Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Mirror, Wrapped in a Space, Inside a Cave

If we find a turtle on top of a fencepost, we can be sure it didn't get there by itself. And if we stumble upon a painting, we know it was made by man.

Back beyond the horizon of myth, some 30 or 40 thousand years ago, our first parents tunneled to the center of the earth, to the womb of nature, and left their pneumagraphs. These were not just men, but artists, or maybe you can pull this off (and remember, you first have to invent paint and brushes, and don't forget to bring a flashlight):

The first thing one wants to say is: how is it possible that artistic standards have so deteriorated since then?

For Chesterton, these efforts show "the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things.... In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure."

Or in other words, the paintings reveal the uniquely human combination of objectivity and disinterest on the one hand, and aesthetic delight on the other.

Now, objectivity is transcendence; it stands outside and above, "uncontaminated" by the passions. Conversely, the delight of aesthetic pleasure is obviously subjective; it is not only embodied, but impossible to know in the absence of a body. But this is what man IS: to paraphrase Schuon, he is intellect, sentiment, and will; and he is these things because there is truth, love, and freedom. Intellect is conformed to truth, sentiment to beauty, and will to virtue.

The paintings are of course beautiful, but they also (obviously) reveal a break in nature from necessity to freedom: only an idiot would suggest that these paintings reveal no more freedom than do the spider's web or beaver's dam. There is nothing superfluous in those instinctive constructions, whereas the cave paintings are joyously useless. And when I say "useless," I mean that in the best possible sense. Even if they had some "utilitarian" purpose, they are far more accomplished than they needed to be in order to serve that purpose.

So, I suppose what we want to know is, 1) how did man transcend nature and exit the physical cosmos?, and 2) how did he seemingly enter it more deeply and become so passionately involved in it? As I mentioned a few posts back, it is as if all other vertebrates are on a two-dimensional line (we could say that invertebrates are one-dimensional points). But humans exist in a three- (or four-, really, including time) dimensional space that extends both up and down, forward and back. Perhaps you may have gnosissed how incredibly "roomy" it is in here. How is this so? What is going on in here?

If you have been to college -- or worse, graduate school -- these questions do not come up, because they have long ago been barricaded by the Conspiracy -- the Conspiracy to Steal Your Slack. And Slack is nothing if it is not this expansive and ever expanding soulspace "inside" our heads. I put that in scare quotes, because it is literally the case that our heads are in this space, as per yesterday's post. Although body and soul go together, the body is in the soul, not vice versa (which would be impossible); in other words, form transcends substance.

Long story short -- or maybe 100,000 years is actually a very short span of time relative to a 14 billion year-old cosmos. It would represent what... math is hard... you figure it out. The point is, when speaking of matters that are sui generis, who knows what constitutes a long time? It is not as if we have anything else to compare it to. No doubt for God it is a blink of the eye. You might ask: why did he wait so long to incarnate? To which I might respond: why did the Big Bang wait so long to bang?

So, the two people who first discovered the cave paintings "dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But [they] would dig a good deal deeper before [they] found a place were a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man" (ibid.). This sounds frivolous, and yet, it entails a deep truth: everyone who hasn't been to graduate school appreciates the infinite gap between animals and man, and will not waste his life trying to prove the gap isn't real, or that reindeers can draw more than sleighs, or that spider webs really are works of art.

Yes but: those latter can be quite beautiful, can't they? Now, what is that all about? I'm kind of partial to this one -- in a completely disinterested way, of course:

What we want to know is, why was there so much damn beauty in the cosmos, with no one there to appreciate it? Why is the world beautiful at all? Why does this category even exist?

The reason is that the world is created. Man, being in the image of the Creator, is the co-creator. Creation and freedom go together like intellect and truth. Man is free. Free to do what? Free to create. Create what? Beauty.

Or maybe you have a better idea of what to do with yours. Certainly that is true of the left, for whom artistic creativity is subordinated to an ideology that denies both freedom and beauty -- and therefore man.

The existence of primitive art also speaks to absoluteness, for knowledge of perfection is knowledge of the Absolute. Again, no animal endeavors to improve itself or its behaviors. But the human effort to do so is only possible in light of a transcendent standard. Which is in turn why no great work of art can surpass another -- each has reached the threshold of the absolute, and therefore done its job. What's better, the Pieta or the Divine Comedy?

This would explain why in the cave paintings we see no evidence of "development or degree. Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo sapiens draw it well" (ibid.). Rather, as soon as art commences, it is attuned to transcendent perfection. This is indeed what makes it art and not just postmodern scribbling.

So, "we cannot even talk about it without treating man as something separate from nature. In other words, every sane sort of history must begin with man as man, a thing standing absolute and alone" (ibid.).

Man's ultimate origin is not only beyond the horizon of myth, but beyond the horizon of science, since it is not only at a right angle to science, but reveals the very space in which science takes place.

"This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a creature.... somehow or other a new thing had appeared in the cavernous night of nature, a mind that is like a mirror.... as in the furniture of a room a table may be round like a mirror or a cupboard may be larger than a mirror. But the mirror is the only thing that can contain them all. Man is the microcosm; man is the measure of all things; man is in the image of God" (Chesterton).


Rick said...

That's not a cave.
It's a church.
A very early one.
Or you have to pass through a cave to get to church.
They're both a kind of frame within the world.

Thanks for this post.
Speaking of forgotten dreams, I finally made it to see the Pieta and Dante tomb couple weeks ago (and David; among many other works known-about and unknown).
They know not what they're missing.

Rick said...

I forgot:
Womb with a view!

mushroom said...

All mirrors are magic mirrors, as MacDonald said. Especially the human one.


Gagdad Bob said...

Can't make it up. I don't know what academia would have to do to sink lower.

Tony said...

I don't know, Notre Dame's giving Barack Obama an honorary degree in law is arguably lower.

Paul Griffin said...

Man's ultimate origin is not only beyond the horizon of myth, but beyond the horizon of science, since it is not only at a right angle to science, but reveals the very space in which science takes place.

You know, we keep building that golden calf, and then proceed immediately to worship it and proclaim that it made us. Merely building our idols out of more cunning things than gold and rendering our sacrifices to them in private does not make them any less horrific or our worship of them any less idiotic...

Gagdad Bob said...

True: they are like manmade horizontal mirrors in which we lovingly gaze at our own image -- i.e., metaphysical narcissism.

julie said...

Good grief, UCLA.


Back to the post,

And if we stumble upon a painting, we know it was made by man.


Even if they had some "utilitarian" purpose, they are far more accomplished than they needed to be in order to serve that purpose.

Something someone here said the other day resulted in me looking up paintings done by elephants; in Thailand, it's a great tourist attraction. A little research beyond YouTube videos made it pretty clear that the paintings are still being done by humans, they've just figured out how to make an elephant hold the brush.

But back to the cave paintings, with my own two cavechildren venturing into the challenging realms of simply holding a crayon and drawing anything that isn't a scribble, those paintings didn't just happen without a lot of work. Not even just to make the shapes, but to find the pigments and grind them up, to learn spraying techniques, and any number of other skills and tools required just to put those elegant drawings in a place where they'd remain hidden for thousands of years. Truly incredible.

Tony said...

By the way, Bob, I'm totally digging this cd:

Gagdad Bob said...

About Notre Dame & Obama: the top is absolute but the bottom is relative, so I guess it just keeps on going down forever, like a false eternity.

Gagdad Bob said...

The Brisbane sound. Who knew? here are some samples and a review. Not sure how these guys can be topped, though. Check out the samples.

Tony said...

I love those cave paintings, absolutely love them. I haven't read much about them, so I don't know how art historians talk about them as paintings. They are pre-history, so it's not as though there were artistic traditions that the cave painter(s) drew upon. Not that we know, anyway. How do we describe them? Well, the animals are both stylized and visually realistic. But they're not "gothic," the visual varieties of which show the same blend of visual realism and abstraction. Clearly the cave painter was interested in modeling form, and to some extent color. I'd say he or she was interested in muscle mass, the sense of the big shaggy breathing life of these animals -- because it's their mass that seems most interesting, not their proportions. Don Giussani speculates that our first experience as infants after birth is the awareness of other masses moving in the light. Cave paintings have that quality for me, but the vision is quite acute. Look at the detail of the second elk's horn, for example, and how carefully it's observed. It seems that second elk is prostrate on the ground; the first appears to be nuzzling it. Is this an awareness of sympathy and a consequent attempt at sympathetic rendering? It's deeply interesting. Entering the Lascaux cave is like traveling down the esophagus of some enormous prehistoric creature. And then to find this!

Leech and Grimes, Trans-temporal Attys. said...


(Give us a call)

Paul Griffin said...

metaphysical narcissism

It has always seemed like more than that to me, the insistence that something we created is in fact what created us. More like...metaphysical autoincest, to coin an unpleasant term. Here, I'll let Tom Arnold explain.

Tony said...

Oh yeah, Bryant and West are amazing. I gave up transcribing their stuff -- they play so, so fast. If you like this sort of hillbilly swing (I do!), it's interesting to dig back into guys like Zeb Turner, who played on some famous Hank Williams tunes. Norm Stephenson is another guy -- he played on Lefty Frizzell's early sides and was forgotten until Merle Haggard looked him up fairly recently. This Jimmie Rivers guy though topped them all -- he's rougher, bluesier, ballsier than Bryant. Rivers came out of Barney Kessel, who came from Charlie Christian. Interesting to hear so high an artistic level achieved in dive bar like the 23 Club in nowheresville Brisbane. Just goes to show that our artistic narratives are almost ridiculous in their selectivity and (frequent) myopia.

Gagdad Bob said...

Magister: say what you want about cavemen, but they sure like pastels.

Tony said...

Ha, well, check this one:

Looks like iron ore. Ballsy.

Gagdad Bob said...

You can see how the artist created the image to conform with the shape of the rock, giving it a third dimension. It is said that when illuminated by a flickering candle, it introduces the fourth dimension as a result of the moving shadows.

julie said...

I've seen other images where they did two sets of legs or heads, kind of like in cartoons when the artist is trying to make it look like something is moving - and again, it seems that in the flickering of firelight that;s exactly how it would have appeared.

Notably, that's a technique I don't that wasn't used by anyone else (as far as I know) until very recent days (as far as I know). The days of moving pictures. Or if it was, it was never common.

EbonyRaptor said...

"This creature was truly different from all other creatures; because he was a creator as well as a creature"

Bravo - right to the point of it.

Rick said...

RE Julie's comment, I think Caravaggio was playing with a 4th dimensional deck this day.

...if you look at all of the figures as one figure; beginning with the one most vertical in upper right and end with Christ in the horizontal lower left. Like motion-pictures.

julie said...

Oh, good point. I always liked Caravaggio.

Anonymous said...

To do that, one must dig in the dirt. The application of dust is dependent on placement in the palm, and the breath setting that free. More like a whistle. With the interior air currents, and sonic anomalies inherent in the environment.

One could argue the difference between patterns of nature and the creativity of Man would be degree of practicality. That would assume the difference is just a matter of hubris, and translation.

Maybe more a matter of knowing identity shared being innocence and wisdom, rather than manipulation outside the lines. Otherwise, the Garden of Good and Evil.

Funny how the Hell part looks like the evening news.

A little lower than the angels. Gaps, and such.

Gagdad Bob said...

I'm only about halfway through, but I would say this is a Very Important Book: The New Class Conflict.

julie said...

Interesting. Going by the blurb, my husband has come to much the same conclusions thanks in part to his particular line of work.

Gagdad Bob said...

At this point it is difficult to know whether the intellectual incoherence, greed, and hypocrisy of progressives is a positive or negative. On the one hand, it dooms their project to failure, but they may wreck everything in the process.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

IRT Class warfare, it's just as bad and likely worse than racism and bigotry.
Ironically, as Bob has already mentioned, the party of envy that promotes punishing success is sowing the seeds of it's own destruction.
And yeah, I pray the resulting damage to the middle class doesn't destroy us.

ted said...

Bob: From what I can gather, it seems like Kotkin is expanding on the analysis Murray did on Coming Apart. Yes?

EbonyRaptor said...

Now that Angela Davis has been set on a pedestal, who is next from the progressive pantheon to be so honored at the temple of higher learning? My money is on Charles Manson.

Gagdad Bob said...

To a certain extent, yes, but where Murray is more individual/sociological, Kotkin is more economic/political. Kotkin also acknowledges that much of what concerns Occupy Wallstreet types is well founded, but that their thinking is completely ass-backwards.

Gagdad Bob said...

And that was obviously addressed to Ted.

ted said...

BTW, you got me hooked on watching the Journey Home shows on YouTube. Love the discussions. As your recent mention that you've never read the Bible all the way through (likewise), I do find I have this aversion to scripture. I know it's a foible with me. I'm trying.

Gagdad Bob said...

That show is usually great -- the discussions are at a very high level, and the personal spiritual adventures are always compelling. Grodi is very unassuming but incredibly knowledgable.

Tony said...

Here's a really interesting paper about boys:

"We show the first evidence that one of the traits capturing childhood misbehavior, discussed in psychological literature as the externalizing trait (and linked, for example, to aggression), does indeed reduce educational attainment, but also increases earnings. This finding highlights a broader point: non-cognition is not well summarized as a single underlying trait that is either good or bad per se. Using the estimated model, we assess competing pedagogical policies. For males, we find that policies aimed at eliminating the externalizing trait increase schooling attainment, but also reduce earnings. In comparison, policies that decrease the schooling penalty of the externalizing trait increase both schooling and earnings."

Hieros Gamos said...

Pf. Speak for yourself I find turtles on top of fenceposts all the time.