World heritage

Life Magazine publishes never-before seen images of the Lascaux cave paintings…which is the perfect opportunity to quote the divinely mad Alan Moore’s speculations on thaumaturgy and the origins of artistic culture:

I think that all of this goes back to the fact that originally there can’t have been any difference between magic and art. The earliest visual arts we have are the cave paintings at Lascaux. Now, these are shamanic. The very way that the cave paintings at Lascaux were arranged, where you have to go through very narrow, sort of crouching series of corridors almost, before you get to this center cave where there are these wonderful animal pictures. It must have been done as some sort of initiation. You’re led through this darkness…and when you get to the center chamber, probably lit up by fire, you would not have seen drawings of animals on the walls: You would have had animals flying around the room. That is because if you’d never seen a drawing before. Just imagine what the very idea of representation before people had the idea of visual representation. What a magical act it was to draw some marks on a cave wall and have everybody understand that this sort of humped line was actually the spine of that ox that we killed two days ago! And to understand that a line on a wall WAS in some way the animal, you know, that’s something that we can’t really grasp now because we are used to looking at a picture and thinking, “Of course, well it’s a picture. It’s a picture of a cow, it’s a picture of a horse.” But back THEN, what an incredible leap of consciousness to actually come up with representational art, which of course leads to written language. The first people to do it would have been magicians.

There are dismissable cranks, and there are invaluable cranks, and Moore the wizard of Southampton if of the latter sort.

The pre-agrarian, animistic mindset is a topic Moore treated at length in the notoriously difficult first chapter of his only novel to date, Voice of the Fire. Not so much a novel as a pastiche of short stories tied together by the most tentatively connected themes, Chap. 1 is the first-person account of an exile from a Celtic tribe living in England, 8,000 BCE. Such a task obviously can never approach anything approaching realist precision, being dependent on the clues of archaeology, analogies from contemporary hunter-gatherer ethnography, and sheer speculative imagination as it is. The results of Moore’s experiment are mixed. He is given to some excesses in suggesting the primitiveness of his subjects. Taboos like nuclear family-incest are nonexistent, thought these are observed to be fully established in all contemporary prestate societies. Though in reality all human languages are equally complex and have at least three tenses, Moore confines his characters’ vocabulary to a few hundred words, and their grammar is ridiculously simplistic–the only first person personal pronoun is “I,” and the only tense is present. All this leads to really tortured prosal constructions; the idea “I cried” becomes “I make hot water from I’s eyes.” 

But Moore does succeed in communicating the radically different worldviews engendered by cultural evolution; for example, characters have concepts for numbers, but lack specific terminology to discuss them. “Four” is spoken as “as many as on an owl’s claw” or “one less than on a hand.”  This is parallel to some contemporary hunter-gatherer societies with counting systems limited to “One, two, three, many.”

The 8,000 BCE chapter isn’t the most emotionally or humanly compelling of the novel, and the rest of the stories are far more readable–in fact, they are joys to read, and the work on the whole is on par with the comic classics of Moore’s ovure, Watchmen, From Hell, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But it is the one with the most material for thought-experiments.

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