The cave of forgotten dreams



Commentary on Werner Herzog's documentary film about Chauvet's paintings.

“With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he was also an appearance, that someone else was dreaming him” (Jorge Luis Borges, the circular ruins).

In 1994, on the eve of Christmas, a group of speleologists discovers a crevice in the mountainous formations of Ardèche, which forms a gorge through which, in the background, flows a river with the same name, in the south of France. The limestone features of those formations explain the geography of the place, both the gorge, the famous stone bridge that naturally connects the two steep banks and represents, as an icon, the place, and the cave formation itself. The narrow entrance to the crevice opened, that Christmas, to a set of caves, whose formations full of calcites, ended up producing a very rich and beautiful geological set for the knowledgeable and interested.

The story, however, is that the story does not stop there. Advancing through the set of caves, you discover an extraordinary set of cave paintings which are then dated to approximately 30 years, the oldest, between 27 and 25 years, the most recent. This is the point at which the film made by Werner Herzog begins, a documentary that deals with what he rightly calls the enigma of Chauvet's paintings.

Taken in itself, and almost emptying it of content, it can be said that the film tries to capture, not without material and technical difficulties, these superb sets of Paleolithic painting. The difficulties are fully justifiable: after the discovery, the cave became a privileged object of research and investigation and its environment started to be controlled, protected and studied, with very limited access. There is a restriction on the movement of people and equipment, for obvious preservation reasons.

Thus, with the exception of Herzog, he explores it with a minimal and minimally equipped team. The mark of this directed and meditated precariousness, whose purpose is to preserve the find, however, produces another effect as the film tells the story of the discovery of those paintings. Like it or not, the documentary images seem to reproduce in our mental scale the originality of the experience of those Paleolithic men. Researches, realizing that the ancient entrance to the cave, sealed by a landslide, the most likely hypothesis, indicate the direction of the location of the paintings, especially the two large murals, so to speak, in which horses, bison, mammoths and lions. They are located further back in the cave, at its darkest point, a place where there is no possibility of natural light, which was the deliberation of those men. The artist or artists painted with the aid of torches, there are obvious material indications that corroborate this hypothesis, as well as benefiting from the painting in the same way, according to the possibilities of that artificial lighting, exploring the three-dimensionality of the cave walls themselves.

According to Freud, the unconscious has an unequivocal representational mark, we would say, which simply means that the acts of consciousness or conscious acts are intended by a form or a content (I leave the discussion open) in relation to which these same acts do not they are capable of realizing, of being “aware” of them, of “representing” them. Conscious acts are not able to represent their own unconscious elements, which end up overdetermining them. Hence the joke, the slip, the lapse and a whole series of possible displacements of language and representation.

This presence of the unconscious is not clear, obviously, it is the dark part of the representation: it is what is not visible in the representation.

The place of those immemorial images is also in the darkest part, not of what is seen, the representation of animals, but of what is dreamed of what is seen, the animals as if dreamed. In this way, the precarious sense of Herzog’s capture reconstructs – deliberately or not, it doesn’t matter – that first or primordial experience with the image and its meaning, I would say, almost in its cosmological sense: that which lies at the bottom of the clarity of thought, but it is not clear, and the thought carries on without knowing how to think it. That man who hunted, made tools, perfected himself in the light of day, who adapted to the world in the manner of the Rousseauist fiction of man in a state of nature, in the dark depths of Chauvet's cave, rediscovered the image that accompanied him on the margins of light. and its own clarity.

The definition of the place of the images in the group of caves gives them a good part of their nature: there, Paleolithic Neanderthals had this ancestral and original experience of communicating with each other, from the world they saw, evoking an invisible that they figured – what one imagines when one sees it – for what was most intimate they carried, and so they exchanged the experience among themselves: the fleeting image of what they thought in the light of day, treasured in the back of the cave, only visible by the light of the torches, they diligently headed there to find her again.

It was found that no one lived in the caves – they were not a place to live, they belonged to something else: and the porous experience of allowing oneself to be seen and seen by bison, galloping horses, lions in a pack, woolly mammoths was ritual and the primal school of self, through which man ended up discovering the fruition of the other: the common experience. There they gathered under the pale stone screen of Chauvet, full of dreams that are forgotten, the images of those dreams and those dreams in images.

In the set where galloping horses predominate – there are also bison, mammoths –, in a large chamber, it, the set, seems to adorn what would be an intermittent source of water in the cave. Hence a double hypothesis, both remarkable: either that mural without rhetoric, in which the juxtaposition of the figures on the irregular plane of the cave accentuates even more its dreamlike character, adorns the water hole, gift of gifts, drinking water, such as like a Trevi Fountain, whether or not the water serves there to provide a fantastic drink to the images of animals, them running, galloping openly, which the artist's technique zealously took care to mark, duplicating legs and horns to better characterize the movement. In both cases, the cosmological secret of images: consecrate and institute an aura to immediate experience and through this aura establish communication between worlds and as many possible worlds.

Herzog, who also narrates the documentary, speaks at some point of the birth of modern man in Chauvet's paintings. The epithet seems inappropriate, but one understands what he means by understanding the experience he tries to describe. It is not what is modern in the man who is born, but what is in man that is “as if he were modern”, because he is original, and therefore has no date, is permanently updated. In the artist's lines, synthetic, delineated, elegant, perhaps we find what Matisse called the original look of the five-year-old child, not because those men and women were like children or those children's drawings – they are not at all – but because they catch up with the original as if for the first time.

At the bottom of the Chauvet cave they gathered with the specific and speculative purpose of producing and enjoying images and, perhaps, images of images, in a metaphysical, speculative, spiritual sense. What those men consecrated was this common experience, ritual and speculative, of finding the other through the common, in the depths of the images dreamed, and dreamed in common.

If the image of animals galloping across an open field, the field of dreams, may well lead us to this speculative and specific sense of the visit they made to caves, in search of the sense of meaning, we need not limit ourselves solely to the metaphysical, cosmological hypothesis and spiritual aspect of that experience (paradoxically so close to us), nor insistently evoke some Paleolithic metaphysics for that. In a more prosaic register, we can evoke other mundane times, also in the process of being blocked by some geological accident: cinephilia also gives us images of gods and goddesses that console us in dreams that reality no longer gives us. But this is not a mere illusion – and this our ancestors also knew: it is the illusion that teaches our permanent maladjustment in relation to our own image, reality and its image, its charm and curse. Even if we watered the horses of dreams.

I close with a modest tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo (April 9, 1933 – September 6, 2021). Jean-Paul, an expert on Molière and a young actor from Comedie Française, was asked to play a mocking, sentimental, cinephile bandit. Everything to go wrong in that film, as De Baecque attests, everything went right. A director was invented, an actor was invented from the invention of the respective images. May you sleep in the best dreams.

*Alexandre de Oliveira Torres Carrasco is professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp).


The cave of forgotten dreams (Cave Of Forgotten Dreams).

Documentary, 2010, 90 minutes.

Direction, script and narration: Werner Herzog.

Photographs: Peter Zeitlinger

Music: Ernst Reijseger

Editing: Joe Bini, Maya Hawke


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