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The Stones Cry Out:
Cave Art & the Origin of the Human Spirit, Part 3

Chauvet_cave_paintings [1]2,750 words

Part 3 of 7 (other parts here [2])

3. Art Begins in Wonder

My thesis, quite simply, is that art, religion, and language are all made possible by a mental or cognitive act which I have called elsewhere ekstasis.[1] To better understand what this consists in, I will ask the reader to consider a simple (or, perhaps, not so simple) question. Have you ever had an experience in which you seemed to become momentarily detached from your mundane concerns, your daily roster of plans and priorities, the cacophony of your internal mental dialogues and daydreams, and even your physical, biological drives, and suddenly — as if your eyes were being opened for the first time — became completely absorbed by an object of some kind or other?[2]

The “absorption” I mean here is very special. Sometimes we become absorbed in trying to understand — to “figure out” — an object’s function, or its origin, or its possible uses. What I mean instead is a situation where you are simply struck by the sheer Being of the object itself; by the simple fact that it is.[3] This is not, in other words, a situation in which you are analyzing the object, or imagining to what uses it can be put.

Fundamentally, ekstasis is our capacity to “leave ourselves” (to stand outside ourselves: ek-stasis) and the immediate moment, and to be arrested or seized by the Being of things.[4] When this occurs we become the vehicle for Being’s expression, we become inspired, and we are moved to give voice to it and to new possibilities that we glimpse when we are captivated. Ekstasis is at the root of poetic and artistic inspiration of all kinds, religion, myth-making, philosophy, scientific discovery, and even (as we shall see) language itself. Ekstasis is my interpretation of the Old Norse Ódhr, of which Ódhinn (Ódhinn) is the personification.[5]

Ekstasis can be a dramatic, momentous event — or at other times a fleeting one, barely noticed by us. I would venture to say that everyone reading this essay has had the experience of ekstasis. This is because, fundamentally, it is the capacity to experience ekstasis that makes us human. It is not language, or religion, or art, or abstract thought that constitute our humanity — because, as I shall argue, all of these depend upon ekstasis.

What causes or precipitates ekstasis (or an “ecstatic state”)? Some individuals simply seem to be wired for it and regularly have such experiences. Artists are people like this, for reasons that will become clear very soon. There are hardened skeptics who will probably claim that they have never experienced ekstasis, principally because my description of it sounds somewhat like a mystical experience (on this, see below). I will wager, however, that they have indeed had such experiences, but that they were fleeting and quickly forgotten, or dismissed. I have said that ekstasis awakens us to the Being of things — to the simple fact that they are. In the right person, this is experienced as something close to a miracle; in other words it is an occasion for wonder.

Having now given a basic description of ekstasis, let’s look more closely at it and how it works. I have said that it is an experience of the Being of things. Now, this can actually take two forms. In the first, one is struck with wonder at the sheer fact that an individual something or other is. But this experience can easily shade off into wonder that anything at all is. And this is the foundation for the classic mystical experience. From wonder at the sheer fact that this cat is, the mystic proceeds to wonder that anything is at all: in other words, he proceeds from the finite to the infinite; to wonder at the whole.[6]

Hand Prints [3]But it is also possible to be struck with wonder not at the individuality of the object, and that it is, but at the fact that this sort of thing is.[7] I am struck with wonder, for example, at the fact that such a thing as a cat exists at all (which is quite different from feeling wonder at the fact that this individual cat exists). In this state we are captivated by the object’s qualities and how they are “put together”; we become captivated by its form or shape. In other words, in this other form of ekstasis the focus is on the universal that shines through the individual; the individual essentially functions as a stand-in for the universal.

For the present discussion of cave art, and the consciousness of Upper Paleolithic Europeans, it is this second form of ekstasis that interests me the most. For, as I have said, it is in this second form that essence (or the universal) is grasped. This is the key to understanding the emergence of art for, quite simply, I understand representational art to express essences. In other words, a painting of a horse is never simply a painting of this horse. It is an expression, through this horse, of what it means to be a horse; of “horseness.” This is even the case with portraiture (which our Paleolithic ancestors did not practice). Consider, as probably the best-known example, the Mona Lisa, which everyone agrees is much more than a skillful representation of someone named Lisa del Giacondo.

As I noted earlier, the cave art exhibits considerable stylization: consider, again, the rhinos of the Chauvet cave or the impossible antlers of the deer of Lascaux. Stylization always implies grasp of essence. Because stylization just is the omitting of detail to the point where only what is essential remains. In other words, these are not “accurate” portraits of rhinos or deer: these are images that convey the essence of the beasts. In this rhino we find The Rhino; in this deer, The Deer.

In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer discusses the grasp of the Idea (i.e., the essence or universal) as the basis for representational art.[8] And his description of this is very much like what I have described as ekstasis. What he says is worth quoting and commenting upon at length. Schopenhauer writes:

Raised up by the power of the mind, we relinquish the ordinary way of considering things, and cease to . . . consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what. Further, we do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but, instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one, since the entire consciousness is filled and occupied by a single image of perception.[9]

Here, Schopenhauer describes something very much like what I have called ekstasis, at least in its second form: the subject is struck with wonder at the Being of the object and becomes absorbed in contemplation of what it is. He continues:

If, therefore, the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form . . . Now in such contemplation, the particular thing at one stroke becomes the Idea of its species, and the perceiving individual becomes the pure subject of knowing. The individual, as such, knows only particular things; the pure subject of knowledge knows only Ideas. . . . The knowing individual as such and the particular thing known by him are always in a particular place, at a particular time, and are links in the chain of causes and effects. The pure subject of knowledge and its correlative, the Idea, have passed out of all these [forms]. Time, place, the individual that knows, and the individual that is known, have no meaning for them.[10]

In the contemplation of the object, the Idea or universal shines forth. The individual, as I have said, essentially becomes a stand-in for the universal: Schopenhauer says that “at one stroke” the object “becomes the Idea of its species.” (Phenomenologically, this is entirely accurate: in this special change in focus, the subject sees the object as its universal: it sees this horse, for example, just as The Horse.) A little later I will discuss how the subject perceives himself in this process — what Schopenhauer means in referring to how the perceiving individual becomes “the pure subject of knowledge.” This will provide us with an important clue as to the significance of why men are continually portrayed in the cave art as stick figures devoid of character.

Next Schopenhauer asks what kind of “knowledge” is it that occupies itself with “the Ideas.” And he answers:

It is art, the work of genius. It repeats the eternal Ideas apprehended through pure contemplation, the essential and abiding element in all the phenomena of the world. According to the material in which it repeats, it is sculpture, painting, poetry, or music. Its only source is knowledge of the Ideas; its sole aim is communication of this knowledge. Whilst science, following the restless and unstable stream of the fourfold forms of reasons or grounds and consequents, is with every end it attains again and again directed farther, and can never find an ultimate goal or complete satisfaction, any more than by running we can reach the point where the clouds touch the horizon; art, on the contrary, is everywhere at its goal. For it plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it. This particular thing, which in that stream was an infinitesimal part, becomes for art a representative of the whole, an equivalent of the infinitely many in space and time. It therefore pauses at this particular thing; it stops the wheel of time; for it the relations vanish; its object is only the essential, the Idea.[11]

Quite simply, Schopenhauer means that art (specifically representational art) occupies itself with essences, with the universal. As I have said, a painting of a horse never conveys just Seabiscuit alone; through the image, The Horse shines through. The artists sees this when he sees the object; when he turns to the task of creating his artwork, his aim is for you to see this as well.

Arthur Schopenhauer [4]

Arthur Schopenhauer

What we find in the art of the European caves, then, is the record of an event: the first appearance of ekstasis in the lives of men, some 40,000 years ago. Really, what we have here is the first appearance of men. For, as I have argued, it is ekstasis that makes us truly human, and founds the possibility of art — and also (as we shall see) religion, philosophy, and science. Why did men paint in the caves of France and Spain? Why did they paint stylized images of horses, bison, aurochs, deer, and lions? Because for the first time they were struck with wonder at the sheer fact that such things are. Again, the images do not usually seem to be telling a story. Instead, they seem to have been painted purely for their own sake — simply because these animals are beautiful and fascinating. And the sole “purpose” that seems to have been involved was the purpose of art itself: to convey the essence of things (the “Idea,” as Schopenhauer would put it). To paint The Horse, The Bison, The Aurochs, etc.

One of the sillier parts of Lewis-Williams’s “shamanism” theory has him claiming that because the cave painters did not set their animal images in any kind of painted landscape they are mysteriously “floating in space.” This is evidence, he thinks, that the painters saw the images in shamanistic “hallucinations.” (He also thinks this is the only explanation for the sometimes exaggerated stylization of the images; one wonders if he thinks Picasso had to have been hallucinating.) But a much simpler explanation is that in the paintings, the animals are being entirely separated from their background so that they and they alone become our objects. This is what we would expect if this art flowed, as I have argued, from the experience of ekstasis.

The artists were arrested by the Being of these animals, and (as Schopenhauer puts it) “lost themselves” in the contemplation of them, detached from the moment, and from the animals’ surroundings. Like artists throughout the ages, they wished to replicate this experience in their paintings – for themselves, and anyone else who might see them.


[1] See my essays “The Gifts of Ódhinn and His Brothers [5]” and “The Fourfold. [6]” The language of “mental or cognitive act” is problematic, but I am using it here because the alternatives would only puzzle readers, and raise more issues than they resolve. What I am really talking about here is a state of the soul or spirit. (The German word Geist best expresses what it is that has ekstasis. Although we will see in a moment that we do not have ekstasis; it has us.)

[2] “Object” here simply means something that a subject is aware of. It does not have to be a physical object. It could be an aspect of a thing, rather than a thing itself (e.g., the color red, which is never found on its own, but is always a quality of an object). The object could also be one’s self.

[3] I capitalize the B in “Being” following the practice of Heideggereans writing in English, who wish to distinguish between a being, or beings, and the Being that beings have (that in virtue of which they are said “to be”). See my essay “Heidegger: An Introduction for Anti-Modernists.”

[4] My treatment of the idea of “openness to Being,” which draws inspiration from Heidegger, begins with my essay “Knowing the Gods,” and is further developed in “Summoning the Gods” (these two essays are anthologized in Summoning the Gods: Essays on Paganism in a God-forsaken World). The concept of ekstasis is latent in these two essays, and named for the first time and developed in “The Gifts of Ódhinn and His Brothers” and “The Fourfold,” which were first published on the Counter-Currents site and will appear in a forthcoming volume, What is a Rune? And Other Essays.

[5] I have substituted a Greek word for an Old Norse one for a very simple and practical reason: Ódhr means absolutely nothing to Anglophone ears and eyes. But ekstasis is immediately recognizable as the source word for “ecstasy” and “ecstatic.” Scholarly accounts of Ódhr very often identify it with “ecstatic experience.” Part of my approach to understanding Germanic mythic, magical, and philosophic ideas is to set them in a different vocabulary. Indeed, understanding any difficult idea involves expressing it in new and different ways.

[6] Here we realize why ekstasis is the foundation for religion. Religion, in fact, begins in “mystical experience.” Typically, it then hardens into dogma divorced from experience, which may even discourage or cripple the openness that made religion possible in the first place. But religion then comes full circle, to a “mystical phase” that renews and enlivens it, at least for some. Thus, mysticism is erroneously thought to be a “later development” in religious traditions – in fact it is there from the beginning, providing the foundational experiences that lead to the religion.

[7] This form of ekstasis is a kind of “gestalt switch” of the first.

[8] Schopenhauer has in mind “the Idea” in the sense of Platonic form. My discussion of essence does not make any such metaphysical commitment (i.e., I am not wedded to the position that essences are non-spatio-temporal objects existing in another realm). In the discussion of Schopenhauer that follows, one must simply factor out the Platonic metaphysical connotations of “Idea.”

[9] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 178–79.

[10] Ibid., 179.

[11] Ibid., 184–85.