One of the most haunting motifs in the film the English Patient is the idea of communication across time: modern travelers visiting ancient cave paintings depicting images of people swimming in a region that is now desert; the words and stories of Herodotus, speaking to modern readers across the centuries. The most poignant of these communications across time features the words of a woman, injured, in pain, dying alone in a cave, and writing her final thoughts and reflections using the worn nub of a pencil, in the faltering light of a flashlight–and the way in which the man who loved her was able to share those final moments with her, when he himself was close to his end.
The poetic imagery of the film, and its beautiful depiction of this thematic motif, was a paradigm shifter for me. It made me look at books, paintings, art of all kinds, differently–added an edge of reverence and weight to my encounters. With the possible exception of improvisatory theatre, there’s always a time shift in encountering artistic works, because some aspect of them was created in the past, while one’s encounter with them is in the present. Of course this is the most noticeable and powerful with works written hundreds of years ago, opening windows into the past through which we can glimpse, often as through a glass, darkly, what the world used to be like.
This past summer, we were lucky enough to board a time machine that took us back somewhere between 14,000 and 16,000 years. Font-de-Gaume,* in France, is one of the few sites featuring ancient cave paintings that people like us, who like to keep things flexible and therefore sometimes miss out on things that should be planned ahead, can enjoy. The people who run the site keep a limited number of spots open each day for those who are willing to show up early and wait.
And so, we got our tickets. When the time for our tour came, we were led along the trail by a friendly cat who was clearly an experienced guide and knew the area well, up to the cave entrance, which was sealed shut by a thick vault door. We waited for the rest of our group to arrive, and then we were led into the caves by a guide (human, this time) whose rapid, regional French required my close attention, in order to follow the gist of what he was saying.
As the vault doors closed behind us, the heavy, cool stillness of the air inside the cave surrounded and suffused us, making me glad I’d thought to change into jeans and a sweater. We walked through, as the guide explained that at the time the paintings were made, the passage way would have been far less accessible than it was today, so there would likely have been a ritual element to the act of coming to the caves, and a deep intention behind making these drawings.
We glimpsed the images obliquely–the guide would flash the light on them fleetingly, as he explained some facet or another of them, before directing the beam of his light down once more. Even so, there was something immensely powerful to seeing these ancient images of wild beasts, running, rearing, fighting and interacting. The beauty and grace of movement, captured in the stasis of the image, fascinated me, particularly when I also thought about how these would have been painted by flickering torchlight, using bits of charcoal and other ancient, natural sources of pigment that the long-ago artists would have had to have brought with them.
As I stood contemplating the images, I thought about how those ancient artists must have planned and practiced these drawings, knowing that some day, they would be making the sacred journey into the caves, to tell the stories that they coded in their drawings of the of beasts–stories of love, of migration, of movement–as part of a journey that represented the first half of a ritual…
… stories that would endure the millennia, persisting into an incomprehensible future, when people like us would enact the second half of the ritual, entering the caves carefully, almost holding our breaths for fear of causing damage, and seeing what those ancient hands had wrought.
Artist meets audience, across a gulf of thousands of years, in a shared moment of communication and communion that highlights a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. Even as I think about it now, the power of that memory, that moment, that experience, catches my breath in my throat and gives me pause, amid the bustle and the busy-ness of my day.
*we weren’t allowed to take photos inside, of course. So, this is a link to a Google Image search. There are some official images that showed up in the search, as well as a number of reproductions, showing what the paintings would have looked like, before the passage of the millennia faded them and leeched them of some of their original colour and nuance.