Sunday, May 29, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Falling through Time

So Damon and I had a good day yesterday, driving up to Austin, watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and hitting a couple of stores that aren't on our regular Austin run. The movie is not perfect, but it doesn't have to be. Making the Chauvet images available to the general public is enough, all by itself, to justify Herzog's existence. It must be odd to know (and he can't not have known) that you're doing the most significant work you will ever do, while you're doing it. The movie is trance-inducing, a good-faith effort to assist the viewer in falling backward through time, and does not flinch from the ways in which people - Herzog himself, archeologists, the perfumer/spelunker - make themselves ridiculous trying to articulate mental states that are essentially incommunicable.

Authors should not flinch from this risk, either; but authors have the advantage over workers in other media that, as people whose tools are words, the basic units of communication between humans, we have the potential to figure out how to communicate that state. We cannot hope to communicate it to everyone; but sufficient hard work and application of craft gives us a shot at connecting to some.

Anyone can see that a story adheres to the footprint of the 8-year-old boy beside the footprint of the wolf at one point in Chauvet. A lazy writer would go with the boy-and-his-dog theme; but the writer who wants to take the time journey must do more than that. Even if the boy-and-his-dog theme is what you wind up with, it should be chosen deliberately and with care, after investigating factors such as these:

What is the basis for saying the footprint is that of an 8-year-old boy? Might it be an older, or younger, or a girl?

The archeologist who brings up the footprint, in the manner of archeologists, pushes past the boy-and-his-dog theme to point out that the wolf could have been stalking the boy, or that the two prints could have occurred days, years, even millenia apart. The cave yields no data to pin that down. Neither boys nor wolves are solitary creatures - where are the other footprints?

What do the animal bones (mostly cave bear) and traces of other species in the caves tell us about how they were used by all the local fauna over time, not just humans? What do paleontology and surface archeology tell us about the context of the paintings?

How does the sense of awe and connection to past humanity relate to the equally inarticulable sensation of uncovering the old layers of wallpaper in my back porch? Or turning up traces of past, equally unknown lives in the backs of drawers or behind the wall - the cracked doll face, the enigmatic postcard, the chipped marble? We call one sensation awe and the other nostalgia, as if there were a qualitative difference - but is there? I don't think so.

Consider the theory I mentioned in one of my earliest posts - that most surviving cave paintings were done by adolescents playing around in caves. The argument that the caves were too inaccessible for such an origin doesn't hold up when one considers the inaccessible places where Kilroy has been, where gang sign appears, where Mike Loves Emily inside a heart.

Do the research, stay aware of the world. The story will find you.

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