am 16. Februar 2003
The author posits a fascinating explanation for the origin of art and the creation of images by early mankind: the evolution of the human mind. He theorizes that the people of the Upper Paleolithic harnessed altered states of consciousness to fashion their society and used imagery as a means of establishing and defining social relationships. Cro-Magnon man had a more advanced neurological system and order of consciousness than the Neanderthals, and experienced shamanic trances and vivid mental imagery. It was important for them to paint these images on cave walls that served as a membrane between the everyday world and the realm of the spirit. Hallucinations were instrumental in personal advancement and the development of society. He refers to the pioneering psychologist William James who already in 1902 pointed out the different states of consciousness and to Colin Martindale who identified the following different states: Waking, realistic fantasy, autistic fantasy, reverie, hypnagogic and dreaming. The sense of absolute unitary being (transcendence/ecstasy ) is generated by a spillover between neural circuits in the brain caused by factors like meditation, rhythmic stimulus, fasting etc. The essential elements of the religious experience are thus wired into the brain. Two case studies are used in support of this theory: South African San rock art and North American rock art. Chapter 8 is especially fascinating since it offers possible solutions to certain puzzles of cave art, like the mixture of representational and geometric imagery. The author believes that the trail of images from the cave entrance to the dark, almost inaccessible recesses represents a connecting link beween the two elements of an "above/below" binary opposition. Physical entry into the caves reflected the entry into the mental vortex that leads to the hallucinations of the deep trance state. In other words, the trail from the conscious mind to the deep recesses of the subconscious. This book provides much food for thought about our earliest ancestors and about the evolution of consciousness. I would like to recommend William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience," R M Bucke's "Cosmic Consciousness" and Rupert Sheldrake's "Chaos, Creativity and Cosmic Consciousness" as companion reading to Lewis-Williams' fascinating text. The book includes many figures and 97 illustrations of which 27 are in colour.
am 12. November 2008
This is surely one of the best books on the Palaeolithic cave-painters ever written. Lewis-Willimas is able to lead you down to the secret subterrean realms, where 30.000 years ago spirituality, creativitiy and art began to develop and form human societies. After his study of shamanistic rituals of the 20. Century (San people in Namibia and North Americans Indians), he sees parallels to the people of the Palaeolithic times, which probably also tried to get in contact with animal-spirits, which for them existed beyond the thin and "living membranes" of the cave walls. Different from the Neandertal-people the Cromagnon-people werde able to remember and fix their dreams and reactualize them in group-rituals and painting them in their caves. Unifying with the spirits of bisons, lions and horses they tried to win their supernatural powers, and in consequence, building up new social divisions: those who have the "knowledge" and those who have not. That sounds "archaic" in a bad sense, but it was not only for the purpose of selfish Power, but also to build up more efficient forms of social organization (planning the hunting actions etc.)
Lewis-Williams' language is as sensual and colorful as the paintings he desribes. This is not a boring scientific approach, but that of an enthusiastic explorer, which has a strong feeling for the subtilities of art and religion. In the end he writes: we can today be fascinated by the mystical background beyond the paintings without believing, "that they will work in the present day world". But is that really a good ending of the book? Is not a lot of art even today based on a similar animistic and mythological thinking? And what about Non-Western cultures like the Aboriginals, Indians, San, Sami, Inuit, which exist even today and want to be respected by the - so called - "higher civilizations"?
Are there not other forms of "modern shamanism" (Love parade, Pop-concerts, Rap-parties etc.), where people also look for experiences of transcendence? Of course those questions are to much for a book about cave-painiting, but they rise always in my head, if I think of Lewis-Williams' excellent study.
am 12. März 2008
Did you think up to now that cave art might be of a somewhat remote scientific and cultural interest? Do you still cling to that dualism of the two cultures believing that only science is real science? Read this book and you will forget about that. First you get some interesting lessons in history of sciences the discovery and explanation of paleolithic art can tell. Further on the author sums up briefly but adequately the essentials of a scientific theory of knowledge. A well defendable concept for the development of consciousness and the resulting social changes is presented. Typical stages of altered consciousness link cave art to shamanism and mystical experience as found in the religious tradition ever since. Common neurobiological and neuropsychological mechanisms (which can be also be oberved in near-death experiences by the way) account for all that. It's just a small step from the paleolithic cave to modern neurotheology as pursued by Newberg and others. When it comes to their social impact these phenomenons of the human mind have an ugly and a beautiful face as we know all to well. Lewis-Williams is at once imaginative in his explanations and uncompromising in his philosophical position: We should distinguish between the pleasure we can derive from works of art we owe to religious devotion and "the terrible belief that God ist speaking directly to us and telling us not only how to order our own lives but also to impose that order on other's lives. What is in our heads is in our heads, not located beyond us. That is the crux of the matter, and is does not diminish Bach, Shakespeare, Donne and Wordsworth." (P. 291)