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The Stones Cry Out:
Cave Art & the Origin of the Human Spirit, Part 4

chauvet_bison [1]1,694 words

Part 4 of 7 (other parts here [2])

4. “To be human means to be a sayer”

The ability to perceive essences (“Ideas,” as Schopenhauer puts it) plays a role in other human activities besides art. Schopenhauer’s discussion of the Ideas is overtly Platonic, and philosophy, another defining activity of mankind, certainly occupies itself with the universal. But, contra Schopenhauer, so too does science. How many scientists have been born in the moment when, as a child, someone experienced wonder in the fact that such a thing as X is — and wanted to investigate further? The aim of science is to know the natures, the essences, of things, and to know the universals (the laws) that explain all.

And while we moderns tend to see science and religion as antipodes, religion begins in the same wonder. In my essay “Summoning the Gods” I wrote: “our wonder at the being of particular things is an intuition of a god, or divine being.”[1] Religion too seeks the universal, and the eternal — which we only experience in the ecstatic moment when, as Schopenhauer puts it, we “cease to consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what.” When, in other words, we momentarily abandon all preoccupation with the changing particulars of the world, and focus our minds on that which does not change: the universal. It is the ecstatic experience of Being as such — wonder in the sheer fact that anything is at all — that makes possible the mysticism that is the alpha and omega of religion.

I promised earlier, however, that we also find ekstasis at the root of language (and “symbolic thinking” generally). This is a claim that has to be heavily qualified. By “language” I do not mean simply a system or practice of making sounds in order to communicate information. We find this sort of “language” in certain animals, of course. What we understand to be human language is something qualitatively different. Its primary purpose is not to communicate information, but to say what is. Now, one might object “Doesn’t ‘saying what is’ constitute communicating information to others?” But no, it does not.

The first step in seeing the error here is to understand that as human beings we do not “say what is” to others, not primarily. We say what is to ourselves, and for ourselves. We are the beings who are fascinated by, arrested by the experience of Being (the experience I have called ekstasis). And we feel moved to express Being, to penetrate and explore it. As I have discussed, this is what gives rise to art. This is the yearning at the root of religion; the wonder that is the beginning of philosophy and science. The primary medium for the expression of Being, however, is language. This is obviously true of philosophy and science, and it is true of religion as well when religion takes the form of myth, revelation, and theology. Is it true of art? Not of painting or sculpture or instrumental music, of course. But it is true of what may be the primary form of art, poetry (and the song, prose fiction, and drama that develop out of poetry).

The position I am developing here about language and Being owes a great deal to Heidegger’s thought.[2] Heidegger states that without openness to Being there would be no language at all.[3] (Thus, if he is right, the theory that somehow the development of “fully modern language” explains the emergence of cave art simply won’t do; both language and art are made possible by something still more fundamental: ekstasis, or openness to Being.)

Heidegger tells us that “to be human means to be a sayer.”[4] It means to say what is; to give voice to Being. In Greek, logos, from which “logic” is derived, can also mean “speech” or “saying.” Logos is derived from legein, which means “to discourse or talk.” But Heidegger points out that the root meaning of this word is actually “to gather” or “to collect.” What is it that is “gathered” in saying, in logos? Heidegger answers: “Being-human, according to its historical, history-opening essence, is logos, the gathering and apprehending of the Being of beings.”[5] The root precondition of saying, of language, is openness to the Being of beings.

Martin Heidegger [3]

Martin Heidegger

To be a human being (to be what Heidegger calls Dasein) is to apprehend, to think, to be open to the Being of beings — and to speak this Being, to express it in language. This is not simply one human function among many others — it is our very essence. “To be human,” Heidegger tells us, “means to gather and apprehend the Being of beings, to take over the knowing setting-into-work of appearance and thus to govern unconcealment [i.e., to bring things into the light of aletheia, truth], to preserve it against unconcealment and covering up.”[6]

This is precisely what we see happening on the walls of Lascaux, Chauvet, and Trois-Frères. Our ancestors were engaged in what Heidegger calls the “receptive bringing-to-a-stand of that which shows itself in itself” (Being). They were “gathering” and “apprehending” the Being of things, and they sought to “preserve it against unconcealment,” to “fix” it, in a sense, by painting the Being they apprehended.

To clear up one final point, the way in which “openness to Being” (ekstasis) founds “symbolic thought” as such is fairly obvious. A symbol is something that stands for, or represents, something else. In the ecstatic experience of essence, when The Horse shines through this horse, what is happening is that an individual comes to stand for or represent the universal. (And when we look at a painting of a horse, the same thing is happening.) Things can only be taken as symbols through our capacity to see the universal in the individual. Symbols can arise or come forward “naturally,” in the way I have just described: we see the universal through an individual, so that the individual comes to stand for the universal. Situations can also be manipulated to produce the perception of the universal. And this is just what artists do. A very simple example would be the human stick figure (in its male and female versions) that marks public toilets all over the world. We see “men” in this, or “women.” (We’ll come to the significance of the Upper Paleolithic stick figure later on.)

There are other sorts of symbols as well, that do not actually depict what they refer to. For example, this symbol — $ — refers to money, but it is not an image of money. Nonetheless, it is an object that refers to something universal (or to a group or set).[7] Furthermore, words themselves are such symbols: the word “horse” does not somehow depict the phenomenon it stands for, any more than Pferd does. No symbols would be possible unless we had the ability to take individuals (broadly construed — including individual sounds or words) as conveying or reflecting some meaning or essence that transcends their individuality.

But the phenomenon of ekstasis is just the experience of being captivated by the meaning or essence shining through the individual. Ekstasis, openness to Being, is thus at the root of our capacity to think and communicate in terms of symbols, a capacity that is not shared by any other animal.[8] I argued earlier, drawing on Heidegger, that ekstasis is at the root of language, given that the primary purpose of language is to give voice to the Being of things. Now I may add that ekstasis is at the root of language in another, very basic sense: without it our ability to take words as meaning something beyond themselves would be impossible.

So, what we find in the European Upper Paleolithic is the sudden arrival of a new form of consciousness, or new dimension of consciousness. And it makes possible art, religion, language, and symbolic thought generally (then, later on, science and philosophy). Furthermore, ekstasis cannot be thought of as if it were a new tool acquired by our ancestors. Rather, all the evidence suggests that human beings did not — and do not — possess ekstasis; it possesses them. Heidegger makes this clear: “Apprehension [openness to Being] is not a way of behaving that the human being has as a property; to the contrary, apprehension is the happening that has the human being.”[9] Men, in the Upper Paleolithic and today, do not choose to do art and practice religion. In a fundamental sense, they do these things because they have to.

Seen in this way, ekstasis emerges as a phenomenon greater than humanity; that has humanity, or comes at a certain point to take possession of it. (And, for some odd reason, it seems to emerge for the first time in Europe.) This is a point that needs to be kept squarely in mind, for it will be directly relevant to my treatment of why ekstasis arose in the first place. Ekstasis, I will suggest, is a feature of a larger process that transcends human nature and human history — but that implicates human beings, and gives them a crucial role to play. In the next section, I will begin my discussion of how to explain the origin of ekstasis.


[1] Collin Cleary, Summoning the Gods: Essays on Paganism in a God-forsaken World, ed.. Greg Johsnon (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2011), 30.

[2] I caution readers that while I do derive a great deal of inspiration from Heidegger, I am departing from him in other ways and developing and applying his ideas in ways he would not endorse. For example, while Heidegger does famously employ the concept of Ekstase, my use of this term is different from his.

[3] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 86.

[4] Fried and Polt, 86.

[5] Fried and Polt, 182.

[6] Fried and Polt, 186. The bracketed interpolation is my own. The italics are in the original.

[7] Rather different examples would be a knight’s coat of arms, or a monogram. These are symbols that refer to individuals.

[8] Koko the gorilla is basically a hoax perpetrated by unwitting hoaxsters.

[9] Fried and Polt, 150.