A wall can talk to us
I’m moving house tomorrow and while it’s a happy occasion, it has happened very fast. I'm leaving the square mile in which I was born and where I've lived for thirty of my years. The other day I was walking home (a word that’s become underlined and italicised, quotation- and question-marked in both thought and speech) pondering the complications of getting myself and my stuff all of four miles east, and worrying about how I can’t write when there is so much life in my life. I decided that what I needed was to be left alone in a cave. So I stopped at the cinema and went into whatever was showing just to sit down in the dark. It was a film about a cave.
It was Werner Herzog’s 3D The Cave of Forgotten Dreams and if like me you were bored by the prehistoric at school because nothing much happened beyond a bit of grunting and killing, and it wasn’t television, do take a look.
The Chauvet Cave was discovered less than 20 years ago. It had been sealed off by a rockfall, leaving 32,000-year-old paintings perfectly preserved. The pale cave walls have been covered in bison, horses, the odd rhinoceros, lion and bear. They are strikingly fluid – a lion’s profile is given in a single six-foot stroke – but the artist has done even more to bring them alive. The cave is full of outcrops and recesses, the walls ripple and dip, and the animals have been drawn and shaded accordingly. And then there is the bison with eight legs and the rhinoceros with a series of six horns. They are moving. I was in a cave that was a cinema watching a film about a cave that was a cinema.
The archaeologists and historians mapping and researching the cave have the open mind and open imagination that surely come from operating so far beyond the human scale. One told Herzog that he dreamt of lions. ‘Real lions or painted lions?’ ‘Both.’ He sounded surprised to have been asked to make the distinction. Another tried to explain how the world would have been perceived 32,000 years ago, describing an everyday condition of metamorphosis: ‘A tree can speak … a wall can talk to us, refuse or accept us.’ May my new walls accept me tomorrow.
Lavinia Greenlaw has published three books of poems, most recently Minsk. Her two novels are Mary George of Allnorthover and An Irresponsible Age and she has also published a memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls. Her work for BBC radio includes programs about the Arctic, the Baltic, the solstices...