The Cave and the Cathedral: How a Real-life Indiana Jones and a Renegade Scholar Decoded the Ancient Art of Man
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Top Customer Reviews
Aczel really "pokes the bear" when he resurrects the theories of Leroi-Gourhan, who found a great deal of sexual symbolism in decorated caves, while dismissing almost out of hand Jean Clottes' theories about the role of cave paintings in shamanistic practices. I lack the expertise to form a judgment about either hypotheses, but I come away from the "The Cave and the Cathedral" with the sense that Aczel's comparison of the two positions is somewhat superficial.
Regardless, I enjoyed the book because it opened my eyes to some of the enduring mysteries about ancient decorated caves. Why did our ancestors start decorating caves in the first place, and why did they keep decorating them for the better part of 20,000 years, using more or less the same collections of signs and symbols? Were our ancestors obsessed with sex? (Perhaps some things never change.) Why is the art so innaccessible, so hidden in darkness, so unlike what Daniel Boorstin called "the arhcitecture of light" that characterizes cathedrals? Why did people stop decorating caves around 10,000 years ago?Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In between narratives about his personal visits to caves (two of which I myself have visited, Niaux and Pech Merle) and to other places such as the northernmost native village of Alaska, Aczel tries to survey and pick apart earlier actual experts on the caves, of which he demonstrably is not, as well as to promote the outdated, neoFreudian, structuralist theories of André Leroi-Gourhan, theories which are based on a pseudoscientific reasoning that posits that each "sign [in the caves] has one of two meanings: male or female," as do the incredible, numinous depictions of animals and a few humans and human-animal figures. When you realize that for Leroi-Gourhan bisons are female and horses are male, with similar divisions for the other animals, you begin to understand how preposterous his ideas are.
Meanwhile, Aczel discredits the theory of today's foremost expert on the subject, Jean Clottes (with David Lewis-Williams), that the art represents shamanism. Like Leroi-Gourhan, Clottes and Lewis-Williams feel compelled to bolster their theory with science (in The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves), a fact Aczel conveniently ignores, just as he shows an egregious ignorance about shamanism (did he even read Mircea Eliade's great work, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, on the subject? There is no indication he did). Calling their theory "ludicrous," Aczel claims Clottes and Lewis-Williams maintain "the purpose of all Paleolithic cave art was shamanistic," yet they clearly say, "it would be naive to hope for one complete explanation of parietal art" (The Shamans of Prehistory). Sadly, Aczel is just that naive.
Aczel would have been far better off providing a survey of the history of modern exploration and ideas about European prehistoric cave art, a description of his own experience, and an explanation of his own original thoughts on the topic. Apparently he has none. His book has almost nothing of the cathedral of his title and not enough of the cave.
Having said this, I must say I agree that the Cro-Magnons depicted a dichotomist world of binary oppositions--archetypes in other words. I do not agree that these archetypes were all sexual, far from it. If you want a much better introduction to Cro-Magnon art, read Journey Through the Ice Age, by Paul G. Bahn and Jean Vertut.
The opening chapter recounts Aczel's visit to the cave art at Niaux and shows the strengths of Aczel's narrative style. I was getting claustrophobic just reading it. Alas, apart from the 16 color plates, it is the high point of the book.
I am not sure what went wrong. Aczel did a great job with his last book, "The Jesuit and the Skull". In the Cave and the Cathedral the story line appears half digested and fractured by unproductive side trips. He switches abruptly and incoherently among anecdotal biography, travelogue and intellectual history. As one other reviewer noted, Aczel takes a very partisan, dismissive and hostile position vis a vis Jean Clottes' and David Lewis-Williams' explanation of the meaning and purpose of this artwork. He appears to be personally affronted by their criticisms of his heroes of pre-historic cave art, Henri Breuil and Andre Leroi-Gourhan.
Aczel, despite his long-term fascination and personal research, makes hard work of his preferred explanation of the art as a symbolic and quasi religious representation of the mysteries of sex and the abundant dualism in nature. In retrospect, the hypothesized link of the images to sex is hardly surprising. His explanation of Leroi-Gourhan's hypothesis is very clear and the reproduced tables of signs (e.g., page 183) make the basic points - but it is also melodramatic and anticlimatic. It remains unclear to me why the various duelling explanations of the artwork and accompanying symbols are mutually exclusive - Cathedrals after all had multiple purposes.
There are a couple of other issues with the book. The 16 color plates are well chosen and extremely powerful, but why so few? Why so small? Why are there no photographs of the caves themselves? The inaccessibility of these caves is for me a major part of the mystery. The book is already short and is padded with blank pages. The footnotes are hardly worth bothering about and make it look as though Aczel is dependent on a few key sources. The bibliography is short enough that it could be annotated to help the reader. I am still tryng to find the best and most complete compendium of cave art images. Why is there no map with the various cave locations? The tiny black and white images of the plates embedded in the text seem contrived and silly. The title of the book is OK, but the sub-title ("How a Real-Life Indiana Jones and a Renegade Scholar Decoded the Ancient Art of Man")is appallingly hyperbolic and totally misleading.
In sum, I found the book a provocative introduction to the topic but overall disappointing given the quality of Aczel's earlier books. It prompted me to look for books with more complete pictoral descriptions of the caves and we will undoubtedly add a print or two of these incredible images to the walls of our "cave". As to the debate on the meanings - well I would like to ponder the images more before deciding which combination of explanations makes the most sense.
Amir apparently had an epiphany when he first visited a cave in France and feeling groggy from excess carbon dioxide saw what he thought was a vulva on the wall. He proceded to visit various caves read a few books and then claim that he, the new found expert in paleolithic cave paintings, has determined which theory of the past century "Decoded the Ancient Art of Man."
The answer obviously is that every symbol and animal painted in caves, over a period between 14,000 to 34,000 years ago...all... were either male or female signs. Not just painted vulvas and "ichyphalic male" symbols, but also animals. As I am not an expert I missed the proof that horses were always male and bison always female twenty to thirty thousand years ago. I guess it is possible?
Amir arrogantly discredits Clottes (the current dean of French paleolithic cave scholars) and his theory that Shamanism is behind the paintings. Who is Aczel that he can discredit the life work of this preeminent scholar?
Since the bar for being an expert is this low, I'll give my take on the paintings. No single theory can explain paintings spanning a time period five times longer than recorded history. The vibrancy and life depicted in the pictures and emotions generated by them to this day equal responses to current artistic masterpieces. The ancient artists had minds as gifted as todays artists. They expressed wonder of life in their world. And questioned what lay beyond in the spirit world. Viewing these paintings 30,000 years later I still have the same questions... and awe of their creation.
If Amir had stuck to a travelogue of his visits to caves he would have been better off. Anyway their is no 'cathedral', no 'Indiana Jones', no 'renegade scholar' (Leroi-Gourham who proposed the sexual archetype theory was the preeminent scholar of his day), and whether the 'Ancient Art of Man' was 'Decoded' I'll leave it to you to decide.
As other reviewers have suggested, Aczel really "pokes the bear" when he resurrects the theories of Leroi-Gourhan, who found a great deal of sexual symbolism in decorated caves, while dismissing almost out of hand Jean Clottes' theories about the role of cave paintings in shamanistic practices. I lack the expertise to form a judgment about either hypotheses, but I come away from the "The Cave and the Cathedral" with the sense that Aczel's comparison of the two positions is somewhat superficial.
Regardless, I enjoyed the book because it opened my eyes to some of the enduring mysteries about ancient decorated caves. Why did our ancestors start decorating caves in the first place, and why did they keep decorating them for the better part of 20,000 years, using more or less the same collections of signs and symbols? Were our ancestors obsessed with sex? (Perhaps some things never change.) Why is the art so innaccessible, so hidden in darkness, so unlike what Daniel Boorstin called "the architecture of light" that characterizes cathedrals? Why did people stop decorating caves around 10,000 years ago? Aczel suggests it might have something to do with the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry, but agriculture didn't arrive everywhere at once--this hypothesis would be more convincing if the record suggested that decorated caves tapered off in places where farming took hold, but continued elsewehere (perhaps it did, but that evidence isn't presented here). Maybe homo sapiens gave up painting caves because our neurological wiring changed, or because some viral new artistic or religious idea swept the prehistoric world, or both.
Who knows? If you enjoy thinking about these mysteries but don't require "the Answer," you will enjoy reading the book, speculating along with Aczel while marveling at the caves and the often remarkable stories of their discovery. If you expect him to select or defend the Right Theory, you are likely to be irritated (see some of the "one star" reviews for a flavor of this perfectly reasonable reaction).
For readers interested in thinking further about what our ancestors might have been up to, consider When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth (what myths can tell us about what happened in prehistoric times), The Goddess and the Bull: Catalhoyuk: An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization (a neolithic city and its obsession with bulls and godess figures), and Renfrew's Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (Modern Library Chronicles).