The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture

by Georges Bataille; trans. By Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall
The MIT Press, London, England, 2009
224 pp., illus. 15 b/w. Paper, £12.95
ISBN: 978-1-890951-56-6.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini


The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture illustrates Georges Bataille's life work, which ventured in various disciplines from literature, anthropology, and philosophy to economy, sociology and history of art. He was a trans-disciplinary scholar, unusual for his time. Eroticism and transgression, terms often associated with his name, also appear in this collection of essays and lectures.

In a very comprehensive fashion, taking prehistoric art as data Bataille does examines the contradictory relationship between man and animal and the ways in which this has influenced man's meaning of the divine. This book compiles essays and lectures produced by Bataille, who often based his discourse on existing publications written by eminent scholars.

Referring to one of Georges-Henri Luquet's analysis of primitive art, Bataille begins by showing that primitive art does enrich our understanding of the origin of figuration and resemblance to that of children's drawings. In particular, he considers Luquet's concept of alteration of importance and describes its three stages i.e. scribbling, which leads to a new object that is itself subject to more deformation till a figurative image appears. Thus, Bataille stresses upon the natural urge of man to transform, to alter existing objects e.g. a wall, a sheet of paper or a toy. And his critic of Dr Froebius' investigation of South African mural, so-called Bushmen painting, shows that the negation of man--his rupture with nature--is the basis of all representation, which aims to restore the rapport with nature he has lost.

In his lecture on the Lascaux cave, the author moves on to confront man to the animal. He concludes that, as opposed to man today, for the primitive hunter the animal was not a thing but almost as divine as man until the latter became a slave, subjugated to his work. Bataille even suggests that the noble act of hunting the animal for the prehistoric man could be at the origin of our notion of nobility. The primitive hunter representing himself on the Lascaux cave walls as animal-headed gives evidence that he defined himself as a sort of animal. He gave animals the expressive value of the real whereas the representations of humans appear formless, deformed, disfigured by an animal mask, which eliminates their humanity.

In the chapter debating about the birth of man followed by that of art, Bataille agrees that cave drawings are rituals related to animal hunting. They celebrate the divine spirit, often reincarnated in the slaughtered animals, thus, they also symbolise the eagerness to obtain the desired 'object' (an animal or a female). He goes further by arguing that they are a negation of it, a sort of apology from the primitive hunter for his behaviour towards it: 'in addressing the animal, the human predator asks for forgiveness for treating the animal as a thing so that he will be able to accomplish without any remorse what he has already apologized for doing ... He confesses that he reduces the animal to a thing since the object of his desire is the thing that the animal is when it is reduced to the foodstuff'. Representation was perceived as a means to influence reality and was embedded in the minds of the creators of the cave paintings. Primitive man was then taking a different direction than that of creating and controlling the world. On the contrary, he effaced the aspects of this world of which his face is the sign. His unique concern was to gain power over death. And the primitive hunter valued these caves the same way man enters churches, as sacred places.

One essay stresses upon the importance of ancient art, including the earliest period, that shows what art meant for those who created it while simultaneously revealing what it means to us. For example, man seems to have always lived in the anticipation of the feeling of 'richness'. Every time his expectations are not fulfilled, he refuses to accept this disappointment and does not know how to show it. In order to obtain this dazzled feeling of richness he looks for ways either to create it or to destroy it, hoping to get it this way instead. Bataille claims that this understanding should give man today a sense of serenity since it connects him to what has existed since the birth of human species.

Eroticism appears in chapter seven when Bataille explains that the Lespugue Venus primitive sculpture valued for its deformity rather than its nudity - a foreign convention to a Western viewer - still arouses man's sensibility. Could we talk about an 'aesthetic power', a 'magic' of art? Hence, the Lespugue Venus shows that it is not a question of realistic representation but the fruit of what the prehistoric painters had observed. Bataille sees the Lespugue Venus as a response to sexual desire in that she is not any woman among others and this unique representation, different from that of animals, shows it.

Opening a worthwhile debate about belief and religion, Joannes Maringer, whose book is the basis of chapter eight, argues that studying prehistoric religion forces man to go beyond inner experiences because nothing in writing is left. The materials it uses exclude the inner experience that religious texts make man understand. External information is thus limited. Middle Paleolithic man's attitude toward death is usefully compared with the behaviour of modern Siberians to help see religion in a new light. For example, he explains that the animal figurations may be at the origin of the religious institutions: their use would have been determined through emotions aroused by the apparition of the beast followed by its slaughter. Bataille goes further in opposing the world of understanding, the work, (which is born naturally) with the world of destruction, the religion (born out of the negation, destruction of the world of understanding). He claims that not only man does not know what religion is but does not need to define it. He must rather accept his ignorance and that he cannot talk about religion from the outside that then limits it. Bataille argues that sacrifice is the negation, the destruction of the world of understanding - obviously, opening a delicate but fundamental debate in today's society.

Bataille concludes that for man today the animal world is difficult to understand, but for prehistoric man it was an accessible world, penetrated by human thought: 'men tricked one another as well as animals. Man lived in this animal world from which he was dependent as a source of subsistence. The animal appeared to die, and those who slaughtered him could mourn this death demanded simultaneously by their hunger and by their desire'. That contradiction is still the principle of part of man's actions today as he is always after a lost world and needs expressing this lack knowing that he cannot attain this world without denying what he is.

All Bataille's explanations are pure speculations, but they are very valuable in that they put into perspective fundamental beliefs on which man builds up his life. In light of this book, one can argue that a further understanding of the earliest prehistoric art, which marks the passage from animal to man, is bound to open new debates on man's beliefs and values in that it forces him to go back to the core of himself.

The multidisciplinary nature of this book and its daring argument imply that Bataille's discussion is not easy to grasp for a layperson - and its translation from a text written in French does not facilitate the task. However, this complexity is compensated by the fact that the chapters' content tends to overlap one another.

Last Updated 6 October, 2009

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