Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for the Holocene!

In his nobel prize speech, Faulkner, at his most Polonian, said that man will ‘not only endure. He will prevail…” This may have made some sense at the dawn of the nuclear bomb age, and perhaps these words have to be set as a sort of defiant humanism against a global war that killed 50 million people.

However, the hope of man prevailing has steadily lost altitude over the last couple of decades, and will, I think, continue to seem more and more the long shot. Man prevailing has meant man creating a treadmill of production and a treadmill of consumption that now seems both unstoppable and disastrous. Parents, today, calmly expect the fish to disappear from the oceans by the time their children have achieved middle age. The elephant, the tiger, and the rain forest are all marked down to be remembered as theme park accessories.

As man prevails, he destroys the Holocene in which he was born, nourished and flourished, and he does this with the calm lack of attention with which a person, say, cleans the lint and old tickets out of his coat pocket. After all, the Holocene might go, but at least BP is back and ready for business – and has purchased its first new lease in the Gulf, thanks to the anti-Holocene Obama administration. Which, as we know, will be succeeded by the anti-Holocene Romney administration, which will basically pursue the same policies.

Thoughts of the Holocene have been with me since last night, when A. and I traveled up to the Cinema St. Michel by bus, forked over an amazing 10.5 Euros each, picked up two clunky dark glasses, and plunged, 3-d-ily, into the depths of the Chauvet cave. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the Herzog film since I first read about it, since I am a big fan of caves. One of my favorite interviews, when I still interviewed – ever since interviewing Gregory Curtis, the ex editor of Texas Monthly who wrote a fascinating book on the subject after having immersed himself in the literature (which is, by all accounts, oddly polemical – every generation seems to have a dominant theories about the Paleolithic people that are then overturned, with maximum contempt, by the next generation) and gone and visited the caves, or those he could. Oh, to go from cave to cave! What a blissful idea.

Here’s what I wrote after reading Curtis, back in 2006:

Reading it, we were struck like by 100 000 volts that during the Upper Paleolithic – that wonderful time when there were, max, 150 000 people in Europe, and life was good for around twenty thousand years - the cave artists generally didn’t draw or paint or engrave people. There were your stray vulvas, the masked bird man, many hand prints, but generally – no people. Instead, there were mammoths. There were lions. There were rhinos and horses. Oddly, much fewer reindeer, even though reindeer meat was the spam of the Paleolithic – it was always poached reindeer for breakfast, fricasseed reindeer for lunch, and reindeer pudding for dinner. We are often told how to evolution stories about this or that human habit, but in reality, the way those how to stories are formed is that evo psychologists extrapolate back from ‘primitive people’ of today to those wandering around 200,000 years ago. However, this habit is in serious disconnect from archeologists, who have long held that ethnography of people today, in no matter what state of society they live in, is essentially unhelpful when trying to reconstruct the way the inhabits of the Eurasia 30,000 years ago lived. It is impossible not to imagine back using our PBS/National Geographic images, but what tribe do we know of that doesn’t draw people? Deleuze and Guattari talk of the special faciality of the West – this seems right, on all accounts – but to show so little interest in people when one has mastered perspective, and the expressive character of animals? That seems quite significant. But of what? Well, this is where speculation is dumb, but irresistible.”

My speculative position is that the cave art of 30,000 years ago, with its absence of the human, marks the time when – just perhaps – humans did not assume they would prevail. They did not even assume they were superior, since of course they knew – the horse was superior for speed, the lion and tiger and bear was superior for strength, the bird for flight, and so on.
There wasn’t - I would speculate, in this scene still dotted with other hominid candidates for most likely to survive - the sense that homo sapiens was superior in any department at all.

Given this sense of an overwhelmingly un-human world, the Chauvet paintings are all the more incredible. But I watched not just for the painting, but for something Curtis’s book had mentioned, which is also mentioned in Judith Thurman’s account of Chauvet:
“Twenty-six thousand years ago (six millennia after the first paintings were created), a lone adolescent left his footprints and torch swipes in the furthest reaches of the western horn, the Gallery of the Crosshatching.”

I don’t know why this stray detail effects me so much, but it does. When Herzog finally showed the footprints, I got dreadfully tearful.