By Tom Larson
Always, however far we travel back in time, we surmise other forms behind the forms which captivate us. —The Voice of Silence, Andre Malraux
Here’s a word—and an idea—which, as I develop this series on the social author, I sense arcing across the axons of every writer: transliteracy, one’s ability to interact with others using many platforms and media, from reading and writing to digital communication. The word’s intent is to move past the literate, move, maybe, where we literates don’t want to go. I already hear the author’s grumbles. Where is this beyond beyond literacy is asking we get to? What could be more highly prized than reading and writing, the languages of law, literature, journalism, scholarship, history, as well as religions and their founding documents? Who among the writerly class feels unfulfilled because she’s not transcended literacy?
And yet, like overnight cities in China, the trans- keeps growing. It seeks to add to the literate world the realms of graphics and orality, of video and digital multimedia, of texting and social networks, so that we are skilled in the broadest array of technologies available, “speak” within the electronic hive. In technology’s new platforms transliteracy resides.
At first glance, the project of enlarging literacy appears new, of the incandescent now. But that’s not so. The first age of the transliterate is preliterate—clay and bone art, epic storytelling, improvised music, ritual dance, forms commingled and orally transmitted. Five hundred years ago, print began to overlord the long-lived oral, particularly in establishing state and church hierarchies. Along the way improvised and memorized music was written down and lost their ubiquity; the rights of males changed from bull-horned decree to published tracts; and the Bible, its myths collected, translated, and printed, was given an “author” whose singular voice helped shape his supremacy. Within most civilizations, the choir had to let the soloist sing. But oral traditions neither withered nor disappeared. Instead, the oral is the hand-to-hand, mouth-to-ear default setting of the majority of communicators, the most voices, who jockey to be heard while the self-anointed literate dominate. (Think newspaper editors, school boards, legislators: it’s a mistake to valorize literate as literature). In our authority-leveling multimedial world, orality is reasserting its power, lessening reflective literacy and amplifying immediate interaction. This is why a tweet sounds the alacrity of speech (first thought, best thought), seldom the shapeliness of writing.
The Chauvet walls are a recording device, a hieroglyphic of theatrical space resembling the inner sanctum of a jazz club where a gloriously evanescent one-night stand is on tap each time we enter.
To explore the origins of transliterate culture, I want to use Werner Herzog’s 2011 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a lens. The subject is Chauvet cave, discovered in southern France in 1994. Deep inside the limestone cavern are wall paintings of bison, bear, ibex, lion, rhinoceros, and horse; red-ochre handprints of one artist; The darkly etched charcoal drawings were made in the cave’s several echoing sound chambers, their walls rounded and pocked from water’s eonic hollowing. and pudding-like towers of calcium drips, whose conical shapes record the geologic heaping of age. The sketches, done about thirty-two thousand years ago, are the earliest known images our artist forebears made.
In the first ten minutes of the film, Herzog deliberately enters his subject—hiking up a rock face to, then descending through crawls spaces to the cave. Followed by rituals of donning hardhats, shining flashlights, quieting for the scientists’ rules. The film itself acts as a torchbearer with a platoon of contemporary artists and paleontologists elucidating the cave’s sanctuary. Herzog uses two sound guides: the eerie, improvised evocations of cellist-composer Ernst Reijseger and his own voiceover commentary. Like a choirmaster, Herzog’s soft, German-inflected, baronial English talks us in. To what? That which is sonically and architecturally seducing him. He warms and mystifies the often claustrophobic space of the movie’s inwardness. He’s like a nurse, voice-coddling us during an MRI with a present-tense narrative. Here we go. “We have one hour.”
In the cave, with film crew and archeologists, Herzog, who was the first and, apparently, only commercial filmmaker allowed in, lingers on the vibrantly drawn images. Illumined by lamps, the two-dimensional animals seem to lope, companion, pose. A few males contend. The texture and curve of the walls add muscle to the figures as do the artists’ brushwork. A group cast often emerges, as though we’ve stumbled on a sumptuous vale of mammalian life. This species multiplication mirrors their abundance during Europe’s last ice age. Most striking, Herzog says, the images are drawn in motion, a cartoon-like running of feet. Under firelight, they animate. He wonders whether this is the first motion picture.
As cave artists painted, they were probably accompanied by music. Small flutes were found, made of bird or cave-bear bone with three to seven holes. These were held and blown clarinet-style and tuned to a pentatonic or five-tone scale, whose mesmeric melodies are common to human groups. In addition, oval bone instruments with a hole at one end were still on the cave floor: whirled on a string, these make a high whining hum. Batons made of bone may have been drumsticks. The paintings’ animation may also issue from “aural” brushstrokes, hand-and-arm alive to the sounds of flutes and drums and drone instruments. Images convoyed on sound seems to have led the artists to fashion their subjects realistically and evocatively.
The incantatory also may have been its own end: sound effects, human cries and gasps, possessed bodies, the quick-etched wall figures became the language of rendering events, real and imagined—mixed and collective media enacting tribal democracy and, eventually, the hero’s tale.
All this suggests that these early creations were—from the get-go—multimedia. The drawings were, no doubt, done by artist-specialists; they employed calligraphic-like brushstrokes on the walls’ gritty surfaces. Unlike much “primitive” cave art, the animals are fluid, feel instinctively present. Such adroit work may be the first record of ineluctable talent. But, more important, the art was rendered via the communal, the ceremonial, the incantatory—the foundation of animist ritual. Such collaboration releases the energy of the male ibex’s mighty curved horns into the person, the tribe, a woman giving birth, an old man dying. How good that must have felt, to possess the vitality of the ibex.
Rituals in the cave relied on this ensemble of intimacy, in which one’s usefulness to the group is a mark of one’s ability to enjoin the aesthetic conversation. In individual terms—many etchings in Chauvet cave were made by a man whose crooked finger, seen in a handprint, shaped several images with his “style”—the animal figures express the tension between subsuming oneself to the whole and asserting one’s talent within the whole. In a word, operatic.
The incantatory also may have been its own end: sound effects, human cries and gasps, possessed bodies, the quick-etched wall figures became the language of rendering events, real and imagined—mixed and collective media enacting tribal democracy and, eventually, the hero’s tale. Much like team sports, film, a website, a political campaign, a bluegrass festival—all site-specific and collaborative—the group’s dynamism was unlocked by the cave’s reverberant rooms. This passage from John Pfeiffer’s book, The Creative Explosion, describes the antiphonal resonance of that venue.
Chauvet, then, offers up narrative’s narrative: the media used is inseparable from the site; the site creates the media by which the site is expressed.
When words (themselves images) arrived, the space, sound, and visual stimuli of the cave (or hut, kiva, campfire) bred how a word was used and how it meant what it meant. The metaphoric arose simultaneously. From several origins (Old High German, Old Norse, Old English), bear meant the sound people made calling to each other as they ran; bear meant the brown animal; and bear meant the heaviness of its hide, worn for warmth, in grief, or as mask. Language developed in this set-aside, sound-enabling, image-animating locale. We can see its echoes in the popularity of the TED talk today, with its multi-sensorial cast, transmissibility, and cave-like venue.
What does this multimedial spelunking mean for the writer?
In cave art is the aural/visual seed of language, born from its bridging artist and participant and the artist/participant in oneself. That seed of exchange resides in the memory of spoken and written words—our tonal nuances, our syntax, our whispers and screams, are instinctual in us. The human story is told with the drama of the tellers’ (note the plural) means. That messy, loud, overproduced, shared cave theater where tale-telling was yet another way to convene and bind the group. The emergence of art, and eventually of inscribing symbols and words, amalgamates venue and tool as well as ties artist to audience. In caves, the artist is the audience.
Part of our contemporary calling as writers is to reseed that multi-sensorial realm, an out-loud language deeply etched in our species memory, even though print has restricted that realm to the silence of inscribed words.
Such multisensory media is where the technologically outfitted human is returning to today—re-inscribing those dialogic languages and collective technologies that made us. It may be why the change from the private persona of the writer to the public persona of the multimedia author is so magnetic. Part of our contemporary calling as writers is to reseed that multi-sensorial realm, an out-loud language deeply etched in our species memory, even though print has restricted that realm to the silence of inscribed words.
It may seem that writers are coupling their print voices to speech-oriented technology because it’s trendy. But, in fact, the writer is reminded by film, TV, video, podcast just how limited her media is, and that art’s multimedia-bias is inherent in culture, waiting to be crowd-sourced again. Imagine, like an H.G. Wells short story, a world where a musician may only record his or her music, play only for a machine. That’s the condition, for a half millennium, the writer has been in with print. If the writer cannot feel this oral and site-specific retooling of literacy in our day and age, she is not living in our day and age.
Contrary to Jonathan Franzen’s recent claim that literature’s temple is being soiled by the barbarity of the Internet, the multimedia age does not necessarily bury the quietude of the writer-reader exchange. It may, instead, allow a vast array people to communicate—and speak directly to one another—in a revived oral culture far beyond anything we imagined. A book literally brought to life and writ colossally large. Of course, literature is about the intimacy of text and reader. But collective speech art, while of the moment, may also globalize audiences where multi-voiced communication is crucial. Might we be more aware of war’s toll via Twitter’s messaging and CNN’s video in place of, say, Ernest Hemingway’s novels? Not everything needs literary expression. If it did, literature would be our lingua franca. One more trifle. Who exactly is being wronged by these shifts in ways of reading? The barely one percent, who, after high school and Catcher in the Rye, continue to read literature? For them, change is hell. For the rest of us, it’s a dazzling new world.
Why was a filmmaker allowed into Chauvet as documentarian? Because the find is visual? Partly. But it’s more obvious. Film—the partnership of director, crew, production staff, guides, even the movie/TV screens where it’s shown—collects and transmits the sensorial vastness of our time just as the cave artists accomplished something similar in their time. Film best simulates our listening-seeing-feeling presence.
In addition, Herzog lets the film breathe by cutting to an interview or outdoors where his toy airplane-mounted camera glides over and records the landscape. And yet he returns, obsessively, to the cave images. Emphasizing Reijseger’s soundtrack, Herzog film-essays; he meditates on and intensifies the camera’s intimacy with the drawings. In a way he is authoring a film of a film: Chauvet cave is a concert inscribed on its walls. Via his directorial design the cave eventually retreats as the ostensible subject. The real matter becomes Herzog’s desire to link and document—perhaps to socialize—himself with the cave so that the film becomes a kind of self-sonogram. Herzog’s cavern of self, his soul if you will, feels like another surface on which the film and its images are etched.
For me, documenting Chauvet is as important as finding it. Herzog enacts this transliterate exchange, one we are eager to have with our artist ancestors. Cave art is the happy accident of space and song, of image and tool-wielding improvisation, similar to say Miles Davis during his Bitches Brew period, live and on record. By that I mean the Chauvet walls are a recording device, history’s tape delay system, a hieroglyph of theatrical space. They resemble the inner sanctum of a jazz club where a gloriously evanescent one-night stand is on tap each time we enter. There’s room and time for multiple grooves, multiple solos. As Albert Murray the great blues critic wrote, “Improvisation is the ultimate human endowment.”
Next time, in “Retrieving Orality,” I use the Bible to analyze the great collision between orality and print and how the “holy” book’s precarious position in the digital world exemplifies the writer’s dilemma.
Thomas Larson is the author of three books:
The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the forthcoming, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease.