Chauvet Cave, in Southern France, has paintings on its stone walls that were painted 32,000 years ago. They were preserved when the cave collapsed and was sealed from the elements 20,000 years ago. The youngest of the paintings were painted sometime around 25,000 years ago. Which means that for 7,000 years, longer than the entire known history of western civilization, longer than every single documented event in human history, longer than four thousand years before Christ, humans came to the same cave and painted mostly the same pictures with mostly the same materials and mostly the same methods.
Seven thousand years. 30 laps around the signing of the Declaration of Independence to today. The same pictures. The same paint. The expanse of time breaks my mind. The way it needs to be broken from time to time.
Werner Herzog’s 2010 Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary on the cave. And it’s everything a Werner Herzog documentary can be.
“…do they dream? Do they cry at night? What are their hopes? These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams. Is this their heartbeat or ours. Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artists across such an abyss of time?”
I know just about every line of it. It came out the year I got back from Iraq. I used to watch it to fall asleep.
We need things that break our mind that way.
There have been five generations of Hughes men since the first of us came over from Ireland in the wake of the potato blight. None of them died quietly in their beds with their family around them. They drank and ran or met some other unfortunate end that involved a bottle and a train. But they never made it through their 30’s with the families they started. They all had the itch.
The itch of course was anxiety. And we know now that it’s genetic. It’s something evolution hasn’t quite routed out of some of us. Some dogs need to run. If you let them alone in the house for too long, they tear it up. The Hughes men have torn up some houses. And they passed that tendency down to each generation. And when I got back from deployments as a Naval Officer the itch almost got me too. And when I was done deployments altogether it was worse.
There’s something physical about anxiety. It manifests itself in the mind, but the feeling, for me at least, was as if the walls were shrinking in on me. The people around me were too close. The feeling was suffocation. By the grace of God, booze wasn’t really for me. Not the way it was for them. So I turned to something else evolutionary.
Sitting in the trailer I lived in al Anbar, I understood that I needed to let my mind run a bit in order to stay sane. I didn’t think of it as anxiety though. It was war and most people were at least a little anxious. So I read. But what I read mattered. I read certain types of fiction. Melville. Hemmingway. Maugham. But also stacks of science fiction. Asimov. Philip K. Dick. Heinlein. Stephenson. If I read non-fiction it had to be enormous sweeping historic or anthropological works like Jared Diamond or Caro.
If you want to feel like you’ve got blue sky above you, read Robert Caro’s description of the west Texas hill country of LBJ’s childhood. And if you want to feel alone read his description of a night before electricity in the darkness with the wind.
When I got home for good, 10 years ago now, I thought I didn’t need it. It wasn’t the war that made me feel anxious though. It was just how I was wired. And figuring out how to live on a different path than the Hughes men that came before me required finding a different way to run a bit. Reading. Writing. Watching beautiful cinema. Television now has taken over for the big screen.
It’s a glorious time to need that kind of stimuli.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is big enough. Battlestar Galactica (the newer one) is a masterpiece. And Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a perfect work of art pretending to be a war movie. Both Blade Runners are perfect. The Thin Red Line is the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen.
I’m rambling, purposely so to make a point. That point is that we’re in politically contemptuous times with a plague that’s limited our movement. It’s stolen a bit of our sky when we need it most. But this isn’t new for humans. We’ve been trampled underfoot so consistently for millennia that we’ve got a word to describe when we haven’t been. Peace. The bi-product of it’s absence is the bottomless expanse of the human imagination that bleeds off art in a beautiful way that heals the producer and the consumer.
So let the healing start.
Things are going to get a little crazy around here over the next 120 hours. I recommend you find somewhere to let yourself run in place a bit. And maybe form that habit for good if you haven’t.