Tuesday, May 02, 2017

It's the Morning of History and I'm Not Myself. Or Am I?

I'm tapped out. The only thing of cosmic interest I've been thinking about is the cave paintings left by our so-called ancestors 10- to 40 thousand years ago. I say "so-called," because if the most remarkable thing about them is totally incomprehensible to us, in what way are we related?

To back up a bit, I've been rereading Paul Johnson's sweeping History of Art, which begins at the very beginning, with the cave paintings produced during the Paleolithic era, i.e., before around 10,000 BC.

But in truth, all of this is "before the beginning," since history only begins with writing, which isn't until 3,200 BC. Therefore, it is exceedingly difficult to understand just what our esteemed furbears were up to.

But whatever it was, it was obviously quite... intense.

I was particularly struck by Johnson's point that the aesthetic movement of the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 to 10,000 BC) was the longest artistic fad in human history, "lasting for more than two thirds of the total time when humans have produced art."

That little comment is a head-scratcher and a mind-blower. Imagine being 60 years old, but having no recollection whatsoever of your first 40 years. Someone shows you an impressive portfolio of artistic objects you completed before age 40, but you have no idea why or how you did them. Frankly, they might as well have been done by someone else. In short, you cannot connect them to your personal history at all. Rather, they're just a kind of pre-personal appendix flapping beyond the horizon of your personal memory.

Or, are they just a meaningless projection from the other end of animality? This is what a materialist would have to believe: that the cave paintings -- and every subsequent art form -- are analogous to how beavers produce dams, ants create hills, and bees make hives. It's just what we do.

Except in our case, the productions are in no plausible way connected to physical survival. Yes, there are obtuse Darwinian attempts at explanations, such as a search for order or something, but these productions far exceed such concerns. Ants, after all, do not build cathedrals.

What also struck me was the determination and persistence exhibited by our ancestors. Whatever it is they were up to, it is clear that they really, really wanted to do it, in a way we can scarcely imagine.

For example, one cave in France "runs over six miles into the mountain," and I've read of other cases in which the only way to enter the cave is through a long, tight, -- and obviously totally dark -- passageway. You first!

Then there is the problem of inventing paint, brushes, scaffolding (some of the paintings are 20 feet overhead), and a portable source of light. Even if the idea had occurred to me, I would have been the first to say "screw it. Too difficult."

But that is precisely what they didn't do. The Thing I was thinking about is: is it possible to "reverse imagineer" the cave paintings and comprehend the drive or compulsion our ancestors were under?

Then another question -- or principle, rather -- popped into my head: it must be possible to integrate this into the Arc of Salvation, or harmonize it with meta-history. What if we, with the benefit of hindsight, actually understand better than they did what they were trying to do?

In other words, the purpose of any activity is teleological: it is not revealed at the beginning, but only at the end. While the telos is ontologically first, it is temporally last. For example, I may begin with the idea of a house, but it will take time to realize the house in reality.

"The great age of Magdalenian cave art," writes Johnson, "came to an end about 10,000 BC, with the last ice age. Its cycle was complete. Nothing of this quality was ever produced again."

Boom: it appears in 40,000 BC. Boom: it disappears in 10,000 BC. At least as far as we know. Obviously we cannot know what we don't know, so we have no idea about undiscovered caves, not to mention whatever art may have been produced above ground.

Until the emergence of megalithic architecture between 5000 and 1500 BC. Here again we have no real idea what they were up to, but boy, did they want to do it: "We have here, then, an artistic construct which, like a cathedral, was the work of generations, even in its basic design."

So, the design -- the teleology -- has to be passed down from generation to generation, with no writing, and yet, with a clear idea of the end result (and no doubt its ultimate purpose, for it is impossible to imagine this level of determination without a Damn Good reason).

Take Stonehenge, for example: its giant stones weigh in excess of four tons and had to be transported over twenty miles. Me? Screw it. In another case, creation of the monument "involved shifting hundreds of thousands of tons of earth and chalk." One of them is estimated to weigh 350 tons. So, why did they do it?

If we are going to fit this into the Arc of Salvation, we must be talking about the time between Adam and Abraham. The cave paintings and megalithic structures are postlapsarian but antediluvian. What was -- is -- going on then? Well, "there were giants on the earth in those days." And they lived a long time: over 900 years in some cases. It is after Death has entered the world, but before we know what to think about that little surprise.

In The Beginning of Wisdom, Kass writes that "Death is the mother of the love of glory, of a beautiful name for splendid deeds."

It "is also -- and similarly -- the mother of beauty, of the concern with the beautification of an ugly world, fated to decay, rife with death. In the face of death, artful men create beautiful objects -- statues and paintings, poems and songs, vases and temples -- objects they hope will last, immune to decay as their makers are not."

Mission accomplished.

Nevertheless, "Appreciation of the beautiful may inspire the soul, but efforts to capture it leave one unfulfilled -- even when seemingly successful. For what do we really have if and when we 'possess' the beautiful?"

Beauty "seems to promise some underlying goodness," but "as experience teaches, the promise is only infrequently fulfilled; what strikes us as beautiful is rarely yoked to the good." For example, I'll bet they conducted human sacrifices in those megalithic structures.

So, God needs to bring these quasi-immortal narcissists down a peg: he decides "to shorten the human lifespan to 120 years. Presumably the very great longevity invited only great mischief and danger.... Because death was for so long so far out of sight, these men were able to forget their mortality and pretend to immortal godliness."

Soon enough, because of their long lives and practical immunity from death, they had "behaved even worse than the animals. Perhaps a shorter life span could limit the damage any beastly man might cause.... Perhaps if they could not pretend to immortality, they would be more open to the eternal."

Nah. "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the Earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all the day." Do over. Metaphorically speaking. But the point is to permanently "drown the natural human aspiration to apotheosis through heroic deed and to replace it with an acquired human commitment to righteousness and the perpetuation of life on earth" (Kass).

8 comments:

julie said...

So, God needs to bring these quasi-immortal narcissists down a peg: he decides "to shorten the human lifespan to 120 years. Presumably the very great longevity invited only great mischief and danger.... Because death was for so long so far out of sight, these men were able to forget their mortality and pretend to immortal godliness."

Interesting how Moses' life was divided into blocks of 40 years: 40 a prince, 40 an exile, and 40 wandering the desert as leader of the Israelites.

I shudder to think of what most modern people would do with such a span, particularly those who call themselves our elites - quite often, it seems, those who hope for it the most. An 80 year old Clinton gearing up for 40 more years of cons? Perish the thought! Let alone 900.

And yet, those of us with faith hope for eternity, even if we don't comprehend what that will mean. Anymore than a tiny seed knows what it would mean to be a giant redwood.

Gagdad Bob said...

How long should a life be? Long enough to reach eternity, I guess.

Van Harvey said...

"Nah. "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the Earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all the day." Do over. Metaphorically speaking."


Somewhat OT, but speaking of cosmic Do Overs, and overs', 13,000 years past, and possibly 13 years in the future... kinda interesting. As is the archeological find at the Gobekli temple, behind the hype.

debass said...

They were probably bored. That's about the only time I practice music.

Gagdad Bob said...

Maybe the cave paintings were their combination of news and entertainment. Just add psilocybin.

debass said...

A lot of great art and music was created under the influence. I don't advocate that. Who knows the altered mental state of historical figures. Judging by some of their behavior, I would conclude they were definitely intoxicated with something, or just insane.

Gagdad Bob said...

No doubt. The desire to alter consciousness is a fundamental drive. If not, it might as well be.

Ephrem Antony Gray said...

Some of it is just dreaming. Possibly a bit of the bicameral mind, too.