled by big cats whose cries we hear softly in the remote and terrible distance. And yet, this forbidding vision is itself presented as an instance of consummate art, flawlessly designed, meticulously controlled, and painstakingly constructed. Indeed, the entire ascending arc of human culture is presented by Kubrick in a single simple sequence, as the newly “weaponized” bone is flung upward in triumph; where, as we watch its slow-motion spin against a clear blue sky, it becomes a bone-white space craft spinning against the blackness of the void as Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz adds a perfectly measured accompaniment to the soundtrack. Death has become life, and technology is subsumed and transfigured by art. Both Newman and Kubrick implicitly invoke biblical metaphors (expulsion from the Garden, the mark of Cain) to frame their proto-cultural narratives. Likewise Herzog, although his central metaphor is at once explicit without being overtly biblical. Instead, he likens the production of the paintings at Chauvet to “a sudden explosive event,” asserting that it is “as if the modern human soul had come into existence here.”15 This, of course, cannot in any sense be literally true. It had taken Homo sapiens tens of thousands of years to spread from Africa, across the Middle East and into southern Europe. Nor was the “decoration” of Chauvet itself a simple or straightforward affair, like painting a series of frescos on the interior of a Renaissance palazzo.16 The images in the cave built up slowly, over the course of perhaps as many as 5,000 years, testifying to a continuity of belief, of function, and of craft tradition that seems unthinkable today, and must have been literally inconceivable to the cave’s original users except as a set of beliefs and practices that had in fact endured forever. Herzog certainly tries to keep his documentary firmly rooted in that “forever.” This requires a bit of a trick, since, as Herzog himself notes, “We are locked in history; they [the painters of Chauvet] were not.” Luckily, “history” itself is a protean if implacable thing; and the doing of it can take many forms. There is, for example, the examination of processes and practices, exemplified at Chauvet by the work of the husband-and-wife team of Carole Fritz and Gilles Tosello. At Chauvet, Fritz and Tosello have concentrated their attention on the so-called Panel of the Horses, one of many areas covered by a dense overlay of images obviously built up over some extended period of time.17 Thanks to their research, we are now in a position to read this panel in terms of the history of the accretion of those images—a process never to be confused with “composition”—and even to differentiate a number of possible “hands” indicating the effort of a number of distinct individuals in the construction of the work.18 As it is presented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the work of Fritz and Tosello exemplifies a common, if somewhat evasive, archaeological approach to the most vexing problem associated with the study of Paleolithic art in general—the problem of meaning. In answer to his own rhetorical question, here presented in paraphrase: “What is it exactly that we know about the meaning or function of the Chauvet images?,” Jean-Michel Geneste, the current director of the work at Chauvet, replies, “We don’t know much!” To forestall a temptation to speculate on the basis of inadequate or possibly misleading evidence, research projects such as the one pursued by Fritz and Tosello make a virtue of necessity. They quite intentionally bracket off the question of meaning and instead map out the representational practices at the site as they have unfolded in time.

<em>Panel of Handprints</em>. Painting on rock in red pigment. Width of each print: c. 3 1/8 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont- D’arc, Ardèche, France. End Chamber. Aurignacian.

Panel of Handprints. Painting on rock in red pigment. Width of each print: c. 3 1/8 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont- D’arc, Ardèche, France. End Chamber. Aurignacian. Photograph courtesy Jean Clottes.

Such an approach is materialist in its emphasis (what we can know about the site are those things given to us in some tangible, physical form—for example, the system of marks on the surface of the cave wall that presents the image of a horse or a lion) but also a bit reductive. Its materialism has a definitely positivist slant—we can understand the work in the cave to be the result of a set of social practices, although to identify those practices, say, as ritual in nature, is beyond the scope of what is unambiguously given by the evidence. But it does protect the researcher from the kind of overenthusiastic reading that bedeviled earlier attempts, among many others, to apply to Paleolithic art synchronic interpretive schemes based on a binary structuralism of the sort developed by Claude Levi-Strauss.19 On the other hand, it also protects us against the hazards, and the ecstasies, of dreaming, which are perhaps open to us in so far as we are able to see in the Chauvet menagerie a living world of the sort evoked by Dominique Baffier, the cave’s curator and director of research for the site at Arcy-sur-Cure. As Baffier guides director Herzog and his crew on a tour of the chambers, she animates the various beasts in turn, giving them life and breath by her vivid narration. A female lion nuzzles her companion, rubbing flank along flank, or curls her lips in a warning snarl, as if to repulse an attempt to mate. Likewise the horses, the aurochs, the rhinoceros all seem to come alive in a rustle of sound and movement—at first under the hands of the Paleolithic artists, but then as if on their own, like the dancing shadows that escape the dancer’s control in a marvelous sequence excerpted by Herzog from Fred Astaire’s bravura performance in Swing Time (1936).20 Herzog’s invocation of the dancer whose shadows are at once cast images of himself and beings endowed with their own life brings us once again up against the persistent question of function or meaning. In what sense might it be said that Chauvet’s artists were themselves of some sort “dancers in the dark,” casting up images, and to what end, in the flickering light of torches and primitive lamps? Although the film never answers this question in so many words, it does provide all the clues we need to fashion a compelling answer (given a little research outside the cave-like confines of the theater) and to test that answer in a somewhat wider context. Our interpretive thread begins with the films father-figure of authoritative scientific discourse: Jean Clottes, former director of research at Chauvet and the one scientist in the film who makes a direct albeit rather cryptic attempt to explain the purpose behind the images that have come down to us from a world of Paleolithic darkness. In attempting to disentangle the imbricated worldview of the artists who made those images, a world which we can only glimpse across a vast and impassable abyss of time, he invokes the linked concepts of “fluidity” and “permeability.” He seems to mean that Paleolithic “being” did not necessarily express itself under a unitary aspect, that “one” might be at once, for example, both a man and a bear; and that even the inanimate world (for example, the wall of a cave) might, on occasion or under the proper circumstances, be permeable to being at the moment of its maximum fluidity: “A wall can [either] accept or reject us,” asserts Clottes at one point in his discussion. Although this might strike us today as a kind of fairytale universe, akin to the Looking-Glass World inhabited by Alice and the young hero whose “vorpal blade” lays low the monstrous Jabberwock, Clottes intends his description to be taken quite seriously. For his is not the world of the fairy tale, but rather the world of the shaman, a world, as he says, of trance and magic, a world “rooted in dream” (Barnett Newman) where representation becomes a tool through which an altered consciousness can begin to remediate a torn and sundered world.

<em>Panel of the Rhinos</em>. Charcoal drawing on rock. length: c. 78 3/4 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont- D’arc, Ardèche, France. End Chamber. Aurignacian.

Panel of the Rhinos. Charcoal drawing on rock. length: c. 78 3/4 in. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont- D’arc, Ardèche, France. End Chamber. Aurignacian. Photograph courtesy Jean Clottes.

A fully articulated shamanic hypothesis of the meaning and function of the art of the south European caves has been worked out over a long period of time by Clottes and his frequent South African collaborator David Lewis-Williams, Emeritus Professor and Senior Mentor in the Rock Art Research Unit at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.21 Lewis-Williams’s The Mind in the Cave, in particular, builds his argument not only on the long-neglected critical insights of the Marxist art historian Max Raphael22 but also on the latest developments in fields like evolutionary psychology that take as their project the mapping out of the mind’s coming- into-being as a function of the brain’s biological development under the adaptive pressures of Darwinian natural selection. But even granting a broadly based validity to the shamanic hypothesis, there remains a nagging question. Are we left only with the problem of extracting meaning from the cave narratives as if from the “text” of the Manhattan telephone directory (director Herzog’s image)? The short answer to this question, I think, is “No.” For the longer version, we can turn to a final comparison, this one between Timothy Treadwell, the doomed eco-radical whose life and death among the brown bears of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula were documented in Herzog’s award-winning 2005 film, Grizzly Man,23 and Julien Monney, a former circus performer and young archaeologist in the making, a junior member of the Chauvet research team and perhaps the most eloquent present-day “inhabitant” of the cave and its chthonic dream world. If Clottes and Lewis-Williams are correct, the art at Chauvet and similar sites was produced, whether by individual artists or as a collective social endeavor, as an integral part of a set of beliefs and practices that were intended to (re)mediate the relationship between a human community and a now alien nature. These practices were designed to attain heightened states of consciousness and produced powerful waking dreams as “a way to understand things,” quoting Monney, “which is not a direct way.” And it is this indirect understanding that we see recorded in the art—not necessarily as dreams literally transcribed, but rather as dreams explicated through their figuration. Furthermore, it is precisely in that sense of indirection, that “way [of ] understand[ing] things which is not a direct way,” that we find the key to our own understanding of the artists at Chauvet as both “flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone” and also as those “souls and spirits” whose “disturbed” presence so “weighed down” the feelings of Chauvet and his two companions. Timothy Treadwell, on the other hand, approached the bears’ world much more directly, “as if,” here again quoting the director’s voiceover narration, “there were a desire in him to leave the confines of his human-ness.” Unfortunately for Treadwell, the world in which he sought that encounter was not defined by Chauvet’s “fluidity” and “permeability.” It was instead a world of “invisible borderline[s],” impermeable and ultimately deadly. It was, in short, a world built finally on the bears’ terms alone, a world without figuration, without representation, without art, and without dreams—a false and fatal Eden.24 In surveying that world as Treadwell captured it himself in some of his own most powerful video footage, shot within hours of his own death and perhaps recording the living presence of the bear that would so soon take his life, Herzog allows that he can “discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy,” and that he in fact “see[s] only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Indeed, Herzog’s vision here is of a world worse than indifferent: “Here I differ with Treadwell. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony; but chaos, destruction, and murder.” There is a kinship here with both Barnett Newman and his original man “shouting his consonants…in…anger at his tragic state”25 and, especially, Stanley Kubrick, whose proto-hominids give birth to “man” precisely in their attempt to control a world of chaos through the systematization of destruction as murder.

On the other hand, for Julien Monney, the young archaeologist who also connects with that Newman for whom dream essentially trumps utility, the world of the cave is indeed a fearful place. He relates that after five days of work underground, he must resurface to spend time processing his experience. But it is also a place where he can sense the presence of the shaman who moves in dreams freely back and forth between “being” and “figuration,” between the hand that paints and the spirit that guides the hand. As Monney tells Herzog, he dreamt night after night of lions at once both real and painted—the lions of Baffier. He dreamt and (on this point he seems quite confident) in dreaming he was not afraid.

Glenn Harcourt received a PhD in the History of Art from the University of California, Berkeley. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

This essay is dedicated with affection and admiration to my former colleague John Leopold, who has been an unfailing guide to the worlds of magic and dream.


  1. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, directed by Werner Herzog (Werner Herzog Filmproducktion, 1974).
  2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog (creative Differences Productions).
  3. As quoted in David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 17. In his own voiceover narration, Herzog imputes a similar reaction to himself and the members of his crew. This is true also of the feelings of intrusion and the suspicion of being watched by unseen presences reported by Chauvet and his companions at n.6, below.
  4. The dating of Paleolithic sites can be a matter of considerable controversy. the dates used here are those provided by Jean Clottes, in his beautifully illustrated survey Cave Art (London and New York: Phaidon, 2008). Clottes, the dean of authorities on the cave art sites of southern France and Spain, served as the first director of research at Chauvet. For a brief and succinct discussion of the dating problem, see Cave Art, 11–13. Clottes’s views on the function and meaning of the images, which were somewhat enigmatically related by clottes himself in Herzog’s film, will be central to the later development of our argument.
  5. The “sudden” appearance of this “package deal of symbolic activity” in upper Paleolithic europe has been called an “illusion” by Lewis-Williams (The Mind in the Cave, 101); we will treat it, as i believe herzog does, under the slightly less derogatory rubric of “metaphor.” For an expansive discussion of the development of this “package,” as well as a trenchant analysis of why it came together as “culture” only in the case of Homo sapiens and not also among the neighboring Neanderthals, see Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, 69–100.
  6. Quoted in Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, 17.
  7. Unlike Lascaux, where much less restricted access to what became a major tourist attraction eventually began to compromise the integrity of the art, Chauvet has from the beginning been treated almost as a “hot zone”— sealed off from the outside world by what amounts to an airlock; visitors and researchers dressed in protective clothing navigate the interior along a systemof narrow metal catwalks.
  8. As well as a number of others, both professional and “amateur.” The film also has what the press kit describes as a “science fiction” postscript that features one of France’s largest nuclear reactors, an enclosed and artificial rain forest habitat, and a propagating population of mutant albino crocodiles—as well as some of the film’s most strikingly surreal and (literally) otherworldly scenes. as a silent montage of wonderfully intercut images, I loved it; but with the sound turned on, I was less impressed. Cast as an elaborate metaphor of defamiliarization in which “we,” as ghostly crocodilian doppelgangers, ponder the mysteries of the flooded cave at some remote point in the future, the postscript seems (at best) always on the verge of collapsing under its own rhetorical weight; or perhaps it is even better seen as yet another striking film, struggling upward toward the light.
  9. In general, the painters of the caves (both at Chauvet and elsewhere) are capable of displaying a profound ability to visualize and portray figures as if in depth; yet they seem unaware of or uninterested in the idea of a pictorial ground or surface, likewise a delimited or “framed” pictorial field.
  10. Barnett newman, “the First Man was an artist” (1947), reprinted in herschel B. chipp et al., Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California, 1968), 551–52. Newman, who was a painter of wry and essentially minimalist sensibilities, and who formed an important link between the abstract expressionists and later minimalists and color field painters, studied philosophy at the city college of New York during the mid-1920s, if apparently in a more-or-less desultory way. This may well account for the rather “pop” existentialism of the essay’s ideology. For a handy chronological survey of Newman’s life and work, see http://www.barnettnewman. org/chronology.php (accessed July 20, 2011). Finally, although the philosophy brought to bear by newman may not pass muster as adequately rigorous, the text itself is a powerful enunciation and pointed defense of a position that invested the work of many New York artists at a key turning point in the history of Modern art—the (self-) anointing of postwar new york as the “ground zero” of that history.
  11. Newman reminds us early on: “it is important to keep in mind that the necessity for dream is stronger than any utilitarian need.” Newman, 551, as are all following quotations from Newman’s essay.
  12. 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick (M-g-M, 1968).
  13. Robert Ardrey, African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man (New York: Dell, 1961). As Ardrey asserts in his very first paragraph, mankind was born “[n]ot in innocence, and not in Asia” (covering in this denial both the Fertile crescent and the Garden of Eden) but rather “on a sky-swept [African] savannah glowing with menace,” a perfect description of the mise-en-scene of Kubrick’s opening “Dawn of Man.”
  14. Here, we might note with a touch of irony that even Newman admits, “Man’s first address to a neighbor was… not a request for a drink of water.” Newman, 551.
  15. My emphasis. unless otherwise noted, quotations from Cave of Forgotten Dreams are taken from Herzog’s own voiceover narration.
  16. Indeed, the paintings at Chauvet and the rest of the Paleolithic cave and rock art sites are anything but decoration, even as we might use that term to describe the decoration of the Ducal Palace at Mantua or the Vatican’s sistine chapel, let alone the house on Main street.
  17. On the difficulty of dating here, see Clottes, Cave Art, 40.
  18. The most intriguing of these individual hands certainly belonged to “the man with the crooked little finger,” who was responsible for the production of a whole panel of hand prints located in what would have originally been the liminal area separating the naturally illuminated foreground section of the cave from the zone of complete darkness where the real work of image-making was done. Individual prints by this same maker also appear deeper within the cave’s interior.
  19. We can see this kind of structuralist approach develop over time in the work of the French archaeologists annette laming-emperaire and André Leroi-Gourhan. Although not without an eye to its critical problems, their work is sympathetically surveyed by Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, 55–65. The entirety of Lewis-Williams’s chapter 2 (“seeking answers”) is given over to a survey of earlier attempts to “decode” the art of the Paleolithic caves.
  20. For Fred Astaire fans, see (accessed June 27, 2011), with a link to the original national Public radio story from which Herzog is quoted. Although Herzog confines his comments to the world of cinema, Plato’s notorious allegory of the cave from The Republic VII might also come to mind—and one can hardly imagine a more brilliant or offhand refutation of the greek philosopher’s tendentious argument.
  21. Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, and Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998). The illustrations in the second are especially compelling, and the text is not bogged down with overly technical discussions.
  22. Raphael is especially important for his insistence on the production of the cave images as a social practice. Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave, especially 52–55.
  23. Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog (Lions Gate/ Discovery Docs, 2005).
  24. This reading admittedly sidesteps the issue of Timothy Treadwell’s extensive video library, shot on site over the course of several years and which Herzog, in his voiceover narration, characterizes as containing some of the most amazing wildlife footage he has ever seen. It is a bit unclear, at least to me, the status that ought to be accorded this material, which seems to comprise fragments of an unrealized, perhaps unrealizable, fantasy film and a fevered attempt at self-construction, which in the end founders on the rocks of a deeply divided and destructive self. The horrible personal tragedy of the deaths of Treadwell and his girlfriend at the end of the 2003 season gives the footage an almost unbearable poignancy. But it was, in the end, only Herzog who was able to transform Treadwell’s terrible dream into art.
  25. Newman, 551.
Further Reading