The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture
By Georges Bataille
Edited and introduced by Stuart Kendall
Translated by Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall
Zone Books, 2009
Distributed by The MIT Press
With Georges Bataille you can always be certain of a worthwhile intellectual adventure, and that’s what is in store here.
As the title indicates Bataille’s main interest in prehistoric art and culture lies in what it reveals about how humanity came into being. We are animals, that is without question, but we are quite peculiar creatures, unlike any other on the planet. One reason why the prehistoric period is so intriguing is because it is when man ceased to be simply an animal like all others – Neanderthal man buried his dead, as a for instance, just as we do – and how this came about is a matter of mystery even now. And there are other mysteries. The complete disappearance of Neanderthal man raises the spectre of genocide;an authentic original sin for homo sapiens as a species.
Several times in these various writings, Bataille discusses a scrawled scene to be found in a pit at the Lascaux cave, a tableau of particular significance to him that involves a man in a bird mask, a gutted bison, a retreating rhinoceros and a bird that looks down on these three from a high vantage point. The images can be seen on pages 52 and 53 of the book and the drawing of the man in a bird mask is schematic, like a hieroglyphic or a primitive grapheme.
Again and again he returns to this scene, and the story it may tell. His settled interpretation is that prehistoric men ‘felt remorse when they killed the animals that would give them nourishment’ and that our distant forebears were therefore caught in a double-bind, faced with, a cruel predicament.
Man was a hunter yet had a sense of wonder about the natural world and the creatures in it. Every time he hunted – and he needed to do so to survive – he did so with the objective to kill what he revered. Hence guilt, the need to make amends, self-harm, sacrifice. Religion, ritual and art arose from this complex morass of emotion – and man’s sense of wonder brimmed over even more. Altogether, the scrawled scene in Lascaux points towards a complicated relationship with the creatures man hunted, a relationship characterised by exploitation and expiation.
Bataille writes of paintings to be found in this cave:
What Lascaux man discovered in the convulsive obscurity of the animal world… is that grandeur is linked to the fact of being suspended, hung over the abyss of death, yet full of virile force. (173).
All such reflections on our origins – despite the danger of romanticising or, conversely, belittling these early men and women – cannot but lead to a kind of awe. Bataille makes one statement that perhaps needs to be revised
Poetic genius is found in all peoples, it is common in all human beings, but it manifested itself in Lascaux with the kind of crashing roar that is proper to birth. (159)
Those paintings date back 17,000 years while the paintings in the Chauvet caves, discovered less than a decade ago by three speleologists, including the afore-mentioned Chauvet, are about 30,000 years old. Quite what Bataille would have made of them is anybody’s guess. Oh, to be a fly on the wall while he and Werner Herzog chatted cosily about them! My review of Herzog’s documentary on the Chauvet caves can be read here.
In this book there are six essays, two lectures (delivered in 1952 and 1955), two book reviews and a sketch for a film. The film was unfortunately unmade (Jean Painlevé might have got a good film out of the outline included here) and three of the essays were unpublished during Bataille’s lifetime. All were written over a period of about 30 years. Clearly, they address questions concerning our origins that are of fundamental importance to us all, questions which preoccupied Bataille right up until his death in 1962. In his introduction, the editor Stuart Kendall quotes Bataille as saying ‘I have sacrificed everything to the search for a perspective which reveals the unity of the human spirit’ (30). It is a privilege to read this book and to engage with the thought of such a man. The Cradle of Humanity is an intellectual ride and a half, and no mistake.