Cave Drawings as a Newsfeed from the Prehistoric World: John Barton in Conversation with Concetta Principe

Concetta Principe

Malahat editor John Barton talks to Concetta Principe about "Theses on the Philosophy of Waiting," which appears in The Malahat’s Autumn 2013 issue. Over the course of this thoughtful long poem, Concetta explores her intellectual, emotional, and spiritual responses to one of the last century’s greatest archeological discoveries.


Concetta Principe’s most recent book, walking: not a nun's diary, came out with DC Books in 2013. Her two previous books, Interference (1999), which won the Bressani Award for Book of Poetry in 2000, and Stained Glass (1997), a novella, were published by Guernica Editions. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in various literary magazines including Descant, Exile, Grain, and Matrix. She is in the process of preparing to defend her PhD thesis. Her doctoral project in the Humanities Program at York University centres on evidence of the trauma of secularism through the iterations of the objet a of the messiah and the Muselmann, in twentieth-century intellectual and cultural works.

“Theses on the Philosophy of Waiting” is a textured, 10-part poem about the Chauvet Cave in France, an archeological site known for its primitive cave drawings. Your response to it is not a direct one, but is filtered through German director Werner Herzog’s recent documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. As I understand it, the French government has sealed off the cave from the public in order to protect it. Can you shed some light on why you found the cave and the film so compelling?

I saw the film with my son in the afternoon of a hot summer day and the theatre was freezing. It was also very dark. This environment somehow amplified the experience of discovering the cave paintings through Herzog’s 3D film. In the movie, the archaeological investigation of the cave became secondary to the phenomenon of the ancient art. There were so many layers of images across the cave walls that you could almost trace the dialogue the ancient artists had with each other through their paintings. What compelled these artists to draw these images? What caused animals, perhaps bears who also inhabited the cave, to claw at the drawings on the walls? Why were there animal bones everywhere and not one human bone? These questions, which haunted me, were inspired by Herzog’s film and eventually compelled me to answer them with an ekphrastic response to both his film and to the ancient paintings.

Part four opens with “the cave preceded Plato’s escape from where shadows on a wall have left a stain.” Your poem’s structure is itself platonic in that Herzog’s camera and the language of poetry itself put you at two removes from your subject. Can you talk a little about the poem’s philosophical underpinnings, which range from Plato to Walter Benjamin, and how they inspired you to see the drawings in the Chauvet Cave?

There are a few philosophical layers in the film that psychoanalysis, the first inspiration for my poem, mediated. According to Jacques Lacan, when humans encounter the “real” of the unknown, they experience a trauma, which they are compelled to work-through in symbolic terms, such as writing, drawing, talking. I looked at those drawings all over the walls and realized that even ancient subjects (pre-Oedipal Homo sapiens, even) experienced trauma. What was the trauma that compelled them to draw these animals? Was it love? Was it fear? Was it loss? And if these images attest to the fact that Oedipalized subjects existed some 33,000 years before Oedipus, then can we find the anticipation of philosophical thought in this cave as well? That’s what led me to envision Plato’s allegory of the cave in relation to the ancient artists and the bears. Then I wondered whether the promise of salvation, as expressed in Marxist politics and reworked by Benjamin, also existed for the inhabitants of this cave, in one form or other? Did the Homo sapiens experience miracles?

Midway through the poem, you refer to Benjamin’s belief that we should make “a shift in focus from us to the force that drives us,” which I crudely interpret to mean that we need to move away from a static emphasis on self-centered-ness to a more objective awareness of process. Why is the Chauvet Cave, which is millennia old, an illustration of his thesis?

I’m going to answer that question in a round-about way. The cave is not just ancient, but inhabited by people so ancient, so of another world that is populated by some animals that are for us extinct, that these people are essentially aliens. They not only existed before written history, they existed before the moral code that we live by was introduced. Yet, their interest in documenting their living environment reflects that they had a relation to animals that expressed both a responsibility and a respect for them. That relation to living creatures seemed equal to our own responsibility to living things, from animals to plant life to mankind, which is reflected in our various laws. Recognizing this fundamental affinity we have with the ancient artists, led me to think about Benjamin’s concept of “weak messianic force” from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

Benjamin’s phrase has inspired much debate amongst academics. In my interpretation, I argue that Benjamin sees that the messianic force, which comes from the divine, is weak because it is blind. It influences all human beings equally, but not all are equally responsible to it. This explains how Fascism can use the messianic force to execute its race policies and it also explains why in the end, Fascist policies failed. In some ways, we are saved from utter destruction because this “force” is “weak.” The poem meditates on the possibility that, though these ancient artists lived before the written word and the written law, before the fact of slaves and sacrifice, they are like “us”, feeling the force as we do. The question is, did they wait for an end time, or a messianic salvation, as we do?

“Waiting” in this poem appears to be a two-way street. Looking down it in one direction, the cave’s primitive artists are seen to be waiting to have their drawings “heard” or “viewed,” while, down through time and looking from an opposite vantage, the “listeners” and “viewers”—including yourself as the poet—are waiting to “hear” or “see” or simply “appreciate” something left us from the near-unrecoverable past, however indecipherable it may ultimately be. Can you elaborate on what you mean by waiting?

Good question. That quality of waiting across time, as you describe it, is central to the poem, but there are other kinds of waiting in the poem as well. There is the waiting for things to make sense, over time. There is the waiting involved in daily living. And the cave, as an inanimate presence, reflects another kind of waiting.

The bears are one of the truly poetic aspects of this poem. You imagine them having hibernated in the cave, while the cave’s artists lived in it during the summer. When the bears wake, they are bewildered and haunted by the charcoal images scratched on the cave’s ceiling and walls. The third part of the poem ends with “are we the bears in winter, woken to reach through the camera to touch time running through us?” Why do you identify us (yourself, your readers, the humans of today) with the bears and how exactly does time run through us?

The claw marks across the paintings struck me forcefully. What animal caused them and why? The only explanation that came to mind was that some animal saw the images as a threat. The claw marks made me think of bears. Thinking about the fact that bears could respond to the illusion of an image, especially as an apparition in the night of winter, led me to think of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In that allegory, Plato describes how prisoners live shackled in a cave, aware only of shadows on the wall and, physically unable to turn to look behind them, do not see how these shadows are made from a source of light behind them. One prisoner is led out into the world and for the first time sees things like his own reflection in water, and especially the bright sun. It occurred to me that perhaps these ancient drawings affected the bear in the cave in the same way that the sun disturbed Plato’s freed prisoner when he first saw it; perhaps this “disturbance” was similar to people’s responses to Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895), the world’s “moving picture,” by the Lumière Brothers. Film, and now especially 3D, has disturbed our sense of time and space. The past is brought into the present; the elsewhere is recreated here. Through film technology we become as disoriented as a bear might be when confronting eyes peering at him in the dark from a cave wall, and yet, unlike him, we know the film is an illusion, and we are not afraid, but attracted. We want to touch it.

You are quite hard on archaeologists, accusing them of being “fabulists,” alleging that “archaeology is illiterate to what the mind can read” and contending that while “it is true there is no way to know who woke up in this cave, when, or how they dreamed back then[,] no archaeologist would bother.” Many believe that poetry—arguably the product of an even more suspect mindset—is also an imperfect diagnostic tool, yet I intuit that you feel otherwise. Why is poetry—or more exactly, the poetic imagination—such a good way “in” to this cave?

Well, I’m as hard on archaeologists as they are on themselves, at least those I know. They know they are working with a science that is still relatively new—less than a hundred years old. They know carbon dating is unreliable. They know that no matter how precise their digging methods, they can only speak about the material they find, and can only speculate about what that material represents at a particular moment in time, but what came before and what came after are still obscure. Having said that, what drives their explorations is the same desire that drives poetry. On encountering the artifact, they are like the poets and filmmakers who want to know who these ancient people are. Or, in the question implicit in Herzog’s film, what did these ancient people dream? Why did they draw these animals? Perhaps it was out of love? Or fear? Archaeology is a science that is limited to principles of scientific objectivity, which means that it is ill-equipped to understand intimate subjective positions. The poet and the filmmaker use tools that exploit subjectivity and, because of this, have an intuitive advantage over the archaeologist in understanding the ancient artist.

You describe the cave as a surface layered with messages left by generations of artists who are calling out to and answering one another across time. How does this relate to your concept of what art—and poetry—is?

The dialogue evident in the different animals represented in the cave—the different kinds of strokes, the different ways of creating shading, the different colours, even—was exciting because it was like arriving at a party after the guests had left. Except, there is no reason to believe that they were all there at the same time, so the cave drawings were something like a stream of comments on Facebook. Someone makes a comment, and later that day, someone hears and responds with her/his own comment and the discussion goes on until something happens to stop it. Herzog’s documenting of the cave in 3D technology added one more voice to the feed, and my poem introduces yet another. Poetry is like painting and film, in that it is dialogic. It is made using shared language, images, ideas, to address the reading or cinematic audience.

“Theses on the Philosophy of Waiting” is a prose poem. Why did you choose this form?

I can’t say that I chose the form for this poem, but maybe the subject chose this form. I have been working on a larger narrative project of prose poems about “waiting,” and this poem is one of the pieces in the collection. The form allows for two states to coexist: the lyric, emotional, imagistic moment expressed in poetry, and the narrative-driven, argument-based (Plato and Benjamin) flow of prose. The poetic allows for the breath, the stutter, the pause, the silence that reflects the still life of waiting while prose reflects the momentum of time, the accumulation of moments and things, which together add up to the experience of waiting.

This last question may come across as self-congratulatory, but over the summer The Malahat Review mentored you in the revision of this poem. Can you describe what the experience of being mentored was like and how it may have changed or clarified how you came to see “Theses on the Philosophy of Waiting”?

It was nerve-wracking. It’s always hard to answer the question, “why is this like this?”—even if you’re asking yourself. The creative process is this tight game of the unconscious, combined with the lack of intention and conscious intention. Sometimes I don’t really know why “this is like this” and having to answer that question means tracing my unconscious influences. This process is long and explains why many of my poems take forever to finish. With the mentoring experience, the process of questioning was intensified and accelerated: the questions were coming back faster than I could breathe, sometimes. You might say a kind of psychic hyperventilating explains why it was nerve-wracking—but it was also euphoric to hear/see the poem move and morph into its current shape—like watching time-lapse film. It was amazing. I am so overwhelmed with gratitude for this gift.

John Barton

John Barton

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